Saturday, September 27, 2014

Alma 35: Shortsighted Foreign Policy

The upper crust of Zoramite society doesn't approve of what Alma and his Super Missionary Friends have been up to.  The spread of the gospel among the poorer Zoramites has "[destroyed] their craft" and they decide to do something about it.

Musical Homelands
In keeping with the Book of Mormon's motif of frequent mass migrations, the wealthy Zoramites cleverly figure out who all of Alma's followers are and then kick them out of the country.  The believers flee to Jershon, where the Anti-Nephi-Lehi-People-of-Ammon have set up shop.  Both groups of people are devotees to the One True Religion, and they get along famously.

Unfortunately, the leader of the Zoramites is a vindictive grudge-holder and he orders the People of Ammon to turn away all the refugees.  The People of Ammon have no intention of abandoning their brethren in the faith, however, and ignore the Zoramite leader's request.  He, in turn, declares war.

So then the entire Ammonite population relocates to a place called Melek so that the land of Jershon can be used as a designated battleground for the impending showdown between the Nephites and the new Zoramite/Lamanite alliance.

Let's not forget that the Book of Mosiah was full of various groups of people sneaking off, moving around, joining other groups and moving again.  I think this plot device has run its course.

Priorities, People!
This is what you get when you stick your nose into other people's business:  all-out war.

Okay, maybe not, but this whole story reads like a cautionary tale about overreaching foreign policy and insensitivity toward other cultures.  Alma and his friends waltz in like they own the place, teach a different religion, upset the socioeconomic status quo (although, in their defense, it was an unfair one) and disrupt the Zoramite society to the point that people get kicked out of their homes.  Then, people who weren't even involved in the first place are also forced to abandon their homes as Alma's countrymen prepare for war against the Zoramites, who've roped in another initially uninvolved society to help.

And what have we learned from this by verse 14?
And Alma, and Ammon, and their brethren, and also the two sons of Alma returned to the land of Zarahemla, after having been instruments in the hands of God of bringing many of the Zoramites to repentance...
They're patting themselves on the back?  After all the damage they've caused, however indirectly, they still think they've been "instruments in the hands of God?"  Are they really that blind to the consequences of their actions?  Verse 14 continues:
...and as many as were brought to repentance were driven out of their land; but they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon, and they have taken up arms to defend themselves, and their wives, and children, and their lands.
Oh.  So it's okay that they were forcibly uprooted from the lives they knew, because they have a new home.  And it's also okay because they're about to defend their new home from the onslaught of armies led by a vengeful ruler.  A lot of these people are probably going to die and it's all because Alma and his cronies were such great instruments in the hands of God.  Isn't the gospel wonderful?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Alma 34: The Celestial Justice System

Now that Alma has preached himself hoarse, his loyal sidekick Amulek gets up to throw his two cents in.

Not to Keep Harping on How Dumb God is, But...
In verse 9, Amulek lays out the Plan of Salvation with stark simplicity:
For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
Let's apply this logic to a more familiar setting.  I'm going to start a business.  Unfortunately, my employees will not be perfect.  Rather than do something reasonable like give crappy raises to the people who screw up the most, I'm just going to send one of my VPs to a company meeting and have him tell my employees this:
You guys all suck.  But it's okay, because one day, we're going to hire some new guy who's actually good at this job, and instead of spreading the punishment out across each of you according to how much you suck individually, we're just going to fire that dude so that we don't have to fire any of you.
Yeah, it's not one hundred percent analogous, but I think it's close enough to make a fair point.  And I know the usual response in Mormonism is that God is limited by universal qualities of right and wrong, and that if he acted outside of those boundaries he wouldn't be God and what he's really doing is working within the rules as much as possible to do us a huge favor, but come on.  If he were really doing us such a favor he wouldn't have put us into this defeatist system in the first place.  He would have found some other way to accomplish whatever he's trying to do.

What Brilliant Reasoning
To further explain the need for an infinite atonement, Amulek references secular law:
Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.  Now if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother?  I say unto you, Nay.
But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world. 
So what Amulek is saying here is that the atonement is necessary for inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but if I cross the border into New York, where they don't have the death penalty, I don't need someone to atone for my sins.

Just kidding.  What he's really saying is that since nobody (except apparently Jesus) can atone for anyone's sins other than his own, what we need is one guy (apparently Jesus) to submit to some mindbogglingly infinite sacrifice so that everybody's sins are covered.

What this doesn't address, though, is why we can't all be punished for our own crap.  Isn't that actually the purer form of justice?  I screwed up, I do my time, I'm out in ten years, everybody wins.  Or maybe we're all just that horribly evil that there's no way we could ever serve our own sentences.  Which leads me to question why God would design us to be that weak and that corruptible, especially considering we were made in his image.

