Delightsome and Loathsome

One of the starkest sets of verses to involve a white/black dichotomy appears in 2 Nephi 5:21-22. A people is described as going from being “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” to “a skin of blackness” because of their evils. Even though the white/black is symbolic – future dealings with this people indicate an equality of skin tone and coloration – the symbolism is nevertheless there.

But even though the divisions between the peoples are not based on skin color, there is nevertheless a tribal split, and that tribal split worsens with a history of violence between the tribes. A modern reader finding racist tones in those words would not be too far off the mark, in terms of the hatreds between the peoples.

But a major section of the Book of Mormon deals with an attempt by one tribe to reach out to the other, hoping to end the strife between the tribes. There is no attempt to “elevate” or otherwise change the other tribe. The attempt is to find peace through love and forgiveness. And it works. If the book is a message for our time, it is in teaching us that equating white with good and black with bad – and corresponding thinking that black is made better by making it more white – is wrong, plain and simple. It is a thought pattern that is easy to develop, but one that can blind us to what true love actually is.

A Detour Through Malachi

I decided to read the Book of Malachi today. Right away, there is a condemnation against Israel because of how they do not offer up the firstlings of the flock for sacrifice, but their blind and lame animals – they are withholding from God because they love their possessions more. Once again, a prophet will rail against the people who should know better, but choose poorly.

In Malachi 3:5, in among the sorcerers, adulterers, and liars are those who “oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right”. Here again is a prophet promising doom for a nation that forgets the poor and needy. The part about the hireling in his wages is unequivocally targeting people who are placing profits ahead of people; servants of mammon, not God.

Following that, in 3:8, the prophet asks “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.”

Now, if the storehouses are filled again, the nation is promised a great blessing, that there will be no room to contain it, that the devourer will be rebuked… but, absent these acts of charity, the nation has no such guarantees.

Wickedness That Looks Like Righteousness

Most people assume that someone who attends church regularly, obeys all the laws, and has no secret sins would be a good person. Yet, 1 Nephi 22:23 cites that those who are seeking to get gain, build up power, and who seek popularity “in the eyes of the world” are those who belong to the “kingdom of the devil.”

These people can be attending church services, obeying laws, and not be doing anything illegal, but are still pillars of the community of the kingdom of the devil. They will insist that they are doing nothing wrong, and that may very well be the case according to the laws of man, but in the laws of God, they are doing all manner of iniquity. They are not sharing their good fortune with those less fortunate, they are not sharing their power to protect the weak and vulnerable, and they do not seek after the welfare of others before they think of themselves. I imagine they’d also be among the first to insist that no one is worthy to judge them when people begin to judge them according to God’s law.

The Fog of Possessions

1 Nephi 17 has an interlude in which the family of Lehi is able to enjoy a rest from the rigors of the wilderness. They live in an oasis of sorts, lush with food. But Nephi is commanded to prepare for the next leg of their journey and that is where the complaints come from Laman and Lemuel, who would rather not keep moving. In their criticism of Nephi’s plans, they then reach back to their original status back in Jerusalem:

Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance: yeah, and we might have been happy.

The objection isn’t truly against whether or not Nephi is guided by God, but that Nephi is not guided by the god of Laman and Lemuel’s creation, their possessions. Being with the things of the world is happiness in their view. And as for the wickedness associated with the love of the fine things, they say:

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his word; yea, and our brother is like unto him.

The brothers consider only outward, social aspects of belief as sufficient for righteousness, as such a view affords them ample room in their hearts to love and worship their possessions. It’s very easy to say “I truly love God!” while clinging tightly to one’s luxuries. The possessions create a fog, where one cannot see what is happening in the heart. The fog also blinds the eyes from seeing the wickedness done in denying aid to the poor, the widows, and the orphans.

Clearing the fog would give them eyes to see that it is their responsibility to work for a more equitable world, even if it means they have less possessions as a result of that equality.

The Great and Abominable Church

Abominable… I’ve had that word in a different form, back in Jeremiah, referring to the love of wealth. Will it be used in the same manner as Nephi describes his vision of “The Great and Abominable Church”? Let’s look at the quote in 1 Nephi 13…

… I beheld this great and abominable church; and i saw the devil that he was the founder of it. And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots.

So, yes. It is. And the church is not a specific organization: it’s all the enemies of the greater good of humanity. That’s their uniform and their desires. They’ll say and do anything to acquire those things. Modern Americans always want to focus on the harlots, in their obsession over sexual mores, but in so doing, they lose sight of the first things mentioned, the trappings of wealth. Given that America also obsesses over conspicuous wealth, it makes sense that Americans would want to pass over a condemnation of their desires – especially when those desires are equated with being part of the devil’s church:

And the angel spake unto me, saying: “Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church. And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity.

