About Corazon

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Zoramite Prayers and "Strange Fires"

An Essay on the
Evils of Pride

Preface: This post is a little different from my usual ones. I almost never delve into religious, sermon-type postings on this blog. I usually prefer to stick with posts on history, family, etc. But as I state on the blog description, "everything is fair game."

In my readings of the Book of Mormon, I have found the story of the Zoramites to be particularly troubling. In the Book of Alma we read of how the Zoramites had driven out the poor from amongst them, along with all those who didn't believe as they did. In addition, we are told that the Zoramites constructed a "high place" for worshiping God where they uttered the following prayer:

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.

16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.

17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.

18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
Setting the Zoramite prayer aside for just a moment I also want to mention a second story from scripture that I have also found to be equally troubling. It is the story of Nadab and Abihu, who were the sons of Aaron the High Priest. In the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 10 we read:

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.

2 And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
On the surface, the verses probably don't make a lot of sense and are easily passed over. After all, the Old Testament is full of tales of how the Israelites blasphemed God and ended up paying the price. How is the story of Nadab and Abihu any different?

First off, Nadab and Abihu were not your average Joe's. These were the eldest sons of Aaron and as such were the rightful heirs to not only the Levitical (Aaronic) Priesthood but also to performing the tabernacle (temple) ceremonies. Their inheritance and responsibility was not that of the average Israelite.

So what did they do wrong? What's with the "strange fire"? First off, the removal of the tabernacle censers (fire pans) from the altar was inexcusable, since they were as sacred as the altar itself (Exodus 27:1-3; 38:1-3). Nadab and Abihu had certainly been educated sufficiently by their father, Aaron (and uncle Moses) to have known this. Each should have guessed that, since his censer was a holy object, only fire from a holy object (the altar) would be suitable to put in the censer. In addition, Nadab and Abihu erred in starting their own (strange) fire as opposed to what the Lord had prescribed. Leviticus 9:24 states very clearly that the Lord would provide the fire to consume the offering, not man. In other words, Nadab and Abihu chose to do their own thing, in their own way, according to their own understanding.

So what does the Nadab and Abihu story in Leviticus have to do with the Zoramite prayer in the Book of Mormon? Nothing really. The reason I chose to unite both of these stories is because I am amazed at how intelligent people, who have been given incredible blessings from God, can choose to be so incredibly stupid. How is is that the Zoramites could pray to God and at the same time thank Him for "choosing" and "electing" them over the poor and those who think differently than they? How could the children of Aaron (and nephews of Moses) be so stupid as to ignore the prescribed rituals of the tabernacle when they themselves had seen first hand the miracles of God?

The answer is simple: pride.

One of the central themes of The Book of Mormon is how pride can destroy a person/family/civilization, and the Zoramite prayer, along with the Nadab and Abihu story, are perfect illustrations of this reality. Unlike other sins, pride is one that can ensnare us without our even realizing it. After all, pride doesn't necessarily require us to make any overt act. Pride doesn't require the click of a mouse to enslave us like pornography does, nor does it rely on the lying lips of those who bear false witness to get its point across. No, pride is much more subtle. Pride can take an otherwise intelligent, righteous individual and twist him/her into a false sense of security. Yes, pride can make the very best of us justify our "chosen" prayers and our "strange fires."

But surely we of the modern era wouldn't offer Zoramite prayers or make "strange fires".

Al contraire.

I think it is more than abundantly clear that pride is the most common and progressive sin in the world today. I am reminded of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's excellent talk from the 2010 General Conference in which he stated:

At its core, pride is a sin of comparison, for though it usually begins with “Look how wonderful I am and what great things I have done,” it always seems to end with “Therefore, I am better than you.”

When our hearts are filled with pride, we commit a grave sin, for we violate the two great commandments. Instead of worshipping God and loving our neighbor, we reveal the real object of our worship and love—the image we see in the mirror.

Pride is the great sin of self-elevation. It is for so many a personal Rameumptom, a holy stand that justifies envy, greed, and vanity. In a sense, pride is the original sin, for before the foundations of this earth, pride felled Lucifer, a son of the morning “who was in authority in the presence of God.” If pride can corrupt one as capable and promising as this, should we not examine our own souls as well?
So what are some of our modern day "strange fires"?