The Old Justice-and-Mercy Ploy
Amulek then goes into lengthy ruminations on the interplay between justice and mercy.  Justice requires that we're punished for our sins, but God is merciful and that's why he's providing an atonement.  My problem is that I'm still not seeing why the mercy is really necessary.  What makes our crimes so horrible that we'd have to suffer eternally for them?  I'm fine with paying the price for the wrongs I've committed, especially since I know that nothing I've ever done merits an infinite sentence in the fiery joint.

And, let's be honest, we learn better when we see negative consequences for our mistakes.  If God sent a savior to allow us to escape the worst of the consequences, won't we just be spiritual adolescents for the rest of forever, constantly expecting God to send a savior to bail us out whenever we paint ourselves into a corner?  Pure justice sounds like it's better for everyone.  The mercy is only needed when the punishment is eternal, and I've yet to see an explanation for why anything like an eternal punishment would ever be on the table.

Amulek says we'll perish without the atonement.  But why?  Sure, we could suffer without the atonement, but why "perish?"  He's trying to make it sound like God is bending over backwards for us, but he doesn't explain the premise of his argument.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Church-Who-Condemns-Hypocrisy
Alma's wingman makes a very valid point in verse 28:
And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance if ye have, to those who stand in needI say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is in vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who deny the faith.
This is an important thing to say.  If you profess belief and pray to God and then act like a selfish jerk all the time, you shouldn't count as a follower of Christ.  But the problem is that the largest religious organization endorsing the book from which these words are taken doesn't exactly measure up.

By its own claim, the LDS church has "rendered" 1.3 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance between 1985 and 2010.  By Reuters' best guess, the same organization receives about 7 billion dollars in annual revenue.  If we break the humanitarian assistance down into a yearly average, it comes out to roughly 50 million dollars a year, which is less than one percent of the tithes and offerings it receives.  While this is hardly an exact scientific assessment, it's still not even close to what you'd expect a church so proud of its volunteerism and generosity to offer.  If the church expects its members to donate ten percent of their money to tithing, shouldn't its organization at least be willing to spare ten percent of its billions to charities?

Perhaps the Church Office Building is a collective hypocrite that has denied the faith.

Scare 'Em Into Submission
Let it never be said (except that I probably already have) that Joseph Smith didn't have a way with words.  I mean, lots of this book is utter drivel, but when he's on, he's on and he can really turn a phrase.  The following few verses (a scripture mastery, I believe, for you ex-seminary students) showcase some of my favorite prose in the Book of Mormon as Amulek tries to use fear to get his audience to commit right away:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God.  Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
The unspoken follow-up here is, "And death can happen at any time, without warning, so you better act fast!"  We're all mortal, and that kind of thing is always in the backs of our minds.  While I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn't put important things off because we can never be sure how much time we'll have, this is a pretty clear case of fear-mongering from where I'm sitting.  Not only does Amulek urge the Zoramites to repent before they die, but he also goes so far as to tell them that they won't be able to after they die.  Apparently when God blows the whistle it's "time's up and pencils down."  So if you don't repent now, you're running a pretty huge risk of being eternally screwed.

That doesn't seem like an extremely healthy thing to preach.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Temple WORK

One of my sisters is a temple worker.  She referred to this in a recent email:
Saturday was temple day.  I guess I need to stop expecting that things can run smoothly because they never do and that is frustrating.  You'd think of all the places on earth, the temple should be orderly!  It's a challenge on a bilingual shift, and I guess we managed, but once again I didn't have enough workers to do what needed to be done.  I think I worked a couple of them too hard.  We also had very very large baptismal groups, to the point that I was worried we wouldn't be able to get the laundry done fast enough to have enough clean and dry towels.  When I got this shift coordinator assignment, I thought it would be a lot easier.
It's uncanny how much this sounds like something I might say when complaining about my job.  A few of the details need tweaking, of course, but the sentiments are exactly the same.  I don't understand how this isn't ruining the magic of the temple for her.  If it takes planning and multitasking like a job, stresses you out like a job, requires adherence to a specific schedule like a job and quacks like a job, then it's probably not a special assignment to do the Lord's work.

The only difference in my mind is that, unlike a job, she doesn't get paid for this.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Alma 33: Dead Prophets Society

After a nice heavy chapter of deep metaphorical discussion, this one is basically filler.  Except that, instead of tossing in some Isaiah to pad his word count, here Joseph Smith makes up two brand new ancient prophets to refer to.

They Won't Understand Without the Poetry
Alma wants to explain to the poor Zoramites that they can still worship God even though the snobby Zoramites have banned them from their synagogues.  To illustrate his point, he quotes a "prophet of old" named Zenos.  The quote is basically to the effect of, "God always heard my prayers and has been merciful to me because of the Atonement."  Except that it takes eight verses.

