Sunday, December 28, 2014

Silent Stupidity

While I visited with my family over the holidays, it somehow came up in conversation that I didn't know who invented the television.

I could have guessed the guy's last name was Farnsworth, although I must admit that's only because it came up once on Futurama.  But I had no clue about the first name.  Apparently it's Philo.  Poor guy.
Professor Hubert Farnsworth (left) and his distant ancestor Philo T. Farnsworth (right)
Everyone was shocked that I didn't know the man's name.  Apparently Farnsworth was a Mormon and a BYU alumnus, and my oldest sister couldn't understand how I could have possibly gone to BYU and never learned about the guy who invented the television.  Without really meaning to, she made me feel incredibly stupid.  She didn't actually call me stupid, she just got a little carried away with her tone and her insistence that it was something I should have known.

That day, I learned that I don't like being treated like an idiot by Mormons.

I like to think that I'm a reasonably smart guy.  I'm used to being the smartest guy in the room but I also have plenty of experience being the dumbest guy in the room.  And I think I'm pretty good at telling when I'm intellectually outclassed.  I try not to push things when I realize that I'm arguing with someone who's better informed than I.  I have gaps in my knowledge and I have plenty of stupid moments, but I try to accept my mental shortcomings gracefully.

This time, it was a struggle.

I was furious.  What I really, really wanted to say was, "Okay.  I wasn't aware of a particular historical factoid.  You belong to a cult started by a horny nineteenth-century con man, but I'm the stupid one, right?"  I didn't say it.  But it was the first angry thought to flash across my mind the instant I felt insulted and it very easily could have slipped out.

I couldn't let it go for the rest of the night, either.  Any time it turned out that I knew something that someone else didn't, I relished it as a vindicating (if immature) triumph.  That same sister had never heard of the little plastic balls they make for you to put your hamster in to let it run around.  HA!  I'm smarter!  I know what a hamster ball is!

Anyway, it really got under my skin.  I was genuinely surprised by how much it got under my skin. It's clearly not important, but it seemed so important at the time only because the implied accusation of cerebral inferiority came from a source whose own faculties have been hindered by decades of brainwashing.  I'm starting to think that maybe I need to sit down with some of my family members and start laying out in detail my personal beliefs and my problems with the church, because keeping quiet and biting my tongue is starting to become more difficult.  

Then again, opening up a can of worms by initiating an "anti-Mormon" discussion could prove even more difficult.  It's crazy that even though my journey out of the church has been tamer and less dramatic than many others, I'm still left with lots of situations that leave me with no desirable solutions.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Alma 49: Tower Defense

Amalickiah sends his armies out to destroy the Nephites.  Shockingly, the Nephites have fortified their cities to the extent that the Lamanites are basically powerless to attack them.


Population Distribution
When the Lamanites arrive to attack the city of Ammonihah, they are appalled to discover that the Nephites have built some kind of wall of earth around the entire city.  The Lamanites have no way of getting past the wall other than targeting the gates, which would create a choke point and lead to their slaughter.  So they withdraw and advance on the city of Noah, which, to their "uttermost astonishment," is even more ably secured.  Upon learning that Lehi is in command of the defense of the city of Noah, the Lamanites vow to destroy him and do their damnedest to follow through.  Instead, they get their asses kicked until they scurry back to their homeland to lick their wounds.

Captain Moroni had apparently made sure that every single Nephite city had a huge wall around it (verse 13) so that there could be no weak points in the entire nation.  But that brings up the problem of where those cities' resources come from.  If the Lamanites were really as ruthless and barbaric as they are so frequently depicted, I'm sure they would have thought of laying siege to a city and cutting off its supplies.  The only reason this wouldn't have worked is if everything the city needed was inside the defenses.  That means that Moroni had walls erected around all the fields for crops and all the pastures for the livestock.  Which is totally unrealistic.

If Nephite civilization was spread out the way civilizations tend to spread out, the Lamanites should have been able to find some kind of weakness.  Whether it was laying siege to the city of Noah or burning crops and scattering animals, there should have been something the Lamanites could have done to deal the hurt.  The population distribution of the Book of Mormon appears to be a set of large polka dots.  Nowhere is a Nephite or a Lamanite depicted as living off on his own.  There's no mention of any farmers.  But there are abundant references to citiescities whose populations are dense enough and whose borders are clearly defined enough to have walls encircling them.  None of this seems indicative of a society that may have actually existed.


THANK MORONI, I mean God
Once the Lamanite forces finally withdraw with their tails between their legs, "the people of Nephi did thank the Lord their God, because of his matchless power in delivering them from the hands of their enemies."  Seems like they're showing gratitude to the wrong person.

The Nephite defenses and strategies haven't been attributed to God in any way until now.  For example, in verse 8, it explains that "they were prepared for the Lamanites, to battle after the manner of the instructions of Moroni."  There was no miraculous event that derailed a probable Lamanite victory.  There was no timely deus ex machina to pluck the Nephites from a horrible fate.  There was no mention of Moroni's strategy being the result of any kind of prayer or divine inspiration. He outsmarted the bad guys all on his own and it was pretty much over before it started.
"We're saved!  He saved us!  Commander Taggert has saved us!"
But those Nephites praised God for delivering them with no thought to the tireless work of Moroni, who ensured that every single Nephite settlement was impenetrably guarded against a Lamanite incursion.  It was a bold plan, but it seems to have paid off...except that the people he'd so expertly defended chose to give their gratitude to someone who wasn't even involved.

I actually feel a little sorry for him right now.  He finally did something that wasn't douchey or bloodthirsty and he doesn't even get credit for it.

That Crap Worked on Corianton?
But perhaps the most depressing part of this chapter is the final verse:
Yea, and there was continual peace among them, and exceedingly great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, which was declared unto them by Helaman, and Shiblon, and Corianton, and Ammon and his brethren, yea, and by all those who had been ordained by the holy order of God, being baptized unto repentance and sent forth to preach among the people.
Corianton is now a missionary and a leader in the church.  How disappointing.  After sitting through four chapters of self-righteous, irrelevant, and disingenuous blathering from his dad, he actually decided to come back to the church.  Corianton, buddy...what were you thinking?  All that weird rambling about resurrection and eternal punishment actually convinced you?

I definitely feel bad for that guy, getting sucked back into the cult because of familial pressure.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hard to Watch

I spent some time with my family during Thanksgiving, which meant that, for a few hours a day for three straight days, I was graced with the wonderful opportunity to be the only non-believer in a room full of ardent Mormons.  It also meant that I had to sit through a few of my little nephew's mini-brainwashing sessions.

Apparently my sister and my brother-in-law, like many Mormon parents, make it a priority to read the scriptures with their children every night.  As they read from the Book of Mormon, my four-year-old nephew was understandably confused.

"Why do the Lamanites want to fight the Nephites?" he asked.

"Because they don't like them very much," my brother-in-law answered wisely.

Talk about an oversimplification.  Even though I consider the majority of the Book of Mormon's stories to be bordering on the absurd, there's always some kind of explanation provided for why any group goes to war against any other group.  They can range from the simple ("because they're wicked and greedy") to the complex ("the Nephites converted too many of their brethren and then helped them escape from their lands, so when the Lamanites came to conquer them, the Nephites stepped up to defend their new friends"), but there's always an explanation with a little more nuance to it than "they don't like them very much."