They aren't hard to find. You see them all around us. The list of prideful acts could fill an entire encyclopedia. With that said, here are three examples of of modern day "strange fires" that I believe seem to infect us (without our knowing it)on a national and personal level:

National Pride:
-- There is no better example of collective national pride than partisan politics. When a partisan political zealot insists that his/her views on the issues of the day are the only acceptable (or truly American) solutions to a given problem, rest assured that his/her convictions come not out of political savvy but are rather the result of pride. When one insists that being conservative/liberal is more in harmony with the ideas of our nation's founding and/or more in agreement with the will of God, that person does not possess deep political understanding but rather has fallen victim to the delusions created by pride. Partisan politics are all about pride. Let me say that again. Partisan politics are all about pride. The problem is that most refuse to see it because they have camouflaged their pride by wrapping it up in the American flag or justifying it by a bizarre appeal to religion. I am reminded of a couple of dear friends who once told me that "you cannot vote for Obama and be a Temple Recommend holder." WHAT!!! The absurdity of such a statement is staggering. Reality is that God cares as much about your political leanings as he does about the toppings you like on a pizza. To borrow from the great William Shakespeare, partisan loyalties are "much ado about nothing." Yes, there are many "strange fires" in American politics today.

-- Another example of national pride is the assumption some make that one nation is more preferred/special in the eyes of God. The stupidity of such a viewpoint would be laughable if it wasn't so widely accepted. In reality, nations are no more than imagined communities. God never created a single nation nor will he. The pretend lines that we draw on maps and accept as "borders" may be political necessities but they carry little weight in God's eyes. Does this mean that God hates patriotism? Not at all. I believe God would have us be a patriotic people. HOWEVER, God DOES NOT approve of nationalism. So what is the difference between patriotism and nationalism? Patriotism is the quiet, steady devotion and appreciation for the blessings provided by the land in which one lives. Nationalism is the arrogant assumption that one nation is inherently better than another, and that as a result, God has given it favor over others. Simply put, patriotism is gratitude, nationalism is pride.

Personal Pride
-- All of us want to feel like we are successful. It's an important component to our sense of personal fulfillment. It is for this reason that we all put tremendous effort and emphasis into our work, schooling, etc. But as is the case with most societies, different trades are met with different levels of status. The lawyer and professor are usually held in higher esteem than the trash man or the plumber. But to God, all are alike. No one trade is better than another SO LONG AS THEY ARE HONEST TRADES!!! But sadly, we as mortals don't see things that way. Too often we puff ourselves up like the Zoramites of old by exalting our status above others simply because of our education and/or employment. And though we should be proud of our personal achievements, there is nothing in a degree, certificate, title, honor or pay grade that makes one any better than another. Unfortunately, too many people of "position" or "education" make the prideful prayers of the Zoramites. They climb their high places and give thanks that they are "better" than others.

On the flip side, pride is also exhibited by those who are jealous of those who have achieved great goals. They see people who have gained an advanced education as being "out of touch" or lacking "common sense". They criticize these individuals, their goals and achievements in an effort to salve their cankered and prideful hearts. They are angry that they did not achieve the same "status". But in the end, the only "status" that matters is the status we have before God. Are we grateful for what we have? Do we give thanks for our blessings? Are we happy and secure in our homes? Cars? Jobs? Or do we complain and always long for the greener grass on the other side? Yes, there is nothing wrong about wanting to improve one's conditions, but to sacrifice gratitude on the altar of pride truly is "strange fire."

In the end, the words of Proverbs 16:18 ring out loud and clear: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." Instead of climbing our tall places and offering up our prayers of superiority, let us remember that pride is ever-knocking at the door. Offering "strange fires" to the Lord is a surefire way to contract the virus of pride, which can spread quickly and ferociously without warning. As the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture) states: "The ego's pride is a barrier that prevents meaningful dialogue between this world and the next." Only a broken heart and a contrite spirit can help us to safely navigate the oceans of pride. Or as William Penn put it:

Humility and knowledge in poor clothes excel pride and ignorance in costly attire.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Being Grateful

It was 14 years ago that I enjoyed the most meaningful Thanksgiving of my life. I was at the Mormon Missionary Training Center (MTC) preparing for my two-year assignment to Chile. Normally the daily schedule at the MTC was chalked full of Spanish and religious classes but for whatever reason, Thanksgiving was a relatively laid back day. Instead of attending classes, we were instructed to get up early in the morning and for a full two hours list all of the blessings we were thankful for in our lives. It was a wonderful experience that made the Thanksgiving of 1997 the best I have ever had.

