Racism is an individual ill that has a longstanding record of impacting multitudes. So what are some things we can do if getting to the root of racism is to be achieved?
No. This is not a parable of Jesus, although it might resemble one in some ways. But I did think rather long and hard as to how to formulate my thoughts clearly on the topic I was invited to address. “The Gatherer and the Thorn” settled on good ground to complete this task. I do hope the title has sparked your interest and that I have your attention.
Let me first begin by sharing some information about myself that might give some insight as to why I was interested in spending this time with you. I work at Brigham Young University in a position that is fairly new and a bit daunting. I am the Assistant Dean for Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. The mission of the college—which extends the invitation for all of us to accept—is to help establish a Zion community where all are of “one heart and one mind … and there [are] no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). We’re seeking after what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.”
I am also a licensed therapist, which influences how I see and think about the world. Last, but not least, I am a Black woman and a Latter-day Saint convert. Because of these roles, the work of the gathering is a topic that is continually on my mind. Your time and attention is appreciated.
Racism. Do I still have your attention? I hope so. This is a charged word in our society for many people. Why? Because for some the meaning of racism is misunderstood and unclear. But when we understand meaning better, we feel more equipped and empowered to speak to the topic in greater truth. With that, let’s define what I mean by the term racism to ensure we’re all on the same page. Racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Let me take this time to acknowledge that there is a tendency to experience feelings of fear, resistance, offense, and other negative emotions when discussing racism. Please take note that the definition of racism does not call out individuals nor label them all as “bad” people. We are all doing the best we can to be “good” disciples of Jesus Christ. What the discussion of racism actually does is call out behaviors and actions that are harmful to the human soul.
My prayer is that you will choose to stay in this with me—even when it becomes uncomfortable—because when it comes to being a follower of Jesus Christ, the topic of racism holds great significance on our discipleship as Christians and Latter-day Saints.
The Gatherer: Perspective and Vision
Our Savior, through His current prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, is centered on focusing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on discipleship in a deeper way. He has called us all to be gatherers of Israel—to increase our commitment to Him more fully in preparation for, and anticipation of, His return “on both sides of the veil.”
President Nelson has testified to the youth that the gathering of Israel is “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on the earth.” This means, then, that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are gatherers of Israel and privileged to engage in this great cause. It also means that coming to terms with the issue of racism and opening ourselves up to gain a different perspective by looking through a lens of discipleship is an important part of the great work. God is always good y’all! But how does racism hinder our work of gathering Israel?
The Thorn: Truth and Discomfort
For gatherers of Israel there exists a “thorn in the flesh” (in the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7) in our mortal probationary state. The thorn that I am speaking of is of particular concern because it poses a threat to the spirit.
But first, let’s talk about the function of thorns. The purpose of thorns is to prevent creatures from harming the plant. Thorns are visible and painful, yet they’re a welcomed protection from potential harm. That is the function of the thorn of racism for the gatherers of Israel. While visible and painful to external forces, people use the thorn in the flesh (racism) as a protection as well. How? Racism prevents disciples of Jesus Christ—Latter-day Saints and non-LDS folks—from seeing and sharing the real source of pain and harm frequently encountered by their brothers and sisters of color.
Why is that? Because the visible and protective presence of the thorn (racism) creates undeniable levels of discomfort among people when it penetrates a space mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally. We all possess the natural inclination to avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable. But racism—the dangerous thorn in the flesh—has become a deterrent, even a defense mechanism that prevents discipled creatures fashioned in the likeness of the Creator from feeling the pain that is absolutely necessary for us to experience in this mortal probationary state. If we are to lay full claim and humbly rejoice in the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, pain is required. There is no other way.
The Church: Leaders and Teachings
Racism is an individual ill that has a longstanding record of impacting multitudes. Now this is where I invite you to let your attention settle a bit more to hear and acknowledge this truth: the pains and afflictions of racism have created a deep historical woundedness in our lives and in the lives of people in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I invite you to consider that racism—which has resulted in societal inequities, violence, trauma, and fear—continues to leave its noticeable marks on and deep within numerous sufferers and in numerous diverse settings. So what are some things we can do if getting to the root of racism is to be achieved, and if we are to truly learn how to “mourn with those that mourn”? (Mosiah 18:9). The topic was addressed in President Russell M. Nelson’s October 2020 conference message “Let God Prevail” and President Dallin H. Oaks’s talk from the same conference, “Love Your Enemies.” Please allow your attention to deepen as I pull from the texts of both talks to offer a few suggestions on what we can learn about the gatherer and the thorn.
