Thursday, July 31, 2008

Some good news . . . some, anyway . . .

Tonight our town council voted unanimously to pass a new ordinance, effective immediately, that considerably reduces the maximum fees that towing companies can charge. The company that's been doing the towing at our apartment complex complained in advance of the meeting that the proposed ordinance—now in force—would probably prevent them from being able to work in our town. (They're located two cities away from us.) One town official I spoke with after the meeting theorized that the towing we've been seeing over the past couple of days was a big push by the towing company to make as much money as they could before the ordinance passed. There are times I wish I believed in hell . . .

As I was sitting in the council chamber before the meeting started, I realized how utterly exhausted I felt, even feverish. It's from being angry all day. "Why am I angry because of my enemy? . . . Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul" (2 Ne. 4:27-28). What happened tonight was a good thing. I'm grateful to the mayor, grateful to our town government. I'm grateful to God. On the other hand, the new ordinance only mitigates, not resolves, the exploitation. The new ordinance only mandates that the powers that be strike somewhat softer blows on the backs of the poor.

And another one...

I just looked out my window and saw another car getting towed from our parking lot! The parking lot is practically empty—not just because people are going off to work, but because residents are now parking in the visitor slots to avoid getting towed. But there aren't enough visitor slots to accommodate every resident who hasn't yet been able to satisfy management's requirements for a parking permit. So inevitably—someone gets picked off.

This is harassment. Towing a car a day—at least?! Are they trying to pressure people to move out? How else can this aggressive enforcement be explained? What really galls me about it is that even as they're towing cars, they still expect people to pay their rent, of course; and I know of at least one case where a resident would like to move somewhere else but the management won't let her out of her lease, meaning that if she bends to pressure and moves, she'll forfeit her deposit. It's exploitative. It makes me burning angry. I'm this close to storming over to the office and launching into a tirade, except that won't do any good. Instead I attend meetings at town hall and write letters to the papers, and so far it all feels more ineffectual than otherwise.

Someday the people who run this apartment complex are going to stand in front of the King. And the King will say to them, "When I was a resident at Abbey Court, trying to raise a family on minimum wage, you denied me a parking permit and then towed my car because I didn't have the permit you refused to give me." And they'll say, "Lord, when did you ever live in Abbey Court?" And then the King will answer . . . well, you know the rest.

Melodramatic? I won't argue with you there. But we're talking here about rich people f***ing with poor people's lives. Melodramatic scriptural language about judgment and "wo to the rich oppressor" exists for situations like this.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another car towed...

At 5 a.m. this morning, I was awakened by the sound of a tow truck outside in our parking lot. They were working fast and furious, of course, trying to get out before a crowd could gather. They were already pulling out by the time Hugo and I threw on our clothes and ran downstairs. It turned out that the car belonged to one of our upstairs neighbors.

Yesterday, one of the papers reported that the owner of the apartments had said he would relax the standards for getting parking stickers. I'd hoped that was a good sign. But this business of sending tow trucks in the wee hours of the morning to "hitch and run" strikes me as very low. Meanwhile, the people responsible are doubtless sound asleep at their homes...

I have heard your prayers,
and the poor have complained before me,
and the rich have I made,
and all flesh is mine,
and I am no respecter of persons.
(D&C 38:16)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Working for justice at Abbey Court

This is a follow up to my recent midnight post about the confrontation in my apartment complex over the management towing residents' cars. On Sunday, Hugo and I attended the meeting that our mayor convened to discuss residents' grievances. It was democracy in action, which I find somewhat uncomfortable, frankly (people pontificate, say intemperate things, don't stay on task or on topic, etc.), but that's how democracy works. Certainly I appreciate city officials' active interest in trying to help. At the same time, I found the meeting somewhat discouraging because it became pretty clear to me that while our contact with city officials can be very helpful over the long term at improving conditions in the apartments (e.g., management is now under pressure to conform with safety and health regulations), it's also clear that the undocumented status of many residents prevents them from being able to avail themselves of services that might otherwise help (like free legal services). And the city's basically powerless to stop the immediate problem of towing.

Still, it's been encouraging to see local media cover the story; to read editorials in support of the residents; to know that local progressives are watching and are helping to publicize the situation. In the end, I suspect bad p.r. is our only effective means of getting management to back off the unreasonable parking policy. A website's been created to help with publicity: It's rapidly emerging as a good clearinghouse of information about what's going on.

I'm commenting about all this here on the blog because I see this as a social justice issue, which makes it a spiritual issue for me. During the "Prayers of the People" at the Episcopal church on Sunday, I voiced a prayer for a just resolution to the tensions between management and tenants at Abbey Court. It's in my personal prayers as well. A little earlier tonight my thoughts were drawn to the parable of the unjust judge in D&C 101, which teaches an overtly political lesson about the importance of repeatedly demanding justice from people in power until you finally "weary" them into doing what's right, even if it's just to get you off their backs. I think that's what we're going to have to do with the owner and manager of our apartment complex.

