Call Her by Her Name (Helaman 7-12)

Monday, August 24, 2020

Channing: Hi I’m Channing

Elise: and I’m Elise 

C: and this is The Faithful Feminists podcast.

E: This is not just any Come Follow Me podcast - we do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We’re here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. 

C: We’ve saved you a seat on the soft chairs so join us today for a conversation about Helaman 7-12 for the dates August 24-30. We’re so glad you're here!

E: Welcome back everyone! we're really excited to share this episode with you as we are really getting into the book of Helaman. in this section, there's a lot going on. we see Nephi show up as a prophet who is calling everyone out calling them to repentance, we see murders and backstabbing, we see the Earth show up in an explicitly feminine way with feminine pronouns... those are some of the things we're going to talk about today, but I was so glad to see Nephi here; not just because his name reminds me of the OG Nephi, but I I think he seems like an empathetic guy. and it he really seems weighed down by the wickedness of his people, I think not just because they are wicked, but because he knows their potential.

C: It's really interesting to hear you say that Elise, because when I was reading through these scriptures for the first time, I was like I don't know... I kind of don't like this guy. I think that's my first reaction to almost every prophet that I ever come across in any scripture ever, which probably says more about me than it does anyone else (laughing). It takes me a couple of readings to get into a relationship with any of the prophets beyond my initial like oh, you’re a prophet, huh? But I agree with you. After reading a couple of times and thinking a little more deeply and critically about what his experience was, I agree with you that he comes across in the text as empathetic and deeply caring about the wellness of his people.

E: Nephi as the prophet also there's a few instances where I think like rose-colored glasses show up. There's a line in 7:7 that talks about how Nephi longs to be in the promised land with the original Nephi because he thinks that these people were “easy to be entreated,” and they were really good at keeping the commandments and listening to God, and they were quick to hear the words of God. Nephi is looking back saying, what a better time this would be than the time that I'm currently placed in, but I think there's a danger in that nostalgia. First of all, like Channing you had said this earlier, did Nephi not know all of the things that went on with Nephi and Laman and Lemuel? I wouldn't say that the people were so good at keeping the commandments all the time and this was a better people than the people that the current Nephi has right now.

C: Right. Laman and Lemuel beat Nephi with a stick, tie him to a sinking boat, and then they want to kill him when they get to the promised land. so I'm like Seriously? That's what he wants to go back to you? Are we not reading the same book? Maybe we're not! I don't know. It is just really funny to me that sometimes we can look back in the past and think it was so much better. Elise and I had a conversation earlier where I said I kind of feel like in the church we do this sometimes, where we maybe look back on the pioneers and think, If only everyone was as stalwart as the pioneers! If only we were as believing and faithful! I like that phrase “rose-colored glasses.” I’m not sure that by looking back with those on that we’re really getting the full picture.

E: exactly. it distorts our present time because if we spend all of our time longing for the past, then we miss all of the ways that surprises and miracles and goodness can show up here and now. Another thing that the manual points out is it kind of sketches what the church believes to be the role of the prophet. It says the prophet should cry repentance and warn people of the consequences of sin, they know revelation from God, they know that's what the people need to hear, and they're given the power to seal on earth and in heaven. They pulled those themes because Nephi does do those things here, but another huge role of the prophet that we see Nephi stepping into here is to call out corruption and injustice.

Can you imagine how different the church would look if President Nelson spoke boldly and bitingly about our our own churches lack of reckoning with our racist, sexist, and homophobic past and present? in the same way that Nephi isn't holding things back? Saying, “You are doing all of these terrible things. You are oppressing people, you’re prideful and greedy, you are letting this group of murderers live among you, and you are being blind to the goodness of God.”

C: I would almost go as far as to say that the text tries to emphasize that that's actually what Nephi believes his primary role as prophet is. For him it's not about seeing the future or seeing the unseen or being this great revelator, right? His passion and purpose that we see him do over and over and over again is that calling to repentance, is that teaching. I think even though there are instances of seer-ship that show up in the text, I think Nephi is always quick to be like, oh, you want to see some fancy magic trick? How about this: Repent!