The question and the answer both indicate that my nephew has almost zero understanding of what's going on in the story.  The question demonstrates an absence of knowledge of the most fundamental, most repetitive conflict in the entire book.  And the uninformative, oversimplified answer speaks to my brother-in-law's confidence in how much of the real answer the little boy is capable of comprehending.  If the kid doesn't understand the basic plots, how can he be expected to understand the spiritual knowledge framed within the context of these narratives?  And if he can understand neither the story nor the doctrine, why is anyone even bothering to read this stuff to him?

The only answer that makes sense is that my sister and her husband are trying to instill in him at a young age the importance of reading the scriptures.  Or, more accurately, to instill in him at a young age that habitually reading the Book of Mormon on a daily basis is a normal part of family life.  He doesn't understand what's going on, but when he gets older, he'll feel more pressured to read the scriptures himself because that's what you do in his family.
Except that my nephew won't win an Oscar for this.

When I was discussing my feelings on the church in a series of emails with my dad a while back, he seemed particularly offended when I used the word "brainwashing."  But then he sits happily by while his daughter does this.  Once I was over there for a family home evening in which my dad played a recording of a primary song from his phone for the opening hymn and helped my nephew remember the words as he cheerily mumbled his way through it with innocent enthusiasm.  My dad is offended by the use of the term "brainwashing" but he's intricately involved in perpetrating the exact thing he finds so offensive on his own grandchildren.

I remember what it was like to be in the church, and I know that it doesn't seem like brainwashing from the inside.  But from the outside, brainwashing is all that it does look like.  After all this hymn-singing and Book-of-Mormon-reading and programming and conditioning, ten years down the road, my nephew is going to be racked with guilt every time he lets his eyes linger a second too long over a pretty girl.  He's going to have expectations and goals and standards and requirements foisted upon him and he might feel as though there's nothing he could do to ever measure up.   He might go through high school feeling like he's just barely staying afloat and that the best he can do is tread water and stave off drowning for just a little longer.  And all of that turmoil and guilt and desperation can be traced back to the intense brainwashing of his upbringing.

I don't want him to go through the kinds of things I went through.  I don't want him to go through the kinds of things that are far worse than what I went through but still possible from Mormonism.  But it's also not my job to raise him.  It's not my place to step in.  So I'll continue to watch him grow up in a loving, unified, well-off, but relentlessly pressuring family.  And I'll have to strive to be the cool uncle so that one day I could be the only person he's comfortable talking to about the heavy stuff.  And maybe I'll eventually be able to help him.

But until then, I'll just have to do my best not to vomit when I'm unfortunate enough to be in attendance for my sister's family home evenings.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Alma 48: Terrible Role Models

Here the Book of Mormon gives us a snapshot of both sides of the impending conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites.  Amalickiah is whipping his men into a frenzy with the intent to conquer and enslave the Nephites while Moroni and Helaman look after the military and spiritual strength of their own society.


For Example, Let Me Talk About Something Completely Unrelated
This chapter clumsily tries to contrast Amalickiah with Moroni:
Now it came to pass that while Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God.
Yea, he had been strengthening the armies of the Nephites; and erecting small forts, or places of resort; throwing up banks of earth round about to enclose his armies, and also building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and the borders of their lands; yea, all round about the land.
Okay, first of all, that second verse is one sentence in which the word "round" is used three times and the word "about" is used four times.  Bad translation or bad writing?

But more importantly, Moroni is claimed to have been "preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God."  In support of this statement, we get to hear a lot of talk about exactly how he fortified Nephite settlements against the inevitable attack of the Lamanites.  What does that have to do with preparing the people to be faithful to God?

But even more importantly than that, why is this kind of detail even included?  This book is supposed to be a way to bring people in the modern era to a knowledge of Jesus Christ's gospel.  Assuming Moroni actually did help keep the Nephites faithful to avert their destruction, wouldn't it be more helpful for us to read about that stuff than about how he decided to place his troops according to the strength of the fortifications in a particular area?  The righteous army becoming victorious over the wicked army thing has been done to death in this book already, and there are still plenty more of these tales to come.

Even if this story is supposed to illustrate the triumph of good over evil, the rewards of piety and the punishments of iniquity, it's a theme that's already been introduced and reiterated.  Isn't it about time we stop discussing the military strategies and the particulars of bloodshed and start talking about the fullness of the gospel?  Couldn't we have used this space on the gold plates to discuss important doctrines that had to be filled in later?  Wouldn't it make sense to talk about the age of accountability and eternal marriage and baptism for the dead and all that good stuff?


My Heart Swoons for Moroni
Perhaps the most notable reason for the all-too-common Captain Moroni Mancrush is verse 17:
Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.
That's a bold statement to make.  But I think this can be safely disregarded, considering the narrator is totally unreliable.  I mean, look at this blatant lie in verse 11:
And Moroni was a strong and mighty man; he was a man of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in bloodshed...
A man who does not delight in bloodshed probably wouldn't execute people who don't want to be part of his preferred system of government or permit his men to slaughter an opposing army that's already surrendered simply because they can't promise there won't ever be another war.  We're expected to believe that the kind of person who did that stuff is the paragon of virtue?  Listen, Joseph, telling your audience that your character is awesome isn't going to amount to much if you keep having him do horrible stuff.  The guy's a monster.  You should go back and rethink some of your characterization.  What you shouldn't do is dig yourself in deeper:
Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah...
"Behold, he was a man like unto Walter White, and also Anakin Skywalker,
and verily, even like unto Tom Riddle, for behold, they were all men of God."
Okay, technically, this verse is perfectly accurate.  But not in the way Joseph Smith intended.  Because Ammon was a piece of work, too.  Remember the time he chopped off all those arms with hardly any provocation whatsoever and then later played it off like it wasn't a big deal?  And I can't leave out the time when Ammon threatened to kill the king of the Lamanites to get his idiot brothers out of prison and ensure that his buddy Lamoni got to keep his throne.

These men are not good role models.


Nephite Selfishness
Just to reiterate that the Nephites are good and the Lamanites are bad, verse 23 contains a general assessment of the Nephites' emotions concerning the coming war:
Now, they were sorry to take up arms against the Lamanites, because they did not delight in the shedding of blood; yea, and this was not allthey were sorry to be the means of sending so many of their brethren out of this world into an eternal world, unprepared to meet their God.
If you're so sorry to have to kill people, why is there no mention of diplomacy being attempted?  Sure, Amalickiah is a bloodlusting lunatic who wants to wipe you all out, but it doesn't speak much to your hesitancy for battle that no other alternatives are even discussed.  You could try assassinating Amalickiah, because at least that would only be one death.  Or you could just pick up your whole society and move somewhere far away on this huge continent where the Lamanites won't bother you.  (And don't act like huge groups of people haven't just wandered off at a moment's notice before.)

And there's also the rationale of whether or not the people dying are prepared for the afterlife.  If the Nephites are so righteous and the Lamanites are so wicked, shouldn't the Nephites be happy to die so that the Lamanites will have more time in the mortal realm to become converted to the gospel?  After all, it's better that a few good men should perish than that an entire nation of wicked people should perish in unbelief, right?  If these Nephites truly had the Lamanites' best interests at heart, they would be willing to submit to anything the Lamanites would do to them rather than cut short their opportunities to convert.  Or, at the very least, they should be making preparations for an intense wave of missionary work instead of making preparations for war.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alma 47: The Impossible Coup

Now we will return in our record to Amalickiah and those who fled with him into the wilderness...oh, wait, that's exactly how the chapter starts.  With these kinds of brilliant narrative segues, it's a wonder First Nephi didn't begin with "once upon a time on a dark and stormy night."