Visit And pray that justice will be done in this little corner of the world.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Alma 40: Revelation is messy

My Book of Mormon reading this week was Alma 40-42, but I'm going to focus my reflection on Alma 40. As I often do, I'll start by venting about what annoys me in this chapter; then I'll transition into more of a "humble seeker" mode. If God wants consecration—if he wants me to lay everything before him—then I figure he wants my venting as well as my humility. Think of it as a very frank conversation I'm having with Someone from whom I can't conceal anything anyway.

So, on to the venting: Alma says in this chapter that he has "inquired diligently" to know—and has received revelation from an angel about it—the answer to the question: What becomes of people's souls from the time of death to the time of the resurrection? Now, to Latter-day Saints who have grown up learning the answer to that question as part of the conventional schematic of the plan of salvation, this might seem like a rather mundane question. But in fact, when you think about it, it's really quite arcane. I mean, if we Latter-day Saints didn't already have an answer, it's the kind of question that would fall into the category of "mysteries," those not-yet-revealed matters we're not supposed to waste our time delving into.

You might be thinking at this point: "What are you talking about, John-Charles? The state of the soul after death isn't some arcane matter—it's an important part of understanding human destiny." Granted. But let's be more precise. What practical difference does it make to know what Alma tells us in chapter 40—that before the resurrection and the final judgment, when the righteous inherit the kingdom of God and the wicked are cast out, there's a period when the spirits of the righteous rest in a state of happiness called paradise while the spirits of the wicked sit in darkness, waiting fearfully for God's judgments to fall upon them?

Basically what Alma's telling us is: the righteous are happy after death, and the wicked suffer. This is hardly earth-shattering news. Don't stop the presses. The Nephites have known this since king Benjamin's address at least. The extra information Alma 40 provides (that your happiness or suffering begin in the interim period between death and the resurrection) doesn't give sinners any more reason to repent than king Benjamin's address had already given them. And what other practical consequence is there to knowing the state of the soul between death and resurrection except to inspire sinners to repent and escape the wrath that is to come? I could see how there would be practical consequence if the angel had also taught Alma about vicarious work for the dead, but there's no indication that's the case. Alma's teachings about resurrection and restoration in chapters 41-42 have practical consequence as a rebuttal to universalism and thus as a motivation to repent. But I just don't see any practical consequence to the teaching in Alma 40, especially considering how often Alma still says: Now I don't know such-and-such, and this part here is just my opinion, etc. This chapter is just so much fretting over cosmological and theological details.

To put it bluntly: This strikes me as a stupid question for Alma to be obsessing over compared to the weightier, more practical matters he might be asking God to send him revelation about.

Ok, end of venting. What do I sense the Spirit may be trying to teach me through this chapter?

First, the chapter tells me that God is willing to give people revelation about whatever questions concern them. However stupid your quandaries or anxieties might seem to other people, if it bothers you, God cares. (Actually, it occurs to me that as an academic, I'm hardly in a position to be faulting other people for investing their energies in investigating arguably arcane questions.) And if you inquire diligently, God will give you personal revelation. The image of an angel coming to teach Alma about the state of the soul between death and resurrection illustrates that promise very dramatically.

However, this chapter also shows me that revelation, even if it comes in so dramatic a form as an angelic visitation, is . . . problematic. Despite having received communications from an angel, there's still a lot that Alma doesn't really know. There are still questions he can't answer, things he can only speculate or opine about. Revelation didn't tell him everything there was to learn about his question. And while Alma signals at some points where his own opinion or understanding begins, it still isn't really clear to us as readers how much of Alma's teaching in this chapter represents revealed knowledge, because Alma (unlike, say, king Benjamin or Nephi) doesn't try to quote the angel's words for us. What exactly did the angel tell Alma? How much of this chapter actually reproduces the angel's teachings, and how much of it may be Alma's own extrapolitions or interpretations? We don't know.

The lesson I take from this is that while LDS tradition underscores the importance of revelation—scriptural, prophetic, personal—the tradition also cautions us that revelation is messy. As D&C 9 indicates, human reflection and deduction and speculation are integral to the process of receiving revelation. To an orthodox mind, revelation is supposed to provide a sure ground for knowledge, contrasted to the limitedness and fallibility of human knowledge. But in fact, there is no clear-cut boundary between revelation and human knowledge. As in Alma 40, so in everyday life, it isn't clear where revealed knowledge ends and human understanding begins. Which means that revelation doesn't provide in practice the basis for certainty that the orthodox want it to provide in theory. Revelation—or if you want to be really precise about it, the knowledge that we understand to be revealed—is fallible precisely because it is made manifest in and to and through our limited human understanding.

