Micah Khater: Racism is structural, not an individual sin

(photo courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson announces eight new temples during the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference on April 5, 2020.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was my spiritual home for much of my childhood. It was the site of multiple spiritual awakenings — the place where I first encountered the potential for radical theology buried underneath an otherwise conservative edifice. It was also a place where I experienced the limitations of godliness in the absence of racial justice, of social equity.

As a biracial Arab American girl, I encountered the unsettling ways that white supremacy coexisted with theology. I heard brothers ask my father whether he could use his Arab “anger” to fulfill a task. I heard endless non-explanations for the priesthood ban on black members whom the church denied because of the political import of white supremacy in the late nineteenth century.

Reciprocally, I never heard a word uttered about the catastrophic effects of Mormon settler colonialism on indigenous communities in the intermountain West. Or its hand in the continued political disenfranchisement of Navajos communities that remain in Utah. Finally, I learned that Zionism and support for Israel was a political ideology that was seemingly OK to proselytize from the pulpit despite the LDS Church’s insistence that services remain apolitical.

Many of these issues are, of course, not unique to the LDS Church. But they do continue to plague the soul of the LDS Church. Criticism of church leadership is often cast as sinful, but it is needful. Many Mormons have struggled and continue to struggle against these currents daily, including the continued denial of the priesthood to women — some even until the point that they are forcibly removed.

It is time that the church recognize that it has never been apolitical and its claim to being so is a political stance in and of itself.

Deploying the language of repentance, as President Russell M. Nelson did earlier this week, does not go far enough. It suggests that racism is an issue of individual sin rather than of structural inequity and systemic oppression. It is a statement that meets the bare minimum.

To the white membership: Do not close your eyes to the violence. Do not feel satisfied that your faith has done enough by way of Nelson’s words. Do not be silent because you believe that all will be meted out fairly after passing through the veil. Stand in solidarity with people of color against the violent structures that lead up to the moments before “I can’t breathe” is uttered again and again.

The leadership of the LDS Church has called looting and destruction of property an evil. It has suggested that “evil has never been resolved by more evil.” Looting, rioting and destruction of property are not evil. They are manifestations and protestations of severe social inequity. They are pain boiling over, trying to find space for people to not just survive, but thrive.

Striving for justice will not always take place in church clothes, on perfectly manicured temple grounds or in the language of the chaste. Do not turn from cries for justice because they do not conform to the aesthetics of “respectable” righteousness.

If there was ever a time to amend what it means to be godly in the LDS Church, it is now. What are callings, visiting teaching, temple ordinances without the preservation and respect for human life on Earth? What is your mission if you cannot say that you stood in solidarity against the most atrocious injustices? What is the state of your soul this day?

Micah Khater

Micah Khater is an Arab American Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of African American Studies and History at Yale University and a Center for Engaged Scholarship Fellow in 2020-2021.