So Many Stupid Kings
Our favorite scumbag marches his posse into Lamanite territory and somehow convinces their king that they need to go to war against the Nephites.  The king makes a weird, panicky decree across his entire kingdom that everybody has to go to war, and many people are too scared of the Nephites to obey.  So, following the Book of Mormon's proud tradition of stupid, gullible kings, the Lamanite ruler then gives Amalickiah command of the part of the army that actually answered the call.

Let's say an unknown out-of-towner wanders into your kingdom with the message that you really, really need to declare war on your neighboring country.  And let's say this makes you so nervous that you basically try to draft every able-bodied man in your entire nation into the military.  A lot of people take issue with the very real possibility of being forced to die for their country, so not everyone who's drafted actually shows up.  What's the best course of action?  Do you use your existing leader of the army to force everyone to comply?  Or do you give control of the army to the guy you just met who's heavily influenced your last two major decisions and let his inscrutable and unpredictable motives wield the full power of your national military might?

Idiot.  No wonder he gets murdered for his throne.


Socially Progressive Lamanites
Amalickiah takes the army and goes to confront the group of draft-dodgers who, strangely, have gathered in a defensive position so that they can fight for their right not to have to fight.  Amalickiah manages to convince their leader, Lehonti, to bring his armies down from their mountain stronghold and surround his recently-acquired Lamanite army under cover of darkness.  Rather than die, the Lamanite army agrees to unite itself with the dissenters under Lehonti's leadership.  Amalickiah then has an associate poison Lehonti so that he can ascend from second-in-command to supreme leader.  When he marches the whole group back to the king, he has one of his cronies stab the king to death and blames it on the royal servants.  After chasing the king's servants out of the country and using their flight as evidence of their guilt, he has effectively gained the support of the people.  Then he marries the queen and completes his rise to total power over the Lamanite nation.

This could never have happened if he'd been a Lamanite trying to usurp the Nephite throne.

This plan of Amalickiah's only worked because the Lamanite king trusted him despite his white and delightsome skin, because Lehonti trusted him (albeit hesitantly) despite his white and delightsome skin, because the Lamanite queen trusted (and married) him despite his white and delightsome skin, and the rest of the country supported him as the king's replacement despite his white and delightsome skin.  While this kind of open-mindedness clearly allowed the Lamanites to be manipulated, it also means they're better people than their God-favored neighbors.  They don't exclude people from their society based on skin color or perceived moral inferiority, and that makes them even more enlightened than the god their white and delightsome peers tend to worship.


Apostates Are More Evil Than Non-Believers
The chapter closes by discussing those among the Lamanites who were, like their new king, former Nephites:
Now these dissenters, having the same instruction and the same information of the Nephites, yea, having been instructed in the same knowledge of the Lord, nevertheless, it is strange to relate, not long after their dissensions they became more hardened and impenitent, and more wild, wicked and ferocious than the Lamanitesdrinking in with the traditions of the Lamanites; giving way to indolence, and all manner of lasciviousness; yea, entirely forgetting the Lord of their God.
This is a common misconception held by faithful Mormons, which is helpfully given a scriptural basis.  This verse is basically saying that once a Nephite leaves his pious society, he forgets how not to be a completely awful human being.  Not only will he abandon his religion, but he'll also become evil, savage, violent, lazy, and sexually deviant.

People need to be more cognizant of the fact that religion can neither claim a monopoly on moral behavior nor guarantee that its devotees will exhibit such behavior.  There are plenty of wonderful people who are atheists (or ex-Mormons) and plenty of atrocious people who are loyally seated in LDS chapels every Sunday morning.  Anyone who's ever spent time with someone from a religious background different from his own should know this.  And anyone who reads this verse should immediately disregard it as severely oversimplifying the spectrum of human conduct.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Alma 46: The Title of Gliberty

This chapter sees the rise of Amalickiah, who ambitiously wants to destroy the church and become a king at the same time.


Hatred Transcending Reason
Amalickiah emerges as the leader of the faction of wicked Nephites, and he's somehow managed to lead away a decent chunk of Helaman's appointed priests during his rise to prominence.  What I find amusing, however, is the insanely fast, insanely irrational escalation depicted in the opening verses of the chapter:
And it came to pass that as many as would not hearken to the words of Helaman and his brethren were gathered together against their brethren.
And now behold, they were exceedingly wroth, insomuch that they were determined to slay them. 
Slow down, there, champ!  It hasn't even been a year yet!  This is still the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges (or approximately 73 BC for normal people).  You guys have just barely split into two factions, so there's no need to be getting all murderous just yet.  Seriously, shouldn't it have taken a little more time for Amalickiah to win over so many people and then whip them into a Helaman-hating frenzy?


Nephites Must be Excellent Speed-Readers
Captain Moroni is so distraught over the apostasy and appetite for violence that seem to be gaining so much traction among his countrymen that he tears his coat and writes some epic words on it:  "In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children."  Because family comes last.  (Well, second-to-last, because parallel structure is even less of a priority.)
And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice...
If a decorated war hero starts tearing his clothes off, tying some of it to a pole, writing stuff on it, running around in public screaming and waving his shirt like people are actually going to be able to read the entire sentence before the flag flaps back on itself, wouldn't you think...nervous breakdown?  Post-traumatic stress disorder?  Too much strong drink?

But somehow Moroni makes it work and his coat becomes a called the Title of Liberty, which stands as an ensign and a rallying cry among the righteous Nephites.


What Kind of an Idiot Makes That Deal?

People love Moroni's stripping antics so much that they follow suit, tearing their own clothes off as some kind of weird symbolic gesture of agreement.  And, as a group (because groups of people in the Book of Mormon often speak with one voice), they declare their loyalty:
Now this was the covenant which they made, and they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression.
Okay.  Um, why?

First of all, thanks to the previous chapter's prophecy, we know that the Nephites are eventually going to be destroyed because of their transgressions.  I really doubt Joseph Smith was going for dramatic irony here, but it's a decent example nonetheless.  Looks like there is a little literary value to the Book of Mormon after all.

Secondly, who does that?  "Hey, God, listen, I just want to say, if I ever start being wicked, you should totally send the Lamanites to beat us to a bloody pulp until we all die."  Not only is that a pretty one-sided covenant, but it's basically what God's been saying he's going to do for the last few hundred pages anyway.  You might as well just say, "Hey, God, you remember all that horrible stuff you were going to do to us because you love us so much?  Don't forget to do it later when we wind up totally deserving it."
It's also odd that the covenant mentions being destroyed "even as our brethren in the land northward." That's clearly referring to the Lamanites.  But when have the Lamanites ever been destroyed by God because of their iniquity?  The Nephites are the ones who get destroyed.  The Lamanites merely get proselytized into unconsciousness.


What Kind of an Idiot Doesn't Make that Deal?

Amalickiah chickens out of his plan to kill all the religious people because he realizes he's outnumbered.  So he takes his followers and tries to flee northward, hoping that the Lamanites are stupid enough and bloodthirsty enough that he can just manipulate them into doing the heavy lifting.  Captain Moroni intervenes with his army to stop the Amalickiahites from adding to the already overwhelming ranks of the Lamanites, but Amalickiah himself and a few of his closest friends escape.  What does Moroni do with the ones he captures?
Now, Moroni being a man who was appointed by the chief judges and the voice of the people, therefore he had power according to his will with the armies of the Nephites, to establish and to exercise authority over them.
And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but a few who denied the covenant of freedom.
There is so much wrong with this.

