September 16, 2007

I am from the South.  In the South, we do not have a fabulous record of treating those different from us with appropriate respect and dignity.  Or rather, I should say, we have a very well-publicized history of that.  I don’t believe that in so doing we are all that different from the rest of the nation (or the world), but we are nonetheless the touchstone for a discussion of racial tension in America.

You don’t get to choose how you are perceived.  You don’t get to establish the limits of other’s reactions to your past or to the past that they find appropriate for you.  Whether you like it or not, you will be judged based on what other people who are only peripherally related to you have done.

That said, the racist south is alive in my immediate family.  I have said before that I have various racist tendencies and stereotypes that I am in the process of eliminating, but I don’t have any illusions regarding my ability to eradicate them completely in my lifetime.  My Grandmother’s racism is based, in part, on an incident from her childhood where a black man startled her on the way to an outhouse.  He just looked so menacing there in the moonlight.  He may as well have been the Devil himself.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong picture about my Gramma.  She is a wonderful person and would never offend others racially knowingly.  She is kind to everyone (no matter what race they are).  However, she understands how those people behave and what happens when they move into a neighborhood.  Racism sometimes just determines the neural pathways in such a way that we don’t even recognize it as such.

So, we have the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  As Mormons, we don’t know what to do with it, much I don’t know what to do with the Southern legacy of racism.  It is tempting to shove it aside and argue that it has nothing to do with me.  That was years ago; those were different people; and I am not them.  Fair enough, but we need to ask ourselves could we become them?  After all, the horror of MMM is that those involved were not stereotypical Nazis and mustache twirlers (setting September Dawn aside).  Normal, likable people (people like my Gramma) slaughtered women, children, and men.  They thought it was for the best at the time (at least initially).

If we want to dismiss them for having blood on their hands, that is fine, but we must acknowledge that we face that possibility ourselves.  What would we do if widespread persecution spread again?  If we felt that the government could not be trusted and that outsiders were undermining our existence?  How slow would we be to start seeing the other as an enemy, as something to be taken care of and not as a person to be understood?  How quickly would we ignore our own humanity and the humanity of others in an effort to do what we consider necessary?

I am teaching at UVSC at the moment and I give my students an exercise.  I tell them that they are the sole support for their ailing mother, who will die if left alone.  I also tell them that their country has been invaded.  I ask them if they should go to war or stay with their mother and I ask them to explain why.  I am always amazed by the number of students willing to leave their mom to die, in order to serve the call to war.  They see it as their duty and they see their love of mother as an obstacle to be overcome.  These are (mostly) good Mormon kids, fresh off of or soon to be on missions.  I admire their hypothetical devotion to duty, but I despair because of their lack of consideration regarding where their duty lies.  In their own little way, they are repeating the sins of MMM.  Any cause that leads us to disregard the humanity or suffering of any individual, I am skeptical of.  Things done because they are necessary in this sense are almost always mistakes brought about by our lack of compassion or foresight.  We are our own worst enemies in this sense.

We also recently read Socrates in this class and he claims that, as a good man, he doesn’t believe a bad man can do anything to harm him, even if he is killed.  I suppose, in the end, that is the central issue.  How closely does the individual believe that what is good and bad is determined by what is harmful to oneself or one’s loved ones.  It is a hard call to make, but one central to deciding what the meaning of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is to you.

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