And today I would like to rekindle that spirit of gratitude by spending a couple of hours listing the things I am grateful for. One of the goals of this blog is to serve as a personal journal of sorts. I hope that one day my posterity might learn more about their father, grandfather, great-grandfather by reading these words. With this in mind, I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to my posterity.

Perhaps you and I never had the opportunity to meet in life. Perhaps you know very little about me. Heck, maybe you have read some of my material and find me boring, arrogant, etc. That's OK, everyone has their flaws. I know that my life has been FULL of them. But what I do want you to know is that despite all of my imperfections, mistakes, trials, struggles, etc. I have A LOT to be thankful for. For example:

1.) I am grateful for my employment and my wife's employment. The average income in the world (per capita) is $7,000 a year. I have personally seen people (during my time in Chile) who lived on even less. Yet despite their worldly poverty they were some of the happiest people I ever met. Happiness is a state of mind, not a state of wealth. I may not be a millionaire but I have what I need...thanks to God.

2.) I am grateful for my marriage. Recent statistics show that roughly 1/2 of all marriages today end in divorce. Now, of course there are instances when divorce is the best option and I certainly mean no disrespect to those who face such difficulties. With that said, I am EXTREMELY grateful for my wife and our marriage. Of course, like any marriage, we have had our ups and downs. By no means are we the fairytale couple. But I am grateful that we are not. The struggle is what has made our bond stronger. If marriage was easy there would be no growth. I am grateful that it has been a growing experience that we have endured together, equally yoked. To my posterity know this: I LOVE YOUR MOTHER/GRANDMOTHER/GREAT-GRANDMOTHER!!! She is the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.

3.) It is estimated that only 9% of the world's population owns a car. I am grateful for both of mine (a 2004 Hyundai and a 2002 Toyota, both of which have over 100,000 miles).

4.) I am grateful for my education. In 2009 I had the opportunity to complete my Master's degree in History. And though I may occasionally complain about the student loans that I had to incur as a result, I am eternally grateful for my education. It is estimated that only 6.7% of the world has even a Bachelor level of education (and only 35% have a high school level education). The percentage of the world with graduate level education is less than 1%. I am grateful to God for being given the circumstances in which I could gain an education. If student loans are my biggest gripe then I need to shut up!

5.) I am grateful for AWESOME parents!!! Roughly 45% of children worldwide grow up in single parent homes. Roughly 40% of (reported) children are the victims of sexual molestation. Millions of children around the world are the victims of violence, slavery and indoctrination. I was fortunate to grow up in a safe, happy, loving home. Yes, my Dad may have died at a relatively young age (53) but big deal! And yes, my parents did "terrible" things like enforce curfews, make me go to church/school, take a bath, brush my teeth, etc. But when compared with the rest of the world, my childhood was literally heaven on earth!

6.) I am grateful for the health of my children. Approximately 30% of all children worldwide die before their 5th birthday, due to poverty, sickness, war etc.

7.) I am grateful for modern medicine in general. Yes, people today complain ad nauseum about health care and its costs but I am guessing that the MILLIONS of humans who lived in ancient/medieval times would literally kill for what we regularly take for granted. Had I been born anytime before the 20th century I would have been dead at 24 (appendicitis). Thank God (literally) for the miracle of modern medicine!

8.) I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States. Yes, my country isn't perfect but it is pretty incredible. She has been a beacon of hope for literally millions who have struggled to get to her shores. God bless America!

9.) I am grateful for my health. It is estimated that 15% of the world's population suffers from a severe disability, 30.9% suffer from diabetes, and 1/6 of the world suffers from hunger-related health issues. Thank you, God for my health!

10.) I am grateful for my children. I have been lucky enough to have two healthy, happy boys who keep my world crazy busy! I am aware that this is a gift from God and I am grateful every day for Jaxson and Zakary being in my life. In addition, I am grateful for my family in general. I have been blessed with 5 killer grandparents, 8 wonderful aunts and uncles, 27 cousins, 4 sister-in-laws, 3 brother-in-laws, a wonderful mother-in-law and father-in-law and a countless number of others I cannot remember off the top of my head.

11.) I am grateful for the faith of my fathers. I am grateful for my great-great-grandfather, James H. Hart, who sailed to America to join the Mormon movement. I am grateful for his sacrifice in moving west, which was no small feat. I am grateful for Arthur Hart (my great-grandfather) who continued strong in his faith. I am grateful for my grandfather, Wendell Hart, who passed on to his children (my dad, Alan being among them) the important lessons of faith and devotion to God, who in turn passed those lessons to my brothers and I. I hope to leave an equal legacy for my posterity.

