The Implication of “Skins”

Racism is any thought, law, action, custom, or practice that provides treatment or outcomes that are different based upon race. Nationalism is the same, but for culture. Sexism for gender, and so on. All of these can be gathered under the umbrella of “irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes.” And while it is very easy to say “I am not a racist” as a smokescreen that exempts one from deep self-examination, it is much harder to say “I am an antiracist” and then work the difficult work of removing one’s own prejudices – conscious and unconscious – that result in irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes. These treatments and outcomes are not only as a result of one’s own personal interactions, but also because of the public policies one supports or opposes, based on these lurking biases.

To say, “I am an antiracist” means that we are actively re-thinking our thoughts and changing our ways – in a word, repenting. We do not just ask for forgiveness, but we must make real and meaningful changes in coming to accept all people as equals. The word of God has in the past been used to justify irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes – but such usage is the word of God, perverted. When I read the scriptures, I read that God provides a path of salvation to all humanity. Male and female, black and white, bond and free, young and old, warm and cold, wet and dry – make up your opposite pair and God provides a path of salvation to the extremes and the folks in the middle. All of them.

To be an antiracist, therefore, is to accept the equality mandated by God and to unravel it from toxic ideas of people who created misleading and damnably incorrect ideas to rationalize their own unjust concentrations of wealth and power, relative to other groups. To be an antiracist is to accept that one’s own mind has been infected with any number of these ideas and that removing those ideas is going to be a lifelong process.

And that brings me to Chapter 4 of Alma in the Book of Mormon.

“And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them…” – Alma 4:6

Even with context, it’s a harsh assessment. While modern readers are frequently quick to assume that the skins in question are the human epidermis, it’s more likely that the author was referring to how the Lamanites “were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins”. Animal skins, in other words. And that this is in a discussion about how their allies the Amlicites marked themselves with red paint in their foreheads indicates that the markings are elective, not markings from birth.

Even so, this is a discrimination: the verses that follow talk about the incorrect traditions of the Lamanites and how those who intermarry with them joins with them in their curse. Those who leave the Lamanites to join with the Nephites are noted by their change in dress style, are numbered among the Nephites, share in their customs, and are otherwise indistinguishable from the Lamanites. So if this is not racism, it is still nationalism or tribalism, is it not?

The proscription on mingling with the “other” in this case is a religious one. The idea being that the children of such unions will have divergent guidance, at best, and will not be able to grow up with the proper knowledge and faith necessary for salvation. Given that the Nephites themselves were constantly dealing with rebellion, apostasy, and general unrighteousness, however, one cannot consider that being among the Nephites was a sufficient condition for living a good life, dedicated to God. The Nephites may not have dressed in dark animal pelts as the Lamanites did, but when they put on costly apparel, they generally embark upon the road to perdition.

Just as the Amlicites painted their foreheads red, just as the Lamanites wore the pelts of dark animals, the Nephites that chose to wear costly apparel marked themselves in their rebellion to God. So what is the solution for these problems? Is it Kurtz’ rage to “Exterminate the brutes”? While there are Nephites who believe that very thing, the righteous among the Nephites reject that solution.

When God provides a path to salvation for us all, it is not at the edge of a blade or the barrel of a gun. It is through kind invitation and patient teaching. The solution is not to curse the enemy, but to pray for them and to show them kindness and mercy. Here, therefore, is a rational discrimination. There are differences, yes, but they do not prevent a person from accepting God’s invitation to salvation. They may add interesting twists and turns in that path, but so it is with all of us and our personal journeys.

The rational discrimination is to not assume that they know everything that you know and that you do not know everything that they know. The rational discrimination is to await the learning opportunities for yourself as avidly as you do for them. Once the learning is underway, we are all prepared to be a “we” and not an “us and them”. And it is as a “we” that we approach God. An unconditional, loving, equal “we”.

That is not to say that the Nephites as a people were ready to drop their prejudices at this point in the narrative. There were two bodies of people in attendance at King Mosiah II’s farewell address and reform of the government. The Amlicites emerged as a rebellious faction from within the Nephites. Class divisions appear as the people choose to wear costly apparel – are any of these groups ready to see the Lamanites, the generationally-established “others” as anything but different?

I would say that the more righteous a person is, the easier it is to see beyond the differences defined by human thought and see the eternal equality that God sees. I would say that the more righteous a person is, the easier it is to ask for that equality before God to be made evident in law and society and church.

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