Joseph at his worst; Joseph at his best. Thoughts from study on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 4.
Lesson 4 of the gospel doctrine manual this year for Book of Mormon is on 1 Nephi 12-14, which is the rest of Nephi’s vision, continued from the previous lesson. These chapters are troubling for me. Nephi is shown a vision that includes:
- Nephi seeing his people destroyed by the Lamanites
- Bible coming forth with plain and precious parts removed
- Church of the Devil established
- Great European nations rising
- Columbus as an inspired man, coming to America
- Lamanites are Native Americans
- Colonization of America, God’s wrath on the Lamanites
- Restoration, Book of Mormon coming forth to convert the Lamanites and Gentiles and restore plain and precious doctrine
- More on the end of the world, similar to John’s vision in Revelations but is commanded not to share it
Much of this I find very troubling. There are alternate readings in some of this that can spur thought and bring valuable insights, especially by looking at the Church of the Devil more broadly, (see Stephen Robinson’s good article here) but these interpretations are a bit forced. It’s pretty clear what the author intended.
An example of what I mean by troubling. 1 Nephi 13: 10-12.
10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
Jared Anderson in his Sunday School podcast had a great comment on this.
(This) portrays divine approval of terrible, terrible historical events. God does not support colonialism. I think we can believe Columbus and others were inspired, while also holding them fully acountable and condemning them for their atrocities. We have to separate out human and divine elements. I refuse to believe in a God who condones genocide.
Joseph is at his worst (vast minority of the time) when he is:
- using scripture selfishly to chastise or manipulate people in his life (ie sec 132)
- using God to justify bad behavior (Nephi cutting off Laban’s head, angel with sword commanding polygamy)
- clarifying false, pseudo-religious, cultural beliefs through scripture, such as racism, curse of Ham, this colonization of American idea, anti-Catholicism, etc.
- using scripture to justify his position as prophet (Charles Anthon episode, 2 Ne 3:15, etc)
Joseph is at his best (vast majority of the time) when he is:
- opening the heavens to all people
- teaching us to come unto Christ
- inspiring us to love each other and become a Zion people
- teaching practical methods of how to gain spiritual knowledge
- etc etc (I truly believe he’s “at his best” most of the time)
So, what do we do with this stuff where Joseph is at his worst? Downgrade the status of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants? NO!!! These are the scriptures we have canonized as a Body of Christ and are our holy texts. Studying them bring us closer to God. But just like parts of the Bible are weird and even harmful if taken literally, we should approach all of our sacred texts as likely containing cultural ideas that make sense when understanding context of time and place, but do not necessarily perfectly describe the character of God.
Richard Bushman illustrated this really well answering a couple questions about scripture in a podcast interview with Bill Reel.
Bill Reel: In the scriptures, you have God doing awful things like genocide, etc. Is it OK to take a position, like these people are trying to explain things the best they can, but who knows if God is really the author of the harm to people that is attributed to him through scripture.
Richard Bushman: Yeah, I would take a position very much like that, but I would also say we have to try to understand why people would write that scripture that way, what is it, what kind of life situation leads you to feel that God is helping you to destroy your enemy and appreciate there are some people’s lives so desperate, so harried, so pressured, so hopeless that they can only find satisfaction with a God who is going to avenge themselves from their enemies. …you want God to step in and punish these people, and one of the ways that religion services people is to relieve the anxiety and the anger they have by displacing it onto God, so it’s not that they’re wrong or evil but they’re using religion to help them in their life situation. I want to be very empathetic to people who talk that way.
BR: Section 132 is hard for a lot of people to deal with. Is it OK to just set it aside and ignore it?
RB: I think it is going to be a subject of much discussion because it seems so contrary not to just ordinary standards of morality, but the teachings of the church…I think it’s always a mistake to try to bury cultural statements because they’re uncomfortable at a given point in time, try to obscure something, because at other times in history what is once buried has to be dug up again because we need it. It is of some use to us. …So rather than cast aside section 132, we need to keep contemplating. The fact that it’s uncomfortable is not grounds for casting it aside. It’s dealing with uncomfortable ideas that leads to new insight to new thought. I would say to be a little patient in talking about it and see where it leads us.
I agree completely. Rather than do like the Community of Christ, who downgraded Joseph’s revelations and scriptures that came through him, I say let’s continue to emphasize them and celebrate them as we do on the LDS church today. But at the same time, let’s scrutinize them the same way we do with the Bible. Paul telling women not to speak in church? Well, ignore that, you have to understand the context and even then in its best light it’s probably something we should criticize as improper view. Joseph inserting anti-Catholicism and pro-colonialism in the Book of Mormon or polygamy defense in Section 132? Try to understand it in context but probably best to ignore unless you find insights that help you spiritually.
So I call these chapters Joseph at his worst, but I’d like to point out that it’s sandwiched right in the middle of Joseph at his best. Tree of Life, Nephi’s vision of Mary and Jesus. Later on, Lehi’s teachings of opposition in all things, Nephi’s psalm, Jacob’s doctrinal thesis on the atonement in 2 Ne 9. These are some of the most beautiful and powerful moments of testifying of God and inspiring us to come unto Christ in all the scriptures.