BYU devotional: President Oaks repeats call to ‘root out’ racism, unite in Christ

At a moment in America defined by racial division and other historical challenges, the Church’s second-most senior leader challenged students at Brigham Young University and beyond to discover unity through Christ’s timeless love and in His gospel.

If circumstances allowed, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, would relish meeting face-to-face with every member of the “rising generation” of the Church to share his love and Apostolic counsel. 

“Since I cannot meet with you individually as I would love to do, I must try to help you through teaching correct principles and trying to help you follow them,” he said at the beginning of his Tuesday, Oct. 27, morning devotional at Brigham Young University. 

The gathering was itself historic, marking the first time since the outbreak of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic that a relatively small gathering of students was able to participate in a devotional at the Church-owned school in person. Approximately 1,200 listened to President Oaks inside the Marriott Center. Many more viewed his message via BYUtv and broadcast platforms.

He prefaced his remarks on racism by noting that the Lord’s commandment to “love your enemies … and pray for them (that) despitefully use you” has application in the ongoing political campaigns.

“I will say no more of elections, except to reaffirm the political neutrality described in our recent letter. I urge you to treat others with civility and respect, and vote.”

The former BYU president noted that students at the university continue to face pandemic-caused social, academic and professional disruptions. 

“Please do your part in what is required in these unusual circumstances,” he said. “And remember that some of the burdensome restrictions, including even the wearing of masks, are not only for your immediate protection but also for the well-being of those around you.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, addresses a group of social distancing students gathered in the Marriott Center on BYU campus on Oct. 27, 2020, for the first small gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, addresses a group of social distancing students gathered in the Marriott Center on BYU campus on Oct. 27, 2020, for the first small gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19. Credit: BYU photo

The anxieties of the day might lead to doubt and despair. Whatever the causes of “large increases in anxiety” and associated mental health diagnoses, faith in Jesus Christ remains the “first line of defense.”

“We trust in His promises of peace, and in the cleansing that His Atonement makes possible.” 

Racism: root it out

President Oaks then focused the remainder of Tuesday’s devotional on the topic of racism. He referenced President Russell M. Nelson’s recent teachings on that subject during the recent general conference, along with his own plea for Latter-day Saints to “root out” racism.

“To do that we must have clear thinking about how current events should be analyzed and acted upon in view of this nation’s shameful history of Black slavery. We need to understand how the founders postponed resolving that moral issue to obtain the ratification of the Constitution for the creation of this nation.”

Statues of prominent historical figures associated with slavery have been torn down or replaced during the recent protests in the United States. Institutions changed names of buildings honoring persons with any connection to slavery. And a small number on BYU’s campus called for changing the names of some buildings — and even the name of Brigham Young University.

Are the advocates and actors in these efforts aware of what they are attempting to erase? asked President Oaks. 

“For reasons that every serious student of American History understands, even the Constitution of the United States is stained with concessions to slavery that were made in order to get the whole document ratified. 

“Those textual stains were, of course, removed by the amendments following the Civil War, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the North and the South. I cannot condone our now erasing all mention and honor of prominent leaders like George Washington who established our nation and gave us our constitution because they lived at a time with legal approvals and traditions that condoned slavery.”

Quoting the words of Winston Churchill, President Oaks warned of opening a “quarrel between the past and present” at the cost of jeopardizing attempts to improve the future.

“We share our history and enjoy the advantages of our constitutional government and the prosperity of this nation,” he said. “The predecessors of many Americans of different backgrounds made great sacrifices to establish this nation. Whatever those sacrifices — of freedom, property or even life — let us now honor them for what they have done for us and forgo quarrelling over the past. 

“Ours is the duty to unite and improve the future we will share.”

The younger generation’s cries for justice and help should be heard by utilizing three “obvious helps”: inspiration, education and clear thinking.

“That combination is surely to be preferred over symbolic actions that accomplish nothing but a bow to the cause of political correctness.”