E: That's so good. That also brings up another great point that when prophets step into that role of calling out corruption and injustice, it's hard for people to hear. There are three distinct groups of listeners that hear Nephi’s words and they each respond differently; the first group, they're the people who are really super pissed. They stir others around them up to anger and contention, and they basically say, why are we letting this guy tell us what to do? He's condemning us unto destruction, but that's impossible. We are powerful, our cities are great, and our enemies will never have any power over us. This guy is an impostor. Let's destroy him.

It's interesting because in the text, it says in 8:10 that those who sought to destroy Nephi “were compelled because of their fear.” I asked myself, fear of what? I think one possible answer would be fear that Nephi's words might be true. This destruction and this call to repentance implicates these people in this situation. it convicts them and condemns them. The second group of people that we see show up after listening to Nephi's calls to repentance are the people that say, Leave this man alone. We're not going to destroy him, we're not going after him. He's a good man and the things that he says are going to happen unless we repent. Finally there's the third group of people who, I don't know, have extremely rose-colored glasses on, and they say, Wow, behold, he is a God. 

C: In the text these people say, “except he was a God he could not know of all of these things.” That's in 9:41.

E: Here we see the people equating the title of “God” with accuracy of events to come. This is what Channing was talking about, where Nephi's predicting and seeing the future and saying, Go check on your ruler because he's going to be dead. Go to this place at this time and you'll find the murderer with blood on his cape. These are accurate predictions of the future. This is when the third group says Oh my gosh, is he a God? I think he is!

C:  I think they go as far as to say, because how else could he know these things? If he wasn't a God, how else would he know? I love that you pulled that scripture Elise because I feel like I see in my community, but I also see in myself, this lack of distinction between prophets and God.

For a long time in my own belief system, I felt like there was no distinction. I felt like the prophet spoke for God and God spoke through the prophets, so they were one in the same. When my feminist awakening arrived, I started seeing some dissonance between what I was seeing in the scriptures and what I understood as like an all loving and compassionate God, and what I was seeing come from modern day prophets, didn't always match. I really struggled to find my way through that rocky territory of what is prophet and what is God. It can be really tricky and subtle and hard. It's difficult. 

When we hear these people in the text being like he must be a God, I think as readers looking in on the story we can be like, these people are so dumb. He is a prophet, not God. But actually in real life, we kind of have the same problem. We can maybe take a leaf out of these people's books and maybe take a step back and look at who is actually talking and what elements are at play.

E: I think you bring up some really great points, because even if in our modern-day we don't believe that President Nelson is God, we certainly can hold him up as if he were God. I think that can get really dangerous because then that strips away the prophet of all of their humanity. In my own opinion, I think that prophets are people first. They still speak from their own social locations, and they still grew up and participate in certain systems, they bring their baggage of their own life experiences, and their personal beliefs, and their biases... they bring all of that to their prophet-ness.

C: Just like we do. I'm not saying like you and I are prophets, but we are people, and on this podcast we still speak from our social location. We still speak from a place of privilege and bias. We still speak from our own life's experience. I think it's unreasonable to expect that anybody else do differently. You know what I mean?

E: Yes, yes. Well, and because that allows us to give grace to the prophet. that allows the prophet to make mistakes, to not get it right every time.

C: Right, and I don't think this is altogether a bad thing. I don't think prophets being human is  bad. I actually think it's healthy, because it requires the influence and engagement of the community. It requires the influence and engagement of the people that are involved in the church. Maybe this is going internal again, but if we believe that there's one man who's going to lead us to the Celestial Kingdom and into righteousness or whatever, then we don't have to make a choice. All we have to do is follow the prophet. We don't have to think critically, we don't have to really be responsible for our own decisions, so long as we're falling in line and following the prophet.

I think if we do the opposite, if we are cognizant of the fact that prophets can make mistakes too, it's actually really freeing to realize that. But it's also difficult because it requires us to take responsibility for the choices that we make, to be involved in our own salvation because no longer can we pass our power and decision-making on to someone else. I think the role of prophets is important, but I think the personhood of prophets is also important too. they go hand-in-hand. you can't have one without the other.

