Category Archives: Reason to Live

Is There One Among You?

“And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions? Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!” – Alma 5:20-21

We often think that if we do not personally mock or persecute that we are innocent of such accusations. We think that if we are constantly and consistently polite and careful with our personal interactions, we are free of the charges of mocking and heaping persecutions on others. But we must look beyond the personal experience if we wish to be judged correctly.

The first place to look is in the minds of the persons we interact with – we cannot read those minds, but we know that they are not our own. How do we know that what we think of as polite and proper is interpreted to be the same way in the minds of our neighbors, the people we meet and work with directly? How often did politeness give an appearance of kindness as it papered over apartheid, segregation, and antisemitism? Even as I speak of those things as national policies, they had impacts on the personal level to where the persecutors were unaware of how hurtful they were because, in their minds, they were always polite and proper.

When we use words that are pointed out to us as having a negative implication to an audience, we should seek to stop using those words. Accusing the audience of overreacting or taking us the wrong way is not a defense – it is not a rethinking, a repentance. When we rethink, we repent. When we repent, we not only become aware of how to keep peace on earth, but also how better to approach God.

And when we look at the larger picture, we must be sure and certain in not supporting legal regimes that “heapeth persecutions” on one or more groups. Mockery may or may not be in the legal wording: older American laws specifically stated that Blacks, Latinx, Asians, First Nations, and other cultural minorities were to be restricted vis-a-vis their White counterparts – mockery and persecution, combined. Modern American laws may remove the direct mockery, but preserve the persecution by creating use cases defined by factors common to those cultural minorities.

Gender and sexual preference are also targets of laws that create persecution. Again, they can be directly called out with mockery directly included with the persecution; or, they can be indirectly implied, with the mockery buried under cleaned-up words. But, with or without the mockery, the persecution remains as an indictment against the godliness of the people that put it into place.

“And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yeah, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting you hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
“Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another; yea, will ye persist in the persecution of your brethren, who humble themselves and do walk after the holy order of God… and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?” – Alma 5:53-55

Alma makes it very clear that he is speaking to a society, not each person as an individual. This is a collective sermon that targets inequality in the society. As above, the supposition of being better than another person can be masked by politeness and protocol. If I say I am the same as everyone else but then expect to be treated differently due to my status, wealth, profession, or some other irrational criteria, then I am quite likely a hypocrite. I should strongly note that differentiated treatment to overcome disability or poverty is justice, not discrimination. Preserving one’s power through denial of justice is discrimination, is persecution, is mockery of one’s own brother in the most ungodlike way possible – the building up of a kingdom rooted in cruelty, injustice, and the violence necessary to support such a thing.

The door is not yet closed on those who persecute – as long as we have thoughts, we can rethink them. We can repent and choose instead to treat one another as equals not only in our personal relations, but in how we frame the laws of our nations. It means we must think harder and produce solutions that may not seem intuitive, but if we wish to attain the pearl of great price, those efforts are part of the price we pay for the treasure of Eternal Life.

The Implication of “Skins”

Racism is any thought, law, action, custom, or practice that provides treatment or outcomes that are different based upon race. Nationalism is the same, but for culture. Sexism for gender, and so on. All of these can be gathered under the umbrella of “irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes.” And while it is very easy to say “I am not a racist” as a smokescreen that exempts one from deep self-examination, it is much harder to say “I am an antiracist” and then work the difficult work of removing one’s own prejudices – conscious and unconscious – that result in irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes. These treatments and outcomes are not only as a result of one’s own personal interactions, but also because of the public policies one supports or opposes, based on these lurking biases.

To say, “I am an antiracist” means that we are actively re-thinking our thoughts and changing our ways – in a word, repenting. We do not just ask for forgiveness, but we must make real and meaningful changes in coming to accept all people as equals. The word of God has in the past been used to justify irrationally discriminatory treatments and/or outcomes – but such usage is the word of God, perverted. When I read the scriptures, I read that God provides a path of salvation to all humanity. Male and female, black and white, bond and free, young and old, warm and cold, wet and dry – make up your opposite pair and God provides a path of salvation to the extremes and the folks in the middle. All of them.

To be an antiracist, therefore, is to accept the equality mandated by God and to unravel it from toxic ideas of people who created misleading and damnably incorrect ideas to rationalize their own unjust concentrations of wealth and power, relative to other groups. To be an antiracist is to accept that one’s own mind has been infected with any number of these ideas and that removing those ideas is going to be a lifelong process.