There's no point in letting yourself be paralyzed by this reality. You seek revelation to the questions that trouble you, you make sense as best you can of the knowledge that seems to be coming to you via revelation (whether scriptural, prophetic, or personal), and then you act on the best knowledge you have. But it's also healthy to maintain a tentative attitude, as Alma does in this chapter, recognizing the limits of your knowledge even when you believe that knowledge comes by revelation.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Standing up to be counted

It's late, but I can't sleep. There was an incident earlier this evening in the apartment complex where I live. Our complex has been in the local news lately because the management has been towing residents' cars for not having the parking stickers that the management recently began to require . . . but the management has also been refusing to give stickers to many residents either because they can't show the cars are registered or simply because the management objects to the physical appearance of the car: scuffed paint, dents, etc. The residents here are heavily working-class (though the management likes to describe our apartments as "condominiums"); they've also become very heavily—it's probably safe to say, predominantly—Latino. Last week, residents began demonstrating outside the office to protest the towing. When I spoke with the protestors, they gave me different numbers for how many cars have been towed, but they ranged from ten to forty. People have become so scared of getting towed that at night, our parking lot is practically empty, because everyone who couldn't get a sticker is parking in the newly designated visitor parking spaces instead. (Hugo and I didn't have any problem getting our sticker.)

For context, I should add that there are other reasons to be dissatisfied with the management—cockroach problems, slow repairs, our water unexpectedly being shut off for hours at a time. For a while the management seemed to be reaching out to Latino renters, hiring a native Spanish speaker to work in the office; then there was a turnover, and I'm told that the new management has a "no Spanish in the office" policy. And the rent jumps up every year. Last year, Hugo and I got fed up with the situation and jumped at the chance to move into a different apartment—a privately owned apartment—in our same building, which has spared us some, though not all, of the problems other residents face. The complex has a reputation for being dangerous, which the management has addressed by hiring security to patrol at night and installing new fencing at the complex perimeter. A couple years ago, there was a murder-suicide out in our parking lot; Hugo and I were home when it happened, heard the gunshots, saw the bodies.

Anyway, that's all background for what happened tonight. It was about 9:00 p.m., Hugo and I were in the apartment with one of my professors, wrapping up a dinner, when we heard someone outside yell, in Spanish, "They're taking the car!" We looked out the window and, sure enough, there was a tow truck in our parking lot. This, I was told later, is part of the management's modus operandi: towing the cars late at night when people hopefully won't notice. We ran downstairs. Hugo owns a journalistic-looking camera, which he began to use to photograph what was happening; he ended up getting in an altercation with a security guard who demanded to know which media he represented. Meanwhile, a small crowd was gathering from the various buildings, mostly Latino but also some African-Americans and a smattering of whites. (I became vividly aware tonight how few white residents there are.) The owner of the car (Latino) came out and tried to put a baby in a car seat into the vehicle as they were beginning to tow it so they'd have to stop. The car was in motion at the time, because they were just starting to hoist it up onto the truck, and the open door got wedged up against the side of the adjacent vehicle. That put a halt to things.

Pretty soon three cop cars showed up. The crowd was really tense, and I wondered if things might get a bit violent. That didn't happen, fortunately. The cops had us all move back, and then there was a long process of hearing everyone's stories. Meanwhile, people kept taking pictures with digital cameras or their cell phones. One white resident from the next building over—I don't know him by name, but we've crossed paths and chatted a few times while I've been walking the dog—was on his cell phone at one point, calling a news outlet it sounded like. The young Latino guy who'd been in charge at last week's protest was on the phone with someone from the town's Human Rights office. Finally, after probably about an hour, the tow truck packed up and left . . . without the car, which felt like a victory until I heard people saying that the owner had had to pay $100.

By now, I'd noticed that a white late-thirties-looking guy in a Weaver Street t-shirt (Weaver Street's the local progressive health foods store) had ridden up on a bicycle and was talking with the young protest organizer. At first my understanding was that this new guy was from the Human Rights office, but it turned out this was actually the mayor! After the tow truck and the cops left, the crowd gathered around the mayor, and he spoke with them in Spanish for another hour or so. He explained that he'd been trying to resolve the issue with the owner of the apartment complex and asked for a volunteer who would be willing to file a formal complaint, realizing that this might invite retaliation from the management. He listened to people's complaints about the state of the apartments. One woman asked for help getting out of her lease so she could move somewhere else. (It hadn't occurred to me until then that the management has residents trapped unless they're willing to forfeit their deposits.)