E: Right, and thank goodness for that. I do want a prophet that is human and understands what it means to be human because they're living and is similar world.They're able to take themselves off the high horse that maybe people have placed them on or they have placed themselves on and they're able to get on the ground with the people who are in the everyday act of being human.

C: I think that's why you and I loved Alma so much. He did a really good job at that.

E: And Jacob! I loved Jacob because he was so in tune with the needs of the people!

C: Yeah!

E: He was willing to speak up for them and God had his back.

C: I just love it. I just love it. I know that's not a radical thing to say that I just love it, but I do love when the scriptures paint prophets as people.

(music playing)

E: Also, in this set of scriptures not only do we see the interplay between humanness and godliness, but another element enters the conversation-- and that's nature and the Earth. She appears here really vividly and very feminine.

C: Yes. We're going to be taking an ecofeminist lens to the text this week, which is something we've done in past episodes and is a personal passion of ours. We're always looking for opportunities to talk about Mama Earth because she's the best.

There are actually a couple of different eco-feminist readings that we can do in chapter 11. We are only going to talk about two of them today. I came up with four originally and then I was like Oh shoot, we don't have time for all that. (laughing) So we are just going to do two, but these two are freaking amazing so buckle up because this is going to be awesome.

We're going to start in chapter 11. In this section of scripture, Nephi has prophesied to the people many times, called them to repentance many times, and still they choose not to listen. They are just being wicked and they've actually started to go to war with one another. Nephi sees this war happening, and I almost wonder if he's just like Oh my gosh, I'm so sick of the fighting. Something has to happen. In the previous chapter, God had given Nephi the sealing power which essentially means that anything Nephi says is going to happen happens on earth and in heaven. Essentially, whatever Nephi says goes. When we come to chapter 11, Nephi says I'm sick of this war. Something else needs to happen. Nephi decides that a famine is the right choice, the right course of action.

We're going to do a compare and contrast exercise here as we examine the different ways that the Earth shows up in this conversation about the famine. In 11:6 it says, “the earth was smitten that it was dry; and did not yield forth grain in the season of grain; and the whole earth was smitten.” A couple of years later after the famine starts, the people are brought to a remembrance, and it says that they repent. So Nephi speaks on their behalf to God and asks that the famine be lifted. In 11:13 he says, “O Lord, send for rain upon the face of the earth, that she may bring forth her fruit, and her grain in the season of grain.”

I want you to notice the change of pronouns. In verse 6, the Earth is it. In verse 13, the Earth is her. There is meaning and importance to our words and the implied status that's inherent in our language. Her and she give personhood; it gives rights and recognition to the Earth as a sovereign, competent, complex being worthy of our respect. It removes personhood; it removes rights and recognition. It changes the perception of the importance of the subject. It is not only an object identifier; the word it is an objectifier.

E: Going along with this conversation about the importance of words, especially of pronouns, we want to explore the question or idea of what happens when Earth loses her personhood. Channing found this really beautiful poem that brings to light the importance of naming Earth as Mother, as she. This poem is titled “When Earth Becomes an “It” by Marilou Awiakta. It reads:

When the people call Earth “Mother”

they take with love

and with love give back

so that all may live.

When the people call Earth “It,”

They use her,

consume her strength

Then the people die.

Already the sun is hot

out of season.

Our Mother’s breast

is going dry.

She is taking all green

into her heart 

and will not turn back

until we call her

by her name.

C: That poem always makes me want to cry, so I'm really glad you read it.

E: Of course. One thing that sticks out to me from this poem is when we dehumanize the Earth, it is easier to dominate, exploit, and consume, and take and take and take without any type of recognition of a reciprocal relationship because we don't see the Earth as someone or something to be in harmonious loving relationship with if it's only an it. I think what the poet does really well is she showcases when we are able to personify and recognize Earth as she, as full-bodied mother who gives and cares for her being all of her inhabitants, then the relationship is reciprocal. then it's filled with honor and recognition and caretaking of the Earth. 

C:Yeah, it's a relationship of interdependency. Beautiful. You totally nailed it.