First, who appointed Moroni?  The chief judges and the people?  Or is this another part of the Book of Mormon's love affair with American-style representative democracy?  (Because he was appointed by officials who were elected by the people, then he must have been appointed by the people!)

Second, his authority is over the army.  Why would anyone think it's a good idea for him to also have the unadulterated power to kill prisoners whose only crime so far is disliking the current form of government?  If anything, that sounds like sedition, which should fall under the purview of one of the judges, not the military.

Third, Moroni has once again delivered an unfair ultimatum to coerce people into doing what he wants.  It's completely unwarranted to execute all these people, but he decides to do it because then he'll scare the rest of them into rejoining society as upstanding citizens who believe in freedom.  But come on...look at all the hypocrisy involved in his threat:  "Say you love freedom or I'll kill you!  Except the freedom to live, we don't care about that in our free government!"

Fourth, how stupid is this Moroni dude?  If the only other option is death, how many hearts and minds is he really winning over to this whole freedom-and-liberty obsession of his?  He clearly can't practice what he preaches, and the ones who are smart enough to take the deal and pledge themselves to a free government are bound to be left with some deep-seated resentment over murdered comrades and abuse of military power and being stiff-armed with political dogma.

And lastly..."there were but a few who denied the covenant of freedom."  Who the hell wouldn't take the deal?  I mean, I guess it's noble to die for a cause you truly believe in or whatever, but come on.  Have some sense, Amalickiahites!  Claim to love freedom and then secretly plan to overthrow the government later.  Is it really that hard to come up with that idea?


Death and the God-given Herbal Cures

The chapter concludes with a strange little footnote about death and disease:
And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land—but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subjected by the nature of the climate—
Okay, that's fascinating.  This is yet one more thing that really didn't need to be carefully etched into metal a few times and preserved for the modern era.  But I guess it's nice that the Nephites had some kind of rudimentary understanding of medicine.  Good for them.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Alma 45: Alma's Last Words

We're transitioning between protagonists now, as Alma and his wacky adventures have run their course.  He's an old man who's about to disappear mysteriously amid rumors of being translated, but he needs to make sure his son Helaman is in place as a worthy successor.


Mum's the Word
After conducting a quick personal priesthood interview with Helaman, Alma says that he has something important to tell him.
But behold, I have somewhat to prophesy unto thee; but what I prophesy unto thee ye shall not make known; yea, what I prophesy unto thee shall not be made known, even until the prophecy is fulfilled; therefore write the words which I shall say.
He then proceeds to foretell the demise of the Nephite nation due to the wickedness that will envelop their culture four hundred years after the coming of Christ.  But why, exactly does this need to be kept a secret?  Alma doesn't say.

It seems to me that the right thing to do in this situation would be to publicize the prophecy.  Most people will probably ignore it, sure, but isn't it fair to give the Nephites a fighting chance to avert their own downfall?


Some Exclusions Apply
Alma's fresh off an explanation of how the Lamanites will hunt the Nephites to extinction when he drops this contradictory claim:
And he said: Thus saith the Lord GodCursed shall be the land, yea, this land, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, unto destruction, which do wickedly, when they are fully ripe; and as I have said so shall it be; for this is the cursing and the blessing of God upon the land, for the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.
God cannot allow sin in any way.  Which is why he's going to kill off the sinful Nephites.  Except that he's going to use the also sinful Lamanites to make it happen.  And one thousand years later, the Lamanites are still going to be happily going about their business when the Europeans show up.  Why, exactly, are the Lamanites excluded from this zero tolerance policy?

Sure, sure, back in the day it was because the Lamanites didn't know any better and the Nephites had the truth of the gospel in their lives, bringing about greater accountability.  But by the time this prophecy comes to fruition, the Lamanites and Nephites will have both been enlightened followers of Christ and they will have both been bloodthirsty evildoers.  There's so much corrupting and converting going on in the Book of Mormon that it's completely unfair to claim that the Lamanites didn't know any better and the Nephites should have.

If God cannot look on sin with the least degree of allowance, then both tribes should be obliterated.  Or if God is actually as loving as Mormonism tries to depict him, then both tribes should be preserved.  But only one being exterminated?  The reasoning makes no sense.


High Gospel Turnover
Once his dad wanders off to meet the fate of Amelia Earhart, Helaman gets to work on fixing the religion-related problems in his society:
Therefore, Helaman and his brethren went forth to establish the church again in all the land, yea, in every city throughout all the land which was possessed by the people of Nephi. And it came to pass that they did appoint priests and teachers throughout all the land, over all the churches.
That's great.  Except that forty-five years earlier, Alma had done the exact same thing.  Did the gospel really have such a fragile foothold in Nephite society that the church would need to be reestablished in the lifetime of many who were present during its initial establishment?  Was there really such a weak cultural tradition that belief in the church could all but die out in less than fifty years?  Was the church itself so structurally unsound that its leadership hierarchy could almost entirely dissolve after a short war?

After Helaman went on his church reunion tour, there "arose a dissension" of people who refused to listen to the words of God and who began to be proud and wealthy.  This brings me to my best theory as to why the church struggled so much in the Nephite kingdomthe gospel keeps dying of whiplash.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Alma 44: Moroni's First War Crime

Captain Moroni has Zerahemnah's army cornered.  When he steps forward to demand their surrender, he uses the spotlight as a chance to bear his testimony and convert people...as any good Mormon surely would.


When Piety Borders on Denial
Moroni is so confident that the events of the battle undeniably point to the powerful intervention of God that he even goes so far as to assume that the Lamanites see things the same way:
Now ye see that this is the true faith of God; yea, ye see that God will support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him, and unto our faith, and our religion; and never will the Lord suffer that we shall be destroyed except we should fall into transgression and deny our faith.
He seems to have some seriously strong faith that God protects his people so long as they are righteous, which is a little bizarre, considering that the slaughter of the righteous, pacifist people of Ammon was a pretty significant event that took place very recently.  About five years before that, also in young Moroni's lifetime, God also allowed the righteous inhabitants of Ammonihah to be destroyed.  So I'm not sure why he was so positive that God was going to keep his army from destruction, especially after he put all his chips on that one super-risky military strategy that never should have worked.


Identical Experiences, Divergent Conclusions
When Zerahemnah manages to get a word in, he responds with this:
Behold, we are not of your faith; we do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning that has preserved you from our swords.  Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you.
Captain Moroni is so wrapped up in his own euphoric spiritual orgasm that he's forgotten that the Lamanites don't share his religious views.  Because God's finger wasn't visibly smiting anybody, it's actually a matter of some debate whether he was even involved.  Moroni is content to look at the events of the battle as God opening up a divine can of whoop-ass.  But Zerahemnah, thoughtful, down-to-earth man that he is, sees the impossible underdog victory as the result of some more logical factors, such as his army being outmaneuvered and underequipped.

I notice, however, that Zerahemnah doesn't take responsibility for the biggest reason he lostthat he repeatedly had his army retreat in the worst possible direction.  He must be too ashamed to admit to it.