And that brings me to Chapter 4 of Alma in the Book of Mormon.

“And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them…” – Alma 4:6

Even with context, it’s a harsh assessment. While modern readers are frequently quick to assume that the skins in question are the human epidermis, it’s more likely that the author was referring to how the Lamanites “were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins”. Animal skins, in other words. And that this is in a discussion about how their allies the Amlicites marked themselves with red paint in their foreheads indicates that the markings are elective, not markings from birth.

Even so, this is a discrimination: the verses that follow talk about the incorrect traditions of the Lamanites and how those who intermarry with them joins with them in their curse. Those who leave the Lamanites to join with the Nephites are noted by their change in dress style, are numbered among the Nephites, share in their customs, and are otherwise indistinguishable from the Lamanites. So if this is not racism, it is still nationalism or tribalism, is it not?

The proscription on mingling with the “other” in this case is a religious one. The idea being that the children of such unions will have divergent guidance, at best, and will not be able to grow up with the proper knowledge and faith necessary for salvation. Given that the Nephites themselves were constantly dealing with rebellion, apostasy, and general unrighteousness, however, one cannot consider that being among the Nephites was a sufficient condition for living a good life, dedicated to God. The Nephites may not have dressed in dark animal pelts as the Lamanites did, but when they put on costly apparel, they generally embark upon the road to perdition.

Just as the Amlicites painted their foreheads red, just as the Lamanites wore the pelts of dark animals, the Nephites that chose to wear costly apparel marked themselves in their rebellion to God. So what is the solution for these problems? Is it Kurtz’ rage to “Exterminate the brutes”? While there are Nephites who believe that very thing, the righteous among the Nephites reject that solution.

When God provides a path to salvation for us all, it is not at the edge of a blade or the barrel of a gun. It is through kind invitation and patient teaching. The solution is not to curse the enemy, but to pray for them and to show them kindness and mercy. Here, therefore, is a rational discrimination. There are differences, yes, but they do not prevent a person from accepting God’s invitation to salvation. They may add interesting twists and turns in that path, but so it is with all of us and our personal journeys.

The rational discrimination is to not assume that they know everything that you know and that you do not know everything that they know. The rational discrimination is to await the learning opportunities for yourself as avidly as you do for them. Once the learning is underway, we are all prepared to be a “we” and not an “us and them”. And it is as a “we” that we approach God. An unconditional, loving, equal “we”.

That is not to say that the Nephites as a people were ready to drop their prejudices at this point in the narrative. There were two bodies of people in attendance at King Mosiah II’s farewell address and reform of the government. The Amlicites emerged as a rebellious faction from within the Nephites. Class divisions appear as the people choose to wear costly apparel – are any of these groups ready to see the Lamanites, the generationally-established “others” as anything but different?

I would say that the more righteous a person is, the easier it is to see beyond the differences defined by human thought and see the eternal equality that God sees. I would say that the more righteous a person is, the easier it is to ask for that equality before God to be made evident in law and society and church.

Prosperity Through Charity

The first chapter of Alma in the Book of Mormon covers two rival approaches to prosperity: individualism and communalism. Those who follow God go with communalism – giving to those in need, without regard for race, gender, or whether or not the person in need is a fellow-believer. These are specified in the text, so the above are not inferences from context.

The wicked do not do as the righteous. They follow a path of individual, personal aggrandizement. They are called out on their “costly apparel” along with pride, persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, whoredoms, and murdering.

As a group, it is the righteous who are collectively more prosperous. When we choose not to indulge ourselves in excesses, we have plenty of resources to support other people who are in need. When we do not insist “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours” – or variations on that – we can instead teach that what we have here is all God’s and we have no ownership, but stewardship. And, as stewards, we must follow our Lord’s instructions in handling those resources – and our Lord has told us to share freely one with another, that we all might prosper and live in peace.

What’s mine isn’t really mine, if I want to prosper. What’s God’s is for all of us to share equally and fairly. We cannot inherit His kingdom if we are not prepared to share it.

A Land of Liberty

“And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land, yea, even as long as any of our posterity remains upon the face of the land.” – Mosiah 29:32

With those words, King Mosiah began to dismantle the monarchy of his people and convert their rulership over to a system of judges, that his people be equals. While there were still social divisions as I noted previously, removing distinctions of wealth and nobility was a major step in the direction of become one with God, for one must first be one with other humans before being one with God – we don’t hop over each other on our eternal progression.

