In reading through the remarks of Elders Holland and Jensen on the Interviews page for the recent PBS documentary, it’s interesting to see just how strongly they feel about honoring their predecessor general authorities. Both are asked questions regarding the denial of the Priesthood to blacks pre-1978, and both are very careful not to say anything that might be construed as disparaging about Church leaders who came before, while also stressing that the “folklore” various Church leaders taught to explain or justify the priesthood ban should be abandoned and not repeated in the future.

I understand, respect, and definitely appreciate the importance of order and precedent in Church governance, and I understand the point of view that argues that the “folklore” explaining the ban was not official Church doctrine, and therefore, the Church does not need to issue a formal renunciation of those ideas and/or an apology for the ban.

Those ideas are sound in theory, and serve as important examples of the kind of respect for precedent and order that have helped the Church sort through all kinds of doctrinal and policy issues over the years. That said, in the real world, our Church service requires us to get out of the theoretical/ideal and interact with real people, and real people are still stumbling spiritually over things that were said a century ago by Church leaders who brought mid-19th century American perspectives on race to their understanding of the Scriptures and the Gospel. Those ideas, together with polygamy, constitute what I believe to be the two biggest stumbling-blocks to people with regards to the Church.

For example, a year and a half ago, in Baghdad, I was traveling around one of the leaders of the military unit I worked for; he is a very knowledgeable, well-read African-American, and during some downtime while we waited for our helicopter to arrive, our conversation somehow got onto the topic of religion. When he found out that I was LDS, of course the conversation went right to the Priesthood ban, and he told me he had received the missionaries at one point, and dismissed them over his offense at the ban. This man is still a close friend, and whether or not he takes an interest in my faith in the future, I hope to persuade him over time that my Church is not institutionally racist.

Another example — I had my ward’s missionaries over for dinner a few years ago, and one of the missionaries, an African-American, asked to speak with me alone (his companion chatted with my roommates). I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he said slowly, “The priesthood policy — why… did… that… exist?” He was in a deep crisis over it; he had the tired, anguished look of someone wrestling in his faith and losing, and I wondered if he had discussed the issue with other missionaries and/or his mission president, and the standard “we don’t know why” answer had proven inadequate. I printed off two talks for him — this one from Marvin Perkins, and this from Marcus Martins. The next time I saw that Elder a week later, his countenance had completely changed, and he told me he had read those talks every night that week, and they had helped him to regain his faith and love the work again.

Returning to Elders Holland and Jensen and their remarks from the interviews — I think their responses to the questions on the “folklore” were appropriate for the setting and context of their interviews. But in different settings and contexts, such as the two I just mentioned, this concept of propriety has often shown to be unhelpful in removing a huge doctrinal stumbling block from the minds of sincere seekers of truth. With that in mind, a question I have never heard asked about our race issues is, what would people like Brigham Young or John Taylor like us to do when we are confronted with these unfortunate aspects of their, and therefore, our, past? I am sure, for example, that I have personally offended people in the context of my Church service; I simply have not been at my best in every situation where I have served. And if someone were to be told a story of some offensive thing I’ve said or done during my Church service, I would hope that the hearer would offer an apology on my behalf, both for my sake, and the Church’s sake.

That said, is it possible to vicariously “redeem” other members and leaders of the Church who have said or done offensive things, by more or less expressing an apology on their behalf in these situations? And if it is possible, is it a better approach than “we just don’t know?”