A note on the word “harlot”: it’s not exclusively female. It’s wrong to only associate women with that word, especially when the origin word referred exclusively to men as idle rogues. Over time, it came to mean anyone who was idle and promiscuous – morbidly rich, in other words. This is not an exchange of sex for money for survival. It’s a wantonness born of a lifestyle devoted to and dressed out in excessive piles of cash.

So, it is these people devoted to wealth and idle living who also take any teaching critical of them and twist the words to either divert the target of the words or to change their meaning entirely. Look at how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all universally condemned lending at interest as something one only does to one’s sworn enemies in their original teachings. As time went on, loopholes were both opened up and forced upon others to justify lending arrangements within those religious traditions – and that is the great and abominable church at work.

Wealth and the Tree of Life

The Tree of Life vision in 1 Nephi 8 is one of the most oft-cited passages of The Book of Mormon, due to its powerful symbolism and scope. Basically, the good will persevere hardships to arrive at a tree of life, where they partake of the fruit. Of those who partake of the fruit – associated with keeping covenants, doing good, having faith – some remain at the tree and others become ashamed and wander off.

They become ashamed in large part due to the mocking from people who chose not to endure the path to the tree of life, but instead sought to travel through mists and hazards to a “great and spacious building”. Those are the only adjectives directly associated with the building, implying a vast palace-like structure, such as an inhabitant of Jerusalem would be familiar with. The people in the building are assumed to be wicked because they mock those who strove to arrive at the tree of life – but their wickedness is confirmed with the statement that “their manner of dress was exceedingly fine.”

The wickedness is directly connected with the wealth. People who fall victim to the mists and hazards are not the ones making a mockery of the righteous. They may have had wicked intentions, but their impact is not affecting others in a spiritual way, it would seem. But the evil that grows out of a lust for the things of the world, that is the evil that makes direct attacks on those who choose to be righteous. And it is known by the fine apparel of the people making the attacks.

The great and spacious building houses all the greatness of the world; those in the building are masters of the militaries, governments, and concentrations of wealth in the world. They know that many seek after their false treasures. They mock those who seek after enduring treasures in heaven. While we know of people who are good servants in government and business, it is important to call out the differences between them and the wicked: look at who remembers the poor and who seeks to increase the benefits given to the wealthy. Look at who seeks to place oppressed minorities on equal footing with their oppressors and who seeks to maintain or extend that oppression. Look at businesspeople obsessed with the welfare of their employees and those who are obsessed with their profits.

There is no commuting between the tree and the building. Recall Jeremiah’s condemnation of the temple being full of robbers when the wealthy were in it. “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve” goes all the way back to Joshua and Moses. Christ taught one cannot serve both God and mammon, and mammon is not some Middle Eastern deity. Mammon is earthly wealth, and is the foe of the righteous. The love of money is the root of all evil, and that is clearly stated in the vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 8.

The Ceasing of the Spirit

In 1 Nephi 7, verse 14, it says, “For behold, the Spirit of the Lord ceaseth soon to strive with them; for behold, they have rejected the prophets, and Jeremiah have they cast into prison.” This refers to Jerusalem. What follows are statements that the city is about to be destroyed and that anyone in it is at risk of life and freedom.

So the progression is established: when a nation/kingdom/government forgets to tend to the welfare of its citizens, when it ceases to protect the powerless and poor, the prophets speak against such situations. When the nation rejects the prophets, soon the Spirit of the Lord loses its influence upon people to do good. Following that, the nation is ripe for destruction, and the scriptures say in more than one place that the wicked are used to destroy the wicked.

Idols and Anger

In 1 Nephi 3, Lehi tells his sons to return to Jerusalem to get scriptures and religious records. In a pre-literate society, these would be rare and valuable things. In Lehi’s view, the information on them is worth more than the monetary value to be had from them – these are the words of God, after all. Lehi knows that his family is going away, far away, and that having such records with them will be what they need to retain their covenant relationship with God.

Lehi’s sons oblige their father and return to the city. There, Laman first asks the owner of the records, a man called Laban, if he might have them. Laban accuses Laman of being a robber and drives him out of his house. One should note that Laban is a very rich man – one of the types Jeremiah warned us about. At any rate, Laman having made his attempt wishes to chalk up a loss and then move on.

Nephi disagrees: he proposes to offer up the family fortune to acquire the records from Laban. Upon seeing the fortune, Laban chooses to keep his possessions and rob the sons of Lehi of all that they have. The sons of Lehi are driven from Laban’s house, and find shelter in a cave.

It is in this cave that Laman and Lemuel, Nephi’s older brothers, become enraged to the point where they begin to beat their younger brothers – Nephi and Sam – with a rod, until an angel halts the beatings and reprimands Laman and Lemuel. But what was it that made Laman and Lemuel so outraged?

Look at the treasures of Lehi for the answer. As long as the gold and silver and other fineries remained in the family home, a return to Jerusalem and the riches was always an option. The family, with or without Lehi, could always go back to the way things were after this unusual interlude in the desert.