12.) I am grateful that I can read, hear, see, smell, walk, talk, laugh, cry, etc.

13.) I am grateful for the Internet and technology in general. Yes, I am grateful for my fair little blog! =)

14.) I am grateful for the charity of others. Like Ann Frank, I too agree that "most people are really good at heart."

15.) I am grateful for Barack Obama, George W. Bush, etc. Too often people have a field day with politicians. The hate-filled rhetoric has simply gone too far these days. I am grateful for the election process in which I can have a say in my government. Yes, my government may not be perfect but I am grateful for men and women who are willing to put themselves out there and do the best they can.

16.) I am grateful for the talents of others. I cannot sing or play an instrument. I can't paint a beautiful painting. I can't write a powerful novel. Thanks to all who can!

17.) I am grateful for peace and quiet. Those rare opportunities when one can sit in peace and meditate on nothing is a blessing to be sure.

18.) I am grateful for the beauty of Colorado. I love this state!

19.) I am grateful for the wonder of all of God's creations. The majesty and awesome immensity of the universe (and our extremely small mark on it) reveal just how incredible God is. Once could ponder the vastness of space for an entire life and barely scratch its surface. God's playground is a marvel beyond man's comprehension.

20.) I am grateful for Jesus Christ. The scripture, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16) should have special meaning for all of us on this day (and every day for that matter). I am grateful for the perfect example that was the life of Jesus Christ. I realize that not everyone believes in Jesus (that's OK, he believes in you) but even if you reject his divinity I cannot think of a better example of human goodness. Thank God for the gift of Jesus Christ!

Ok, my two hours are up. This list could, of course, go on forever. In the end, instead of complaining, whining and getting bitter about the things we don't like about our lives, try counting your blessings. The list is quite impressive.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Holy Envy

A Challenge to
All That Believe

Krister Stendahl, the Late, great Professor of Theology at Harvard, once gave a sermon in which he outlined what he believed were the three rules of religious understanding. They are:

1.When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

2.Don't compare your best to their worst.

3.Leave room for "holy envy." (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)
The phrase "holy envy" is one that caught the attention of many, and the idea is one that I agree with 100%. Too often, people of faith get caught up in the finger-pointing game. For whatever reason we can sometimes believe that "exposing" the negative aspects of other faiths will somehow add legitimacy to our own belief system. And though I agree that all religions need to be dissected and deserve serious scholarly scrutiny, sometimes I think we can forget that all religions are essentially striving for the same thing: to make people better than the sum of their parts.

For this reason, I would like to issue a challenge to my fellow blog buddies. At some point during this holiday season demonstrate your "holy envy." What are some of the things that you like in other religions? What do Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, etc. do on a regular basis that you would like to adopt into your personal life? What would you like to see your own religion do better?

Of course, nobody is asking you to compromise on your beliefs. Faith is a very personal and intimate aspect of life. However, if you cannot see the good in other belief systems then perhaps you are looking at the wrong things. Having "holy envy" for specific practices/beliefs of others is, perhaps, the only occasion in which God will be OK with you being covetous. Take advantage of it!

With this in mind, here is my "holy envy" list (in no particular order or preference).

Islam: The Masters of Prayer
I think we all recognize that Islam has unfortunately gained an undeserved reputation in the Western world. Too many people associate being Muslim with being an extremist, a terrorist, a radical, and/or a heathen. These stereotypes are, of course, based on fear and ignorance. Reality is that Islam is a beautiful faith with much to be admired. The Qur'an is a wonderful holy book chalked full of insightful, inspiring messages that are worthy of our respect.

For me personally, the thing I have admired most about Islam is their INCREDIBLE devotion to prayer. In my opinion nobody does it better. For Muslims, the practice of prayer ("Salah" which means "connection") is fundamental to their faith. The Salah is one of the 5 Pillars of Islam and is arguably the most fundamental component (along with reading the Qur'an) of what it means to be a Muslim. The Salah requires Muslims to pray at least five times a day at specific times. Each of these prayers has a unique purpose that brings the believer closer to Allah. Of course, Muslims are encouraged to pray more than just those five daily occurrences, but the five "required" prayers illustrate the emphasis that Islam has on prayer. Needless to say, Muslims make prayer as much of their daily routine as drinking water. How many of us can say the same? As Sura 2 (Al-Baqara), verse 238 states:

Guard strictly your habit of prayers Especially the middle prayer, and stand before Allah in a devout frame of mind.
What fantastic advise!