1. Ways to think that help navigate the reality of the thorn
The following statements from Presidents Nelson and Oaks can help us understand eternal truths about God’s children and about our charge to gather them. Understanding these truths can help navigate the harmful reality of racism.
- “The gospel net to gather scattered Israel is expansive. There is room for each person.”
- “We have been charged to assist the Lord in this pivotal work.”
- “Each is equal in His eyes”
- “Please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another.”
- “I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin.”
- “All mortals are beloved children of God.”
- “Knowing that we are all children of God gives us a divine vision of the worth of all others and the will and ability to rise above prejudice and racism.”
- The pure love of Christ “has no place for bigotry, hatred, or violence. … It encourages diverse people to live together in Christian love.”
- “There have been injustices. In public actions and in our personal attitudes, we have had racism and related grievances.”
- “As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we must do better to help root out racism.”
- “This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one, and we must do better.”
2. Ways we can feel to help counter the reality of the thorn
Presidents Nelson and Oaks shared several ideas for how we can adjust our feelings about racism.
- “We can choose to be of Israel.”
- Seek for “expanding faith and spiritual courage.”
- “Avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree. It also helps if we are even willing to learn from them.”
- “As followers of Christ we must forgo … anger and hatred.”
- “When we are trying to understand and relate to people of a different culture, we should try getting to know them.”
- “The hostilities and illegalities felt among different ethnicities … should not be felt in the United States.”
3. What to do to “root out” the reality of the thorn
- “Choose to let God be the most powerful influence in our lives.”
- “Expand [your] perspective and seek the eternal.”
- “Lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”
- “Promote respect for all of God’s children.”
- Build “faith and testimony in the hearts of those with whom we live, work, and serve.”
- “Seek to understand the power of love.”
- Seek the pure love of Christ which “encourages diverse people to live together in Christian love regardless of religious belief, race, nationality, financial standing, education, or culture.”
- “Avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree. It also helps if we are even willing to learn more about them.”
What can we do to process and act on the words of President Nelson and President Oaks? Reflecting on their words is a start. I believe that their words are calling us to use our moral agency to examine and value the contributions of diverse perspectives that we each possess. How to think to navigate the thorn, how to feel to counter the thorn, and what to do to remove the thorn. To use our moral agency in understanding whose and what we are, the progeny of Heavenly Parents.
I extend another invitation to continue to study and compare these talks on your own. See what more you can pull from them that could help you think, feel, and do things differently when learning about and dealing with the incessant impact of racism.
President Oaks acknowledged there have been laws in our nation in need of many “refinements” to “root out racism.” We, as gatherers in our discipleship, seeking to adhere to moral laws, are also in need of refinements to root it out. That’s something to think about.
But how? How do we seek this refinement in our systems and in ourselves? How do we get there? And can we get there faster? How do we get around, over and through this thorn in the flesh to root out racism? What do we need to do to see a way forward in our ministry to bind up the woundedness in our communities? How do we “set at liberty them that are bruised and broken-hearted? (Luke 4:18 ).
The Solution: Answers and Covenants
We have made it to the main reason why discussing this topic with you in connection with our discipleship is so key.
Jesus. I’m rather certain this beautiful name immediately grabbed your attention in a positive and profound way. He is the real focus of this time we are spending together. The One to whom we seek to give our thoughts, feelings, and intentions more fully. Seeing that my time with you is coming to an end, I would love our concluding attention to rest with and be in Him. Let’s do that, shall we?
With every earthly experience we can look to Jesus for understanding. When it comes to this issue of racism, and the personal dealings with it in my own life, I always look to him for help and for hope. I could not begin to do what I do at BYU without looking to Jesus in my work of the gathering there. It is not my work, though. It is His.
Jesus Christ is my hope. He condescended from a heavenly community of oneness to come to a divisive, tumultuous sociopolitical spot of earth, not unlike the one we live in now. In that ancient Middle Eastern setting He lived among Romans, Samaritans, Jews, Gentiles, Zealots, Publicans, Essenes, Scribes, Pharisees, and Nazarenes. He came and dwelt among man to teach us how to see the humanity in each other by how He lived and what He experienced. He taught us to live a principle-based life and to call people up by calling them out. Sadly, many chose to not heed the call.
Instead, I believe He witnessed and felt the daily discomfort of racism while living and navigating through various communities of anti-different. What did acts of racism possibly look like for Jesus? We can’t know for sure but in order to explore this question more directly, it would be helpful to look at Jesus in his ethnic context. He was a Jew.