I didn't hear a lot of this conversation because I needed to walk the dog, who had been sitting with Job-like patience on her leash while I stood around watching all this unfold. But I got back to hear the mayor announce a meeting at the town hall this Sunday to continue to discuss the issue. As he was leaving, I introduced myself to the mayor. I told him that because I rent a privately owned apartment, I'm in a better position than many other residents to stick my neck out to file a formal complaint, though the fact I rent a privately owned apartment also means I don't have a lot of the problems other residents have. He told me that four other people had, in fact, volunteered to file complaints, but he asked me to keep in touch with him by email. By now the crowd was dispersing; the mayor had urged us all to go home so security wouldn't give us trouble after he left. So I went back up to the apartment a little after 11 p.m., in time to watch most of The Daily Show.

There's certainly been an element of adrenaline rush to all this. I was glad to see a degree of solidarity among residents, especially across racial lines (though that, admittedly, was rather brief since the long conversation with the mayor was in Spanish). I'm glad that this one car, at least, was spared. I'm glad that we were able to stand up to the tow truck—though of course, they're just doing what they were hired to do; the people we were really standing up to were the management, who weren't anywhere near the scene, and to the owner of the complex, who lives in another city. I'm grateful for the mayor's presence and involvement. And I'm grateful that I could contribute, even if only by my presence there on the sidelines with others. I get timid in public demonstrations, but I'm glad that the Spirit gave me the courage to stay. I'm glad the Spirit helped me overcome my shyness about approaching the mayor. I'm glad that I opened my mouth (as the scriptures say) to speak with people standing around me, to make some gesture toward showing that I'm part of this, that I'm standing up to be counted. Hugo and I will be at that meeting on Sunday. And we'll see what else we can do to be involved. "Anxiously engaged"—it was inevitable I'd get around to using that phrase.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alma 36-39

Miscellaneous reflections from this week's reading:

36:4-5, 26; 38:6  Alma's testimony is based not on "the temporal" or "carnal mind" but on "the spiritual," i.e., on his experience of God's transforming power in his life. Alma is openly perspectival: He would not know these things if not for his experiences, and others will see the way he sees only if they have had the same kind of spiritual experience he has. This principle is a big part of why I take a dim view of apologetics. Trying to create rational or empirical grounds for believing in LDS faith claims (or any other religious claims) appeals to the carnal mind. Such appeals may persuade people of the plausibility of LDS faith claims, and might even make some naive people feel that the truth of their faith has been rationally or empirically demonstrated. But these appeals don't (can't) bring people the experiential knowledge that is the basis of religious conviction. The only way to get that kind of knowledge is—as Alma explained last week—to experiment on the word and then discern the voice and influence of the Spirit in your life.

36:23-24  For some reason, when I read these verses this week, it really jumped out at me that the metaphor of "being born of God" makes God a mother. I've known that at a cerebral level for I don't know how long. But I really felt it this week for some reason. In baptism, we enter and then emerge from God's womb; and then like a newborn taking in the breath of life, we are commanded to receive the Holy Spirit—which in the biblical languages is literally the same as saying the Holy Breath.

37:8  Alma says that the scriptures enlarge the memory of the people. That phrase strikes me. Scripture—and I would add, ritual—serve to enlarge our memories. Through them, we tap into the collective memory of a people, of multiple peoples even, who thus become our spiritual forebears, our ancestors, if only by adoption. Their stories become our stories. God's promises to them become God's promises to us. Their commitments become our commitments. It occurs to me, in fact, that the collective memory I access through LDS scripture and ritual is more relevant to me than the collective memory of my literal ancestors, largely because I don't come from a close-knit extended family, or a family with a strong ethnic identity, and so I don't really have a sense of my family heritage.

As I write this, my parents are off in Scotland, doing genealogy and visiting the places our ancestors came from. A couple weeks ago, they sent me a postcard of a beach in what my father described as the "ancestral home" of one our lines. I looked at it, and I thought—"Hunh." No emotional connection. These are my people, but not in any really meaningful sense, at least not for me. But the ancient peoples whose scriptures I hear read in church every Sunday, and the much younger faith community my parents joined as teenagers, whose functionaries recently decided they don't want me on their membership rolls anymore—those are my people, my forebears. Those are the people whose collective memory enlarges my own.

37:36-37  Alma urges Helaman to let all his doings be to the Lord—wherever you go, let it be in the Lord, let all your thoughts be directed to the Lord, let the affections of your heart be placed on the Lord. It occurred to me that what Alma's talking about here is consecration. A life of consecration involves laying our actions, our needs, our movements, our thoughts, our desires before God through prayer. A life of consecration is therefore a life of prayer, and vice-versa. And the key word for me here was "affections." A consecrated life is lived out of affection for God. Our relationship with God is an affectionate one—which implies that God feels affection for us, too. Somehow, talking about "affection" rather than "love" seems more concrete and less slippery. A person can claim to "love" you even when they're hurting you ("I'm doing it for your own good, because I love you"), but that claim rings hollow a lot more readily if someone hurts you while claiming to be "affectionate" toward you.