I have actually had the opportunity to pray with a group of Muslims during one of their daily prayers and it was an experience I won't soon forget.

Hinduism: If It's True, It's True
The Western world can sometimes misunderstand/misrepresent Eastern religions, and Hinduism, being one of the largest religions in the East, is no exception. What I love about Hinduism is that it doesn't obsess about "being right" like so many Western faiths. Too often religions in the Western world will attack one another in an effort to discover who is "more true." In addition, Western religions do, on occasion, have a hard time accepting certain truths (i.e. science) which appear threatening to their respective doctrine. Essentially, the division between Western religions and Hinduism can be summed up this way: Western religions sometimes let their religion stand in the way of truth, while Hinduism doesn't let truth stand in the way of religion.

Some may see this approach as being too doctrinally liberal. After all, Hinduism is far less restrictive than other faiths. But Hinduism isn't about doctrine but about the individual's approach to God. Hinduism insists that all of humanity (and all religions) are striving for the same God, just in a different way. The important thing is to put one's life in harmony with the divine through meditation, tolerance, etc. It's emphasis on the individual's unique journey as opposed to strict doctrine allows Hinduism to fully accept scientific discovery and adapt to a changing world. In short, Hinduism simply strives to cling to truth, regardless of the source.

Catholics: It's a Matter of Reverence
A lot of people see the Catholic faith as outdated, too conservative or too superstitious, but nobody can doubt that Catholics are the best at showing sober, sincere reverence for the divine. The liturgy of the Catholic mass is saturated with solemn reverence for both God and the Eucharist, as are all of the significant days of their liturgical calender. Yes, you probably won't find upbeat Christian rock music coming from their churches but that is what makes the Catholic faith so special. It insists upon the individual demonstrating his/her quiet, heartfelt respect for God through solemn ritual and purposeful repetition.

Too often the modern day "disciple" wants to be "entertained" when he/she goes to church, and too many churches today are more than willing to compromise on this matter. Catholicism, however, has managed to maintain their quiet reverence in the face of a changing (and evermore loud and obnoxious) world. As a result, Catholicism has not forgotten one of the most important aspects of religion in general: church isn't about you, it's about God.

Jehovah's Witnesses: A Religion of Action
We've all experienced it. You lie in bed on a Saturday morning, happily smiling at your alarm clock as you bask in the knowledge that the busy work week is over and you can finally sleep in, when all of a sudden..."DING DONG!" Who could possibly be knocking at your door at 7:30 in the morning! And what to your wandering eyes should appear when you open the door? Those darn Jehovah's Witnesses!

Yes, we all may get irritated from time to time when our weekend slumber is disturbed but have you ever tried to see it from their perspective? Are you not amazed at incredible devotion that so many JW's have for their faith? After working a busy week themselves, the JW's get up bright and early in the morning to spend the weekend sharing their faith with anyone who will listen, usually meeting with anger and scorn from those "Christians" they have "disturbed."

As a former missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I can sympathize with those JW's who know first-hand just how hard it is to knock on doors and talk to people, most of whom are furious to see you at their door (they act as if knocking on their door is the same as desecrating a loved one's grave). But what is amazing about Jehovah's Witnesses is that they don't proselyte for only two years (as Mormon missionaries traditionally do). They do it for their entire life. Getting out and sharing the "good news" is in their DNA. To be a Jehovah's Witness is to be a hard worker, and very few religious people can out-work a JW!

Judaism: You'll Never Keep it Down!
Most Christians have a healthy respect for Judaism. The religion essentially serves as a father figure for Christians. After all, without Judaism you wouldn't have Christianity!

But what most Christians don't stop to ponder is the fact that the Jews are TOUGH AS NAILS!!! Has any other religion been through the hell that they have? Time and time again the Jews have faced violent opposition that has threatened their very existence. And despite all of these terrible atrocities (almost too many to mention) the Jews are still going strong. What the Jews would call "routine discrimination" would likely break other faiths. Judaism is the epitome of fearless faith in the face of evil. It is the refiners fire of affliction that has put grit in their teeth and made them some of the most resilient people on the planet. There's no doubt in my mind that Judaism is the embodiment of the phrase "when the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Evangelical Christianity: Scriptures and Patriotism
I'll admit that I have, from time to time, knocked Evangelical Christian beliefs on a few points that I don't agree with. And though I will likely never embrace their belief in America being a "Christian Nation" or their rejection of evolution, I cannot deny that Evangelical Christians are second to none in their appreciation of scripture. Their love of the Bible and its teachings have inspired a countless number of Evangelicals to live a more Christ-like life.

