Thanksgiving on the Tower of Rameumptom

It is November again, a month famous for growing mustaches, writing novels, complaining about Christmas music, and, not at all least, practicing gratitude. It’s the gratitude that I want to talk about. For several years, I have really tried to use the ubiquitous November messaging—let’s call it “Big Gratitude”—to try to improve the way that I feel and express thankfulness about many things. It’s harder than it looks, I keep discovering, because of the Rameumptom Problem.  

The story of Rameumptom occurs in Alma 31, when Alma, Amulek, Zeezrom, two of Alma’s sons, and three of the sons of Mosiah head to the Land of Antionum, where the Zoramites were “were perverting the ways of the Lord” (Alma 31:1). Alma feared that the Zoramites were on the verge of making an alliance with the Lamanites that would shift the balance of power in the region (Alma 31:4).

The constitution of the missionary group should give us some idea of how seriously Alma considered the threat. Amulek and Zeezrom were Alma’s companions on his earlier journeys. And Mosiah’s sons Ammon and Aaron had recently been responsible for the mass conversions of entire Lamanite nations. The eight people who went to Antionum were the Dream Team—perhaps the most powerful missionary force ever assembled in any scriptural narrative.

When they arrived, Alma and his companions found a people who regularly engaged in a disturbing ritual. The Zoramites had constructed a synagogue with a raised stand called “Rameumptom” that could fit one person at a time. One by one, the wealthy Zoramites ascended Rameumptom and said a set prayer that went like this:

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 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. (Alma 31:16-18)

Rameumptom is our great scriptural metaphor for corrupt gratitude. The Zoramites were grateful to God, and they expressed this gratitude regularly in a community ritual developed for that purpose. But they practiced a form of gratitude that was entirely exclusive. They thanked God for making them better than other people—for giving them favors that He withheld from other people. They were grateful that they had been chosen ahead of their foolish and deluded brothers and sisters. “We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish” (Alma 1:29). Material wealth was the main sign of chosenness, so poor Zoramites were excluded entirely from religious services. (Alma 32:2-3).

For the Zoramites, life is a zero-sum game. Wealth is a comparative value; it is only possible if some people don’t have it. Attractiveness, intelligence, creativity, and strength are also comparative values. They are only meaningful if some people have them and other people don’t. And “religious truth” in a world with mutually incompatible religious claims is also a comparative value. The Zoramites see the world as divided between winners and losers, and they are grateful that they are the winners.

For much of my life, my version of gratitude has been the gratitude of Rameumptom. Growing up, I remember being extremely grateful for two very specific things: 1) that I was blessed to live in the only truly free country in the world; and 2) that I was given the inestimable gift of belonging to the only true church on the face of the earth. One so blessed, I reasoned, had to be spiritually superior to heathens and communists. But I never put that part in my Thanksgiving prayers.

It is actually pretty hard to draw a clear line between expressing gratitude and claiming moral superiority. Had the Zoramites just phrased things a little bit differently, and kept the quiet parts quiet, their prayer would have sounded about like most prayers I have ever heard in sacrament meeting or General Conference. If we are mainly grateful for things that we have that someone else doesn’t have, then we have defined a “blessing” as something inherently exclusive—and the source of blessings (God, the Universe, the Flying Spaghetti Monster) as either capricious or subject to bias.

But what else can we do? Is it actually possible to be grateful for stuff that everybody has? The poet Charles Reznikoff thought so, and his very short poem, Te Deum, is a magnificent example of what that might look like:  

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

I concur. But I also know that some people don’t even have access to sunshine, breeze, spring, or a seat at the common table. Some people are imprisoned. Some people are starving. Some people die before ever experiencing the spring. In the strictest sense, even these common properties exclude people whose circumstances do not allow them to enjoy even the simplest natural pleasures.