ProTip:  Hire a Professional Editor
Somewhere in the midst of Moroni's bloviation, he demands that Zerahemnah promise to end the wars between their clans:
And now, Zerahemnah, I command you, in the name of that all-powerful God, who has strengthened our arms that we have gained power over you, by our faith, by our religion, and by our rites of worship, and by our church, and by the sacred support which we owe to our wives and our children, by that liberty which binds us to our lands and our country; yea, and also by the maintenance of the sacred word of God, to which we owe all our happiness; and by all that is most dear unto us
Yea, and this is not all;  I command you by all the desires which ye have for life...
Yeah.  No kidding, that's not all.  You started off saying that you were commanding him to do something, but you got so caught up in listing things you were commanding him for that you never actually got around to commanding anything.  Proofread, Joseph!  You have too many sentences in this book that you forget to resolve...or strangely, that you resolve later, in a different sentence.  Seriously, what the hell?  It's like you had very little formal schooling or something!
And don't even get me started on your punctuation habits!

Honor Among Savages
Anyway, Moroni offers to spare the lives of the defeated army if they agree to put down their weapons, leave Nephite territory and "come not again to war."  Here is the Lamanite commander's surprisingly classy reply:
And now it came to pass that when Zerahemnah had heard these sayings he came forth and delivered up his sword and his cimeter, and his bow into the hands of Moroni, and said unto him: Behold, here are our weapons of war; we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break, and also our children; but take our weapons of war, and suffer that we may depart into the wilderness; otherwise we will retain our swords, and we will perish or conquer.
Humbly, Zerahmenah personally offers his arms to Moroni and requests permission to leave in shame.  Even though he clearly has an easy out by saying "oh, yeah, sure, we totally promise we won't attack you guys any more" whether it's true or not, he takes the high road.  He says that even if they make the oath, they know they won't keep it.  He speaks realistically and honestly.  But Moroni somehow interprets this as supreme defiance and reacts dramatically:
We don't stand for that kind of disgusting honesty around here.
You've brought your destruction upon yourselves!
And now Moroni was angry, because of the stubbornness of the Lamanites; therefore he commanded his people that they should fall upon them and slay them.  And it came to pass that they began to slay them; yea, and the Lamanites did contend with their swords and their might.
Some of the Lamanites had agreed to Moroni's terms before this happened.  And after it happened, Zerahemnah and his remaining followers agreed to it as well.  This just goes to show how effective it is to enforce peace with threats of violence.

But more than that, this shows how much of a role model Captain Moroni isn't.  In this chapter, he's arrogant, bloodthirsty and uncompromising.  Zerahemnah, in contrast, comes off as much more honorable, yet for some reason he's the leader of the "savage" Lamanite army and Captain Moroni is the virtuous leader of the righteous Nephite army.  This is clearly backwards.  Zerahemnah is a classy guy.  Moroni is a full-blown war criminal.  

They surrendered, you prick!  You're supposed to stop killing people when they surrender!


A Neat if Pointless Ending
There are heavy losses on both sides.  The Lamanites limp back to their homeland and the Nephites return from war triumphant.  But, at the conclusion of this chapter, I have one remaining question:  What vitally important doctrine was all this violence and bloodshed at the hands of a supposedly righteous man supposed to teach us?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Apologists on Polygamy

The recent New York Times article that shared the church's essay on Joseph Smith's polygamy with the world has elicited some interesting responses on the internet and some interesting recirculations of already existing apologetics.

Reddit pointed me to a site called entitled, appropriately, Joseph Smith's Polygamy.  It's maintained by Brian C. Hales, a semi-famous apologist, and his wife.  And it's a treasure trove of mind-bogglingly obtuse excuses and mental parkour (because mental gymanstics is both overused and doesn't accurately portray apologists' tendencies to, basically, run away from the problem with a whole lot of style).  Here's a great example that flabbergasted me in the section about why it's not a big deal that Smith supposedly lied about his polygamy:
The 1827 Illinois State anti-bigamy law reads:  "All marriages, where either of the parties had a former husband or wife living at the time of solemnizing the last marriage, shall be void."
In other words, any person with a legal spouse could not be married to another according to state statute.  Any subsequent ceremonies would be "void" from a civil perspective.  A man or woman could never be legally married to two spouses.  Consequently, legally speaking it was impossible for Joseph Smith or any other Nauvoo pluralist to truthfully answer "yes" to the question:  "Do you have more than one wife?"
I'm currently working on a Leverage fanfic in which Eliot Spencer goes back
in time to kick the crap out of a 13-year-old Joseph Smith
Imagine the following scenario:
COP:  Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?
DRIVER:  I have no idea, officer.
COP:  You were swerving all over the road.  Have you been drinking?
DRIVER:  I have not.
COP:  (leans in)  Ugh, I can smell the alcohol on your breath!
DRIVER:  As I'm sure you know, officer, drinking and driving is illegal.  Therefore, I could not have legally gotten behind the wheel of this vehicle if I'd been drinking beforehand.  By the laws of this state, it's simply an impossibility.
COP:  (grins sheepishly)  I have to admit, you've got me there!  You have a nice night, sir.  Drive carefully!
Does this make any sense whatsoever?

When people asked Joseph Smith if he had more than one wife, they asked because they were suspicious that he was participating in activities that operated outside the legally established limits of behavior.  And this argument, no matter how inane, does nothing to repair the besmirched character of the prophet.  If anything, it paints him as a deviously deceptive man who hid behind frail semantics and willfully ignored the obvious basis of accusations against him instead of just painting him as a regular, old-fashioned, flat-out liar.


The other fun piece of reading material I came across was a post at Millennial Star that chides those who decry the church for having never taught them about all this shady polygamy stuff.  The author of the article makes the fair point that the church hasn't altogether eschewed mention of polygamyafter all, nobody's removed section 132 from the Doctrine and Covenants.  And the subject is touched upon (albeit lightly) in various church magazines and lesson manuals.

But then he makes the weaker point that it's unreasonable for people to assume that the church has time to bring up "all the lurid details" that shock people so much (polyandry, teenage brides, angels with drawn swords, et cetera, et cetera).  He calculates that the church only offers us about 45 hours of instruction a year.  I take issue with that.  Allow me to do my own calculations.

Assuming nobody is going to teach a toddler about whether or not the prophet had sex with his teenage brides, I'm going to focus on the approximate nine-year window between the time I received the Aaronic Priesthood and the time I stopped going to church. At 52 weeks a year, minus 2 for General Conference, minus 2 for stake conference, and minus 1 for "emergencies that will involve the cancellation of Church," I'm coming up with 423 weeks.  Agreeing with the article's assertion that Priesthood and Sunday School classes only have about thirty minutes of instruction each (and ignoring Sacrament meeting because it's usually just regular people babbling without an official manual), that's 423 hours of instruction.

But I'm going to add stake conference back in because it involves a lot of sermons straight from our local leadership.  With a youth session, a priesthood session and a general session at about 45 minutes each, occurring twice annually, that adds 40.5 hours of instruction, bringing my current total to 463.5 hours. And I'm definitely going to include General Conference, because that's ten hours every six months of the top leaders from the church talking to the entire body of the membership.  How is that not a golden opportunity to discuss the heavy topics and explain some stuff that needs to be explained?  With 180 hours of conference over those nine years, my total is now at 643.5 hours.

But let's not forget early morning seminary.  With 180 school days and approximately 30 minutes of actual instruction every morning over the course of four years, that's a whopping 360 more hours, which bumps me up to 994.5 hours.  And, of course, there's the monthly ten-minute home teaching lesson read straight from the First Presidency message in the Ensign, so that adds another 18 hours, pushing us into quadruple digits at 1012.5.

