The Book of Mormon, a play by the creators of South Park about two Mormon missionaries to Uganda, won nine Tony awards Sunday night, including Best Musical, but according to an April review that was reprinted at The Root this week, its plot is nothing to celebrate. Observes writer Janice C. Simpson:
If you’re black and your skin is even a little thin, there’s plenty in this show to rub you the wrong way, too. The Ugandans whom the missionaries encounter are plagued by poverty, AIDS and an evil warlord who forcibly subjects women to circumcision. Despite these woes, the villagers are portrayed as good-hearted, if simple-minded, people. One keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her “texting machine.” Another stomps around talking about raping babies because he believes that doing so will rid him of HIV. A dream sequence is set in hell, where the devil’s main disciples are Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran, who, a song explains, is there for his part in helping to free O.J.
Simpson notes that the material is “played for can’t-you-take-a-joke laughs,” but she didn’t find the subject matter funny.
RACE, RELIGION & SATIRE: The cast of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" during the show's opening night in March.
“Parker and Stone [the show’s creators], who call themselves libertarians, have gotten away with this kind of cavalier attitude toward serious subjects for years because of their ability to sugarcoat it with faux irony,” Simpson declares before accusing the South Park provocateurs of “indulging in cultural colonialism of the most insidious kind.”
Sure, the head villager is seen as a wise man, and his daughter is the doe-eyed idealist who brings the sides together. But the show doesn’t work unless the villagers are seen mainly as noble savages who need white people to show them the way to enlightenment. And in the end, their salvation comes from believing in the white missionaries who have been dropped into their midst.
At The Grio, Earl Ofari Hutchinson read the play differently, writing today that it “skewers Mormons for the church’s decades of racial prejudice and for their prodigious proselytizing activities in Africa.” Hutchinson said the church’s history will “saddle” Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman with “the heavy burden of the religion’s racial history,” which he said includes its refusal to publicly apologize for its “long, stubborn, and dogmatic defense of alleged biblical encoded racism.”
Perhaps in anticipation of the musical’s Tony Award domination, Mark Oppenheimer reported on the black Latter Day Saints Genesis Group in his latest New York Times column. Oppenheimer attended a picnic with 300 members of the group in Utah and told stories of how they, as black Mormons, grapple with their church’s history of racial prejudice.
Oppenheimer quotes Max Perry Mueller, who is reportedly writing a dissertation at Harvard on African Americans and the Mormon church. Mueller told Oppenheimer that the Latter Day Saints have “made a very sincere effort” to welcome blacks, but few African Americans have joined. He also said the notion that until recently Mormons were “exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair” because “while no other large, predominantly white church barred blacks from the clergy in the 1970s, none was particularly integrated or had notable black leaders, either.”
If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon, what do you think? Is it racist, anti-religious, or just an equal-opportunity offender that shouldn’t be taken that seriously?
Ten American missionaries are jailed in Haiti for attempting to rescue needy children whose lives were uprooted by the earthquake. The missionaries’ plight underscores the potential costs of discipleship, but also the consequences of good intentions gone awry.
A group of Americans, comprised of church volunteers from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, recently left on an emergency mission trip to Haiti. Their mission: to rescue children recently orphaned or abandoned in the aftermath of the horrific earthquakes that rocked the region in January.
Unfortunately, they ran into an unforeseen complication that torpedoed their endeavor and thrust them into international headlines: It was against the law.
As was the case in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many across the U.S. have left the comfort and security of their homes in order to help the masses affected by the calamitous quake in Haiti. Relief work always has its risks, but lending a hand after a monumental earthquake in an already poverty-stricken country like Haiti is a difficult undertaking with a unique set of challenges.
So, the last thing that any of us want to do is diminish these missionaries’ acts of service by playing armchair missiologist and publicly second-guessing every detail of their decision-making. And given their denomination’s sterling reputation for disaster relief, I’m sure that this group of Southern Baptists had nothing but the noblest intentions.
