Last week, I examined how we don’t always need to dichotomize our world into who is right and who is wrong, as exemplified by the stark differences in approaches to war between the Nephites and the Anti-Nephi-Lehis. This week, I want to use another example from the Book of Mormon, the Zoramites. First, let me introduce you.
The Zoramites, as the name implies, are the followers of a man named Zoram. They originally identified themselves with the descendants of Nephi, but after a religious contention, they broke themselves off from the Nephites and founded their own city, Antionum. They developed a distinct religious tradition that resembled the Christianity of the Nephites, but had some key differences, including a complete disavowal of a Savior and the belief that God is a spirit. Every Sabbath day they would assemble in their synagogues, and one by one they would climb a tall stand and recite the same prayer before the congregation:
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.
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.
But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, while 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. (Alma 31: 15-18)
Does their prayer sound harmless? To every Latter-Day Saint, and I’m sure everyone else too, it sounds appalling, with a distinct whiff of hubris. To a young man who was reading the Book of Mormon the first time, I loved reading this chapter, because I identified all other Christian traditions with the Zoramites. The Zoramites to me was the epitome of the apostasy, the falling away of the true church of Christ after the death of the apostles (Latter-Day Saint theology teaches that after Christ and the apostles died, there was a long period of time without prophets or authority from God, requiring a Restoration to bring it back). I would try to read Alma 31, pulling out all the incorrect doctrines. The Zoramites only worshipped on Sundays, and ignored their gospel duties the rest of the week! They believe that God is a spirit, and that he doesn’t have a body and flesh and bone! They have a completely incorrect interpretation of Christ! They persecute the poor in their own city, kicking them out of their synagogues! They are so prideful, and won’t admit they are wrong!
But I’ve read the Book of Mormon a few more times since then. I have been able to also learn a lot about other faiths, and have come to respect them and their contributions to the Christian family. I have had to become humble myself, and realize that no, I don’t have all the answers, and no, I do not have a monopoly on truth. The more I read these verses, the more I realize that I got the completely wrong message from this scripture. I had been weaponizing the story of the Zoramites to demonize other Christian denominations rather than humbly reading myself into this scripture. Don’t we do that so much? We read about Nephi and his murmering brothers, Laman and Lemuel, and we immediately identify with Nephi. Do we also try to realize that we are murmurers as well, and try to learn from their mistakes? In the present case of the Zoramites, let me point of a few key weaknesses that we as Latter-Day Saints perhaps could keep in mind a little more often.
- We believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren… we thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away from the foolish traditions of our brethren. As members of the restored Church, we can and should be proud of the unique doctrines of the Restoration. We should love them and be converted to them. But we should never use them as a source to gratify our pride and our vain ambition, as a way of elevating ourselves above our brethren. I had a terrible conflict when a dear friend of mine left the Church and joined a different Christian denomination. One of the things he said was he hated how members of the Church condemned other Christians as fallen, and our Church as the single true one. I had a hard time even seeing how he could say such a thing. Did he ever believe that Joseph Smith restored the truth? Didn’t he see the accumulated errors of Christianity over the centuries? I have since been able to some extent strain out the the pride in such a statement. I have tried to change the way I talk about Christ and the gospel with other Christians, without automatically discounting the beliefs and spiritual experiences of others. I have tried to listen and not just try to be listened to. I am just starting on this journey, but I think it’s something we need to be a lot better at as Latter-Day Saints.
- While all around us are elected to be cast down to hell. This is an interesting one, because not many Christian denominations actively preach a fire and brimstone hell these days. We Mormons pride ourselves that we don’t believe in such a hell at all. Instead, we emphasize our three-tiered heaven: the Celestial kingdom for those who make sacred convenants and keep them, the terrestial kingdom for good but misguided people, and the telestial kingdom for everyone else, including murders, thieves, and all the rest. How forward thinking of us, right? I want to point out yet again, this comes off as extremely prideful. It seems that we are sitting as judges, and we can calculate exactly where everyone will end up if they keep following the trajectory they are on. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke, a Catholic man gets to heaven. St. Peter is showing him around. He sees so many people here– Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Buddhists, Hindus. They eventually come to a single door. St. Peter explains, “Oh, these are the Mormons. Don’t disturb them. They think they’re the only ones here.” Our doctrine is beautiful, because it shows the mercy and love of God for all his children. In Joseph Smith’s time, it made members uncomfortable, because the idea of universal salvation seemed so averse to their fire and brimstone sensibilities. We need to also accept that we don’t know the exact percentage of God’s children will be in what kingdom. I think that God wants all of his children to be with him, and that there will be more people in the celestial kingdom than we tend to think.
- Which doth bind them down to a belief in Christ. Unlike the Zoramites, Mormons do and fully affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he atoned for our sins and died for us. But we are very clear to distinguish ourselves from other Christians in their beliefs on grace. We need to clearly emphasize that Nephi said “it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.” We sometimes simplify the beliefs of other Christians, thinking that grace is a cop out. If you belief that Christ’s grace saves you, you don’t actually have to live a righteous life, and you can use it to excuse a life of sin. Again, how prideful and dismissive! We do this way too much. Other Christians have a vital and living theology surrounding Christ and his grace. They don’t use grace as an excuse for sin. We don’t like it when others tell us what we believe, and we shouldn’t do the same to others.
Among other things that I keep in mind when reading about the Zoramites, I try to make sure that I don’t fall into the same mistake of only living the gospel on Sundays. I want to make my whole life reflect the Savior. I also try to not let my heart be set upon riches. I don’t want my happiness to be dependent on my income level or my possessions. We Mormons could do better at that as well.
A scary epiphany I had the other day at fast and testimony meeting after I had read this chapter about the Zoramites. Think back to my description above. The Zoramites would one by one climb up to the high stand, the Rameumptom, and recite the same prayer, thanking God that he had elected them above their brethren. Members of the Church every fast Sunday climb up our own high stand, and start into a litany of “I’m thankful for”s and a few solid and conviction filled “I know that”s. I love fast and testimony meeting, because it is a chance to share faith building experiences, and help strengthen the faith of our brothers and sisters. I just want to point out the dangers of slipping into a celebration of our special-ness and better-ness than our brethren.
Let’s not touch the hot stove and learn from the Zoramites. May we become better believers in the doctrine of the Restoration, and be better disciples of Christ.