And we can also throw in the monthly youth firesides from the ages of 12 to 17, which might be fairly rounded down to about thirty minutes apiece.  That'll add another 36 hours for a running total of 1048.5.  There's also the five youth conferences I attended, which usually knocked out an entire weekend.  But, just to be on the safe side, we can call it about an hour and a half of instruction per day for three days.  That's 22.5 more hours which at least brings me back to a whole number of 1071.

That all constitutes most of the major opportunities for instruction from the church (although I might have missed something).  By this estimate, I'm just shy of 45 days of solid, non-stop teaching.  In that month and a half of learning, I heard polygamy addressed a few times.  But I never heard that Joseph Smith married anyone other than Emma.  I never heard that he married teenagers.  I never heard that he married women who were living in his house.  I never heard that he married other men's wives, sometimes while they were abroad on missions he'd sent them on.  I never heard that he kept many of his marriages from Emma.  I never heard that he claimed an angel had threatened him with destruction if he didn't take more brides.  I never heard that he lied about being a polygamist, whether he had reason to or not.

With 64,260 minutes of instruction during my adolescence and adulthood, the church had plenty of opportunity to briefly tell me just once, "hey, the founder of your religion married chicks who were currently married to other dudes and he did some other stuff you might want to know about too."  But it didn't.  In fact, it often implied the opposite.  For example, the Joseph Smith movie from 2005 depicts Joseph and Emma as so romantically and passionately devoted to each other that you'd never even imagine that anyone else could be in the picture.
Just look at the way they stare into each other's eyes while they cuddle up by a romantic fire
to share an intimate husband-and-wife discussion before going to sleep.
The author of the article closes with this:
The Church did teach you stuff about even controversial topics.  Perhaps you were distracted or didn't pay attention or were not curious enough to explore on your own.  You are ultimately responsible for your own learning, and you are responsible for how you respond to new information.  That is what the whole "free agency" thing is all about.
Pissed off that you just learned about Joseph Smith being a polygamist?  It's your own fault for not trying to find out sooner!  Never mind that that the church taught you repeatedly that you should only trust what they tell you and never believe stuff you read from angry people on the internet.  Never mind that you probably heard a glossed over version of historical polygamy in Sunday School and that it was mostly, "this stuff happened and here's D&C 132, but we don't do it anymore, and only bad people do it now, so don't worry about it, let's move on."  Never mind that you were taught to focus on the fact that the church was true so that you could take some initially troublesome information on faith.  You just weren't curious enough.

The author, in his defense, is a convert to the church, so maybe he doesn't really understand the indoctrination involved with growing up Mormon.  As a teenager, I was a voracious reader and a huge fan of American history.  But I never had any desire to brush up on my church historyafter all, the church would tell me anything I needed to know that I didn't already, right?  I had a blind faith instilled in my from childhood that told me that it was perfectly fine for the church to control the flow of information.  Why would I ever need to seek it out on my own?

Too many of us realize too late that the church has deceived us.  Not everything was a lie, and some shady topics were briefly touched on, but the existence and persistence of the deception cannot be overlooked.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Alma 43: Moroni Wins Big

Alma and his freshly-lectured sons head out on the missionary trail again.


Focus on the Important Stuff
Verses 2 and 3 offer an awkward segue:
Now we shall say no more concerning their preaching, except that they preached the word, and the truth, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation; and they preached after the holy order of God by which they were called.
And now I return to an account of the wars between the Nephites and the Lamanites, in the eighteenth year of the reign of the judges. 
So this book is supposed to be invaluable scripture concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ, intended for our day.  But instead of reading the gospel messages that these missionaries are going to teach, we're just going to wade through some lengthy and needlessly detailed descriptions of over-the-top early American warfare.  Because that stuff is way more important, right?


Moroni Enters in Dramatic Slow-Motion
Now, remember way back in chapter 35, when all that stuff was going down?  You know, before the interludes of fatherly wisdom?  So basically, the Lamanites (who have admitted the Zoramites into their ranks) want to kill all the Ammonites.  So the Ammonites have fled the land of Jershon so that the Nephite armies can come in and have an epic battle with the Lamanites, who are going to attack the land of Jershon because they don't realize that the Ammonites have evacuated.  All caught up?  Okay.  Now, as all this impending military doom is looming on the horizon, this guy struts onto the stage:
You can tell he's righteous cuz he's so muscular.
Captain Moroni.  A true warrior for freedom.  A man ahead of his time.  Leader of all the Nephite armies at the tender age of twenty-five.  Perhaps the most popular man-crush in the entire Book of Mormon.  Ready to go head-to-head with the Lamanite leader, Zerahemnah, and kick some ass while looking fabulous and being all principled and stuff.  

What is it that Captain Moroni does that's so awesome?  He has the revolutionary idea that not only should his army have weapons, but they should also have things that protect them against weapons. Zerahemnah is so intimidated by Nephite armor that he pulls out of Jershon without engaging and tries to sneak around to attack the land of Manti instead.

Today's lesson in ancient warfare:  heavy metal armor that restricts the speed and the agility of your army can scare off a much larger enemy force that likes to fight mostly naked.


More Strategic Brilliance
To demonstrate that Moroni is both a gifted general and a pious man of God, his reaction to the Lamanite retreat covers two bases:  he sends out scouts to keep an eye on Zerahemnah's armies and he sends couriers to Alma to get the prophet to ask God where the Lamanites will attack next.  Alma sends back word that the Lamanites will attack Manti.

Let's keep in mind that verse 21 describes the Lamanite numbers to be "so much greater than the Nephites" as we look through Moroni's battle plans:

  1. Moroni leaves "a part of his army" in Jershon (verse 25)
  2. He prepares the citizens of Manti to defend themselves (verse 26)
  3. He divides his army again, concealing some south of the hill Riplah (verse 31)
  4. He splits his forces on the west side of the river Sidon in half, placing some in the valley and some closer to Manti (verse 32)
Moroni's army is in four pieces.  When the Lamanites arrive, the soldiers hidden behind the hill Riplah (led by a dude named Lehi) jump out and attack them from the rear.  Despite the fact that they are but one quarter of an outnumbered army, their armor leads them to triumph over the Lamanite hordes.  The Lamanites panic and cross the river Sidon, where another part of Moroni's forces is waiting for them in the valley.  Does Lehi's division cross the river and help fight?  Maybe turn this into a decisive victory?  Nope.  Verse 40 states that Lehi holds his men at the river.

The Lamanites are somehow routed again and flee toward Manti, where the last group of Moroni's troops are waiting.  The Lamanites finally see some success in this third battle, but Moroni turns the tide by reminding his men that they're fighting for a noble cause.  The Lamanites then flee back up the riverbank, where they are surrounded by three pieces of Moroni's army.

There is no way any of that should have worked.  Even as the Lamanites fall into the final trap, verse 51 says that their numbers are still double what the Nephites have, which means that in each of the three battles, the Nephites could have been outnumbered worse than six to one.  That must have been some really incredible armor to keep each Nephite soldier alive while he was fighting off five or six guys at once.

