The LDS Church has recently released certain resources for the 2017 Mutual Theme. Overall, the theme seems to emphasize prayer (“Ask”), but the church has gathered (or perhaps commissioned?) a collection of songs around the theme. Janan Graham-Russell pointed out one particular song up, where it has caused a minor bit of drama in certain progressive Mormon circles.
This is a link to the PDF sheet music for the 2017 LDS Mutual album piece, “White”, but I’ll also share some of the lyrics
This life gets a little bit messy
It starts on the day we’re born
We fall down and our hands get dirty
And we try to clean it up alone
We think a little soap and water
Is really all it takes
But he gave us something stronger
To wash our sins away
They can be white [x2]
Bright as the day
After the night
He’ll take all the stains away
We could let go
We could move on
Pick ourselves up
Dust ourselves off
Though our sins be red
They can be white
If you’ve been paying attention to your scripture reading, then the lines “Though our sins be red/ They can be white” should look familiar to you, since these are straight out of Isaiah 1:18 (and indeed, the song lyrics from the LDS.org website point this out)…so what could possibly be wrong with basing a song in scripture? Clearly, that’s not about race, isn’t it?
Let’s look back at the metaphor that’s in Isaiah 1:18:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Here, there doesn’t appear to be anything racially motivated about this scripture, but just for fun, I decided to check out a few other translations, such as the Expanded Bible, which offers alternative translations parenthetically:
The Lord says, “Come, let us ·talk about these things [reason together; or settle this matter; or consider your options]. Though your sins are like scarlet [C stained with blood; vv. 15, 21], they can be as white as snow. Though your sins are ·deep red [L red as crimson/purple], they can be white like wool.
or the Good News Translation, which was an attempt to translate things in a more common language sort of way:
The Lord says, “Now, let’s settle the matter. You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool.
Or even The Message, which attempt to capture the vitality, rhythm, and conversationality of the original languages:
Come. Sit down. Let’s argue this out.” This is God’s Message: “If your sins are blood-red, they’ll be snow-white. If they’re red like crimson, they’ll be like wool.
Commonalities and Departures
What most intrigued me about the various translations was what stayed the same in each, but also, what differed. In all of the translations, there are direct references to color at least for some part of the metaphors. However, the translations differ in which components get an object relation — for example, In King James, sins are as scarlet (a color), but in the Message, this is meant to imply blood, and in Good News Translation and Expanded Bible, there is language to speak of sins being stained with blood.
And on the other side, the translations also differ slightly on where color is described and where objects are described — the color alternative to red is white, but some translations directly say “white as snow” while others may say “clean as snow” but will say “white as wool.”
So, let’s ask another question: what does the color apply too, metaphorically?
In each translation, there is some ambiguity. From the King James Version, we can only conclude that the color describes our sins (and, quite frankly, from the King James Version alone, the reference to wool doesn’t make a lot of sense.) This (at least to me), is underwhelming to me, in terms of sense data. Sin as a concept isn’t tangible. It isn’t visible. So, a metaphor in which the amorphous concept of sin has this color or that color doesn’t grip me.
With the other versions, other ideas come about that are more sensible: the talk of staining paints a picture of wearing a white wool clothing that was stained with blood. God is the best bleaching detergent there is. (But watch out — God’s omnipotence might leave your clothing a bit…holy.)
…but pay attention to the Good News Translation. It skips the talk about garments and goes directly to you. You are stained red with sin, but you will be cleaned. And when you are clean, you will be white.
Racial connotations of scriptures
What is interesting about comparing these different translations is that these represent four different groups (not to mention the several other translations I didn’t feature!) doing their best to figure out what ancient authors were implying. What at first seems like a completely racially neutral scripture turns out to possibly have racial interpretations, depending on who’s reading and who’s translating.
I’m not saying that The Good News Translation is racist. But, since it implies that if its audience is cleaned up after being bloodied up, that audience will be white when clean, then at best, that suggests that scripture simply isn’t written for people with darker skin tones (and, to the extent the Old Testament was composed by Israelites for Israelites, that’s probably the case.) So much for likening the scriptures to ourselves (at least, if you’re not white and reading this.)
The problem isn’t even that this metaphor exists, or even that some people interpret this metaphor in ways that implicate race…the problem is when this metaphor or any other is taken to have a literal basis, and thus becomes used to determine that colored skin is theologically different from white skin.
It would be nice just to say, “Well, let’s agree not to do that,” but unfortunately — and I don’t want to understate this point — Mormonism’s theology and scriptures have already failed at this historically.
It’s difficult to rehabilitate scriptures talking about becoming “white and delightsome” or “pure and delightsome” as just being metaphorical when those same scriptures talk about people becoming darker as a way to differentiate and distinguish them. We must in our modern times be wary knowing that we come from a tradition that until the late 20th century — denied core ordinances to people because of some…thing (whether you call it doctrine, theology, or simply a “policy”) that said that people of certain racial heritage were cursed.
I have no doubt that the writer of this song likely didn’t have any racial connotations when composing. But one thing that strikes me is that although there are obvious similarities to Isaiah, there are telling differences. Snow is never mentioned, and neither is wool. The King James minimalism on talking about “sins” being red or white is preserved (as should probably be expected from a Mormon), but pay attention to the verses outside the chorus. Whereas Isaiah can be red in a manner that where the analogy is about stained clothes, this musical piece seems closer to The Good News — we fall down and our hands get dirty.
One of Mormonism’s theological distinctions from traditional Christianity is an embodied God — and with that embodiment, Mormonism expand the scope of what it means to be “made in God’s image” to those physical components — the theology takes gender roles and patriarchy to refer to the sort of lives that Heavenly Father and Mother live. But let’s not ever forget the potential for this physicalism to alienate — if God is embodied, has a skin color and sex, what does that imply for anyone who does not look like Him?