Hey everyone! 2 Nephi 5 probably has the most controversial passage in the whole Book of Mormon: the verses where Laman, Lemuel and their children are cursed with a "skin of blackness." Even if a passage like that wouldn't have seemed remarkable in 1830, today it reads like extreme racism. The modern reader inevitably asks: why would God curse an entire race because of their ancestors' sins? Don't the Articles of Faith say that we don't believe in that sort of thing?
This situation shows us why it's important to take the Book of Mormon at more than face value sometimes. If you read this passage literally, you can only get confusion and a sense of injustice out of the passage. But if you take these verses as a way to symbolically represent a deep spiritual principle, it becomes enlightening. Specifically, I'll argue that this passage represents the process of separating spirit and matter from a state in which you confuse one with the other. This parallels the alchemical process of separatio--where the alchemist "separates" the material in the vessel into the elements that make it up. This principle also corresponds to what psychologists call "differentiation," the act of separating various mental complexes from each other so you can deal with each one individually.
To begin, take a look at the passage itself:
21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.
25 And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.
Notice that Nephi compares the Lamanites to flint. Of the many "black" things that Nephi could have used in describing the Lamanites, he uses a rock. But why? I've never thought of "flint" as evil per se. It's hard, black, and it shatters easily, yes, but it also lets us make fire. I'll actually suggest that Nephi isn't referencing any "evil" in flint at all. Instead, I think he points out the similarity between the Lamanites and flint because of flint's earthiness.
More specifically, I think that the Lamanites symbolize the principle of earth--heaviness, the flesh, the world, etc.--so that the Nephites who they're separated from can represent air or "spirit." In alchemical terms, the Lamanites are the nigredo or the blackened material absorbed in its own materiality, whereas the Nephites are the spirit in the vessel that the alchemist has brought out of gross matter. But it's not that simple, of course. If the curse on the Lamanites represents a separatio of air from earth or spirit from matter, these opposites only get separated from each other so they can reunite later. The goals of alchemy (the famous Philosophers' Stone was among them) demand that spirit be realized in matter, so the apartheid of spirit and matter that the Nephite-Lamanite split represents cannot last forever. And so is it surprising that--in the perfect society depicted in 4 Nephi--Nephite and Lamanite live together side by side? When Christ as the earthly realization of divinity comes, the promised land as a vessel brings about the a perfectly realized material: Lamanite and Nephite coagulated together to bring about the lapis philosophorum, the Philosophers' Stone.
But we can go a bit deeper. Notice how the Book of Mormon tends to pardon the Lamanites for their ignorance. In Alma 9:16, for instance, Alma says: "For there are many promises which are extended to the Lamanites; for it is because of the traditions of their fathers that caused them to remain in their state of ignorance; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them and prolong their existence in the land." If the Lamanites sin, they do it out of naïveté and ignorance; since they are born in "blackness," they don't have any "light" by which they can know better. However, it's another matter if the Nephites sin. With the light that they receive (paralleling the "whiteness" of their skins), any sin has to be a rebellion against that light. If a sinful Lamanite is just misguided, a sinful Nephite is bitter and hard-hearted. Knowing this, take the above principle non-literally and compare it to your own life. For myself, those who haven't been raised in religion are often kind, generous, happy people like King Lamoni despite doing what would be a sin in the church. However, I've noticed that while these people are often kind and open-minded, those who were raised in a church and go away from it tend to be bitter and antagonistic toward religion. Just go the the r/exmormon subreddit or read the CES Letter and you'll see what I mean.
This even works within LDS contexts. Who hasn't heard stories about how converts are often more righteous and more sincere than those who were born in the church? The convert was born outside the light; he or she is a "Lamanite," but now that they've come into the light they can appreciate the Gospel for what it is. However, the Nth-generation Mormon in Provo has always known the light of the Gospel, and so it's like the mountains around her: astonishing for newcomers, but just "there" for her. The sad thing is that such people are often unfamiliar with the joy of the Gospel because it's always been in front of her. Someone like that may need a crisis of faith in order to appreciate their faith anew. Or to put it differently, they need to be initiated into the Gospel through a "dark night of the soul." Their "skin" must become blackened.
Funnily enough, the converts who really shine in the Church tend to actually have darker skin. I remember talking to someone in my singles ward about this principle, which has grown so prevalent that it became a stereotype: the Latin-American convert who accepts the Gospel ridiculously quickly and who goes on to surpass all the lighter-skinned members in sincerity, spiritual depth, and testimony. Swedenborg said something like this about Africans who, at the time, were still in a tribal society:
"Of non-Christians, the Africans are especially valued in heaven. They accept the good and true things of heaven more readily than others do. They want especially to be called obedient, but not faithful. They say that Christians could be called “faithful,” since they have a doctrine of faith, but only if they accept the doctrine—or, as the Africans say, if they can accept it."
"Behind these, and farther to the north [of heaven], there are sites for the instruction of various non-Christian people who in the world lived good lives in accord with their own religion, acquired a kind of conscience, and behaved fairly and honestly not because of the laws of their nation but because of the laws of their religion, believing these laws to be holy and not to be violated by their actions in any way. All of them are readily led to recognize the Lord when they have been taught, because at heart they have held that God is not invisible but visible in human form. There are more of these than of any other kind, and the best of them are from Africa.
Anyway, that's that. The Book of Mormon isn't being racist; it's being richly illustrative in a way that is all too often taken literally. So let's make sure we remember to look more than "skin deep."