Now, the question arises, is this a land of liberty if not everyone enjoys rights and privileges alike? If there is nothing being done to change that situation, then no, this is not a land of liberty. If there are changes being made, but they are so slow or so small as to be of little impact relative to the remainder of injustices, then also no, this is not a land of liberty. But if the changes are such that we see a complete change for the better, where we as a people do not stand for having disproportionate impacts on any group that has been long oppressed, and we push together for changes so that laws are equal both in their writing and in their application, then and only then can we answer that, yes, we are a land of liberty.

If God does not yet walk amongst us, then we are not yet one with God. If we want to be one with God, we must be one with each other first. If we want to be one with each other, then we need to make changes in how there are rights and privileges that are not enjoyed alike among all the people.

Social Division in Mosiah 25

“And now all the people of Nephi were assembled together, and also all the people of Zarahemla, and they were gathered together in two bodies.” – Mosiah 25:4

This is a problem waiting to happen. Why could the people not be gathered together in one body? What social restrictions or divisions prevented the people from being one?

For those not familiar with the Book of Mormon, the following is a spoiler: there are going to be severe social rifts among the Nephites because they’re actually the Nephites and Zarahemlites, and not all Nephites. If the people cannot be as one, the risk is that the lines of social division become more well-defined and rigid over time, leading to clashes when a subservient group chooses not to “stay in its lane.”

God asks of us that we become as one. Therefore, God asks of us that we obliterate those conventions of humanity that keep us apart. God asks us that we erase the lines of social division, so that nobody has to stay in a lane to keep society running smoothly. There should be no statistical over- or under-representations based on race or class in any statistics. There should be no “wrong side of the tracks” or “bad part of town” in a truly Godlike society. The motto of the USA is “e pluribus unum”: “from many, one”. The more that are in the many, the stronger is that one.

A Cunning and a Wise People

In Mosiah 24, Mormon characterizes the Lamanites in a negative cultural light, but it’s a different light than before. Earlier references to Lamanites describe them negatively as mostly hunter-gatherers, unsettled and uncivilized. However, their urbanization seems to have proceeded independently of Nephite prejudice. In the later timeframe of the events in Mosiah, the Lamanites present a monarchial-feudal social structure and the ability to project force in ways more organized than simple raiding parties.

But the Lamanites still don’t catch a break. It is the Nephite dissenting group, the followers of Amulon, who provide administrative innovations for the Lamanites and who also teach them in the language of the Nephites. After that cultural exchange, the Lamanites are now described as “… a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.”

There are two threads of denigration, one expressed and one implied. The expressed one is that the Lamanites are still a demonized “other” in the ways they delight in wickedness and plunder. The implied one is that the Amulonites had something significant to do with the Lamanites no longer running around in loincloths and getting some civilization.

That implication that the Lamanites need to be improved and that the improving involves them becoming more like the Nephites, even the wicked Nephites, is a dangerous idea. While it seems to open a door for equality, it typically results in a situation where the one group is never truly good enough for the other. The Lamanites, in this implication, can become better than they are, but never as good as the Nephites, when all is said and done.

In a more modern view – and we see something of this later in the Book of Mormon – it is better to say that we are all imperfect and that to better ourselves, we all draw closer to God. That path does not mean becoming more like some other culture here on earth. It means becoming closer to God by leaving behind the things of the world. While I may feel more comfortable around people who speak the same language as I do and who do things in ways similar to how I do them, that is not Heaven. Heaven is made up of a widely diverse group of people, none of whom I was told to copy and none of whom were told to copy me. All who are in Heaven are those who leave the world behind and follow after God.

I want to go back to the bit about wickedness and plunder, except among their own people: before we think such traits to be unique to the Lamanites at that point in time, or unique solely to peoples in either faraway lands or long-ago times, let us consider the experience of nations that faced down the wickedness and plunder of Portugal, Spain, France, England, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States of America. There are others that can be added to the list – these are the chief examples of nations that plundered other parts of the world for their own benefit.

While there is a strong temptation for an American to read the Book of Mormon and equate the Nephites with the USA, and everything right and good along with that, we have to remember certain things. One, the Nephites were a people that dealt with some massive problems of their own, stemming from major economic and social inequalities. The equation of “Nephite equals good guys” is entirely one of our own imagining. There are Nephites that we root for, but even those people have their flaws that need shedding before they make the final approach to God.