But without the riches, the path back is destroyed. Without the riches, the family is completely committed to the path of being destitute wanderers in the desert. With or without God, the fact is that wandering in the desert is always harder to do than enjoying comforts in the city. And with the path back to the city destroyed, Laman and Lemuel become violent.

Laman and Lemuel do not see that returning to the riches is to be the adulterers in Jeremiah’s allegory. They do not see that returning to the riches is to forsake the meaning of their covenants with God, that it hollows out their religious purpose. Culturally, they still exhibit the external modes of righteousness. Internally, they are chasing after other gods: the gold, silver, and other fineries that are the idols of their desire.

We must remember that even if a thing is not associated with a Canaanite or Phoenician or Babylonian or any other god, it can still be an idol when our attentions to that thing cause us to forget that God asks us to be mindful of the poor and to have no divisions amongst us. And when those idols are threatened by God, the idolaters lash out with violence.

My Father Dwelt in a Tent

When Lehi abandons Jerusalem in 1 Nephi Chapter 2, the scripture is explicit in stating that he abandons his gold, silver, land, and possessions in the process. He takes only his family, provisions, and tents. That’s it.

That makes sense: when leaving behind wicked people, leave behind as well the objects of wickedness’ desire. Verse 15 underlines Lehi’s abandonment of the comforts of the city for the sparseness of the wilderness by stating, “And my father dwelt in a tent.”

We also see the first indications of trouble with Laman and Lemuel. What is identified as the source of their troubles? A desire to return to those comforts of home, the gold and the silver. They are with their family in the wilderness, but a stronger desire in their hearts is to leave the family behind and partake of the riches they knew. This is what Jeremiah identified as wickedness and abomination, as leaving behind God for to worship the works of their hands.

Laman and Lemuel are not drunkards, neither are they fornicators, adulterers, or robbers. Their sins stem from attitudes that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying luxuries and that what’s theirs is theirs. They see themselves as property owners, not as property stewards. The gold and silver is for them to enjoy, not to be spent in doing the work of God.

Lehi, by contrast, knows that time is, ultimately, short, and that it is better spent in doing the will of God than in idle enjoyments. He flees to the wilderness with nearly nothing. He could have fled to Egypt or on to Carthage. While Egypt fell under the rule of the Babylonians, Carthage remained independent. So why not go to those places? Even without riches, an astute man such as Lehi, with four enterprising sons, would be able to make a comfortable living in such places. There would also be the option to get ahead of the curve and go into Babylon itself, thereby avoiding becoming casualties in a siege and sack of Jerusalem. But, no, Lehi’s flight abandons not just Jerusalem, but all the cities and their riches – and the sins that go with those riches, as well.

Abominations and Wickedness

In 1 Nephi, Chapter 1, Nephi makes reference to the wickedness and abominations of the people of Jerusalem. What, exactly, was the composition of the activities defined as such? I could assume certain things, but that would be an assumption based upon my experience and frame of reference. What were the abominations and wickedness that Nephi was talking about?

Jeremiah, a contemporary, mentions people worshipping the works of their own hands and following after other gods, likening such to committing adultery. But is that all?

Chapter 5 of Jeremiah indicates a social aspect to the abandonment of worshipping God: As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great and waxen rich. They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge. Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?

It’s clear: neglect of the poor and increasing social inequality is linked with abandoning worship of the one true God. In Chapter 7 of Jeremiah, the prophet declares that the people are not saved just because they attend temple services: the wrong that they do remains a wrong. When the uncharitable enter the temple, it is “a den of robbers.”

That there is child sacrifice associated with abandoning God makes it all the worse – but that goes along with the lack of charity and care for the poor. Jeremiah 9 adds lying to the list of abominations – not just a lie here or there, but constant lying to support and justify the actions of the wicked. Jeremiah 10 refers to luxury items and fine clothing as the trappings of the wicked. Jeremiah 17 again refers to those who pursue wealth as those who depart from God. Jeremiah 22 expands on that idea, condemning those who do not pay their workers properly, but hoard their wealth rather than pay justly for the labor they employ.

Note that this is not saying that the rich are not paying the going rate for labor – they very well may be doing so, but that rate itself may be unjust recompense for the labor rendered. Simply paying a wage does not mean that one is not exploiting one’s workers. Again, it is in being unjust and covetous of wealth that one serves a different god, a false god – this is what is meant by abominations and wickedness.

In later chapters of the Book of Mormon, the righteous are counseled to avoid wearing fine apparel or amassing wealth – the wicked, likewise, are condemned for it. I would say that the same rules would apply for people of this day, and that the people who promote the benefits of the wealthy at the expense of the poor have gone on to worship mammon and have forsaken God. There is nothing sacred or holy about an economic system that creates opportunities for the wealthy to exploit their fellow human brothers and sisters. It is, in fact, an abomination and a great wickedness.