In addition, I believe that Evangelical Christians tend to be some of the most patriotic people you will ever meet. In consequence, they unapologetically defend this nation in the face of ridicule and scorn. Evangelical Christians enthusiastically show their love and support of God and country in such a way that their zeal has become incredibly contagious. As a result, they have improved the lives of millions in their communities. Having lived in Colorado Springs (a very Evangelical community) I have seen with my own eyes how a love of God's word and country can bring about beautiful change in a community. In essence, Evangelicals have followed the admonition of Christ to "let your light so shine."

In short, I am grateful for the wonderful lessons that are to be learned from the diverse approaches to religion that each religion embraces. I realize that I didn't mention every religion in this post (there are so many great faiths that have much to be admired) and my omission is by no means a judgement against them. Aside from groups like Scientology or the Jonestown cult, I believe that having "holy envy" for the practices/beliefs of others can only serve to help build bridges of understanding and increase one's personal conviction in the divine. For these reasons, I am personally very grateful for the prayers of the Muslim, the truth-seeking of the Hindu, the reverence of the Catholic, the work ethic of the Jehovah's Witness, the resilience of the Jew, and the patriotism and love of scripture of the Evangelical. It is my hope that I can better incorporate these teachings/beliefs into my own life and worship. God knows I need the help! =)

Occupy Wall Street and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
This rhetorical rhyme, made famous by the English Medieval Lollard Preacher John Ball, illustrates what many throughout the course of human history have believed: the rich get richer while doing less while the poor get poorer while doing more. Whether this is true or not is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the fact remains that history is replete with examples of those who have challenged the social and economic divisions of their time in an effort to balance the scales of justice.

Of course, the obvious example for us today is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is presumably operating under the assumption that the current economic state of affairs in the United States are unacceptable. Whether the "99%" has a legitimate argument or not has become a hot topic in today's political discourse and is likely to be an issue in the upcoming 2012 Presidential election. Do the "99%" have a case to be made? Who knows. Again, it is all in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I am not a fan of either the Occupy movement or the Tea Party movement (for personal reasons) but the fact remains that protests over alleged economic inequality is a big deal to a lot of people

And America is far from unique when it comes to protest. As stated before, humans have long argued over issues of economic inequality and perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon is a surefire Hollywood script in the making: the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

To understand the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 we need to place it within the context of its time. In 1350, England (and most of Europe as a whole) was finally beginning to emerge from the devastation left behind in the wake of the Black Death, which had claimed the lives of at least 1/3 of the continent. In addition, the Black Death created serious and severe economic problems for almost all survivors. Church resources were severely drained as were the pockets of the noble classes. With the labor force dramatically reduced, peasants were able to (in some cases for the first time ever) demand higher wages and better working conditions from the ruling class. Nobles, who before the Black Death were able to exploit the working masses, were forced to temporarily acquiesce to the demands of the peasantry.

This temporary (and relatively small) empowerment of the peasantry was not destined to last. Urged by the complaints of the nobles, King Edward III (and later his successor, Richard II) increased poll (census) taxes while at the same time passing laws that restricted peasant demands and fixed wages to pre-Black Death levels. In addition, nobles who belonged to large groups like the Knights Hospitilar, which controlled vast amounts of wealth and capital, were given tax breaks by the king, who depended on these nobles for his support.

Of course, this blatant show of favoritism for these elite, noble "corporations" did not sit well with the peasantry. In consequence, men like John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw emerged from the working ranks to inspire resistance against the ruling elite. These men, and thousands of others like them, staged public protests throughout England. No doubt inspired by the works of early Lollards like John Wycliffe, and having felt the horrific pressures of the Black Death, these peasants stood defiant to a ruling class that they believed no longer cared about their needs. This Medieval "99%" (a far more oppressed 99% than that of today) would eventually storm different locations that represented oppression in their eyes. For example, on June 14, 1381 a mob of nearly 20,000 stormed the Tower of London and executed Simon Sudbury (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and Robert de Hales (the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitilar). These men, who were essentially the Medieval equivalent of corporate CEO's, had been some of the most vocal supporters of increased poll taxes and peasant restrictions. Needless to say, this "Occupy London Bridge" movement was meant to send a clear message. These sentiments would later be captured by Medieval Writer John Gower, who in his work Vox Clamantis, called the protesters "heathens", "angels of anti-Christ...who according to foolish ideas...believe in a world with no Lords." In his work Geoffrey Chaucer in his Nun's Priest's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized one of the peasant leaders (Jack Straw) when he wrote:

Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meinee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille,
Whan that they wolden any Fleming kille.
And though the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 ended with the murder of its leaders and the suppression of the masses (King Richard II actually lured men like Jack Straw and others into meeting with him in London only to have them executed), most agree that the revolt marks the beginning of the end for Medieval serfdom. Though it would take centuries, the upper class nobles were made to understand that they could not treat commoners as chattel. Slowly but surely a sweeping wave of change (in the shape of the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and further economic opportunity brought on by Mercantilism) overcame Europe. Medieval kings and lords no longer maintained their monopoly on the "99%."

Is the same likely to happen today? Who knows. Only time will tell. Certainly today's economic oppression is not the same as that of our Medieval ancestors. Perhaps John Ball's poetic lines are as meaningful today as they were more than 600 years ago:

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Ramah" and Joseph Smith

When it comes to Mormon Founder Joseph Smith, I am of the opinion that only one of two different possibilities is true: 1.) Smith was a brilliant, self-educated Bible scholar who possessed equally impressive traits of deception and persuasion. 2.) He was a relatively ignorant (dare I say even a little dumb) farmer, who despite some obvious character flaws (we all have those), really was a prophet of God.

Admittedly, I realize that my dichotomy is a bit simplistic, being that all humans are complex creatures (there are no simple men no matter what Lynyrd Skynyrd has to say on the matter). With that said, hear me out for a second.

In the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 31: 15 we read:

Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.
The verse is essentially a commentary on the suffering that the Jews would experience down the road, but this is not what I am interested in. What is interesting is that the word "Ramah", a word used throughout the Bible, is spelled in a different way in the Book of Matthew. Look at Chapter 2, verse 18:

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
As you can see, the New Testament version omits the letter H in its spelling of "Ramah." Is this an error? Not at all. It is actually, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word. "Ramah", in Hebrew, means "Hill" or "High place". The word is also used several times throughout the Bible as a name for various locations.

Now look at the Joseph Smith translation of Matthew (see chapter 3):

In Ramah there was a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning; Rachael weeping for the loss of her children, and would not be comforted because they were not.
Interesting that Smith elected to go with the Old Testament (more correct Hebrew) version rather than the Greek that is found in the original Book of Matthew. Either this reveals some serious skills in understanding Hebrew/Greek or Smith really was inspired (or for you critics it was just luck).

But the saga doesn't stop there.

From the Book of Mormon, in Ether 15: 11 we read:

And it came to pass that the army of Coriantumr did pitch their tents by the hill Ramah; and it was that same hill where my father Mormon did hide up the records unto the Lord, which were sacred.
What is interesting to note here is the fact that nowhere in the King James Version of the Bible is there any hint that "Ramah" means "Hill or high place." Again, Smith was either incredibly familiar with Hebrew or really was inspired.

And there's more.

In the Book of Alma, chapter 31 (again, from the Book of Mormon) we learn about the Zoramites, who due to their pride, built a giant "place for standing, which was high above the head" (chapter 31: 13). And what did they call this large and tall "place for standing"? Verse 21 has the answer:

Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.
Notice that the prefix "Rame" appears to be a variant of "Ramah." Interestingly enough, the word "Ramah", as a Hebrew object-noun, also means "a high place of illicit worship". Again, what impressive Hebrew skills on the part of Joseph Smith! Or maybe he really did translate what he said he translated?!?

All of this is further proof (for me personally) that Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are either one hell of a great fraud or the real deal. And yes, The Book of Mormon (and all scripture for that matter) deserve sincere scholarly inquiry and analysis.

But no level of scholarly insight would or could conclusively prove anything. Matters of faith are just that: matters of faith. There will always be supporters and detractors to all holy books. The only true way to know the validity of scripture is through sincere prayer (Moroni 10: 3-5).

But the scholarly doesn't hurt either. =)

Major hat tip: S. Faux.