Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.
On one of Bob Newhart’s albums (The Button Down Mind Strikes Back?) Bob has a routine where he’s talking on the phone, repeating back what the person on the other end says. “Oh, Reform Jews aren’t real Jews?”
I thought about this recently when I came across a Salon article called, “Meet the Man Who Changed Glenn Beck’s Life,” which mentioned the Reform Mormon movement.
Reading further I thought, “Reform Mormons aren’t real Mormons,” and looking at The Book of Michael, I kept thinking, “this really doesn’t match up with even the least revelation in The Book of Commandments” (See D&C 67:6-7).
Thus my arrogance gave me an unsettling glimpse of how other Christians view Mormons, how Jews and Samaritans viewed each other, how Nephites viewed Lamanites, and how the Lamanites viewed themselves and the Nephites.
Or maybe it’s not arrogance, but simply the recognition of boundaries, which raises the question of how we treat what is outside the boundary. Isaiah’s image of enlarging the tent is a commandment to bring what is outside the tent in. But how do we treat those who resist being brought in?
I’ve always been deeply intrigued by Nephi’s direct address in II Nephi 29 to those who will reject his words, particularly by the connection he draws between refusing new scriptures and hating the Jews. Nephi has had some fairly harsh things to say about “the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father,” (I Nephi 2:13) whose “works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations” (II Nephi 25:2 ). But in verse 4 he says,
But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?
and in verse 5 he says,
O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them.
Several years ago I came across a book that reads like a detailed account of how a religion founded by a rabbi came to forget that its founder was a Jew, Willis Barnstone’s translation and commentary The New Covenant, vol 1: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse. Barnstone’s notes give a detailed account of how the tragic struggle between Jews who accepted Yeshua as mashiach, and those who didn’t, and Hellenizing gentiles who thought of Iesous as their Messiah affected the gospel texts. I’ll discuss this struggle in more detail next month, but it occurred to me recently that The Book of Mormon also tells of a struggle between religious communities. I touched on this in #2 “The Primitive Church,” and want to expand on it this month.
We usually think of The Book of Mormon as a political history, an account of a 1,000 years of civil war, with the light-skinned Nephites trying alternately to colonize or convert the dark-skinned Lamanites, or a religious history with political overtones. We get glimpses of Lamanite religion, but the Nephite writers generally present the Lamanites as having no religion, and I suspect our traditional reading of the book as a book about skin color obscures the religious contest even further.
Of course, to claim skin color plays no part no part in The Book of Mormon invites the question, what do we make of II Nephi 5:21?
wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them
I believe this is a figurative use of the human body, much as the figurative use in the sentence, “The Ayatollah Khomeini did cause a price to come upon the head of Salman Rushdie.”
I did a long paper for the recent AML meeting laying out reasons why we should consider the curse in II Nephi 5:21 as a pronouncement of excommunication rather than a change of skin color. Reading the curse as a matter of skin color we may think that our skin color is a matter of blessing or curse, rather than considering what a curse is. Consider the passage, Deuteronomy 23:3-4, I heard in this morning in Lael Woodbury’s resonant voice.
3 An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever: 4 Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.
To be cursed is to be shut out from the congregation of Israel, shut out from the presence of the Lord. To emphasize this point, it’s useful to know that there are only 11 passages in the Book of Mormon that mention a word we associate with color, like white or black, light or dark applied to people, or to skin. That’s one less passage than in the first edition, where 2 Nephi 30:6 reads:
“And then shall they rejoice: for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people” (117).
In the third editon Joseph Smith changed it to read “a pure and a delightsome people.” Douglas Campbell argues in “White or Pure: Five Vignettes” that this correction is a key to understanding Joseph’s use of the word white. He looks at The Book of Mormon’s 28 occurences of white, whiter and whiteness and shows how in each one the word white refers to purity.
For example, in Mormon 9:6,
“O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day,”
pure, fair, and white are appositives for spotless, and describe the condition of “having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.”
Campbell doesn’t make the changes Joseph made, replacing white with pure, but when I replace white and dark with pure and impure for the passages relating to people and skin an interesting thing happens. (To save space, I won’t quote the whole of each verse, but will give a link.)
and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and pure.
–1 Nephi 11:13
I beheld that [the Gentiles] were pure, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
–1 Nephi 13:15
after they had dwindled in unbelief they became an impure, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
–I Nephi 12:23
wherefore, as they were pure, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of impurity to come upon them.
–2 Nephi 5:21
O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be purer than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.
And the skins of the Lamanites were impure, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers,
And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became pure like unto the Nephites;
–3 Nephi 2:14-15
Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as pure as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the purity thereof did exceed all the purity, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so pure as the purity thereof.
–3 Nephi 19:25
and he did smile upon them again; and behold they were pure, even as Jesus.
–3 Nephi 19:30
(You could also substitute glory, glorious or brilliance in these last two passages, and the passages clearly aren’t talking about skin color–otherwise why emphasize the whiteness with words like behold and exceed? If these verses were about skin color the logical conclusion would be that normally their skin color was different than Jesus’s skin color.)
for this people shall be scattered, and shall become an impure, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry.
Replace the words we usually associate with skin color with synonyms and the racial content disappears.
Lest this seem trivial, I woke up the morning I delivered this paper thinking, “You can’t do that with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Huckleberry Finn, or Go Tell It on the Mountain, or Notes of a Native Son.” Bowdlerize the racial slurs and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still a book about the will to power of light skinned people and the quest for freedom of dark skinned people. Replace the n-word with a word like slave and Huckleberry Finn is still about race relations and freedom. Replace the same word in Go Tell It on the Mountain with, say, that compound word heard in a lot of rap songs where the first word is one letter before the n-word and the other is 8 before, and James Baldwin is still talking about family willing to insult each other in the vilest terms, and the novel is still about race. Replace the word Negro–which Baldwin uses to denote an American of African descent and slave heritage–with African American and Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time still recount the struggle of a dark-skinned man not to give into hatred for light-skinned people.
But in The Book of Mormon, if you replace 11 words, or rather, a dozen occurrences of two or three words, with close synonyms the racial content disappears. That happens because in the books mentioned above race isn’t embedded in particular terms it’s embedded in the story and the narrative action. So if The Book of Mormon is not about race, what is embedded in the story and narrative action of the book?
The answer could fill volumes, so I’ll simply sum it up as, a tumult of opinions and a war of words which becomes a war of swords. Over and over The Book of Mormon shows us what happens when we insist on defining each other as enemies. The only periods of peace in the book come when people stop defining people as enemies, as when the Lamanites destroy the Gadianton Robbers not through the sword but the Word (see Helaman 6:37).
That’s what’s embedded in The Book of Mormon, the Word and the peace of the Word, and you can see that embedding even if you replace black and white with close synonyms in the one passage where they may refer to skin color, though the passage doesn’t specify skin,
and he denieth none that come unto him, impure and pure, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
–2 Nephi 26:33