You see, the nuance of Zenos's sermons were important for Alma to relate.  Not only did God hear Zenos's prayer when he was in the wilderness, but he also heard Zenos's prayer when he was in his field, in his house, in his closet, in the midst of congregations, and when he had been cast out and despised by his enemies.  Sure, you could argue that the passage is poetic, but I think the point is made quite effectively in the first example.  Any modern reader would have understood perfectly without some poor Nephite schmuck slaving over a slab of metal to scratch in all the poetic repetitions.

Two Witnesses:  Infinitely More Credible Than One
Alma has already quoted one prophet that nobody (except for maybe his original audience) has ever heard of.  But he's about to outdo himself by doing the same thing a second time:
For it is not written that Zenos alone spake of these things, but Zenock also spake of these things
Holy crap!  You mean Zenos wasn't the only prophet who ever taught about the Son of God?!  Hold onto your seats, ladies and gentlemen, because it's going to blow you away when I reveal the other guy you've never heard ofsame name, I just changed the soft S at the end to a hard C.  Everybody still with me?  Okay, it's safe to breathe now.

Finally, in verse 19, Alma provides an example useful for the period in history for which this record was inspired (meaning the present day):  Moses.  We all know that guy, so we can actually go look up what he taught when Alma references him.  But the rest of this stuff was pretty useless.

The Healing Serpent as a Sloppy Type of Christ
Alma also discusses the story from the Book of Numbers of the bronze serpent erected by Moses.  A simple glance upward at it would heal any victim of a fatal snake bite.  Alma says that there were many who refused to believe the statue could heal them and died because they wouldn't look at it.  He then compares this to Christ, claiming that the solution is so simplelook to Christ and live.

This is a terrible comparison.

Take your average Israelite who's been bitten by a snake.  He knows he's been bitten and understands that there is a problem and is familiar with the concept of physical death.  In his throes of dying agony, he'll probably think, "Hey, I should probably look at that snake.  I don't want to die so I'll try anything."

Take your average non-Christian.  Assuming Alma's religion is the correct one, this guy has no idea that he's in any danger because he hasn't seen the prospect of Hell slither up to him and sink its fangs into his ankle.  He's not familiar with the concept of spiritual death and he has no idea that there's a problem.  If he lives to a ripe old age and begins to worry on his death bed, he might think, "Hey, I should probably give this religion thing a chance.  I don't know what will happen to me when I die so I'll try anything."

Is that really the attitude Alma expects people to have?  I thought he wanted strong, passionate, constantly nurtured faith. His argument seems to consist of "accepting Christ is so easy, you'd be an idiot not to do it."  Except that it's really not that easy.  Looking at the serpent provides an instantaneous and permanent relief from a lethal ailment.  Looking to Christ (at least in Mormonism) requires a constant belief, dedicated church service, plenty of "good works," numerous ordinances, and enduring to the end.  It's not as simple as a quick glance at the prophet's sculpture.

Buuuuut I guess if you're trying to convince people to join your silly religion, you'll probably want to make things sound as simple as possible.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mo Pas

My girlfriend and I visited my parents recently.  My sister and her husband were there.  While it was nice to reconnect with them, some of the conversations can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright untenable.

My sister, who is slightly Facebook-phobic but has a sparsely updated account (mostly at her husband's behest, I suspect) was discussing the family members who she's friends with on that wonderful social media site that everyone loves to hate.  She said she was tired of our aunt's constant political posts, which I could understand.  And then she moved onto our cousin.

My sister disgustedly described our cousin's updates.  "She posts such horrible pictures of herself all the time," she whined.  "She looks awful.  She's clearly not active in the church.  I'm sick of seeing it."

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. 

First of all, where does my cousin get the audacity to post pictures reflecting her own lifestyle on her personal Facebook page for anyone who has willingly accepted her friend request to see?  Am I right?

Now, I don't have this cousin on Facebook, so I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure she's not posting snapshots of her heroin needles and her dildos.  I'm guessing it may be some tattoos and maybe some pictures involving alcohol or cigarettes from a night out with her friends.  It's simply astonishing what people can choose to be disgusted by and horrifying how easily people can mentally elevate themselves above their peers based on non-substantive offenses.

This, of course, is a perfect opportunity for some self-referential irony, considering how disgusted I am with my sister's judgment and how much I think I'm better than she is because of it.  But I think an important difference is that I'm a "victim" of her judgment.  She acted so abhorred by the non-Mormon lifestyle while she was sitting five feet away from her obviously non-Mormon brother.  Classy move, sis.

I don't really hold it against her, because everyone says stupid stuff from time to time.  But I do consider it further evidence of the closed-minded judgmental worldview fostered by a lifetime of Mormon indoctrination.  My sister's hurtful, insensitive comment just makes me hate the church that little bit extra.

I think this kind of stuff is happening more often these days.  I think everyone in my family is getting a little exhausted about dancing around the ex-Mormon elephant in the room.  Filters between brains and tongues are wearing out, mine included.  I don't really know what that means, but I hope it leads to more open and more useful discussion.

I don't know.  I guess we'll see.