Redaction, the Difficulties of Governing, and Comfort for Those Seeking Change

On this Martin Luther King Jr. day, I am reminded that societies seem to be naturally regressive – and bringing about quality social change is hard.  And even when it does happen, the leaders of society, even if they had no hand in the discrimination, often try to cover up the past problems.  These problems do, after all, tear at the fabric of the very societies they are trying to lead.  Even a well-meaning leader stumbles in these instances: how do you admit the organization you lead is flawed (sometimes deeply) while still maintaining the commitment of your followers?  It is a challenging problem that I do not envy.

A Horrifying Letter Sent by the FBI to Martin Luther King Jr.

Consider, for example, the MLK Jr. Suicide Letter, which was first discovered in association with a US Senate committee seeking to uncover abuses by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and IRS.  The letter was sent under the direction of the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, to Martin Luther King, Jr.  It disparages King to the extreme, threatens to unveil to the public recordings of King’s sexual indiscretions, and the coaxes him to commit suicide before these indiscretions are revealed.  It was a blackmail attempt to get King to kill himself. It ends with this statement:

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

Except, a reader of the originally released letter would not know quite that much.  The original release of the letter entirely redacted the section detailing the threat to release recordings of sexual indiscretion. I read the unredacted portion first, so I have no idea what meaning I would get from the redacted version.  A friend of mine though read the redacted first without any knowledge of the unredacted and told me “it sounds like a death threat, or telling him he should off himself or something near the end. I don’t know why the 34 days is significant though.”  This confirms my theory that the redaction was an attempt to obscure how much blackmail was really involved in the letter. You would not know there were included recordings, for example, and while the final line suggests some sort of revelation at the end of the 34-day period, it isn’t obvious that the letter outlined what that consequence would be.  The unredacted letter makes it absolutely clear.

Know how we got the unredacted letter?  No government official graciously offered it up – no, it was instead a private researcher going through material at the national archives, who then submitted the material to the New York Times for publication in 2014.  You can read the story here.

You can also compare the redacted to the un-redacted sections here.

And what of the recordings that accompanied the letter?  Those are locked up until the government releases them in 2027.

Redaction Reduces Chaos – For Awhile

This, to me, is an example of how poorly institutional leaders deal with problems within their own institution.  Instead of just coming clean and showing the public the extent of the FBI’s indiscretion, the government redacted the letter.  The truth wasn’t revealed until an outsider came in and found it for themselves.

This is unsurprising, because institutional leaders are always trying to keep the institution respected in the eyes of the public, whereas outsiders have a different agenda.

The interplay between the disclosures of outsiders and institutional leaders is where we have to find the truth sometimes.  I think this is a key to truth actually: we must know that leaders will often candy-coat events, and outsiders will often tar-coat events – the truth must be discerned somewhere in the middle of the candy and the tar.

The government in this case had good reason to redact the letter I suppose – once the letter was out in the open, the government couldn’t very well remove the punch line, but it could redact certain elements to make it seem like the author just kept railing on King for being a “colossal evil fraud” with a surprising call to suicide at the end.  This would allow other government leaders to talk around the point or just flat out admit they had no idea what the letter was doing, since it was largely redacted.

What would the alternative approach look like?  Well, it would have been unveiling the entire letter, releasing all of the audio, and admitting that the FBI followed King around and surveilled him, trying to scrounge up evidence to discredit him before the public (you can read more about that here.

But this approach was not taken, perhaps because government leaders were worried that even though the redacted letter was released 7 years after King’s death, the current political climate was not stable enough to release documents which would cause people to question the actions of the FBI any more than they were already doing – better to push that reckoning day to some point in the future when things may be more stable. Better to reduce chaos now with the hope the future will be better prepared.

It is not an entirely unreasonable approach. A leader pursuing this approach may be well-intentioned and feel that given the vagaries of leadership and governance, it was the best path even though all paths were muddy and difficult.

With this context, consider a similar challenge is and was faced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter, the “Church”).

The Church’s Own Horrors

In the last decade, the Church has been trying to walk back its stance on race and the Priesthood. In 2012, an “official church statement” was released in the Church’s Newsroom, stating in part that:

“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”

You can read the statement at the Church Newsroom.

Then, in 2013, the Church published an essay titled “Race and the Priesthood.”  The essay states, in part:

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” 

You can read the essay on (Note, you must scroll down and click “read more” to see the section just quoted).

What’s frustrating about these statements however, is that they are flat out wrong.  It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is very difficult to reconcile the above statements with this August 17, 1949 First Presidency Statement for example, which reads in part:

“The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time….

“[Quoting President Young:] Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to. [End quote from President Young]

“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality… that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.”

You can read the whole statement at FairMormon.

As a First Presidency statement, almost everyone would have considered the contents of the statement to be “doctrine” and a whole lot of people would go as far as to say the entire contents of the statements was “the word of God.”  The statement goes as far as to say that the priesthood ban was due to a “direct commandment from the Lord” from the very beginning of the Church.  The Church Newsroom would have you believe that the statement was made “in absence of direct revelation,” while the Essay states simply that the Church “disavows” such theories – including the theories of divine curse and premortal conduct specifically mentioned in the 1949 statement.

Again, Redaction Reduces Chaos – For Awhile

So now the question arises: why does the Church blatantly contradict itself instead of coming clean?

Well, the problem of course is: how does the Church come clean?  It is not obvious if you also want to maintain the fabric of Church society.

Like the Government of the 1970s, the Church sometimes seems to think that it is easier to “redact” information than to grapple with it.  I cannot, for example find a copy of the 1949 First Presidency Statement on  FairMormon and an evangelical ministry website called IIR appear to be the two best places to discover the text currently.

