It can be tempting for white Americans, in times of protest and social unrest, to assume a defensive posture. In the face of anger and anguish in the streets, it can be easy to fixate on the unrest itself. What might it mean for me or for my place of work? How far could potential unrest or violence spread? In such times, order can feel more pressing than justice.
Social order and social harmony, however, both ultimately depend on a recognition of the root causes that lie beneath the confrontations playing out in news reports and on social media. To consider the unrest but not its sources is to mistake symptom for disease. As horrifying footage has again unmistakably revealed yet another black or brown life snuffed out by someone sworn to protect and serve, the disease is similarly exposed. The problem is racism.
If one has never personally experienced the indignity and trauma of racial prejudice, it can be difficult to see it as anything other than a lingering vestige of a bygone era that flares only when an isolated, unenlightened bad actor acts out. Without personal experiences across a lifetime, it can be difficult to discern the ways racism is woven into the fabric of American social, economic and political life.
Historical and social scientific studies continue to document the racialized ways that everything from lending and zoning, to law enforcement, housing and to education have developed in this country. This avalanche of scholarship shows these inequities to have deep roots in our past and to have persisted to the present. Even so, it can be difficult to sense the weight of this reality from books. It often takes more personal connections — more intimate proximity, as author and activist Bryan Stevenson told a BYU audience in 2018 — for the costs of racism to become real for those who don’t live with such burdens daily.
Significantly, progress on racial matters has come in the U.S. only when multiracial coalitions act together, motivated by convictions about the moral rightness of racial justice. These coalitions and moral convictions have regularly drawn on religious traditions and religious language. Religious leaders of varied racial backgrounds have lent their moral authority to the cause of racial justice. As a historian and devoted Latter-day Saint, it is not difficult for me to discern God’s hand in the black freedom struggle. In many ways, it is a sacred history to me.
Contemporary Latter-day Saint practice offers a unique opportunity to white saints in the United States, our own difficult history of racial restriction notwithstanding. Indeed, that very history provides the impetus for special striving in vexed moments like ours. That is, despite a long history of forced and chosen racial segregation in American Christian congregations, because of our geographically-determined ward system, ours usually are racially integrated. In other words, intimate proximity is a practical necessity in congregations that value our tradition’s call for unified Zion-building.
But because Saints of color are often minorities in their congregations, too frequently the price of admission for them has meant that they must leave their anger or anguish over racial injustice outside the congregational circle.
When the communal pain of black Americans overflows, it is time for white folks to listen more intently.
But what, in times like this, might our covenantal obligations to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “mourn with those who mourn” mean for white Saints in relation to our sisters and brothers of color?
Authentic communion at the congregational level surely means making space for the burdens that come with our national history of racial injustice. Is there any hope for congregations of “one heart and one mind” if segments of Christ’s body cannot speak their pain or their anger at the persistent inequities that have long defined this national crisis? Surely membership in our covenant community requires more from us than comfortable obliviousness to the realities of our neighbors’ lives. Such a weighty history of American racism and its effects on our fellow Saints must demand our attention.
When the communal pain of black Americans overflows, it is time for white folks to listen more intently. And when one member of Christ’s body suffers, our covenants can provide a kind of spiritual “muscle memory.” They can help us know what to do. But, as is always the case with the heavy work of redemption, the stretching involved, the deep listening demanded, and the hard truths to be faced all beckon us outside our comfort zones. The good news, though, as ever, is that new forms of community and holiness await on the other side of the struggle.
J. Spencer Fluhman is executive director of Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. His views are his own.