One piece of evidence indicating that Jesus experienced acts of racism can be found in the prejudiced and discriminatory question that was a common wonder: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). With that question, in that instance, Jesus experienced a form of racism. Calling into question one’s capacities and capabilities, their potential, their very character because of their place of birth is a form of racism that often goes undetected. Many forms are.
I believe acts of racism continued when the very essence of Jesus was continually questioned whenever he declared who he was: the Son of Man. “Many good works have I shewed you from my Father;” he said, “For which of those works do ye stone me? (John 10:32). He who would come to change their lives as they knew it. And why was it so difficult for folks to believe that He was who He said He was?
Well, with racism, the infinite worth of the “different” gets politicized instead of humanized and spiritualized. So perhaps one reason people were unable to “see” Jesus’s godhood was because the outer appearance of the Nazarene professing to be the Son of God did not match up to preconceived notions of the promised Messiah. He didn’t look the part.
I have had some experiences with this. I am also an artist, and as a performer I have been denied certain roles because I didn’t “look” the part. And many times I have been invited to audition for or have been offered a certain role because I was stereotyped as someone who “fit” the part because of my race. Being categorically misjudged because you don’t “fit,” or measure up to someone’s preconceived expectation or standard is a painful reality of racism.
From my readings in the scriptures it appears the mortal image of Jesus was found to be average, unappealing, and indistinguishable according to societal and religious expectations. He didn’t appear very godly at all according to public opinion. “For [Jesus] shall grow up before him as a tender plant: He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is not beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). So He was “despised and rejected, and we esteemed him not.” That, good people, is another painful aspect of racism. The perpetual devaluing of minority human beings as “not.”
Jesus witnessed and experienced the cruel, violent treatment of those viewed as foreigners (immigrants?), unfit (undocumented?), and just plain not equitable (Blacks, Indigenous, People of Color?) despite the inherent purpose of all God’s handiwork, to fulfill the measure of their creation. As you read the following Book of Mormon verse about the Savior, I invite you to hearken back and remember what racism looked like in this nation (and what it looks like now), for my kindred, and the discriminatory, degrading, and absolute dehumanizing nonverbal “tongue” that has plagued a people: “And the world… shall judge him…to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it” (1 Nephi 19:9). Jesus didn’t do this to seek attention. He suffered it because he knew the impact of racism not only harms others. It also harms oneself.
When the n-word was used in my presence in a work setting, I was triggered and felt pain mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Contention was high. But the individual who possessed the thought, that generated the feeling, that allowed the tongue to do the act of uttering the n-word, did harm to himself whether he realized it or not. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). The death of what? Mental capacities, the ability to empathize and develop compassion, the ability to feel the Holy Ghost? To love? To become Christlike? Perhaps. I believe the breath and life of the gathering is directly affected by such behavior. Elder Dale G. Renlund said in his most recent conference address, “[The Lord’s] latter-day work is compromised when contention or enmity exists among His disciples.” As gatherers, behavior that compromises the Lord’s work is not an option.
Let’s return to the discussion of thorns from a scriptural context: the crown of thorns. As prelude to the crucifixion and in absolute mockery, a crown of thorns pierced sacred flesh when a Roman guardsman pressed it upon the head of a Jewish man—the very God of Israel. Afterwards, the mocking continued all the way to the cross, where Jesus was hung, suffering ridicule with the words, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (John 19:3). Our Redeemer sacrificed his own life for our thorn in the flesh (and for our afflictions) and, on some levels, because of it. For these reasons and countless more, Jesus is lovingly and mercifully directing us to place our undivided attention on Him to hone that unique “part” of ourselves as His gatherer.
Well, we made it to the end! Thank you for staying with me. And I trust that it has been time well spent. I want to leave you with this. The Lord, through his prophet, President Nelson, asked: “Are you willing to [let God prevail and] have your will swallowed up in his?” To follow the example of his Son? To ultimately become Zion, a beloved community of one heart and one mind? A people with no thought in our minds nor feeling in our heart to belittle, demean, objectify, or categorize? To ensure that there are no poor among us?
These are key questions to ponder in the effort to strengthen our foundation in Christ-centered discipleship in anticipation of the Savior’s return. By the grace of God, a time and place has been prepared for us to ask and seek the answers each Sabbath day when sacrament prayers are offered. We begin to find the answers we seek as we witness as individuals—yet recommit collectively in the spirit of communion—our willingness to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ; to “always remember him.”
Jesus Christ is our Prevailer. He has overcome the thorn. We are his gatherers. Remember.
From one gatherer to another, I am grateful we were blessed to spend this time together.
The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Brigham Young University.