But I don’t think this is what Reznikoff is saying. Rather, I think he is trying to frame gratitude as a lens through which anybody can view their world and not as a Pavlovian response to any particular “blessing.” The things that the poem gives thanks for are neither limited commodities nor zero-sum games. They are things that everybody CAN enjoy, and one person’s enjoyment does not limit anybody else’s. When we focus our gratitude on such things, we see the world through a lens that allows everybody to win together, which takes us one step closer to Zion.

Comments

  1. Food for thought. You’ve written what most of us have thought at least once but would never dare to say. Thanks for the insight.
    Also, I believe the phrase is “zero sum gain.”

  2. I sometimes wonder whether the need to be chosen belongs at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy along with air and water.

    One of the ways I try to push back from my own Rameumpton is to attribute 80% of anything that might be considered a blessing to pure random luck. There’s a statistical truth to that approach. It’s not just a mind game. At the same time, I’m aware of how easy it is to turn luck into God’s machinery for delivering blessings. Lots of people have done it.

  3. Susan, You scared me for a minute that I have always used the term wrong. But it appears that the term is “game”, not “gain”. https://brians.wsu.edu/2016/05/19/zero-sum-gain/

  4. Sometimes when I hear people expressing “gratitude” in their testimonies or talks, I think of it as God-is-Santa syndrome. Basically, people say they were very, very good and then they asked God for something so he blessed them with it. The unspoken corollary here is that people who don’t get what they ask for weren’t good. Many people who do crappy things have good things happen to them and many good people have bad things happen to them. Most of us are a mix of good and bad and good and bad things happen to us, many of which are not caused solely by our actions. I really like the idea of focusing more on those things we all can enjoy without limiting another’s enjoyment.

  5. A number of years ago God blessed me with some truly extraordinary blessings. This followed a period of extreme testing and pain. I struggled with how I might publicly express my gratitude for these blessings without making it appear I was comparing the blessings I was then receiving with those of others around me. How do we acknowledge the hand of God when he truly opens the windows of Heaven and pours out extreme blessings? Are we required to remain silent? If Joseph Smith had remained silent about the marvelous experiences he had, where would we be? Perhaps the fault also lies with those listening. I realized a long time ago that you can hear of another’s good fortune and feel left out or look at them and realize that if they can do it, so can I. And that realization has made a tremendous difference in my life.

  6. Michael, last week I wandered around inside the Ansgar Kirche (Catholic) here in Schleswig, in northern Germany. Tucked under a staircase was a little diorama of cloth dolls in various settlings. The accompanying text, titled “Being Grateful,” seems very relevant to your post. Here is my daughter’s off-the-cuff translation:

    I am grateful for everything that I have, and even if I didn’t have it.
    for the people around me, and if no one were there
    for my health, and if I were sick
    for my home, and if I had none
    for my freedom, and if I had to live in a dictatorship
    for the opportunities that I have, and if I had no choice
    for the experiences that I’m allowed to have, and if they went badly
    for the harvest and my food, and if I were hungry
    for my work that I enjoy and if I couldn’t get any
    I thank God for each new day; he will be there for me.

    Perhaps I need to train myself to see the counterpart of each blessing I recognize, and find some way to be grateful in the face of whichever end of the duality I’m given.

    Thank you for the post. Your articulation of the issues will be a productive place for me to work.

  7. BluePlanet says:

    Michael, I love your posts. I look forward to reading every one. You are a true 2nd-level thinker.

    (I grew up in northern Utah and worked at a recreation facility which featured water activities. The owners were LDS and on one of the tall lifeguard stands, they affixed a sign which read “Rameumptom”. Locals who knew their Book of Mormon always got a kick out of it, and non-Members would frequently ask “what does that word mean?”)

  8. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to be truly grateful without falling into some sort of Zoramite/prosperity gospel mindset is to completely de-link blessings from deservedness. It’s maybe easier to avoid the rameumptom problem if the blessings (and misfortunes) that you (and everyone else) experience are constantly acknowledged as undeserved, whether because of personal righteousness (as the prosperity gospel would have it) or because of “chosen-ness” (as the Zoramites would have it).