We wanted to bring this poem into this conversation because I feel like it perfectly highlights the subtle change that happens in the text. It shows the importance of our language and the way that we talk about the Earth and either give or take its personhood. In the text Earth was “it” when she was forgotten, when the people became consumed by greed, pride, power. When the people are brought into repentance by the famine, I’d like to think that it wasn’t just a recognition of their wickedness, but also the remembrance of their place in the world. Not rulers of the Earth, not above her; but dependent on her, a giver to and receiver of the beautiful, interconnected bounty and abundance of our Earth Mother.

This idea of interdependence and righteousness and the land being connected really reminded me of a couple of chapters back, like way back in Alma if you guys can remember, when Alma promised and Moroni made a covenant that if the people were righteous upon the land, then the land would be fruitful and abundant and peaceful. This tie to the land and between righteousness and the land... I don't think it is just isolated to the place where we think that the Nephites and Lamanites once lived. I really believe that it applies to Earth as a whole. Her health and well-being relies on our right relationship with her at all times, and in all things, and in all places. In the famine the people remembered, and she did not turn back to them until they called her by her true name. it was true for them and it is true for us.

(music playing)

The second ecofeminist reading we want to focus on also appears in 11: 17. It reads, “And it came to pass that the Lord did turn away his anger from the people, and caused that rain should fall upon the earth, insomuch that it [the rain] did bring forth her fruit in the season of her fruit… and that it [the rain] did bring forth her grain in the season of her grain.”

Notice who “commands” and who “obeys” in the text. Notice who “presides” and who “supports.” Notice who “holds the keys” and who “follows the leader.” Nephi and the Lord (who is personified as male in the text) are shown to have power over, or the ability to command the Earth, who is personified as female, at will.

This attitude of male domination plays over and over again in the text. You’ll hear us talk about this again and again because the BOM, Bible, and D&C are texts, despite their best efforts, co-authored with God by MEN whose power and privilege relies on the oppression of women and other marginalized peoples. It is impossible for authors to hide their biases in the text. How do we know this? We see it again and again in the way that women’s stories are absent from the text, in the way that women’s stories take a supportive role, in the way that female personifications are subordinated.

I just want to do an imaginative exercise, okay? Let's imagine God as a woman, Heavenly Mother. Let's put aside everything we know about “how the earth was formed” that we learned in the temple, just for a moment, okay? 

Lets imagine for just a moment that God Our Mother has power over all the earth because she birthed it from her very own body. The waters of her womb are the seas we swim and fish in. The winds are her very breath, the rains, the condensation that forms as she breathes on a cool window. Imagine her breasts as mountains, snow-capped and pointed, her milk flowing down her peaks into the rivers and springs that our cows and goats drink from. The dark, fertile, fecund dirt swaddles seeds; our grasses and fruit and corn and grain grow from the belly of our Great Mother, who feeds us with her very own body, with her very own life, because she is Life. She is the Life of the World. In cupped hands she holds the black oceans, the mounds of her palms form the glaciers, and the Northern fjords fill the spaces between her fingers. Her navel, great and wide and earthy, is tickled by the brave hikers trekking down the rim of the Grand Canyon. She laughs and the earth rumbles. Are earthquakes nothing still?

It is by the Grace of this She God that we birth and breathe, that we eat and die. We are formed day-by-day by the songs she sings as she works the fields of stars above us. The rhythm of the sun and moon are beat on the drum in the hands of our Beloved belly dancing Goddess. In the bowl of her swaying hips the earth is held, moving this way and that in perfect time.

Will this, our Mother God, bow to the demands of a child, even a prophet? Do the Redwoods bend to a whisper? What are the babblings and strained grunts of mortals to She who speaks the Word?

(music playing)

With this imagination, I can see no other way for the prophet Nephi to command the Earth except he commune with the Goddess. I can see no other way for Her to gift him power such as She did in 10:9, “If ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou cast down and become smooth, it shall be done,” than if Nephi too spoke the language of creation, the Word of Our Mother. The only way I can give my respect to the prophet Nephi is to glorify God first, because God as She and He and They are all that is. 

