by Johnny Townsend
Mormons have a long, troubled history of racism, well documented in Joanna Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy. Feeble attempts at addressing the problem consisted mostly of changing the wording in a few Book of Mormon passages from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome.” Numerous systemic problems must be addressed for the LDS Church to make any meaningful progress toward creating a more racially equitable culture, but one of the most basic steps is to convert Nordic Jesus back to Semitic Jesus.
Mormon officials tell us they don’t constrain the imagination of the artists they commission. It’s not their fault that almost all depictions of Joseph Smith translating the gold plates show viewers…the gold plates. Witness accounts, of course, describe Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by putting his face into a hat and dictating the words that appeared to him in the darkness. Whether or not Church leaders are instructing Mormon artists to depict Jesus Christ as a European, and an increasingly light-haired one at that, they are fully capable of asking artists to instead depict Jesus as a Semitic man.
If Church leaders are afraid the majority of white members won’t be able to identify with a Savior who doesn’t look like them, can we ask why they don’t worry about non-white members having this same reaction to Nordic Jesus?
We might even ask why one of the apostles can’t hire a top-notch forensic artist and give a personal description of the Savior. This police sketch artist can develop a basic image that can then be handed over to a more artistic painter to create a final, Church-approved product.
If the Quorum of the Twelve defer, saying it’s better that the membership not know exactly what Jesus looks like, perhaps they could still commission a variety of Jesuses. We can still have Nordic Jesus for Mormons unable to worship a Semitic Jesus. We can have a Semitic Jesus for those who are comfortable with reasonable historical accuracy. We could have a Native American Jesus, an African Jesus, an Asian Jesus, a Polynesian Jesus, an Indian Jesus, and assorted others so that the worldwide membership we profess could all enjoy a Jesus of their own ethnicity. Why pander only to white members? And if it’s not pandering, why not just give us all Semitic Jesus?
Some members have asked that the name of Brigham Young University be changed, given the uncomfortable truth of Brigham’s advocacy not only of African slavery but also that of Native Americans. It’s not as if education never existed before Brigham Young. He didn’t invent history or science or law. He’s not the only person to choose from for naming an institution of higher learning. In fact, there’s no reason the university has to bear the name of a historical figure in the first place. Every human being has moral failings. If we don’t want to face renaming our buildings and institutions again and again each time society makes additional moral advancements, we should consider not naming anything at all after flawed people. What’s wrong with Zion University or Deseret University or Millennium University or even plain old Mormon University?
Oh, wait, we can’t say Mormon anymore.
So we can change some names, it appears. Then why not this one?
Most Mormons, even most BYU students, have no idea who J. Reuben Clark was. Few people are going to spend three days at home crying inconsolably if we change the name of the BYU Law School. Again, we’re not obliged to place the name of a different human being on the building. Why not something like Secular Human Law School? That’s what’s being taught there, isn’t it? If that’s not entirely satisfying as a name, we can draw committees to discuss other options, perhaps assign law students to come up with lists of possibilities.
The same goes for the many other buildings on campus named after folks who advocated for racist and segregationist policies.
Removing a statue of a white supremacist isn’t “destroying” or “falsifying” history. We can still read all about these folks as much as we want.
Renaming a building or university that is currently named after a racist isn’t destroying our religion. We can still read all about these founding members.
At least as much as the Church itself will allow. Church leaders and their correlation committees already have a 200-year history of hiding uncomfortable information. But if we must try out names of real people, let’s consider Fawn Brodie, Helmuth Hubener, Jane Manning, Elijah Abel, George Romney, Wallace Stegner, Arnold Friberg, Gladys Knight, Carol Lynn Pearson, Moroni Olsen, and Hugh Nibley. What are some names of leaders among the Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, Goshute, and Navajo? How about names of Mormon suffragettes?
If all of this is simply too overwhelming, if it’s easier to just ask non-white members to put up with our white-centric culture, the least we can do is become more transparent about it. If we can’t start painting a Semitic Jesus, we can at least change the name of a hymn or two. Let’s start with “A Poor, Wayfaring Man of European Descent.”