  9. As someone who has tried desperately to become a mother for the past 15 years–through whatever means possible–I can’t express enough how much I hate the humble-brag “testimonies” of people expressing their gratitude that God blessed them with children, or those children “chose” them to be their parent. The implication is that if you do not have children, and want them, God has simply withheld that blessing from the undeserving, you haven’t earned the blessing, and no children chose you for a parent. There is also the inevitable implication that if you were only righteous enough, patient enough, or faithful enough, you too would qualify for the blessing of parenthood. The excruciating pain and damage this has caused me is immeasurable. The reality is that having children is biological luck, God is not a vending machine, and anyone who claims they earned their families is Rameumptom-climbing. If only knowledge of that reality made it any easier to bear.

  10. gjacksonn1 says:

    God the eternal vending machine.

  11. When my wife prays she often gives thanks for “all things.” She does not use this as a lazy catch-all phrase. She is also quite capable of giving thanks for particular things in granular detail. When she says “all things” she really means all things, including the most painful things. And she knows pain very well. This has been a hard lesson for me to absorb, but after many years of resisting it and weighing it out, I think her way is better than mine. It is a philosophy that leads to extremely difficult, specific, and humbling questions about one’s life. I don’t know if this approach is for everyone. However, if you pursue it honestly, I guarantee you’ll avoid Rameumptom. When I succeed in living that philosophy as well as my wife does, it will be a cause for gratitude.

  12. I have been wrestling with this as I have studied this weeks CFE. “when we receive any blessing from God it is by obedience to that law..” This scripture seems so transactional and that if someone doesn’t seem to be as blessed in some areas as I, it is because they aren’t keeping the commandments as well as I do (classic Rameumptom). I believe we receive many unmerited blessings from God’s grace. But on the other hand, I feel that we are blessed for keeping commandments. I am having a hard time reconciling this scripture.

  13. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I think the problem with the Rameumptom doctrine is that is is close to true. We can be thankful for blessings others don’t have. We can do that with a noble humility or we can do it proudly and loudly. It is the pride that is the real concern here, and the fact that no one gave any thought to God or commandments at all until the next week.
    Sort of like the Snake in the Garden. “You won’t die, but know good from evil, like Gods” A lot of that is true, or half true. So it can be a bit hard to differentiate the two.

  14. Adding to this, Elder Uchtdorf gave a talk in April 2014 conference called “Grateful in Any Circumstances” about decoupling blessings from gratitude, and how to be grateful IN circumstances instead of FOR things. I’m still thinking it through, along with Jacob Baker’s Sept 2012 Sunstone article on going from theodicy to lament. Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Virtues of both praising and mourning, not counting blessings. Sorry I can’t summarize and resolve everything(!), but wanted to share references in case others are interested.

  15. Josh Smith says:

    Great post. I’ve used the Dream Team of Missionary Service many times in talks and lessons. One small point of correction, Alma’s son Helaman is not on the trip, Shiblon and Corianton are (v7).

  16. Michael Austin says:

    Josh–good catch. I fixed it.

  17. Loursat, thank your wife for me. My version is “I thank thee for life. I pray for fullness.” Fullness is close to “all things”, i..e., all the experience of a full life.

  18. I am grateful for your writings Michael, I wish everyone could see them. :)

  19. your food allergy is fake says:

    Sara,
    That scripture describing a tight and apparently simple correlation between law and blessings surely causes enormous problems in our individual and collective lives. It is either inferior scripture or we misunderstand it. A more mature view is expressed by Francine Bennion in her brilliant essay, which should be required reading by all:

    “We exist now as adolescents between ignorance and full truth, with real interactions among ourselves and the universe more numerous and complex than we yet observe or comprehend. It is within this context that I trust God and his commandments. I do not believe I could do it within the traditional framework where his love and power are supposed to keep us from pain or struggle if we are good. Neither could I find it easy to trust him if I believed him to make a habit of manipulating natural law and other persons to give me just what I need to test or teach me—in other words, to make me the center of the world without regard to other persons’ agency or experience, and without regard to consistent, knowable law. In LDS theology, I believe, it is the large context for all humans that gives meaning to suffering.”