How did Moroni manage to set all this up in time?  The Lamanites retreated from Jershon and simply decided to move around north to Manti.  Somehow, Moroni sent messengers to Alma, waited for Alma to receive revelation, waited for the messengers to return, moved most of his army up to Manti, set a complicated trap that involved shifting his troops around into very specific locations, and organized the city of Manti to defend against the Lamanites (which they never even wound up having to do).  And this all happened before the Lamanites showed up.  What'd they do, stop off in Cancun for a little mid-campaign R&R?

The whole plan also counted on Zerahemnah's army making some very bad decisions.  Each time the army fled, it fled in the wrong direction.  After being beaten by Lehi's men, the Lamanites should have gone north instead of west, because they'd be heading away from Nephite territory and they wouldn't be slowed down by trying to cross a river while running for their lives.  Then, after crossing Sidon and facing the next Nephite attack, the Lamanites turn south, toward their intended target, instead of fleeing north, away from Nephite population centers.  And after Moroni routs them in front of Manti, the Lamanites retreat toward the site of their last defeat.  In this case, it probably would have been smarter to just cross the river immediately instead of just going north to a location which they knew recently contained Nephite forces.

And after all that absurdly improbable success, it's important to point out that none of this is attributed to God's intervention.  The plan is laid out excitedly like it was the cleverest stratagem ever devised.  It's supposed to show how awesome Moroni is, not how awesome God is.  The implication, then, is that the reason it worked is because it was brilliant, not because Moroni had some divine help.

But it wasn't brilliant.  It was idiotic.  It was risky.  But it somehow ended with the Lamanite hordes surrounded by victorious Nephite armies half their size.

Ridiculous.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Preventing Abuse...Or Why Mormonism is Better than America

Less than twenty-four hours after I wrote a post including criticism of God's crude system of justice and punishment, my dad sent out a relevant email to our family.  He's been doing a kind of memoir thing which he emails to all of us as he finishes each section (which is a really cool idea and would be a lot more fun for me if it wasn't so saturated with church doctrine).  This week's installment was a musing on power, its abuses, and how the legal system and the church system both try to combat the abuse of power.  He wrote:
Society at large recognizes the potential damage that can result from the misuse of power.  Its approach is to pass laws and impose penalties to be exacted after the abuse has been discovered, with the hope that this will deter future abuses by those in power.  Perhaps this is the only approach society can really take.  But, sadly it is an approach that doesn't tend toward strengthening character to eliminate the abuses.  It doesn't tend toward improving people to protect and enhance the community.
Alma said that God had to establish heavy punishments to deter sinners.  My dad seems to think that this practice is imperfect and fails to build character.  So he's kind of disagreeing with a chapter of scripture that he probably hasn't read in a few months.  Not that big of a deal, right?  But then he goes on to describe, in several bullet points, what makes the church's approach to avoiding the abuse of power so much better.  And that's when it just got embarrassing.
  • In the Church, power is something that is possessed by the Father and the Son.  Those who need it are given authority to use a portion of that power to carry out their calling, but only for a limited time, to accomplish divinely approved purposes, and to be used within the bounds divinely set.
I don't see a difference between that and the organization of the United States society in which he resides:
  • In [America], power is something that is possessed by the [people].  Those who need it are given authority to use a portion of that power to carry out [the duties of their offices], but only for a limited time, to accomplish [Constitutionally] approved purposes, and to be used within the bounds [Constitutionally] set.
It's exactly the same. And, notably, both of these are a little too idealistic.  That's how it's supposed to work, sure, but we all know it doesn't work that way as often as it should.

My dad continued:
  • Should one begin to exercise control in any degree of unrighteousness, authority is lost.
  • All leaders are accountable to a higher authority for their actions. 
When a leader in the church exercises control unrighteously, authority is perhaps officially lost.  But if nobody knows about it, that person is not removed from a position of authority, so everyone still thinks he has power.  If he is perceived to have power and is still free to act as though he has it, doesn't he still kind of have that power?  There are plenty of stories of bishops who have behaved inappropriately or acted inexcusably in their callings who were not officially stripped of their authority.  Abuses of power still happen in the church.  

Additionally, while bishops may be accountable to stake presidents for their actions, stake presidents don't and can't know everything that their bishops do.  A stake president swooping in to save the day and oust a bishop who's overstepping his bounds is possible, but, just like with our legal system, it can only happen after the abuse has already taken place.  How is this any better?  
  • Church leaders do not act alone or in secret.  Bishops and presidents have counselors, bishoprics and stake presidencies have councils, all of which provide "safety in numbers" and protection from things going awry by one's misperception of the authority of his or her office or calling.
No.  That is wrong.

First of all, when a bishop asks a teenage girl about her sexual "purity" in a worthiness interview, it is behind closed doors without a parent or another authority figure present.  That seems pretty secret to me.

And secondly, "safety in numbers" is not the same thing as separation of powers.  There may be three guys in a bishopric, but that doesn't create a system of checks and balances.  The bishop is still the only guy with official keys of priesthood authority and his councilors cannot overrule him.  There is no authority in the ward unit of equal power to the bishop and there isn't anything in the ward that isn't under the bishop's purview.  Congress can block a bill the President is trying to push through and vice verse, but the ward council can't override a bishop's veto.  There is no such thing as judicial review in the church.  There are no official checks and no valid balances.
  • As another source of protection, members can go to their bishop if they see ward leaders do things they feel are inappropriate; they can go to their stake president should they feel their bishop is out of line; they are free to go to the First Presidency if they feel their stake president is misguided. (And I know from personal experience that members do use all three of these recourses.)
If you see a cop step out of line, you can call the police and report the misuse of power.  If that doesn't work, you can contact your congressman to ask for legislation that will introduce more stringent oversight of police behavior.  And you can always write the President of the United States to let him know what's going on, too.

But, considering that leaders in the church are supposed to have authority from God, criticism of their actions tends to produce a stigma on the critic.  Criticism of elected leaders of the nation is much more welcome (and more prevalent), and because of that, I'd argue that you're more likely to be taken seriously reporting something as a citizen than reporting something as a member of the church.

My dad also mentions (in bullet points that, for brevity's sake, I won't quote) that the church trains people to keep power in the proper perspective by stressing that God has the power, by teaching that the office (as opposed to the man) possesses the authority, and by often demoting leaders rather than having them ascend up a "career path" of greater and greater responsibility.  Those arguments fall flat in my eyes because the general authorities are revered like rock stars and not treated as merely vessels for God's actions.  That treatment diminishes with each lower level of power.  Bishops get a little of it and stake presidents get a little more.  In theory, perhaps this builds character and teaches people to respect the responsible use of power, but in practice, it can backfire just as easily.  How many stories have we all heard about nazi zone leaders who gain a little bit of sway over their missionary peers and use it to make themselves feel strong and important?

There is nothing here that trumps society's legal system.  There is nothing here that preemptively stops the abuse of power.  My dad's original pointthat using punishment as a reactionary deterrent is sadly ineffectiveis correct.  But that's what Alma says that God does and that's all the church does.  And that's really all the church can do (although they could afford to do it more effectively) because there's no precognition.  There's no divine inspiration flooding in to stop abuse before it happens.  It's just a bunch of people who can't stop what they don't know about.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Alma 42: The Plan of Coercion

Alma has one more chapter of advice to give to his captive audience.


This Oughta Be Good
He begins:
And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understandwhich is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.
To his credit, Alma finally manages to address an crucial topic (instead of the relatively unimportant minutiae of the Spirit World and the resurrection).  But he seems to be saying here that he's about to demonstrate how God casting sinners down to eternal misery is supposed to be acceptable.

