July 4th, Amulek Day, and a Mighty Change of Heart

Lori Thompson Forsyth is a long-time New Englander, a part-time aspirational Spaniard, and a current resident of Utah Valley. She edits manuscripts for BCC Press and blogs at lorinotes.wordpress.com.

Brianna Santellan, Unsplash. 

Through the past several weeks of mourning and protests, as our national attention has turned once again to the power that systemic racism holds over many aspects of our communities, a passage from Alma chapter 10 has been running through my mind. It provides guidance as I ponder how to respond to the outpouring of emotions I see on the news and in the streets. It may even have some bearing on the ways in which we, as Latter-day Saints, could commemorate the Fourth of July, which I’m beginning to think of as Amulek Day.

Let me make the case for that name. At the beginning of Alma 10, we see Amulek beginning to preach to his friends and neighbors, who are deeply hostile towards Alma, to explain why he’s chosen to join the “man of God” who has called upon them to change their ways, and who says their city is headed for destruction if they don’t change course rapidly. Amulek begins by emphasizing his own respectability, explaining that he’s related to people they might have heard of and assuring them that he’s well-liked and financially successful.

At this point he pivots. Here’s Alma10:5:

Nevertheless, after all this, I never have known much of the ways of the Lord, and his mysteries and marvelous power. I said I never had known much of these things; but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power; yea, even in the preservation of the lives of this people.

Nevertheless, I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart, even until the fourth day of this seventh month, which is in the tenth year of the reign of the judges.”

Here’s what stands out to me: Amulek uses the line that he hadn’t known much about how the Lord works, etc., but then he moves past the comfortable excuse, and acknowledges its shallowness. “But behold, I mistake….I was called…and I would not hear.” Though he claimed he hadn’t known, he had in fact seen much, but had hardened his heart. Despite frequent calls, he would not hear; he knew concerning these things, yet he would not know.

Many of us who identify as white have long taken the option provided by our white-dominated cultures to largely ignore issues surrounding race and the many hardships that racist systems impose on people of color. We have had the luxury of placing our focus on any number of other matters and of not really seeing a wide variety of difficult questions. We have said, in effect, that we haven’t really known much about all these issues.

My question is this: Following Amulek’s example, are we ready to say, “behold, I mistake”? We may not have been paying much attention, and we have always had the option to turn away, but in reality we have heard some things, and we have seen some things.

Have we hardened our hearts? Perhaps we have felt something calling to us, even many times. Maybe we would not hear. We may have known some things that have cried out to be acknowledged, but we would not know.

Amulek says that he would not hear, he would not know, and therefore he went on rebelling against God in the wickedness of his heart, until the fourth day of the seventh month of the tenth year of the reign of the judges. That was the day that an angel created the conditions under which Amulek would change course.

We don’t know how the Nephite calendar corresponds with ours, but it’s a simple matter to overlay that date onto our calendar. If you’re in the U.S. you already have July 4th marked as a holiday. My invitation to us is that we add something to the other ways we celebrate July 4th. In addition to the fireworks and the watermelon and the community feeling,1 let’s do the work to be able to say, “behold, I mistake.” We were called and would not hear; there was knowledge out there that we knew about, yet we would not know. In this time, conditions have been created that prepare the way for us to change course.2

If we are ready to acknowledge the limitations of the ways we have responded to systemic racism in our society in the past, we still may not be ready for all the hearing, all the knowing that we need to do.3 There is pain in facing our unacknowledged part in the system of racism in this country, but let’s make space to acknowledge how trivial it is in comparison to the pain caused to black and brown people by that system.

So what can we do? We can start by educating ourselves. There is a lot of material to sift through, both from historical accounts and current events, and it’s hard to know where to start. We’ve already been introduced to Joanna Brooks’ new book on white supremacy in our own faith tradition. I’m sure many of you have suggestions which I hope you’ll include in the comments. I’ve listed here a few resources that have been helpful to me.

I’m prepared to admit that Amulek Day is unlikely to catch on as another name for July 4th, but even so, I value the pattern that Amulek showed us. And I think it’s past time to get started on a mighty change.


Notes

  1. In cases where Independence Day celebrations are actually all about white nationalism, then celebrating Amulek Day isn’t a question of adding on. There would have to be a lot of renovation.
    
  2. I’m not suggesting that we equate an awakening to the realities of systemic racism with Amulek’s spiritual conversion. But I am pointing to some important similarities between the two processes. Consider the scale of the change: The “before” and “after” pictures show serious contrast in each case. Also, you don’t get either change started without a willingness to see the inadequacy of the “before” picture. And the “after” picture puts you in a place to be an effective instrument in God’s hands.
    
  3. Alma explains later in chapter 32 that if you don’t yet believe, but can muster a desire, you can let that work in you. As we face our past blindness and deafness to these important issues, if all we’ve got so far is a desire, that can get us started.

Comments

  1. stephenchardy says:

    I was hearing someone on the radio talk about this topic. Talking about “what do we do?” This person said that we need to go well beyond planting a sign on the yard that says “Black Lives Matter.”

    White male privilege runs deeply in our church culture. How do we work to change that?

    1. Encourage our church leaders to include POC in ward councils.
    2. Encourage the public participation of non-white men in church meetings.
    3. Re-experience the scriptures from the perspective of a non-majority persons. James Jones and Derek Knox, in their podcast “Beyond the Block,” provide a way to look at the scriptures beyond our “traditional” pathways. It isn’t enough to simply listen, but we must also make efforts at spreading the word as understood from the viewpoints of minorities.

    I don’t wish to destroy our church culture. I wish to build it up in a way the validates and supports those who aren’t just like me.

    I really like Lori’s discussion, but I especially like what she encourages us to do: to become more educated, and then to act on that information.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    By non-white men” I meant non-white, non-men.

  3. Carolyn Thompson says:

    As we discussed Amulek two Sundays ago I also was struck by the applicability of his situation to my own examination of what part I have played in continuing systematic racism. I have always (perhaps proudly) thought of myself as non-racist, even so far as feeling that I championed blacks whenever I had the opportunity. And I think that has probably often been true, as far as it went, but I never went out of my way to be more proactive, to move out of my comfort zone. Thanks, Lori, for a well thought-out presentation to encourage all of us to exam our hearts and “do more.”
    Carolyn Nelson x

  4. I wonder what self-educating Amulek did after the angelic visitation. For myself, my gradual coming to terms with the horrific realities of race in America have prompted me to do a *lot* of reading on the subject (“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi to name just a few). Did he, similarly, apply himself to the histories of his people that were available to him? Fairly soon after this he ran into Alma, and I’m sure he learned a great deal from him.
    But I like that Amulek’s example shifts quite quickly into action. What is it that I’m doing to promote racial equity in America? And then again I’m aware of the many times that I’ve jumped too quickly into “execution” mode on a solution was ineffective or counter-productive, so maybe that’s why I’m spending so much time on self-education.
    On a more mormon note, the essay “Why I Hate White Jesus” (https://mormonmidrashim.blogspot.com/2020/05/why-i-hate-white-jesus.html) has given me a lot to think about, and even some concrete steps of things I can do & promote.

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