    https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-4/chapter-43?lang=eng

  20. Laurie Rodriguez says:

    This concept is so important. I grew up reading all the miracle and gratitude stories in the Ensign and hearing them in classes, General Conference and testimony meetings. When I was 13, I had no doubt my dad’s cancer would be healed because I was praying and fasting and I knew God loved me. I was young and had an immature faith. But a big part of that was that these stories and attitudes set me up to see the world this way. I spend the next few years believing losing him was my own fault because I must not have been good enough or special enough to God to warrant the kind of miracle I had believed he blessed others with.

    Of course, now I know that this is not how it works, that the conditions of life on earth include the full range of experience and exposure to diseases, laws of nature, and cruel chance, and that God’s role is to be with us and support us and help us grow in whatever comes our way, not save us from or afflict us with these experiences.

    But in the Church, this is still a recurrent message. In a recent General Conference there was a story about a child who survived a tornado because she prayed. What about the families in nearby homes that did not make it. I am sure many of them were praying too.

    In our ward a lady whose husband had died in a car accident had to sit through a testimony about how another member had avoided a car accident and knew it was a blessing for paying her tithing.

    Less than a year after experiencing a prenatal death and the delivery of a stillborn baby, I listened to a couple bear testimony about how their at-risk baby was spared that week in a risky delivery because God was watching over them and their little family. By then I had learned that juxtapositions like this didn’t mean God wasn’t watching out for me. I knew He had been with me in a different way. But the omission and assumptions are painful to listen to. It makes those that are suffering feel so alone and unseen.

    And after having the Church’s stance on LGBTQ issues blow up our family’s faces to where our previously beloved Church could no longer work for us anymore, and we were guided to step back from the Church to heal our family, some #Givethanks posts (not all) came across as Rameumptom-like, celebrating that the Church still worked for them because they were “doing it right,” not realizing that it was their unexamined exclusionary teachings and attitudes that had cast us out of the community, just as the Zoramites had cast out many of their faithful.

    We were not less blessed. We were communing with God and living joyful lives outside of the walls of the Church, just like Alma taught those that were cast out in his time.

    But the assumptions in Rameuptom-like declarations feel very self-centered, unseeing, and hollow.

  21. I really like this perspective, gives me a lot to think about.

    How do we reconcile this with the command to recognize the hand of God in all things, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” I agree that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re blessed because we have X and feel pity for those who don’t have X. But it still seems possible to be thankful for X and express a lack of understanding of why others don’t have X, that acknowledgement seems to be key.

    I like the point in the story of Job where God is explaining that there’s no way for us mortals to make sense of his grand designs. But if he were truly incomprehensible, that seems to verge more on the type of God explained in the early Christian creeds, completely unknowable.

    How does God become approachable, how do we, like King Benjamin explains, acknowledge that we are worthy of nothing, but still recognize God’s hand in our lives, regardless of the fact that we cannot earn anything or understand why he has given it to us. Is confessing His hand in all things different than being grateful? It seems to still be a healthy connection to God to see everything good in your life coming from Him, as well as being grateful for being able to experience difficulty in order to more fully enjoy the good things that come your way, regardless of their origin. Does it matter the venue wherein these thoughts are expressed? Is it our intention that matters? Pride? Lots to chew on.

  22. Joseph Stanford says:

    The Bhagavad Gita teaches this truth beautifully: we can engage in right action for its own sake, but we cannot ensure what the outcome will be.

  23. So… we shouldn’t be thankful for our health because some people don’t have it? I shouldn’t be thankful for my children because some people don’t have children? I shouldn’t be thankful to be alive because some people are dead?

    I don’t think gratitude for these things is the problem. Sure, some people get a sense of superiority when they have things that other people don’t have. But that fact has nothing to do with gratitude.

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