A redaction is a reasonable tactic in the Church’s case.  There is already a culture of avoiding “anti-” literature, so keeping true but troubling statements off of Church maintained resources leaves an escape hatch for people who don’t want to reduce the authority of the Church in their own eyes. If it’s not a Church website, it may very well be “anti-.”[1]See, for example, recent talks given by Elder and Sister Renlund which the Newsroom states are about “Faith and Doubt.” Elder Renlund cautions against obtaining “answers from faithless and unfaithful sources,” (Elder Renlund) and Sister Renlund states “The blogosphere cannot replace scripture study and reading the words of living prophets and apostles,” she added. “Foster your faith by going to trustworthy sources to find answers to your questions.” Both talks essentially cast shade on non-authorized sources – even if only indirectly. Read the Newsrooms summary here.

This culture largely self-regulates people into maintaining the fabric of the Church. If everybody is paranoid about being exposed to bad things, then simply remove the bad things from authorized content and you have a VERY easy fix to the problem.

This works very well – I have shown people quotes from these websites because the Church does not keep its own public record, only to be rebuffed for feeding them “anti-” literature. It takes a long time to warm up to the idea that exact quotes from Church leaders can be very hurtful.

How Bold Can a Single Leader Get?

It is in this culture that Church leaders must make their decisions.  Whether they condone the culture or not, they are likely unable to be able to single handedly change it. And it may not always be clear who else is on their side to change the culture within the leadership roster.

So, a well-meaning Church leader, interested in helping people maintain their faith, is likely to take the path which slowly exposes members to problems of the path, but without directly calling into question the prophetic mantel of First Presidencies of the past, as in this example.  They will make what small, incremental changes they can, without risking their entire leadership role in the Church (as happened with BH Roberts). There is even a question of whether the members would accept whatever radical changes or teachings the leader may like to implement – institutions and their members are remarkably sticky – just see race relations in American since… 1776.

Like the Government in 1970, leaders may choose to kick the can down the road – leaving open the possibility that things will be better addressed in the future when the fabric of society is better able to grapple with the disturbing revelations that await them from 1949.

Is Anything Ever Right When It Comes To Governance?

Is it the right thing to do?  Maybe so. Is preserving the greatest amount of belief the right thing to do?  Probably.

Is it wrong to publish content that suggests there are not direct or near direct contradictions to past “divine decrees?” Maybe so. But again, is it better to have a strict fidelity to the truth or to disaffect large portions of the believing membership simply because the groundwork has not been laid for them to grapple with the issues? Probably let’s not destroy everybody’s faith.

Does it feel good when we discover the 1949 secrets for ourselves? No – definitely not.  Is it frustrating that we may not have the tools to grappled with the issues raised thereby?  Yes.

What sort of groundwork may help us grapple with this issues? I personally think a greater reliance on accessing the Spirit for truth, as opposed to leaders, would be a good start. Some very practical discussion of what it looks like to receive Spiritual direction contrary to the institution would be helpful (hopefully it can have an different outcome than Lehi’s where his central Church institution completely kicked him out). Also, developing language to help us identify differences of belief among faithful members may be helpful. Faithful Catholics can be both Jesuit or Franciscan, and Americans can be both honorable and Republican or Democrat, but Church members are either Active or… less-than-active?  Peter or Jack?  Alternative labels to the mainstream are disparaging.  You cannot easily be a faithful member and disagree with current leadership or teaching.

Be that as it may, I believe we CAN be faithful members, who sustain the leaders, while also disagreeing, even deeply, with their positions. We sustain the Church and its leaders just as we sustain life – we help it grow. If the life you are trying to sustain wants to hurt itself, it doesn’t change the basic fundamentals of how you sustain that life – it just may be more of a challenge.

A Reminder That the Mainstream is Always Entrenched

My hope is that each of us can understand what we can do to sustain the Church, even amidst its most severe challenges. It is a hard and frightening path to walk. There are a lot of obstacles if you come from outside of leadership, but let me end by pointing out that while many have struggled, the struggles have, in my opinion, borne fruit. Consider this statement by John L. Lund in his 1967 book The Church and the Negro:

Those who believe that the Church ‘gave in’ on the polygamy issue and subsequently should give in on the Negro question are not only misinformed about Church History, but are apparently unaware of Church doctrine…. Therefore, those who hope that pressure will bring about a revelation need to take a closer look at Mormon history and the order of heaven.

And note that this belief, or beliefs closely tied to it, was apparently widespread, as noted in this review of Lund’s book found at the journal Dialogue:

“Even though Lund’s book bears no Church endorsement, it impresses me as being just about what the more ‘traditionally orthodox’ Mormons believe. I rather feel that Lund in a sense is right in describing his views as those of the Church even though he disavows any intent or right to attempt to speak officially. Most of what he says is right down the traditional line which most of us have learned from childhood.”

The mainstream is almost always entrenched in the institutions in which they find themselves – that’s what makes them mainstream! If those institutions are to change, they must come from someone who is a bit different. And that will always involve a lot of struggle against the people happy with the status quo.

But change happens – even when everyone around you thinks it’s completely out of the question. I believe it is increasingly hard to argue that the efforts of outsiders have not had an impact on the Church for change (a position often resorted to with the race and polygamy issues: the Church changed by revelation – not by outside influence). Even now, people who have been excommunicated for advocating the rights of women, children, the LGBT community, and increased transparency, have, it seems, nevertheless helped bring about change that benefits those who remain in the Church.

Again, it may feel like a battleground, but we have the morbid comfort I suppose in that we are at least not stoned to death for disagreement as in Lehi’s day.

May the Lord guide you in understanding what role *you* may play in sustaining the Church to the place it needs to be – and not necessarily the place your leader thinks it should be.


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *