Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Racism and The Virgin Mary in 1 Nephi

One of the more bothersome aspects that has plagued the LDS faith from its very inception has been racism especially against African Americans. Recently Mormons have done quite a bit to improve their image among African Americans and others with dark skin. Yet it is still a problem in their church. For one thing racism bleeds through the pages of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps one of the more subtle ulcers of racism in the pages of the Book of Mormon is the depiction of the Virgin Mary found in 1 Nephi 11:13. There are more avert racial comments to come, I have encountered some in 2 Nephi. But for now I will stay with the depiction of the Virgin Mary.
1Nephi 11:13 “And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities and I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.”
Quite frankly she was a Jewess of the first century, she was not fair and white. The Hebrew were a Semitic tribe, which means, all renaissance era depictions of her are inaccurate. But then I don’t know that any of them were meant to be accurate depictions of Mary. Most artists painting Christ or Mary knew that they weren’t painting an accurate picture of what they really looked like. I know of none that didn’t know this, or had their models confused with the subject matter. Mary would probably have looked more Middle Eastern to our eyes, sharing that Semitic heritage with the Arabs of today. (I was once called anti-Semitic by someone who mistook me as being pro Palestinian. I thought that was a little peculiar, being as they too are of Semitic background. That being said, I am not pro-Palestinian by any measure.)
The greater problem comes in 1 Nephi 13:15. Here, Nephi outs himself as apparently not being Jewish at all, but perhaps a white Yankee from upstate New York with a fair bit of perceived racial superiority all ready in his early teens.
I Nephi 13:15 “And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.”
I’m just a little uncomfortable with this equation of white and beautiful. But if Nephi was in fact a 6th and 7th century B.C. Israelite, I don’t think he would think of himself as white. Aside from the fact that Israelites of this period would not have been white, white is never used in the Old or New Testament to describe a person's physical appearance. The only time it is used in relation to the color of skin is in identifying leprosy. In fact the one reference I have found describes the physical appearance of the inhabitants of Judah as ruddy, that is reddish. Lament. 4:7 (ESV)
Her princes were purer than snow,
whiter than milk;
their bodies were more ruddy than coral,
the beauty of their form was like sapphire.
To comment on this verse I would have to say that the first diptych is describing their constitution, their conscience, or the nobleness of their character. Though I doubt Jeremiah is here talking about the actual princes of the royal family. But of the faithful that were among the inhabitants. He then turns to the more physical aspects of their nature. Their bodies were more ruddy than coral. Seems even in the days of Jeremiah, the glow of tanned skin was prized. And the beauty of their form was like sapphire. In other words they were cut, and chiseled, no pudding bellies.

Again you are left with an anomaly in the book of Mormon. Either Nephi was white or he was an Israelite, but he couldn’t be both.


Nancy said...

Hmmm...maybe that depends on where you get your "felt board" materials...

Two years ago our church went through a series about 12 Great Men from the Bible. Pictorial decor was used. The month that David was the subject...I nearly choked when we came in the door that Sunday...Seems this David was blonde with blue eyes! We are definitely NOT Mormon, but it sure gave pause...and more than a few smiles or was that smirks?

Bror Erickson said...

Yes, Nancy I too grew up with the picture Bibles and all that depicting the characters more or less as white. But I don't ever recall anyone seriously contending that David, Elija etc. were actually white. Perhaps it was so we could more readily identify with the characters. I imagine that Africans putting on a live nativity have a Black baby Jesus, and still don't think he was actually black or needed to be. I think it was enough that he was a real man, that way his death covers the sins of all, black white, Jew, Arab, Oriental etc.