The most controversial statement Pres. Oaks made in his Be One talk was the following.
I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them. As part of my prayerful study, I learned that, in general, the Lord rarely gives reasons for the commandments and directions He gives to His servants.
That is a really loaded statement, and I’m not sure we will ever figure out what he meant. There has been a ton of criticism aimed at Pres. Oaks for this. Specifically that this statement doubles down on the ban, declaring it is from God. I am not going to defend Pres. Oaks on this. I disagree with what he said here. I’m not going to harshly criticize him or campaign against him for it. But I disagree with what he said.
That said, I don’t think this was him stating the ban was from God. If he truly wanted to tell us God was behind the ban, he would have said “God was behind the ban.” He said he looked for reasons, and what he found was that the Lord rarely gives reasons. He said it was unknowable to him at that time to understand the reasons behind the ban. In telling us that, he used language to strongly imply God was behind the ban. I think that’s unfortunate.
In the recent SistasinZion video, Zandra Vranes made a heart wrenching appeal to LDS leaders and members to not tell her God ordered the ban. This was the one thing that could break her and many other black members. I feel very upset that something could have been interpreted that way.
I think Pres. Oaks was doing his best to a) imply that the policy was wrong and that God is not racist nor should the church be while b) preserving faith in the institution and current and past leaders by implying wiggle room that never did an LDS prophet not follow God. I see why he felt both those were important. I acknowledge what a difficult task the brethren have of progressing and undoing harmful practices while preserving faith in God and commitment to a Church which I believe does so much positive in the world. I myself would have focused on point a and not worried too much about b. But I’m not going to harshly judge Pres. Oaks for what he said.
But this is not what I really want to do in this post. What I really would like to do is explore the idea of whether God could command man to do something dumb (like the ban) or why humans would believe that. Gospel Doctrine lesson 21 is coming up soon. In this lesson, the people ask Samuel to ask God for a king. The back story here is that God led the Israelites out of Egypt and in to conquer Canaan and established himself as their King. God was their king. He lived in their presence, in the Ark of the Covenant. They believed they fed him through making sacrifices of their best cuts of meat and best grain. They took him to battle, hauling the Ark of the Covenant around, and he led them to victory. Then they had some ups and downs, lost some battles, lost their faith. They even lost the Ark of the Covenant, with their enemies crushing them in battle and humiliating them by stealing the Ark (they got it back). But at this point, the people wanted a king and asked the prophet Samuel to ask God.
In 1 Samuel 8, God tells Samuel it’s a terrible idea and what the king will do to the people and how he would oppress them. Samuel goes back to the people, but the people are stubborn. They want a king anyway. So Samuel takes their message back to God. God’s answer:
1 Samuel 8:22
22 And the Lord said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, Go ye every man unto his city.
This is not the only time in scripture God listens to the voice of his people or prophet. He tells Joseph Smith finally to go ahead and let Martin take the plates. He allows Abraham to barter him down to saving Sodom for 10 righteous people. God is constantly telling Moses he gave up on the Israelites and he’s ready to kill them all. And Moses is constantly talking him off the ledge. “Think of how dumb you’ll look to the Egyptians. You rescued your people from them just to kill them in the wilderness??”
OK, so you say, well probably none of this happened exactly that way. It’s meant to be understood metaphorically. OK. So then, what is the lesson to learn, metaphorically?
I’m not going to a place where I blame every bad policy and commandment on God and shrug my shoulders. Sorry, because…God.
I think if we dig more, we find a lot more depth, and we can actually find some really powerful lessons.
First, I think it’s beautiful for us to imagine God as someone who wants to give us what we want and ask for. It’s a portrayal of a loving God. Even though it comes with consequences. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that giving us what we want might end up causing other people to be hurt. Would God really do that? No. So, there must be something else going on.
Second, rather than putting the blame on God for bad things, it puts the responsibility back on humans. Which is where it belongs. If I understand that God gives me what I want and what I ask for, then I have the responsibility to want and ask for good things. If I understand that revelation comes through human weakness and understanding, it’s up to me as part of a worship community to work to create an environment where certain revelations are asked for, expected, even demanded as in the case of the Israelites in Samuel’s time. Trickle up revelation. I can’t sit on my hands and blame God for everything wrong. I have responsibility and a duty to fix what might be wrong. There are right ways and wrong ways to do that within the Church, but I have the responsibility to do it.
Finally, if you’re having a really hard time thinking of God as someone who would give another person something that would hurt you. Then maybe it’s best to think of God as a “hands off” deist kind of God who put the universe into play and is respecting human free agency to learn and progress without God telling them what to do. He is suffering along with you when you are being harmed by others in his name, but he knows this is the only way for all his children to learn and grow. This goes for his church as well. I would prefer a bit more humility in how we think of God. I would prefer we say “this is what we think God wants” instead of “this is what God wants”, but I understand this is how we do it in our culture.
To be clear: I do not believe God ever wanted the LDS priesthood/temple ban to be in effect. I think it’s racist and always was racist. I don’t think God is racist. I think God was suffering with black (and white) LDS (and non-LDS) due to the harmful consequences of the ban all along. But I understand why people use that language. When Pres. Oaks says ” the Lord rarely gives reasons for the commandments and directions He gives to His servants” is he thinking about God the same way I am? Maybe, maybe not. Honestly I’m not entirely sure. But this is how it helps me to understand what it means when we talk about God commanding or directing things.