For those of my non-Mormon friends, please bear with me. I am starting this essay with a story from the Book of Mormon, but this story isn’t about Mormonism; it is about humanity. I have no doubt that even if you don’t believe in the Book of Mormon, there is value to be found here.
In Alma 31 there is an interesting story. Alma and his companions are going to preach to some people in a distant city. Alma has heard that they need some attention, as they are wavering from the gospel. As the story recounts, “the Zoramites were dissenters from the Nephites.” They had previously had the gospel taught to them, but “they had fallen into great errors, for they would not observe to keep the commandments of God.”
Alma knew where such straying from God’s laws could (and inevitably does) lead. So, he went to the area and started poking about. They were astonished to find that they had built meeting places (“synagogues”) and that they gathered once a week to worship.
In the middle of their meeting places they built a high tower that would hold one person. People would go to the top of the tower and each offer the exact same prayer, in a loud voice:
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, 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.
And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
This tower on which the prayer was offered was called by the people “Rameumptom,” meaning “holy stand.” Alma saw the prayer as evidence of one thing: pride.
Now when Alma saw this his heart was grieved; for he saw that they were a wicked and a perverse people; yea, he saw that their hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods.
Yea, and he also saw that their hearts were lifted up unto great boasting, in their pride.
I’ve noticed something over the past decade or so that is disturbing. We, as humans, have a tendency to unthinkingly climb upon our own Rameumtoms. We don’t necessarily look down upon the people we see around us; we know that to do so could be seen as uncharitable and lacking empathy. Instead we easily and freely look down upon those who are no longer with us.
You see, our Rameumtoms are temporal in nature, meaning that we look back to people in bygone generations and thank God that we are not like them. We see ourselves as enlightened, as somehow smarter and “better off” than those who came before.
There are any number of subjects that cause us to climb our temporal Rameumptoms and claim our “election” as God’s “holy children” because we “do not believe in the traditions…handed down” by the “childishness of [our] fathers.” Subjects such as racism, sexism, and (for lack of a better term) “genderism” are touchstones for making the climb and proclaiming the prayer of thanks in a loud voice.
I was reminded of this the other day when I read a blog post by Jana Riess about whether Brigham Young was a racist. Her conclusion was offered loudly from the top of her own temporal Rameumptom:
Bottom line: Yes, Brigham Young was clearly a racist. If racism is as the dictionary defines it—“the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”—then there is no denying it in Brigham Young.
How could Brigham be judged guilty of something that didn’t even exist in his day? He could, of course, when judged upon a temporal Rameumptom where anachronistic views of history aren’t precluded in our prayers of thanks. Thank goodness we are so much more enlightened today and are free from the “childishness of [our] fathers.”
The reminder provided by Jana was reinforced by the musings of a message board commenter who drew my attention to his thoughts about the tough time he had with some statements regarding race made by earlier generations.
Judgments made from our Rameumptoms cause us to condemn those in the past to lives of error and wrong. We are are grateful that we are not “led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren…which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.” The presumption, of course, is that “our God” would never allow such thinking among His people—and especially His leaders—as what is exemplified in the words of previous generations.
I can understand having difficulties when statements made by those in past generations that don’t fare well when measured against the standards of today. Plenty (as in tens of thousands) of such statements could be found. They can be found penned in letters, preached over the pulpit, codified in official pronouncements, uttered in the Church, in the halls of Congress, in homes, and in the workplace. Such statements were ubiquitous. We damn people for ever having the temerity to make them and, from our temporal Rameumptoms, thank God that we are better than that.
I often think of my grandfather who was born in 1903. He was raised in the back hills of Tennessee but went north to find work by the time he was twenty. He died when I was 44 years old, and I had many years to be with him, listen to him, and learn of him. I knew of the world in which he was reared because he took the time to explain it to me. I knew how he would refer to blacks, similar to the way his Tennessee contemporaries always did. I also knew that he didn’t have any animosity toward them in the least. His words were just “how it was done.” (This was driven home to me when I would visit Tennessee with him and observe the interaction between him, his siblings and cousins, and the other townspeople.)
Of course, it isn’t done that way any more. I knew that well before he died. No doubt many today would judge him a racist because of his words. But I knew him, and he wasn’t—except by the standards of a later day.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not justifying the words of Brigham Young, my grandfather, or any other historical person. To justify them would be the flip side of the coin played by those on their temporal Rameumptoms. The words need neither justification nor condemnation, for to do either is to judge. To judge accurately—dare I say it, to judge righteously—we must come down from our Rameumptom and use the standards of those days, not the standards of a later day. After all, would we want to be judged by the standards of any day except our own?
In scholarly terms, we don’t use the term Rameumptom to describe this human tendency to justify our enlightenment and harshly judge those of earlier times. Instead, the name that is most often affixed is presentism.
Presentism is the tendency to judge those of different eras by the standards of our day. We assume that people of all eras should be judged by the standards we have chosen to live by. We believe that anything that went before is of lower value and the result of ignorance and/or “wrong thinking.” We believe that the standards we now follow are self-evident, singularly virtuous, and blessed by God because, in the mis-applied logic of the Zoramites, He “is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
In other words, we climb our individual and collective temporal Rameumptoms and thank God we now know better and we aren’t like those poor, beknighted souls in times gone by. We sit atop our throne at the culmination of human progress, smug in the knowledge that we are better than all who came before.
Except we aren’t. We are still human, prone to human weaknesses, and likely to be judged by future generations with the same harsh judgment we administer from our Rameumptoms. In climbing the tower we jettison charity and cloak ourselves in pride. Our own temporal Rameumptoms are symptomatic of destructive pride just as surely as the physical Rameumptoms were for the Zoramites.
Isn’t it time we take a lesson offered by scripture and climb down from our temporal Rameumptoms?