39:15; cf. 37:9  Alma tells Corianton that Christ comes to declare "glad tidings." Earlier, he had told Helaman that to be brought to repentance is synonymous with being brought "to rejoice in Jesus Christ." At one level, these are clichés, but I was struck by how these expressions, if we really take them seriously, provide a counterweight, maybe even an antidote, to Alma's own sectarian tendency to preach by fear and guilt. Christ's message is a glad message. To repent means to rejoice. There's something to be said for prophetic teaching that warns and rebukes, that invites self-criticism and penitence, that delivers a well-aimed kick to the seat. But an ostensibly Christian life that is not a life of joy and gladness is not the real article.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Excommunication anniversary

A year ago at this very hour I was getting ready for the disciplinary council that—a couple hours from now, one year ago—decided to excommunicate me. Because I knew this anniversary was coming up, certain passages from my Book of Mormon reading last week jumped out at me in light of my excommunication, i.e., the verses in Alma 32 and 33 about how we don't need to be in a congregation in order to worship God. "O God," Zenos prays in Alma 33:9-10, "you have been merciful to me and heard my cries in the midst of your congregations; and you have also heard me when I have been cast out . . ." Alma tells the Zoramites in 32:12, "It is well that you are cast out of your synagogues, that you may be humble and that you may learn wisdom." Later he tells them that if they suppose they cannot worship God outside the synagogues, "you do greatly err, and . . . if you suppose that [the scriptures] have taught you this, you do not understand them" (33:2).

It's tempting to lapse into a kind of defiant mode as I talk about this, but that's not the spirit I want to have with me right now. When I read Alma 32:12 last week, I penciled in the margin: "Did my excommunication make me more humble? More wise?" That question hangs in the air, challenging me.

I feel moved to say this, and it's something between a prayer and a testimony: I'm thankful that I felt as positive as I did about the disciplinary council at the time it happened. I felt that the stake president and I had reached a place of disagreement but mutual respect; he'd been unexpectedly, amazingly, forthcoming about Church headquarters' role in the process (after some initial dissembling); and that made the excommunication feel like a friendly divorce, which was the best outcome I thought I could expect. In the months since then, I've come to feel rather less positive about things, largely because I ran up against the unpleasant realization that I was never actually told why I was excommunicated (only what I'd been charged with), which means that Church officials can tell the media whatever's convenient for them to claim about my excommunication, and I'm in no position to contradict them.

But that thought's taking me somewhere I don't want to go tonight. What I wanted to say was this: I'm thankful the experience was as positive as it was at the time. And I'm thankful for the many ways and places I've encountered God during the years since I withdrew from LDS Church activity. I'm thankful that my convert parents made a point of raising me with the understanding that Latter-day Saints don't have a monopoly on love of God and Christ. I'm thankful that they provided me with my first experiences of attending non-LDS worship services. I'm thankful that after I stopped attending the LDS Church, I found my way to St. Mark's Episcopal in Salt Lake. I'm thankful for Michael Chase, may he rest in peace (except he probably doesn't believe he's dead—he was a fan of Mary Baker Eddy's writings, so he didn't believe death was real), who kept me following my spiritual impulses even when I wasn't sure I believed in God anymore. I'm thankful for the Catholic mission that let me spend a few months in the Dominican Republic with them, even though they realized a lot quicker than I did that I wasn't right for them, because it was that experience that made me realize beyond any doubt that I still believed in God. I'm thankful that my friend Lucy was inspired to suggest I do a retreat at the Trappist monastery in Huntsville, Utah, and I'm thankful they let me, because the personal revelation I received during that retreat is why I'm still calling myself Mormon today, even after my excommunication. And I'm thankful for the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, here in North Carolina, who practice "radical hospitality" and therefore allow me to worship with them, and serve with them, even though I refuse to become fully one with them.

I feel a little sad now—but blessed, too. "You are merciful, O God, for you have heard my prayer." In lots of places.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Experimental spirituality and Christian life

My Book of Mormon reading this week was Alma 32-35, Alma's discourse on faith and Amulek's discourse on repentance—or as I currently prefer to call them, Alma’s discourse on experimental spirituality and Amulek’s discourse on Christian life.

Alma’s discourse begins when Zoramites who have been cast out of the synagogues come to him and ask, “We have no place to worship our God; what shall we do?” (32:5). I’ll have more to say about being cast out of the synagogue when I reflect on the anniversary of my excommunication later this week. For now, let me just note that Alma tells them it’s actually a good thing they’ve been cast out because it means they are “necessarily brought to be humble” and lowly of heart (32:12), by which he means, in more concrete terms, that they’re now open to receiving a different message.