God’s favor is dependent upon one’s devotion, not one’s race

The police-produced death of George Floyd in Minnesota last May triggered the nation-wide protests, whose momentum was carried forward under the message of “Black Lives Matter.”

“Of course, Black lives matter — that is an eternal truth all reasonable people should support,” said President Oaks. “Unfortunately, that persuasive banner was sometimes used or understood to stand for other things that do not command universal support. Examples include abolishing the police or seriously reducing their effectiveness or changing our constitutional government.

“All these are appropriate subjects for advocacy, but not under what we hope to be the universally accepted message: Black lives matter.”

Racism, he explained, is defined by the idea that one’s own race is superior to others. It is an idea that has led to many racist laws and administrative policies. But scriptures and recent prophetic statements declare that “personal and official racism” are not consistent with God’s revealed word.

BYU students social distance in the Marriott Center on BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 27, 2020, for a campus devotional with President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency. The devotional is the first live gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19.
BYU students social distance in the Marriott Center on BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 27, 2020, for a campus devotional with President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency. The devotional is the first live gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19. Credit: BYU photo

“I was thrilled to hear President Nelson include a powerful doctrinal condemnation of racism and prejudice in his talk at general conference.

“He said, ‘I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.’ That was [President Nelson’s] focus, but he expanded its impact by teaching this principle: ‘God does not love one race more than another.’ Thus, we condemn racism by any group of God’s creation toward any other group, worldwide. President Nelson emphasized that point by saying, ‘Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments, and not the color of your skin.’”

Such statements from the President of the Church are timely — but they simply clarify statements he has made in the past condemning racism. President Nelson has repeatedly called upon Latter-day Saints everywhere to abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice toward any of God’s children, said President Oaks.

There are many examples of racism against Blacks in recent American history — including police brutality and other systemic discrimination in employment and housing, said President Oaks. Latinos, Native Americans and Asians have also been victimized

Outside of the United States, there have been other racially-driven tragedies, such as the Holocaust and tribal genocide in Rwanda.

Current efforts to identify and eliminate personal and official racism, he said, are best accomplished by understanding its relationship to scriptural references.

“As believers relying on scriptural history, we can be troubled and misled by Bible-recorded scriptural directions or traditions that may be viewed as racist or discriminatory by modern definition,” he said. “For example, within the tribes of Israel, only members of the tribe of Levi were acceptable for service in the temple. The Israelites as a whole were forbidden to marry the Canaanites and some others of surrounding lands. The direction for Jews not to associate with Samaritans was because of their partial descent from non-Israelite peoples.”

Most important, the gospel was initially not to be taught to the Gentiles.

“During His mortal ministry Jesus reversed the prohibition against associating with the Samaritans, and by revelation after His mortal life He revoked the prohibition against taking the gospel to the Gentiles. But these and other restrictions remain in scriptural history.”

Using current definitions, some might call such divine actions and prophet-taught principles racist.

“But God, who is the loving Father of all nations, tribes and ethnicities, cannot be branded as racist for His dealings with His children,” said President Oaks. “Often the reasons for His plan are not known or understandable to mortals. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,’ He said through the Prophet Isaiah, ‘neither are your ways my ways’ (Isaiah 55:8).”

Some, he added, have rejected some element of God’s plan as unreasonable “according to cultural norms they could understand or accept.” Others, who have accepted God’s plan, have mistakenly relied on cultural norms to provide reasons God has not revealed.

“Thus, both non-believers and believers can reject or attempt to amend Divine plans by relying on cultural norms instead of the directions of God. The safest course is not to reject or supplement the Divine plan by human reasoning.”

President Oaks then asked his devotional audience to again consider Churchill’s wise counsel: “[I]f we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Now is the time to heed President Nelson’s call to repent, to change and to improve while becoming more Christlike.

“Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can unite and bring peace to people of all races and nationalities,” he concluded. “We who believe in that gospel — whatever our origins — must unite in love of each other and of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

We must seek “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) in order to “look at others and love them and act toward them as Christ would do and as He desires us to do.”