I, for one, am paying very close attention to this explanation, because it covers one of the more barbaric aspects of the Mormon God (or, I should say, the original Book of Mormon God, before Joseph Smith came up with the various degrees of glory) and I'm quite interested to see how this kind of behavior is justified, especially for a benevolent, perfected being.

Reading ahead, I can see that Alma is about to disappoint me in a most monumental fashion.


So Much for Article of Faith Number Two
At several different points in this chapter, Alma pretty much tosses the later Second Article of Faith ("We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression") out the window.  For example, verse 4:
And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.
Whoa.  No man other than Adam had actually done anything to repent of yet.  But God was so disappointed with Adam that you and I and everybody else was born into a system in which we're already assumed to be in debt.  We were born to repent.  I mean, obviously we'd have to sin first, but after what Adam did, that was a foregone conclusion in God's mind.  So much for not being punished for Adam's transgression.  Verse 12 drives home the point:
And now, there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience;
Alma (on God's behalf) is extrapolating Adam's behavior to include the entirety of the human race.  We didn't bring this fallen state upon ourselves because of our own disobedience.  Only Adam did.  But again, if we weren't being punished for Adam's mistakes, why are we under the onus of repenting for a fallen state?


Primal Wickedness is a State Ripe for Preparation
Verse 10 explains the purpose of our mortal lives following the fall of Adam:
Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state.
So, because some jerk ate a piece of forbidden fruit and made us evil, it's now our responsibility to prepare ourselves to become perfect.  I don't know that being "carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature" constitutes ideal conditions for that kind of preparation.  Innately wicked and cut off from the presence of he whose guiding had could do the most good, we're hopeless.



It's Justice Because I Just Called It Justice...Also, God.
Remember how Alma set out to demonstrate to Corianton how God condemning billions of people to a state of endless misery was actually an act of justice?  Well, here's a bunch of drivel about the balance between justice and mercy, which sadly constitutes the crux of his argument:
Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice.  Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence. 
So much is wrong with this line of reasoning.

First, Alma creates an arbitrary, faceless universal constant called "justice" and indicates that God, who's supposed to be all-powerful and loving, is forced to work inside of it.  But then he calls it "the justice of God," which makes it sound like something that God created rather than a rule he can't bend.  Is justice a construct of God or a constraint for God?  If it's a constraint, why is he not powerful enough to discard it?  If it's a construct, why is he so cruel as to think his children deserve eternal punishment, especially considering what he's put them through?

Second, if mercy is truly merciful, it shouldn't matter whether or not it destroys the work of justice.  The whole point of mercy is that it's offered despite the usual requirements of the situation.  If the mercy is conditional, it's not very merciful and it's definitely not the kind of behavior you should expect from an enlightened, loving god.

Third, Alma was trying to show that God's plan was just.  It sounds like he's trying to say that salvation is merciful and damnation is just.  But that doesn't explain why Corianton is supposed to believe that damnation is just.  If the kid doesn't believe it's right for God to consign some of his children to be eternally cut off from his presence, simply telling him, "it's the justice of God" isn't going to change his mind on the issue.  It certainly hasn't changed mine.  Alma's blundering through a sloppy explanation of the how, but he hasn't done much to allay his son's concerns about the why.

Corianton is probably sitting through this waiting for his dad to take a breath so that he can say, "Okay...and?"


Every Punishment is the ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT
Verse 16, quite simply, boggles my mind:
Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.
The way I'm reading it, this is teaching two things.  First, that you can't repent unless a punishment for your crime exists.  And, second, the punishment should be eternal because that's how long a soul lasts and that's how long a reward for good works lasts.  To which I say, what the hell?

You can't repent of anything unless there's an eternal punishment?  Why should every punishment be eternal?  That's kind of saying that every sin is the worst possible sin.  When you get to Hell, the length of your sentence for breaking the Word of Wisdom will be identical to the sentence that the rapists and child molesters get:  forever.  How is that just?
I guess the point Alma is trying to make here is about balance.  There's a balance between justice and mercy.  And there's apparently a balance between the reward given to those who take advantage of the atonement and the punishment given to those who don't.  But still.  Eternity?  After a certain amount of torture, haven't you done your time for all that swearing and iced tea drinking and spaghetti strap wearing?


God Sells His Children Short
For being created in God's image, we sure don't get much credit.  Look at Alma reason his way through an explanation of our Father in Heaven's moral universe:
Now, how could a man repent except he should sin?  How could he sin if there was no law?  How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
How could a man repent except he should sin?  That's what I was saying earlier!  God's just assuming that we'll need to repent because Adam made us all look bad.  But Alma's kind of approaching the problem backwards.  Instead of saying, how can a man overcome his sin except he should repent, he's saying, how can he repent unless he sins?  Which is totally bizarre to me.
Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
Oh, that's where remorse comes from?  Because when I do something bad, I don't think, "I'm so remorseful because I've broken the just law that God has given."  I think, "I hurt someone and I'm remorseful because that was a mean thing to do."  A lack of punishment doesn't preclude remorse.
Now, if there was no law givenif a man murdered he should diewould he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
Okay, this rationale works in the human legal system for two reasons.  One, because people are actually scum a lot of the time.  And two, because the laws and punishments are well-documented.  How many murderers are completely appalled that what they did was against the law?  How many don't realize that when you kill someone you run the risk of going to jail?  In contrast, though, God's punishment for murder is very poorly documented and a matter of debate.

Trying to create a fear of something that (thanks to Adam) we're naturally predisposed to do seems like a tactic that should be too barbaric and unsophisticated for an omniscient and loving Father in Heaven.
And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
Okay, maybe if there was no law, there could be no justice (in a criminal sense).  But mercy can exist in a legal vacuum.  You don't need laws to extend mercy.  Mercy could still have a perfectly valid "claim" upon "the creature."  And it's almost a moot point, considering that the "law" is sparingly "given" and most of those living under it have no clue.


God is One Sick Bastard
Verse 26 is supposed to be celebrating God, but it kind of makes him look bad:
And thus God bringeth about his great and eternal purposes, which were prepared from the foundation of the world.  And thus cometh about the salvation and the redemption of men, and also their destruction or misery.
So God's great and eternal purposes include sticking it to the jerks that didn't follow the plan that he erased their memory of.  Because all of this, as Alma says, was planned from the beginning.  So praise God for putting us into a situation in which the majority of us are going to fail and then suffer eternally for it.  Lucifer's plan, in case anyone's wondering, was more merciful.

Looks like we need to update Moses 1:39 to read:  "For behold, this is my work and my gloryto bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, as well as their destruction and misery."


Participation Optional, Consequences Required
But speaking of us being thrust into a system that will doom many of us, verse 27 presents a kind of disingenuous depiction of that scenario:
Therefore, O my son, whosoever will may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds. 
This makes it sound like God is issuing a cordial invitation to the Salvation Ball.  But even though it's apparently optional (because whosoever will not come is not compelled to come) the consequences are not optional.  If you don't want to play God's game, you still get to spend an eternity in misery.
There is no good way to opt out of this and there never has been.  Those who wanted to opt out before the plan actually went into action were cast out of Heaven with Lucifer.  If you didn't want to sign up for such a perilous endeavor, you could either suffer permanent punishment for it or go ahead with it anyway and still risk permanent punishment.

It's not "whosoever will come may come."  It's "whosoever hath a concern for self-preservation must come." God doesn't tolerate dissenters.