Alma then gives his famous definition of faith as not having a perfect knowledge but rather hoping for things you do not see. And with that in mind, Alma urges the Zoramites to “experiment”—his word—with the new form of spirituality he’s promoting. Even if you can only desire to believe, he says, let that desire work in you until you can give place for at least a portion of the new teachings (32:27). Note that he’s not saying you have to accept everything he says—you can be selective. It’s okay to embrace just the part that feels right to you; in fact, he goes so far as to say it’s okay to embrace just the part you want to. And then once you’ve made the experiment, see how it feels. Does this teaching make you feel that your soul is being enlarged? Your understanding enlightened? Is it delicious to you? (32:28) Later he talks about feeling that your mind is expanding (32:34).

Alma’s describing what Latter-day Saints usually call a testimony. Except Alma is quick to clarify that these kinds of experiences do not constitute “perfect knowledge.” Yes, you can say on the basis of these experiences that you know the seed is good. But you can’t “lay aside your faith” (32:36). You can’t say, “I used to have only faith, but now I know.” Rather, you have to continue in this attitude of experimenting, hoping, desiring, trusting without being altogether certain, watching to see whether you feel enlarged, enlightened, etc. Because we’re talking about faith, not perfect knowledge—because you’re engaged in an ongoing experiment—you might be right, you might be wrong. Combining Alma’s discourse with LDS teachings elsewhere about continuing revelation, I’d add that you should expect your views to change as you continue, as Alma says, to nourish the word with faith and patience and diligence, allowing it to take root in you and to bring forth fruit (32:42).

That describes my approach to LDS spirituality—discerning, selective, experimental, but at the same time diligent, conscientious, disciplined (trying, at least) in my ongoing engagement with the word.

Then Amulek adds another piece to this: How do you “exercise your faith unto repentance” (34:17)? In other words, how do you translate belief and testimony into a new way of living? As Amulek lays it out in the latter half of chapter 34 (after elaborating a theory of the atonement in the first part of the chapter), Christian life has two main components: prayer and charity. He says we should pray for our livelihood (34:20, 24-25). We should pray at morning, midday, and evening, which I take to mean we should pray over meals (34:21). We should pray for peace and freedom (34:22). Prayer is intimacy with God (34:26). It draws our hearts out to God and also out to those around us, for whose welfare we should be praying in addition to our own (34:27). Later in the chapter, Amulek talks about worshipping God wherever we are and living in thanksgiving daily. Our whole lives, in other words, should be an act of worship, lived out of a sense of gratitude and of experiencing the abundance of God’s “mercies and blessings” (34:38).

But, Amulek cautions, a life of prayer is vain and hypocritical if it is not simultaneously a life of charity. We must not turn away the needy and naked; we must visit the sick and afflicted; we must impart of our substance to those in need (34:28). Since that language gets repeated so often it’s become clichéd, let me translate that into different language (albeit this language, too, can get clichéd through repetition). We need to relinquish ideologies that tell us we are entitled to accumulate wealth and instead redistribute goods on the basis of need. We must see that those who are sick or incapacitated receive the care they need and are not relegated to the margins. We must be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. We must work for social and economic justice. We must, as Amulek says later, do what we can to “improve our time” (34:33).

Amulek doesn’t mention baptism explicitly in this text. But you could read it into 34:38, where he urges his listeners to receive the Holy Ghost and take on the name of Christ. Baptism is the expression of our willingness to take Christ’s name upon us—to share in his life and death, to live as his disciples, to do his ministry in the world. And the gift of the Holy Ghost is God’s response—breathing out upon us a new Spirit, infusing us with new life, Christ coming to dwell within us so that we, the church collectively, can be his body.


God of mercies and blessings—

I give thanks for the teachings on faith in Alma 32. I give thanks for how, through my reflection on those teachings, your Spirit has guided me to nourish my faith at key moments in my life.

I give thanks for the ways you have enlarged my soul, enlightened my understanding, and expanded my mind. I give thanks for the ways that Mormon teaching and spiritual practice have nourished me over the years—giving my life form and direction, orienting me, bringing me into places where I have felt blessed.

I give thanks that you have given me the courage to experiment and follow desires that others had taught me not to trust but which have in fact proved fruitful for me.

I feel badly that I am not as disciplined in my prayer life as I should be. I know how badly I practice charity. Actually, let me correct that: I know that I’m even worse at practicing charity than I know I am.

I want to be better—more conscientious about my devotions, more kind, more self-sacrificing. I want to be less defensive, less angry, less afraid of the future. I want to move through the world with the serenity of a life lived in thanksgiving and with a tangible sense of being immersed in an abundance of blessing.

I think that’s what I want, anyway. I don’t know—it sounds so mystical. I’m on more sure ground when I tell you I want to be an instrument for promoting social justice. So maybe I should leave off there.