God does not bow to mortals. Not because God is better than that, or than us, but because God lives within us also. What is there to bow to? We see, understand, speak, command nothing except by the true language of God’s own heart. I believe Nephi, like I believe with every prophet who commands the elements and is given true sealing power, is so aligned with God in themselves that they understand there is no separation between God and Self and Other.

In this way, man commands no woman. He does not command She or They. Self commands Self, because only God commands God. This is sovereignty. This is the power of God. This is our birthright; it is not dictated by our gender or race or class. It is not awarded by achievements or conquerings; it cannot be traded for soup or bought with money because it is already in us, in all of us. If we truly understood by what power prophets and seers and revelators performed their mighty works, we would not worship them. We would worship God.

This is why I believe the concept of priesthood as we practice it in the church is the “power of God” in name only. 1. Because it does not reflect the inherent equality of God, 2. Because it is exclusive and elitist, 3. Requires nothing but a specific gender and age and a minimum standard of righteousness, and 4. Growth is not fostered by any kind of continued self-awareness and enlightenment process such as a contemplative or meditative practice. 

We have confused “the power of God” with “authority”. God gives power. Man gives authority. So while I don’t question priesthood, I do question authority.

People dm us frequently asking us whether we believe women should have the priesthood. I can’t speak for Elise, but for me personally, the short answer is yes. The long answer is that I believe women already have access to the power of God. No man can give that to us. So when I, as a woman, ask to have the priesthood, I’m not asking for permission to practice a limited, sexist form of ritual. I’m telling you to either make a place for my God-given birthright of knowledge, ability, and authority or to get out of my way. 

The end. Thank you for coming to my rant.

(both laughing)

E: Dang. Everyone, get yourself a friend who knows God and writes poetry so that she can influence you to better, higher holiness than you've ever experienced before, because that is  just what happened with Channing. You spend so much time researching and picking apart how God is within us, but we're not the same as God, and that Heavenly Mother and the Earth are always already tied up in our being because there would be no being without a place to be without the earth.

I think the verses that you showcased here really do highlight Mother and Earth as Abundant Giver, and what a beautiful way to understand God. And then to turn to the prophet and see Nephi as someone who communed with and understands the creative nature of Heavenly Mother and of God as Mother? What a beautiful way to approach this set of scriptures, because it forces us to do something different; to remember the things that we have forgotten, the ways we have forgotten our mother, the ways that we've forgotten our divineness. It really feels like underlying what you just laid out is the theme of remembering and not forgetting, and that theme occurs throughout the entire set of scriptures; that people are slow to remember and they are quick to forget not just their blessings but also the blessings from their Mother, from the Earth.

C: Thank you, Elise. That is a beautiful summary. You concisely said what took me a bajillion paragraphs to say, but this subject, and this face of God, and this contemplative worship, and finding of God in nature is so close and visceral and real to me that I can't speak about it without shaking. I'm just trembling. This is God to me. I'm really grateful to these chapters for giving me an opportunity to see myself in them, and to see this form of worship and acknowledgement of the Divine in the Earth, the Divine in me, the Divine in God to be validated in the text. I'm just really grateful that I got to share this with you because this is a piece of me. This is a piece of who Channing is. Thank you for holding space for that and for letting me say all my things.

E: We're so glad that this podcast is a place filled with a community of people that let us come to the scriptures with our whole selves and explore them and piece them apart and place them back together in ways that feel whole and good for us. We're so grateful and excited that people care enough about these interpretations to follow along with them. Please also always know that while we offer our own interpretations, we encourage you to offer your interpretations too. We're not here to prescribe ways to come to the Book of Mormon; we’re here to show you that when you bring your whole self, and when you slow down the text and think about who's missing, whose voices aren't heard, asking where do I see God, or where is God missing, that's the way that the text can come to life in new and surprising ways. I'm so grateful that Channing showed that to us today because she gave us a really great example of how we can bring our whole selves to the text and the text comes alive in fantastically new ways.

I hope that you've enjoyed the episode. We'd love to hear your thoughts on Instagram or by email. We are so appreciative of everyone who always engages with us!

C: Amen to absolutely everything you said. We love you all and we can't wait to see you next week. Bye!

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