Next, the undesirable characteristics of governments described in the Book of Mormon are available to one and all. History does not care where its rhymes or repetitions occur. And when you look at the history of a nation built on the backs of slaves, that demanded an extension of the slave trade to recover the manpower losses of slaves that bolted for freedom in the American War of Independence, well, we are looking at the history of “… a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.”

The Equality of the Righteous

“… thus saith the Lord: “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another.” – Mosiah 23:7

The path forward for those following God with all their heart is simple: do not think that one person is better than another; do not think that one people is better than another. If you say something that involves another person or people having a different overall value than another, then you are not following God with that statement. If you believe that there are differences in the races or that certain people are just naturally better or worse than others, then you are not following God with that belief.

A righteous nation does not permit differences in classes, no matter what the classes may be based upon. Not wealth, not race, not ancestry, not gender, not condition of prior servitude, not condition of prior servitude of one’s ancestors – *no* reason is allowed to permit differences of classes to exist in the righteous nation.

By association, it is not a righteous people that accepts, condones, or supports a class structure of people. It is not enough to say that one is opposed to differences in society based upon wealth, race, or other differentiating factor. One must also be opposed in heart, mind, and, above all, action to any different treatments in society when those are made plain.

As a people or nation makes progress towards full equality under the law, that people or nation approaches God in righteousness and in peace. As a people or nation entrenches inequalities under the law, that people or nation ripens for destruction.

Bear One Another’s Burdens

“Behold, here are the waters… and now, as you desire to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light…”

So it reads in Mosiah 18:8 as Alma begins the characteristics of the baptismal covenant. There are promises to mourn with those who mourn, to comfort those that need comfort, and to stand as a witness of God at all times and in all things and in all places. All of these things support the first part of the covenant, the bearing of one another’s burdens: and the social message in that covenant is a matter no-one who desires to be one with God should overlook.

Bearing the burden of another is much more than making facial expressions of sympathy and uttering kind and hopeful words. Bearing burdens means getting one’s shoulders under the same yoke as another and helping the brother or sister forward. It means offering up food, shelter, and money along with those facial expressions and kind words. The hard work one does for the benefit of another puts value into those words so that they have the meaning God wants them to have: true promises of support and aid.

What should be more precious to me than the love of God? Or do I hesitate when I have the currency in my hand? Does my heart and eye turn towards the money when it comes time to part with it, that I might better bear the burden of another? If I can let it go and not even think about asking for repayment, then I have the love of God with me and I am honoring my baptismal covenant.

And the answer to any question about what one should do in a particular circumstance is not to ask me or another human about it: ask God what He would have you do. Then, submit to that guidance and do the work of sharing God’s love with all your brothers and sisters, His children.

Just pre-dispose yourself to a response from God in which you are moved to mourn, offer comfort, stand as a witness, and to lift part of the heavy burden from the shoulders of another and bear it with that person, side by side in peace and love.

Wealth and Abinadi’s Sermon

In Mosiah 12-17, the Prophet Abinadi preaches a sermon against the wickedness of King Noah’s government and ecclesiastical arrangements. Both are set up to service the personal desires of the ruling class at the expense of the general population. When the priests of King Noah defend themselves as following and teaching the Law of Moses, Abinadi responds, “If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your hearts upon riches?”

The very first condemnation Abinadi has for the priests is that they set their hearts on riches. There are other elements of his criticism, as well, but it is riches that comes first. This is the first thing, as it is a form of having graven images and placing a god of one’s own devising ahead of the God that gave the Law.

After Abinadi concludes his sermon, King Noah demands that Abinadi be put to death. When one of Noah’s priests, a man named Alma, objects and agrees with Abinadi, Noah orders that priest put to death, as well. Although truth is spoken to power, the power refuses to acknowledge the truth and insists upon a fantasy in which lies can substitute for the truth.

Later, Noah makes a formal accusation against Abinadi and basically offers Abinadi one last chance to recant what he has preached. Abinadi refuses and offers a final testimony – and this testimony sways Noah. Noah is ready to release Abinadi at this point, and could very well have repented had not his priests reinforced his greed and pride.