In Christ’s name, amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Korihor and the First Amendment

I noticed something peculiar as I was reading the Korihor story this week (Alma 30). Near the beginning of the story, the author makes a point of informing us that under the regime of the judges, "there was no law against a man's belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds" (v. 11). This information serves at least a couple different purposes in the narrative. It explains how this horrible atheist could go around teaching such pernicious doctrines without anyone putting a stop to it sooner. And it allows the author, along with the various characters in the story who sit in judgment of Korihor, to claim a certain kind of moral high ground: i.e., we deplore his beliefs, and of course everyone can see in the end what God thinks about them, but we’re not disputing his legal right to believe as he wishes.

But in fact, as the story unfolds, we're given no indication that Korihor's various arrests are due to anything except preaching his beliefs. When he goes to preach in the land of Jershon, we're told that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies "were more wise than many of the Nephites" (v. 20)—so wise, indeed, that instead of letting themselves be bothered by legal protections on religious freedom, they tie Korihor up and take him before the authorities. Not the legal authorities, mind you, not the judges, but the supreme religious authority in the land, Ammon the high priest. But since Korihor apparently hasn't committed any crime that would justify punishment under the law, Ammon has to settle for having him ridden out of the county on a rail.

Unfortunately for the Christians, Korihor proves as undaunted in the face of persecution as Alma, Ammon, and the other great Christian missionaries were. So after being driven out of Jershon, he goes to preach in the land of Gideon (one of the areas, you'll recall, where Alma's revival tour had enjoyed success), where again he gets arrested. This time he's questioned by the chief judge and the Christian high priest (not the same person—see v. 29). Why the high priest has any legal authority to question Korihor is far from clear. But he takes the opportunity to harangue Korihor for perverting the ways of the Lord, speaking against the holy prophets, and interrupting the rejoicings of good Christian believers. Korihor in turn uses the hearing as a forum to boldly testify against his accusers (not unlike, say, Abinadi?).

Again, Korihor apparently hasn't broken any laws that would let the chief judge sentence him and have done with the matter—or if he has been charged with some legal infraction we haven't been told about, the case isn't clearcut enough for the chief judge to rule on it satisfactorily. In any case, the text tells us that the high priest and the chief judge are dismayed "that he would revile even against God" (v. 29), suggesting that it is the expression of his religious, or anti-religious, beliefs that's getting Korihor into so much trouble with the authorities, not any crime he's committed. So they tie him up again and have him shipped off to a higher tribunal. And once again, for no evident legal reason, that tribunal consists both of the highest judicial authority—the chief judge, who is also the governor—and the supreme head of the Christian church, Alma the high priest. Again, if Korihor has been charged with any crime, we're not told what it is. Instead, the trial becomes an occasion for Alma and Korihor to debate religion, and it ends with Alma invoking the curse of God on Korihor, turning him into a deaf-mute (v. 51), after which he's "cast out," goes begging from house to house for support, and is eventually trampled to death in the land of Zoramites. Where the law proves unable to punish Korihor, God intervenes to do it instead.

What's happening here? We have here a regime that professes to believe in freedom of conscience as a matter of equality before the law. But that same regime has become tightly intertwined with a particular religious institution: the Christian church founded by Alma the Elder. This de facto religious establishment is horrified by atheism and clearly wants to use the power of the state to suppress it, but has trouble legitimating that suppression in light of the law protecting people's beliefs. Korihor poses a problem to the Christian-dominated regime, because unlike Nehor, who could be readily eliminated on the grounds of his having killed Gideon, Korihor apparently hasn't committed an obvious crime. We're told early on that adultery is a crime (v. 10), and we're told that Korihor has led people to commit "whoredoms" (v. 18), so maybe there's some potential there for charging him with an actual crime. But if the deviant sexual practices of Korihor's group stopped short of actual adultery, or if group members resorted to plausible deniability about their sexual practices—the way Mormons routinely did during the polygamy era!—you can see where the courts would run into problems. Perhaps they were trying to get Korihor on the equivalent of a "disturbing the peace" charge; hence that talk about him reviling against the prophets and the priests, interrupting the rejoicings of the Christians, etc. Again, though, the authorities seem to have had a hard time making an accusation stick, judging from the way his case keeps getting shuttled along.

The situation we see depicted in this story is similar to the American legal situation in Joseph Smith's day. There you have a Protestant-dominated society committed to notions of free religious exercise—partly because socially and legally disadvantaged Protestant groups like the Baptists got sick and tired of state churches, and partly because waving the banner of religious liberty lets Protestants flaunt their superiority over Catholics. But at the same time, members of a loosely defined Protestant mainstream have no compunction about using the power of the state to implement their moral vision for America and even to suppress competing religious groups, including atheists. Mormons themselves run up famously against this Protestant establishment. Mormon missionaries encounter vigilante actions or legal harassment similar to what Korihor faces: being run out of communities, being arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, being accused of “whoredoms,” being brought to trials that are really political referenda on their religious beliefs. During the government’s decades-long effort to stamp out polygamy, Mormons keep insisting that their constitutional right to religious exercise is being denied. Ironically, the Supreme Court, in the Reynolds decision, legitimates anti-polygamy prosecutions on the same principle we find in Alma 30:11 (as well as in D&C 134:4)—yes, freedom of belief is guaranteed, but the law still has power to punish people for their crimes. Just as that principle doesn’t keep a Christian quasi-establishment from arresting, and ultimately destroying, Korihor for his atheistic preaching, so it didn’t keep a Protestant quasi-establishment from trying to destroy the Mormon Church for practicing polygamy.

