Sunday, December 27, 2009
When Mormons Take The Lord's Name In Vain -Part 1
Most of us Latter-day Saints have a rather skewed view of what it means to take the name of the Lord in vain. We’re in good company, though; most of Christendom shares the same misunderstanding.
The widely-held view of the third great commandment is that it prohibits calling on deity in a vain or exclamatory manner, or as an epithet in partner with other vulgarities. But that is what the ancient Israelites understood was meant by profaning God’s name. Though offensive, it's not the same as taking His name in vain.
“Taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain”, as the commandment is rendered in Hebrew, means the invoking of God’s name to justify doing something that God clearly did not ask you to do. A classic example in European history would be the Crusades, that two hundred year debacle in which all of Christendom was convinced they were doing God’s will by invading the middle east and killing the people who were living there under the guise of “rescuing” the Holy Land from the infidels.
Never mind that most of those “infidels” worshiped the same God of Abraham as the Europeans did (Allah is merely an alternate pronunciation of El, after all), or that God’s word (which nobody read) declaimed against taking up the sword except in direct defense of one’s own lands. The crusaders justified the killing of foreigners because they killed in the name of Jehovah. They were taking the name of the Lord in vain.
Every one of the crusades failed spectacularly, resulting in catastrophic death and destruction among the “Christians” participating. So you’d think that by the time the ninth major expedition set out in A.D. 1271, losing most of its members to death and disease on the way as had the others before it -well, you’d think someone with half a brain might have begun to suspect that just maybe God wasn’t on their side in this thing after all.
But crusaders both ancient and modern are slow learners. As the fools rush headlong to their own slaughter, God withdraws his spirit and leaves them to their own destruction.
Here in the new world, the founders set in place a government designed to leave behind the royal institutions that tended to promote war. The new Americans rejected titles of nobility, class distinctions, and old world concepts of war as a means of bringing glory to a nation.
But no good thing lasts for long, and in no time many inhabitants of our young nation were in thrall of the romance of what they thought of as the Age of Chivalry, where knights rode to the rescue of maidens fair, and life was leisurely and gallant. The middle ages were actually far from chivalrous; they were a time of raw brutality and desperation.
But reality rarely intrudes on a mass fantasy. The man we can probably blame for our corrupted view of medieval history was the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, a man who Mark twain said single-handedly did “more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.”
Twain often exaggerated, but this wasn't one of those times. When it comes to creating damaging historical myth, Sir Walter Scott created the template.
At first glance, it's hard to fault Scott himself for capturing the public imagination. Scott’s romantic adventures portrayed an age where every knight was a gentleman and every lady was a delicate flower under the protection of his sword, as were the serfs contentedly toiling in his fields and the children at his knee. Scott’s historical novels were ubiquitous in every houselhold of the country, but particularly popular among the antebellum Southern gentry, with the result that much of that high-tone Southern society gradually came to mirror the fictional pattern and manners of the eras described in Scott's novels.
Southern society was soon filled with men who bestowed honorifics upon themselves and each other until it seemed almost every other Southern male insisted on being addressed as "Colonel" or "Captain" or "Major" or "Judge".
As in those so-called Days of Yore, no true Southern gentleman would tolerate a personal slight, so satisfaction was frequently demanded for the pettiest affronts. "Satisfaction", of course, usually meant the opportunity to kill or be killed in a duel to defend one’s honor. Pride in place and family -and especially country- was blurred with the Christian religion until almost any reason for killing -or getting yourself killed- was considered honorable before God. And that was the driving tenet of this religion: Personal Honor, whatever that meant. Indeed, it's been said that the many generational feuds between families on the Kentucky-Tennessee border were the religion.
Sir Walter Scott’s influence both in the North and the South resulted in what one historian called "a military fever”. Scott's novels glorified the crusades, and if it had been practical for men to walk about in suits of armor, they probably would have. They took to decorating their coats with ribbons, medals, epaulets, and brass buttons, and adding stripes down the sides of their pants.
Like everybody else at the time, the latter-day saints were not immune to this military fever. The uniforms of the Nauvoo Legion were among the spiffiest around. And the Mormons came up with the highest rank they could think of for their commanding officer: not just General, but Lieutenant-General. Top that, Carthage Greys.
By the time of the outbreak of the war between the states, America’s young on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were itching for the chance to prove their mettle. Raised on the books of Walter Scott like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they had a romanticized view of battle. War was something you returned from as a hero, trailing honor and glory in your wake. It was a fantasy no young man could resist, and the call to arms was answered lustily from both North and South.
The horrors of war were unknown to these innocent adventurers. They embraced the opportunity to go to war without ever thinking it through. Had you asked a young recruit in 1861 what he was joining up for, he would likely have answered, “for honor and glory”.
But what does that mean, actually? Nothing; it's an empty phrase. Such is the power of myth.
According to numerous journals from that time, nearly every soldier on both sides of the Civil War believed with all his heart that he was acting as God's agent and with His blessings in that war. And some actually were, at least those who were truly defending their own lands. God does justify those who fight in defense of their own lands and freedoms.
Everybody else was taking God's name in vain.
As recently as the 1930's, the novels of Sir Walter Scott were still being passed down to the younger generation. But today they are largely forgotten, gathering dust in antiquarian book stores. Still, Scott’s legacy lives on in books and motion pictures to this day. Every movie of the twentieth century that featured knights and fair ladies, dueling with swords, and jousting on horseback owed its mythology to the historical novels of Sir Scott.
His legacy lives on also in the traditions of a nation quick to take offense and eager for satisfaction over every imagined insult from any country not blessed as we are to be God's Chosen Ones. Many Americans today are not all that different from the idealistic knights of the Crusades, nor from those in Joseph Smith’s day who ached to play dress up and go forth to redeem the land in the name of God.
Young men today are still easily persuaded that wearing a costume provided by the United States Government will somehow transform them into noble knights in shining armor, protectors of the realm.
You can call it a uniform if you want, but it’s really only a costume, designed to convey the impression that the wearer is something he is not: a hero.
Putting on a costume does not imbue one with godly character. It does not magically transform a mortal into an agent of the Almighty. I personally look forward to the day when we recognize that a man looks as ridiculous covered in ribbons and medals as he would in a suit of armor. Either way, it's mere costuming.
I have been vocal in my assertion that any young person who enlists in the United States military as it is presently constituted does so in direct defiance of the stated word of God, and may very well find himself without excuse at the bar of judgment. In this age of instant information it is easy to document how our military has been compromised, corrupted, and cut from its constitutional moorings. There is simply no plausible way for a new recruit to feign ignorance.
Yet I’ve been told by members of my own church -people who should know better- that I should fall on my knees and thank God for those soldiers who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; for because of them I have the freedom to sit here and critique those soldiers as they defend my rights.
The last American soldier who died to secure the freedom I have to speak my mind shed his lifeblood for me at Yorktown in 1781. To that nameless hero and all his compatriots I am, and will always be, humbly, humbly grateful. Their sacrifices were directly responsible for securing the freedoms I have today and I say it is an insult to the memory of those true patriots to have them equated with today’s mercenaries who are effectively undoing all that those gallant men fought and died for.
If I were to fall to my knees and thank God for the modern soldier who has traveled into the borders of another man’s country to kill him in open defiance of the wishes of God, I would be taking the name of the Lord my God in vain.
Click here for For Part 2 of "When Mormons Take The Lord's Name In Vain".