And that is what killed the prophet Abinadi. It was not the caprice of one man, a single wicked king. It was the whole government, the whole wicked structure, that bore down against the prophet. And because it was the government that made war on God, the nation of Noah had become ripe for destruction.

The Social Tragedy of King Noah

For a range of chapters in Mosiah, starting with chapter 11, we see the people of Zeniff now led by his son named Noah. In common views of King Noah, he is held up as a scenery-chewing Big Bad Wolf sort of character, lush in his Orientalist despotism, surrounded by ostentation and sycophants, as illustrated by Arnold Friberg’s famous painting, “Abinadi Before King Noah.” But it’s all too easy to just say that Noah was bad and leave it at that. He ordered the death of a prophet, right? Isn’t that bad enough?

Not really. The lesson of King Noah shouldn’t be “don’t kill prophets” and no more. It’s easy enough to say that and then ignore it: “well, so-and-so wasn’t really a prophet…” No, the lesson of King Noah runs much deeper and becomes even uncomfortable to read as we see parts of ourselves or our society depicted in opposition to the earnest strivings of the prophet, Abinadi.

Straight away, we are told that Noah did not keep the commandments of God, but had many concubines. There is a temptation to say, “OK, don’t also commit adultery. Got it.” But that is not the full lesson of Noah. After all, anyone can commit adultery and still repent. The tragedy of David is not that he committed adultery, but that he abused his power as king to arrange the death of a loyal subject in order to cover his sin. The adultery is bad, the cover-up is worse, the murder horrific, but worst of all was the abuse of the power and authority that David held. Was not David anointed of God to be the king? And with that sort of set-up, how much worse it was for David to behave as other kings. He was supposed to be better than that.

And indeed, we see worse for Noah in the next verse. He raised taxes on his people. Too many stop there and say, “Right, taxes are bad. Moving on.” No, that is not right, either. Under the Law of Moses, it was the duty of a righteous people to provide a just government. When I first read that, it halted my sympathy towards anarcho-libertarianism. It is the duty of a righteous people to provide a just government: taxes are therefore justified. Taxes are justified not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary good. Noah, however, raised the taxes to directly benefit himself, his family, and his closest supporters, not to benefit the poor. That is how he “changed the affairs of the kingdom.” This is the line Noah crosses. Up until this line, he was just personally responsible for his evil. When he institutionalizes the abuse of power for the benefit of a privileged few, he creates a situation in which the nation falls under condemnation.

That’s what we see in the Friberg painting: a rich elite that is leading their nation to its doom being contrasted with the simple, threadbare prophet of God. This is also where things become more uncomfortable for us. How close are we to King Noah in terms of our wealth and what we do with it? If we exploit loopholes or benefit unjustly from unfair laws or practices, we are more like Noah than Abinadi. When we give freely to those in need and search for ways we can help – not just be ready if called to help, but to actively search for ways to help – we are more like Abinadi than Noah.

The wickedness Noah brings on his people is outlined in how the tax money is spent: palaces, fineries, ornamentation. The workmen of the kingdom build up his benefits – seemingly ignorant of the looming threat of another Lamanite attack. While Noah’s father built up fortifications and weapons so that the people could desperately defend themselves, Noah legitimizes skimming off the resources of the people solely to benefit his clique.

And, no surprise, the Lamanites do notice the lack of defenses and commence raiding of Noah’s domain. Noah manages to mount a successful campaign against the Lamanite probes, but mistakenly thinks that his defeat of their reconnaissance in force is a bigger victory than it is. Noah’s people are condemned by Mormon for their boasting and their “delight in blood.”

At the end of Mosiah 11, we see Noah using his power as king to justify a death warrant against Abinadi, who preaches against his wickedness. Noah claims Abinadi’s words are seditious. Now, the truth of the matter is that Abinadi’s words are seditious, in that the people could be led to oppose Noah’s wicked institutions. With the laws that Noah has, Abinadi is absolutely in violation of them. That the laws are unjust is not an excuse. Abinadi will preach in full knowledge that his life is forfeit in that preaching. It is therefore, not Noah that slays the prophet: it is Noah’s nation and government that slays the prophet.

This, therefore, is the fullness of the social tragedy of King Noah. The wickedness of the ruler was all too easily embraced by a segment of the people who saw a way to profit thereby. The laws of the nation were bent and twisted and made to provide not a just government, but an unjust government. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in Noah’s government – where that happens in the world, the nations permitting such things are under as much condemnation as was Noah’s.