Nevertheless, these Americans are in a real pickle, and I can’t help but wonder if things might have gone differently had they taken more time to count the cost of their actions beforehand.
According to variousreports, the group had not established much of an infrastructure to support their stated intent of building an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Not only that, they apparently had little experience with international charity work. And a Dominican official has recently gone on record as having warned the group that their plan was illegal. Despite their pastors’ best efforts to defend the team members through the media, they have been unable to provide any evidence to counter the perception that they acted, if not maliciously, then irresponsibly. And now new reports about lead missionary Laura Silsby’s dubious history with relief work complicates the picture even more.
Lacking expertise in either international adoption or relief work, I’ll leave it to others to pontificate on the specific hows and whys, but I can say that these kinds of rescue efforts are tricky, nuanced affairs. And if, as was reported, there were actual Haitian parents who begged the group to take their children in the hope that they might have a better life, I can understand their sense of urgency in wanting to establish this orphanage.
But it saddens me to ponder the possibility that, amidst all the rush of preparation and the emergency fund raising and the packing of clothes and the righteous momentum that would accompany such a crusade, no one considered the possibility of a backlash.
Innocent as their motives may have been, it’s hard not to view this incident as one more example of well-intentioned White people with an abundance of resources rushing into a situation with a savior complex, doing more harm than good in the process. When celebrities like Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie make headlines with their adoptions, there’s an implicit assumption that all you need to become an international hero is to be White and have money.
Far past being a trend, it has literally become a punch line. Christian Lander, author of the blog Stuff White People Like, recently appeared on the new TBS late-night series Lopez Tonight with the following bon mot:
“And White people love having Black friends, because they possess the most desired accessory of all — Black children.”
This pattern is problematic because it sets up the well-intentioned do-gooder from the outside (whatever their skin color) to think that if they are to give downtrodden children a better life, they must be the ultimate arbiters that decide what a better life should look like and where it should take place. (Indeed, this is one of the main gripes that many folks have against the Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side, in which a wealthy and compassionate White family uses its money and connections to create a better life for a homeless Black teen, who goes on to become a successful NFL player.)
In his best-selling classic Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby offers a timeless nugget of wisdom for those who are struggling to discern God’s will for their life: “Find out what God already is doing and join him there.”
The idea here is that if God stirs up a desire in you to go someplace and undergo some form of ministry, you need to understand that when you arrive, you’re not bringing God with you — He was already there in the first place. And if you go with a spirit of humility and continue to listen to His leading, He’ll show you how you’re supposed to fit into His plan. If God gives you a burden to feed and clothe and love on orphans in Haiti, then find the people who are feeding and clothing and loving on orphans in Haiti — because you’re probably not the only one.
The truth is, despite all the criticism that has been heaped upon these intrepid volunteers, there are some great positive takeaways. Among them is the fact that, while most people were content to give only $10 by sending a text message, two churches sent a real team of real people that actually had a real, tangible, viable presence on the ground. That, in and of itself, is impressive.
And while it’s easy to criticize their lack of planning, if everyone in an emergency waited to act until there was an airtight plan, nothing would get done. We need people in the body of Christ who can marshal resources and champion causes and actually get people moving in the right direction, just like we also need people who can help navigate treacherous hazards.
After all, the point of that passage in Luke 14 is that Jesus wants us to count the cost of discipleship — and become full-blown disciples anyway. Too often, too many of us have become adept at counting the cost as a means of disqualifying ourselves, and thus, maintaining the status quo.
As I was bouncing these ideas off of my wife Holly and getting her feedback for this column, she crystallized perfectly the tension that we must live in if we are to represent Christ well:
While we don’t want Christians to be seen as people who act without proper planning, on the other hand, we also don’t want Christians to be seen as people who don’t go to Haiti to help, but instead sit at home criticizing those who do.
Amen to that.
And as my pastor used to say, if you can’t say “amen,” then say “ouch.”