Mosiah 10-18 documents the preaching of the prophet Abinadi, his rejection by King Noah and his priests, the acceptance of the gospel by Alma, and Alma’s preaching and baptizing in the wilderness.
One reason we like this story is there is a clear bad guy. King Noah was terribly wicked (you can tell because of the horrid tax burden he put on his people), while the prophet Abinadi was clearly the good guy (you can tell by the size of his biceps in the Arnold Frieberg painting).
But a story that often gets left out is the story directly before it documenting the founder of this small branch of the Nephites: Zeniff.
Zeniff typically is viewed as a sidenote within the Book of Mormon. We know that he wanted to re-inherit the land of his fathers. That he left with a small group, made a deal with the Lamanites, the Lamanites didn’t stick to their end of the bargain and tried to put his people in slavery, and Zeniff died fighting the wicked Lamanites to his dying day. Overall a good guy fighting with God on his side, but perhaps a bad judge of character because he made his son Noah king.
But lets look a little closer at his story, specifically examining his relationship with the Lamanites. Initially, Zeniff has a rather different view of the Lamanites than his Nephite brethren. When he was spying on them, he “saw that which was good among them… and was desirous that they should not be destroyed.” Note this. This is coming from a Nephite. And the Nephites definitely knew that the Lamanites were the bad guys, “for they delighed in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually” (Jacob 7:24). Zeniff stands out here as a compassionate character, wanting to find the good in other people. Standing up for the Lamanites to the face of his “austere and blood-thirsty” boss, Zeniff ends up causing an internal quarrel that becomes a bloody battle, leaving the Nephite scouting party decimated. (That escalated quickly!)
Zeniff eventually returns to the Lamanite lands and strikes a deal with the Lamanites. Zeniff will be able to settle a few cities and build them up anew, and the Lamanites won’t harass them. It almost seems that Zeniff was able to achieve the previously unachievable: make peace with the Lamanites and live in cooperation. Gasp! Maybe the Lamanites weren’t as bad as the Nephites thought. But that changes once Zeniff realizes that he had been “deceived by the cunning and craftiness of king Laman.” We aren’t sure of the exact reasons, but Zeniff tells us that King Laman’s motives were impure: “That [he] could overpower them and bring them into bondage” (Mosiah 9:11).
After that, Zeniff’s rhetoric sounds exactly like that of his brethren yet again: “They were a wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers.”
The Nephites, Zeniff included, make the Lamanites sound like a bunch of jilted whiners, believing “they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea;
“And again that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance… [and they were wroth with Nephi] because they understood not the dealing of the Lord; they were also wroth with him upon the waters because they hardened their hearts against the Lord.
“And again, they were wroth with him when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands; and they sought to kill him.
“And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for they said that he had robbed them” (Mosiah 10:12-16).
I personally believe that this characterization of the Lamanites isn’t entirely fair or accurate. I don’t think this is the inspired version. I think that the Book of Mormon shows us the Nephites with all their human weakness, including their prejudices, and that the fault lies not in the actions of the Lamanites, but in the eyes of the Nephites.
We know later for instance that it was only by coming to know the Lamanites and loving them, by overcoming their own characterizations of the Lamanites, that Ammon and his brethren were able to bring them the gospel. We also know that the Nephite/Lamanite dichotomy wasn’t equal to good/bad. Lehi made clear that the Lamanites were to be a scourge to the Nephites because of the Nephite’s wickedness (“They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me.” 2 Nephi 5:25). Nephite prophets use the righteous example of the Lamanites hundreds of years earlier to call the Nephites to repentance (“Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate… are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord… that they should have save it were one wife.” Jacob 3:5). And oftentimes they were the only righteous pepole in the entire land (Samuel the Lamanite pointed out “The more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments.” Helaman 15:5). At the very least, the Lamanites seemed to be pretty friendly if you treated them with respect; after Ammon established he wasn’t a robber or a thief, King Lamoni offered one of his daughters to be married!
Zeniff characterized himself as over-zealous. He was really enthusiastic about re-inheriting the land. I think his over-zealousness was one part of his greater sin of pride. For the majority of the Book of Mormon (with the exception of Samuel the Lamanite), we hear the Nephite narrative characterizing the Lamanites as bad as animals. Zeniff is able to overcome this view briefly, but the moment a potential conflict arises, he falls back into the same Nephite finger-pointing.
As members of the Church, are we not also prone to finding a bad guy to contrast with our “righteousness”? We don’t want to let our children play with their non-Mormon neighbors because they might be a bad influence. Democrats, liberals, gays, homeless people, non-Mormon Christians. In our attempts to do the Lord’s will, we shouldn’t need to define a group to contrast ourselves with. To quote C. S. Lewis, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”