The same ambivalence about religious freedom that we see in America’s nineteenth-century Protestant establishment—and that we see today among conservative Christians, including conservative Mormons, who profess to revere religious freedom at the same time they wave the banner of a Christian America—that same ambivalence undergirds the story of Korihor. The author of this story and readers who embrace this story as a revelation of the will of God think they believe in freedom of religion; yet they also believe they are justified in using the power of the state, the power of ecclesiastical authority, even the miraculous power of God, to suppress—to violently suppress (because let’s be clear that Korihor meets a violent end)—religious or anti-religious teachings that they see as a threat to their own beliefs. Besides, the story assures us, Korihor knows his atheism is bogus—how could he not, when the evidence of God’s existence is so obvious?—so this isn’t a case of bona fide freedom of belief anyway.

As someone with liberal ideals, I find all this worrisome, in the same way I got worried a couple weeks ago when I realized that the person who wrote the chapter heading for Alma 23 doesn’t understand the difference between religious freedom and religious establishment. The story of Korihor is a story about the violation of human rights. The author of this story believes that for preaching his false gospel, Korihor deserves to be literally silenced, financially ruined, cast out of the community, and ultimately killed—all with God's blessing. Korihor’s followers are threatened with the same fate (v. 57). Rewrite those last two sentences with the name “Joseph Smith” instead of “Korihor,” and you’d have a recipe for nineteenth-century anti-Mormon literature. (I’m intrigued by the fact that, like Joseph Smith, Korihor is called through angelic ministration to preach against a false Christianity—v. 53.) But Korihor’s an atheist, so of course the same rules don’t apply. An author who suggested that Mormons deserved to be silenced, ruined, driven out, and killed for their religion would be justly decried by Mormon readers. But when we read a story in the Book of Mormon that confers the same fate on an atheist—well, that’s the will of God.

I trust it’s obvious that I don’t believe the story of Korihor is historical. I’m reading it, rather, as an expression of a certain set of values, and I’m trying to evaluate those values in light of my understanding of God’s will as made known to me through the Spirit. That’s what I believe it means to ponder the scriptures in a spirit of discernment. And at this point, my heart and mind are telling me that the values which justify the fate of Korihor are not God’s values. To borrow language from Alma 31, that idea sickens my heart and pains my soul (31:1, 30). Elsewhere, our tradition teaches me that God wills that there should be constitutional protections for the rights and privileges of all people, and that people should be responsible only to God, not civil authorities, for their religious opinions (D&C 98:5; 101:77-78; 134:4). That’s where I hear the Spirit talking. And the story of Korihor isn’t consistent with those principles.

Now, as I’m writing, I imagine some very orthodox person reading this and thinking, “Look, buddy, you can kick against the pricks all you like. But this story is the way things happened. This is how a prophet of God dealt with anti-Christ. Korihor suffered the judgments of God. And if you have a problem with that—if you don’t think that the punishment he received was merited—then you need to repent.”

In response to that—and to make a point—I’m going to deeply relax my posture of civility for a moment and disclose exactly what thoughts came out of my un-Christlike heart when I imagined someone saying that to me. My thoughts were: “If you actually believe that this story really happened—if you actually believe that one person turned another into a deaf-mute by cursing him, and if you believe that the values implicit in this story are a reflection of the will of God—then you are so intellectually and morally deficient that, ideally, you shouldn’t be voting, or raising children, or doing anything else that would bring other people under the influence of your idiocy. In fact (ready for the ironic kicker?), I wish I had the power to strike you dumb. And there’s even a nasty part of me that would think you deserved to end your days begging on the streets until one day someone finally ran you over.”

Now, if your reaction to that paragraph is a horrified, “How hostile! How offensive! How appalling he thinks that way!”—well, yes. Exactly. And that’s what’s wrong with the story we’re told in Alma 30. It’s hostile. It’s offensive. And it’s appalling that there are people who read this story without cringing at its puerile, violent sectarian fantasies. Whatever God intends us to learn from this story, it isn’t: “This is what God thinks ought to happen to atheists and unorthodox intellectuals.” I don't believe God approves of that any more than he approves of the sentiments I expressed in the previous paragraph.