Reflections on Whiteness

A couple weeks ago I dropped by the John Whitmer Historical Association’s annual meeting on “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration”; I was impressed to see Community of Christ scholars beginning to really think seriously about issues of race within the church. Then today I received an email newsletter from the Community of Christ’s young adult network with the theme of race and nationality, linking to this blog posting Mariana Coradeli Medeiros-Shelton, a translator for the church. These two things have inspired me to write a few reflections on race in the Community of Christ.

The Community of Christ membership is overwhelmingly white, and as William Russell argued in 1979, has tended to follow mainstream North American thinking on race rather than be on the cutting prophetic edge.  This ambivalence is displayed in Joseph Smith III’s instruction to the church in 1878 that the church should “ordain priests…of every race”, but nonetheless “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race….”

Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, the editor of the Saint’s Herald, (the church’s magazine, not this blog), urged members not to participate in civil disobedience and instructed blacks in the segregated South to “obey the local laws” even if the “feel they are the victims of discriminative laws.” When William Russell wrote a pro-Civil Rights editorial in the Herald, the church leadership responded by dimissively saying the “internal racial problems in our church have been very minor.” This was despite an earlier article by the African-American pastor William T. Blue, Sr. decrying the existence of segregated RLDS congregations in the south. For more on the church’s history of attitudes on race, click here to read a college paper I wrote on the topic for my Civil Rights history class.

It strikes me that the Community of Christ could benefit from a spending some time reflecting on its ‘whiteness’ — defined by one scholar as the phenomenon of “how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture.” What does whiteness mean in the Community of Christ? I would like to open a discussion of what this means by inviting readers to reflect in the comment section on how race has manifested itself in their lives and in the church.

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