Seeing as We Are Seen

Ahmad Corbitt

A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood, Part 2

After I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980, I studied the priesthood ban that my newfound church had removed from people of African descent two years earlier.1 I think this is natural for many African Americans who join or investigate the Church. But as I sought to deepen my relationship with God, I found my focus and energy continually more centered on Jesus Christ and His Atonement. And as I ministered to others, including our Heavenly Father’s black children, it became clear to me that the Savior's Atonement is the most potent source of divine power and peace for anyone struggling with anything related to the restored gospel or the Church that administers it.2

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s declaration about “the testimony of Jesus"3 sprang to new life for me. “The fundamental principles of our religion,” he said, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”4

As my focus on the Savior's Atonement increased, the vision of Heavenly Father’s unified human family became clearer. Correspondingly, the priesthood ban and its particulars diminished in importance for me. I saw that this was also true for other Latter-day Saints who struggled with the former ban. Although they benefited from reliable, candid, and well-reasoned discussions of the priesthood ban, such as the recent Church-issued statement on race and the priesthood, they became converted to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ—and remained in His Church—only as they gained a personal witness and understanding of His Atonement and applied our Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation in their lives. In my case, the doctrine of the Atonement expanded my sense of identity. It catapulted my identity as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, a minister of the gospel, and a brother in the human family far above even the most socially ingrained aspects of my black identity, despite my intense racial experiences.

This profound spiritual self-perception didn’t diminish my earthly racial identity. Rather, it contextualized my racial identity in eternity.5 It enabled me to more clearly see persons of all races and ethnicities as my true brothers and sisters and to understand race and ethnicity from a more eternal perspective.6

I believe that as our understanding of the Atonement increases, another breathtaking reality comes into focus, like a familiar scripture passage that suddenly leaps off the page with new meaning and power. We see that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely able and divinely destined to become the most unifying global organization in the history of the world. Clearly, the Savior’s Church and the gospel it administers transcend race, ethnicity, and culture. The Church exists largely to gather and unify the Father’s children from every nation on the earth as brothers and sisters. At a general conference of the Church with members from all over the world, President Henry B. Eyring taught:

“My beloved brothers and sisters, it is a joy to be gathered with you. … We live in many different circumstances. We will come from every nation and many ethnic backgrounds into the kingdom of God. And that prophesied gathering will accelerate.

“… My message of hope today is that a great day of unity is coming. The Lord Jehovah will return to live with those who have become His people and will find them united, of one heart, unified with Him and with our Heavenly Father.”

President Eyring emphasized that having our “hearts changed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ … is the only way God can grant the blessing of being of one heart.”7

Given the Church’s powerful potential and prophesied future in unifying God’s children, what do I say when concerned Latter-day Saints ask me about the priesthood ban? How do I urge them to respond if they are asked “Is the Mormon Church racist?” or “How can you belong to a church that once discriminated against black people?” A sincere African-American couple, newly baptized members of the Church, recently asked me to help them respond to these questions. I was serving as one of their ecclesiastical leaders at the time.

Rather than look backward and attempt to provide a historical explanation—an approach that can be helpful for many—I felt impressed to help this couple look forward—an approach I believe is essential for all people. I told my friends that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most successful international organizations in the world at promoting brotherhood and sisterhood among all races and ethnicities, including people of African descent.8 They were surprised. I explained that our Church is uniquely empowered and destined to achieve worldwide peace, harmony, and unity among all the peoples of the earth.

In part 3 of this essay, I’ll say more about my conversation with this couple, including their reaction to what I shared with them. For now, let’s consider this question: How has the Lord positioned and empowered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to achieve such a vast and wonderful mission—to bring unity to the human family? To answer the question, we must remember that through His Atonement, Jesus Christ transforms the way we view ourselves and the entire human family. He transforms the way we see the Church, its leaders, its gathering and saving mission, its members, and the restored gospel in general.

As President Brigham Young taught, “This work is a progressive work, this doctrine that is taught the Latter-day Saints in its nature is exalting, increasing, expanding and extending broader and broader until we can know as we are known, see as we are seen.”9 When we truly participate in this work, as we keep our covenants with God and serve His children, we no longer look at each other and the world, in the words of Paul, as if “through a glass darkly.”10 Instead, we begin to know and see ourselves and others as God knows and sees all His children. This godly viewpoint helps us perceive that ancient and modern prophecies are being fulfilled: God is “gather[ing] together in one all things in Christ.”11

View other segments from this essay: