Friday, April 9, 2021

Nephi's Sisters

The Book of Mormon is written for our time. It teaches us about the pride cycle, the Zoramites' contempt for the poor, the Gadianton robbers; it shows us how social divisions, both economic and racial, contributed to a civilization's downfall. All these principles are well taught in our manuals and classes and have been incorporated into our narrative of gospel understanding.

But what if all those things were just symptoms of a much more fundamental problem going on in the Book of Mormon? What if the seeds of the Nephite's downfall were planted much earlier, before Lehi's family even arrived to the promised land? No, I am not referring to the friction and eventual split between Laman and Nephi. I believe the Nephite story is less about the generational effects of quarrelling brothers and more about the long-term social impact of an entire nation that persistently disregarded their sisters.

The Book of Mormon is, at its heart, the story of a family. We are introduced to a prophet named Lehi through his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and accompanying theophany, but his main function in the narrative is that of father, traveling to the promised land with his wife and bickering sons. It really catches us off guard when we read in 2nd Nephi, long after the dramatic story of the family's journey in the wilderness is told, in some offhand comment nonetheless, that there were sisters.

With ample opportunity to name them, Nephi instead introduces his family this way: "And [Lehi] did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam."

Why does Nephi not think it is any more important to give us the names of Lehi's daughters than to record for us the names of Lehi's camels? What is the lesson for us in the Book of Mormon about women?

Over and over again, Nephite women are conspicuously missing. Overlooked. Forgotten. I mean, Nephi and his family are halfway down the road to the promised land before they suddenly remember that they need wives, the way a person might remember halfway down the highway that they forgot to pack their toothbrush.

I am no expert in ancient civilizations, but I would wager that Nephi was no less thoughtful and inclusive towards women than any other man in 600B.C. Context is everything in this story and, even among God's covenant people, Nephi was just probably functioning in the constructs of his ancient society. It probably does us no good at all to judge him harshly and according to our 21st century sensibilities. But some of us may be left wondering, "If a prophet, the mouthpiece of God, can't be inclusive towards women in the scripture, who on earth can?"

Well in 2021, we all can.

Dr. Joseph Spencer, a professor of philosophy and ancient scripture at BYU, suggests an interpretation from Jacob 2 that turned the Book of Mormon completely on its head for me. I borrow heavily from his presentation here, and from a chapter in his book from Neal A. Maxwell Institute here.

He suggests that we have good reason to believe that Lehi was trying to introduce to his sons a social model of gender that was different from Jerusalem society. It could be that he recognized the injustice and abuse against women in his society, and was inspired of God to create a new society in a new land. Jacob gives us these insights into the teachings of Lehi:

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things. For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands. And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts. (Jacob 2:30-32)

Behold, the Lamanites your brethren...are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them. And now, this commandment they observe to keep; wherefore, because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people. Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children. (Jacob 3:5-7)

And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done. (Jacob 2:34)

The life of this particular remnant of Israel in the promised land was meant to be apart from the wicked traditions of their fathers, to become a society where women were no longer abused, excluded, or considered property—where husbands loved their wives and where monogamy was the rule. God separated Lehi and his family with a commandment that involved gender equality.

And thus, the rest of the Book of Mormon could be read through the lens of this question: How did they do?

Short answer: not good. Quite terrible, in fact.

Missing Women and the Downfall of the Nephites

Sariah is the only non-Lamanite woman who speaks in the first person, or is even mentioned, in the Book of Mormon. She is the wife of one prophet, and mother of another. She probably felt keenly the restraints put on her in this band of boys who seem to blunder along, forgetting all kinds of things and obviously not including her in the decision making process, having to backtrack needlessly. I am sure she sighed the way a mother does when she is halfway into town and her child suddenly announces he forgot to put on his shoes. In this position, waiting for her sons to return with the brass plates and worried that they might have died, she murmurs against her husband. "Behold, thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness."

The only identity afforded her in Jewish society, that of a mother, is at stake with the possible death of her sons, and her entire hope for a new life for her and her daughters is threatened. The most comforting words mustered by a prophet and compassionate husband do nothing for her. She is inconsolable, temporarily robbed of any sense of self on their journey to the promised land.

But there is a turnaround to her justified murmuring. With her sons' return, she emerges no longer just as Lehi's wife, and not just as Nephi's mother, but as a person with her own voice and her own testimony. She is her own witness. Sariah's reconciliation is given to us with her own words: 

"Now I know of a surety that he Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. And after this manner of language did she speak."

Though she is testifying of her husband's calling as prophet, Sariah is nonetheless liberated by a faith that is at last independent of her husband, and she is given space on the gold plates to carve out her own witness. From there, she is provided the strength necessary to continue on her difficult journey to the promised land, even though she was soon after nearly brought to the grave on the ship by the men and their "exceeding rudeness."

Alas, there is no "Book of Sariah." She may not have even been literate, (though I like to believe she was.) But despite having only one verse to speak, one would at least hope that Sariah's would begin a legacy of incorporating women's voice and testimony into the Nephite record, engraving their words in gold alongside their husbands, brothers, and sons. But this did not happen. The nameless sisters in that first generation in the Americas, from the daughters of Lehi to the daughters of Ishmael, and continuing on in a long and tragic line of male-only generations all the way to a motherless, wifeless Moroni, prove that the Nephite's did not continue with Sariah's example if including women in the record.

From there on out, the only named women, the only women who ever speak in the record, or are mentioned by name, are Lamanite women. Abish. The mothers of the army of Helaman. King Lamoni's wife. The Lamanite Queen. All of these have a poignant place in the narrative. But if we try to find the same in the Nephites, we come up empty handed.

Without hyperbole, this eventually led to the Nephite's total destruction. It was their failure to "love their wives" that set them apart from the Lamanites and, as prophesied by Jacob, led to their downfall. However the Lamanites, who according to Jacob valued women at least more than the Nephites did, were spared to be redeemed in the last days.

One is left wondering that if women were treated differently in this ancient society, would the storyline be different? Would we still have to grapple with the tedious war chapters—the endless battles, the violence, the depravity—if women were valued the same as men in their society?

One BYU researcher I admire very much, Dr. Valerie Hudson, has studied and measured extensively different variables of how women are treated in nations around the world, and convincingly argues that "the fate of nations is integrally tied to the status of women in society." 

This can certainly be true of the Nephites. If we are looking to the Nephites as a model we should emulate, I believe we are reading it wrong.

So where do go from here?

Mormon and Moroni write to us on the hill as they witness the utter downfall of their patriarchal society, documenting in painful detail the cruelty and depravity, especially towards women, as outlined in Moroni 9. Moroni implores: 

"Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been."
O Ye Fair Ones: Mormon and Moroni witness the destruction of their people.

Without condemning, is it presumptuous to believe we can be "more wise" than the Nephites? If every attempt to create a Zion society in the scriptures has ended in disaster, what makes the restored Church any different? What do we have that they did not?

Well, for one thing, we have our unprecedented fight for global women's rights.

Moving Forward: Nephi's Sisters in Zion

When we look back on the progress that women have made in society over the past two hundred years since the Nephite record was extracted from the hill Cumorah—since heavenly messengers have turned their heavenly keys and Moroni has come to announce the Lord's coming with a trump—it has been very heartening. Women have gone from silent property to citizens with a voice in only a few short years. 

But how much more needs to be done? Well if the status of women is a temperature check on how well a nation is doing, I would say that given the state of things and the struggles we face worldwide, that the answer is "plenty of work."

Talking with the women in my life, some tell me they do not resonate with the claim that women struggle at church. Some say that they already do feel heard and involved at every level. Like Sariah, they have already made it onto the plates. I do not want to minimize their voice or their experience in any way. I am aware that many women already do speak in church, teach lessons, plan activities, participate in decision making, work in leadership positions, and some already feel like their voice is valued equally alongside the witness of their brothers and their husbands as they counsel and receive revelation together. I am truly happy for them.

But I also know that many women in this church do not feel included. Without changing any doctrine, there are some policies and church culture that could be changed to afford a space for some women to better reach their potential, especially if their spiritual gifts are not in the traditional sphere of caregiving and nurturing. Are women who feel excluded wrong in how they feel? Are they deceived by the feminists? Lost to the deceptive voices of the world? Is "all well in Zion, yea, Zion prospereth?" Are we pacified with the status quo of women at church? Do we spend more time decrying "radical feminism" and not enough time repenting and changing the ways we might be marginalizing women? In other words, if Nephi's sisters were to ask to write something to their posterity on our modern day golden plates, would we give them room to do so? Or would we just continue to let the men do the talking?

Last week at General Conference, I heard the voice of the Lord in the words of our prophet and apostles, and I felt the guidance and strength I needed. I was filled. But with only three women who made it to the pulpit, including the closing prayer, out of all 10 hours of the broadcast, I thought about how we can better fulfill President Nelson's plea for more women to step up and share their voices with us.

Of course, the Holy Ghost can teach us regardless of the gender of the messenger, and I do not mean to sow seeds of discontent in an otherwise marvelous conference. I sustain those who are specially set apart as special witnesses of Christ, and respect that they may be given priority in their messages. I do not claim insight into how speakers are chosen, but I do wonder: if there is no precedent for how women can speak up and share their voice at the highest levels, how can this happen on the ground? As one blogger writes, "You can't listen to women if they aren't invited to speak."

I do not know how much more needs to be done to give Nephi's sisters a voice and an identity today, but I am certain we can improve. I believe the first step to progress is to listen to our sisters, both those who are happy with the status quo and those who are not. I am not always the best at this, as my wife will hasten to tell you, but I am trying. Some of the necessary changes will come quietly, through the gentle voice of revelation. Others will require courage and a struggle. All will come from asking the Lord as we go to Him over and over again for guidance. Some of those changes to give women a voice will require official channels, but most, I think, are simply cultural attitudes that will fall away as everyday members persistently seek and ask how to include our sisters in the church. Regardless, it is going to take a lot of work. I do not believe God wants us to wait around for instructions on how to do this.

Unfortunately, many women are feeling more out of place in a church that is designed for Nephi. Young women in particular, I believe, are hungry for a church that is better suited to their needs. We have a rising generation of youth that is very comfortable asking questions and expecting cultural and official teachings that promote gender equality. We have young women who want to serve, but don't know how in a church designed by, and for, their brothers. 

And for the men, it will require active listening without assuming that we have already achieved equality in the church. Not yet, my brothers. Gender inequality is the most persistent, lingering result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. It is the foundation of the lone and dreary world. We will stay lone and dreary until we are side by side with our sisters as equal partners. The bride is not ready for the bridegroom. Bringing men and women together is the only thing that will bring us back into Eden's paradisiacal glory. At least, that is the symbolism I feel in the temple.

As contention increases inside and out of the church, we need more than ever a church designed by and for women as well as the men. We need the witness of Nephi's sisters to stabilize us, and while I might emphasize they are not responsible to "fix" the men, adding their voice alongside ours will stop us from falling into the same male-dominated patterns of contention like the Nephites did. Their voices are greatly needed.

Stay with Nephi

In the end, in spite of his weaknesses, Nephi's unnamed sisters remained with him. Nephi records, 

"Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words."

Today, I pray for the same. That our sisters will stay with us in Christ in spite of our shortcomings. That they will stay with me in spite of my numerous blunders. The only thing that will make this happen is mine and our repentance.

I know we have a prophet who guides us to safety in the wilderness towards Jesus Christ. I believe a large part of the ongoing restoration is the restoration of truths about gender equality. Just as the early saints kept their faith in Zion in spite of the failures of their leaders, in spite of the times when reality did not match with the ideal, we can forgive each other, bear with each other, and listen to each other.

For that to happen, we need Nephi's sisters to have a name. We need them to have an independent identity, and to speak and lead us on our journey. We need men to be proactive in allowing space for women to lead. We need both Lehi and Sariah's faith to be given equal weight on the record as we flee the wickedness of gender inequality at Jerusalem, making our way slowly, painfully, toward the promised land.

We need Nephi's sisters now more than ever as we continue to build our eternal families in the wilderness.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Beholding the Wind, the Earthquake, and the Fire

Tomorrow is General Conference.

It has got me thinking this week about how the Lord speaks to me, and how I can prepare myself to hear the voice of the Lord.

In the Book of Mormon, before the resurrected Lord appeared to the Nephites, there were some dramatic geological changes. Earthquakes, mighty winds, and fires broke up the rocks, buried their loved ones, and devastated their communities. In their disrupted state, it says "they heard a voice...and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center." (3 Nephi 11:3)

We have had some significant shifts in our socio-political landscape recently. I think I have more respect for the earthquake, the wind, and the fire than I ever used to. Most importantly, I appreciate the way this pandemic and the turmoil of 2020 has prepared my heart to hear the voice of the Lord.

Revelation Can Come from the Bottom

I used to believe that all revelation for the world must come from the top-down, from the prophet. I still believe that when it comes to official policies and changes to the church structure, this is true. I leave that to them. But I do not believe that the work of seeking and preparing for those policy changes leading up to those answers is up to them. It is my job to be a seeker, to ask my questions and engage with difficult issues until my heart breaks wide open and the Lord can speak with a whisper to my heart. If we just passively wait for God to speak to us by semiannual announcement over the pulpit, it removes our responsibility in the process of revelation. It would disengage us from the process, and not to mention make us very angsty and powerless. We might find ourselves wringing our hands when our leaders aren't saying the things we want them to say. We might wonder why our prophets act more like administrators, or like custodians of the church in Zarahemla, instead of crying repentance on the wall like Samuel the Lamanite.

The teachings of prophets at conference and throughout the year have stayed relatively constant: a pleading for faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and covenant making and keeping. The announcement of temples adds a bit of zing semiannually, but it is still a predictable part of the conference. Even the recent changes from our current prophet President Nelson that we breathlessly talk about, not to minimize their significance, are really more like "small and simple" policy changes, things like moving church services from 3 hours to 2, a new ministering program, young women can now hand out a towel at the baptismal font, older and younger men are realigned into a single Elders Quorum, women can give their nod as witnesses when a person goes all the way under the water, and single men can now serve in bishoprics. All these changes are just small shifts that reflect greater, much more miraculous trends in a changing world. If all we see are these policy changes, we might miss the "marvelous work and a wonder" part that the Lord is doing in the world.

When it comes to the social change that is required to make space for the restoration, it is a collaboration of many. Revelation of this kind is more likely to be bottom-up. Grassroots movements lead out to address major problems in our society, and we now have the technology to make these conversations go even farther, faster. Not all of these movements are good or inspired, of course, and some are downright dangerous spiritually, but when a group of people seek for something good, either within or without of the church, and as we seek the will of the Lord as these things flash across our news pages, it can open the doors for further revelations from God. 

The next step, it seems, is for the church to then quietly adjust its policies to reflect the revelatory changes that are already happening in the world. It is a much more inclusive, collaborative approach, with many good people outside the church being recruited by the Lord in the process of preparing the world for Christ. This can be frustrating to some who believe that the church isn't leading out more on serious issues, but I believe it is more in line with way God works. He doesn't do a job with one servant when he can use a million, so that more people, both inside the church and out, can receive the blessings of their service.

In short, we need to get over the idea that we are the only heroes preparing the world for the Second Coming. 

Too often we disparage the work that goes on outside of the church. The protests, the marches, the battles for a cause. Yes, sometimes it is loud. Sometimes it is messy. Sometimes it is complicated. It is always done by imperfect people, and we always need the spirit to know which political storms are bringing us closer to Zion, and which ones are taking us further away. And yes, we do need to be careful that we are not so caught up in the earthquake that we miss the still small voice that comes after. But the work of preparing the world for the second coming must first be loud, messy, and complicated. Slavery didn't end without a fight. Women's suffrage wasn't handed out without making some noise. Civil rights don't happen without a protest. With todays numerous issues, it is obvious that corrupt power will not relent to our demands quietly. Instead of turning our back on that work of preparation for God's Kingdom to expand, we can stand on the mount with Elijah and behold it. Be grateful for it. Feel the way the Lord comes quietly to His people after every noisy political storm. 

Beholding the Earthquake, Wind, and Fire

My mind keeps going back to Elijah's vision on the mount. Elijah had been called of God and retired to a cave, feeling completely overwhelmed and frustrated in his responsibility as prophet. It says, "he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." The Lord continued to feed Elijah in his dejected state for forty days by ravens. After that, the Lord asked, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

In that moment, Elijah stood upon the mountain, 
"And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." (1 Kings 19:9-12)
Like the case of the Nephites, it feels like there is a preparatory role that the wind, earthquake, and fire must play before Elijah can receive the quiet voice of the Lord. These forces rend mountains, break in pieces the rocks, and make room for something else to move in. As we look around the world and see the political movements, the social change, the upheavals, the social media comment threads and arguments, the loud clamor of the world, we can see how it provides needed change and also the catalyst for our own quiet moments with the Lord. Joseph Smith would never have retired to a grove of trees without the "war of words and tumult of opinions" that prepared his mind to seek for the Lord. 

We cannot receive difficult answers without asking difficult questions.

Before the Restoration, there was the Reformation. Noisy men and women who broke up the rocks of religious persecution for us and were martyrs to make God's word available to the boy who drives the plow. Today, the work of breaking up the social and political landscape to make space for the still small voice is ongoing. The work of the noisy laborers goes forward in tandem with the stillness of the restoration. We may not like the sounds of jackhammers and bulldozers and nail guns outside our window, but we had better get used to it, because they are busy building our house. And maybe we should get out there and help throw a hammer, too.

From our messy efforts in whatever cause we feel inspired to enlist in, I believe that the Kingdom of God will always move forward quietly behind us, filling in carefully the spaces carved out for it by the winds and earthquakes and fires we make.

"But the Lord was not in the earthquake." The role of the church never was to be a major player on the stage of politics. That is a role given to regular, ordinary people, like you and me, regardless of our religion or lack thereof. By in large, it is up to us to do the work of asking and seeking for greater knowledge, not to wait idly by for Elijah, or President Nelson, or God's representative to mandate social justice from the mount.

"If you have desires to serve, ye are called to the work."

To Whom Shall We Go?

At the end of a pandemic year, and after a year of disappointments, disillusionment, and frustrations, perhaps feeling our spiritual hopes crash against the harshness of reality, some of us may be questioning our faith. We might see the failures of our own church to measure up to our ideals. Others may just feel underwhelmed. After so long being fed on pathetic morsels of nourishment brought to us by the ravens in a cave of pandemic isolation, we might feel the Lord asking us, as I have felt Him ask to me, "What doest thou here, Christopher?"

Or, as Christ asked Peter after so many left Him when He failed to live up to their expectations as a mover and a shaker in the political issues of their day, "Will you also go away?"

Last Sunday as I looked at the tokens of Christ's body and blood up there on the stand, and looking around the chapel at the good "small and simple" people gathered around me, I felt, as Peter did, the words in my heart, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

What the church does is different from the earthquake, or the wind, or the fire. It is quiet. It is small and simple. It is "peace, not as the world giveth." It is the church of the same man who was found quietly doing good away from the power structures that existed in His day. His work takes place in the souls of men and women, filling the emptiness left by the storms, and healing the unseen woundedness of our hearts. He is the God of lepers, of blind men, and of the woman at the well. It was Bethlehem that defined His life the most. He was a great big giant letdown to those who wanted Him to skip the small stuff and overthrow the Roman Empire already and stop wasting time with simple sermons about faith and repentance and baptism.

Whatever keys were turned at the start of this dispensation, whatever messengers are being sent today, whatever heavenly seals are being opened in preparation for the Second Coming, they are going to come from God to the whole world, and involve not just a few. I hope to be involved when I can. And always, like Elijah, I will stand on my mount and behold it all with wonder and thanksgiving, recognizing the hand of the Lord when I see it.

And after the earthquake and fire and wind that passes by in my newsfeed each week, I will make sure that I spend time with that still small voice, and return to Christ's sacrament table every Sunday, "that I may always have His [still, small] spirit to be with me."

So, considering all that has happened in the last six months, I will be looking for a still small voice, not an earthquake, tomorrow at General Conference.