I’m going to be writing a seven-part series this week. Each post will examine a scripture in the Book of Mormon the meaning of which has changed for me or become more apparent to me over time. I want to try to capture how my faith and understanding of the gospel has changed and matured over time through the lens of the Book of Mormon. I want to try to show as well how some of the things we absorb in the Church, what we call “Mormon culture”, should really be re-evaluated. I think that we as Latter-Day Saints have a few weaknesses that we could work on to be better disciples of Christ and to better love our brothers and sisters in and outside of the Church.
This week, I will be turning to Alma 24: 21-22. These verses find us in the middle of an epic story. The main players in the Book of Mormon are two people: the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Nephites are traditionally viewed as “the good guys.” They have the scriptures, they believe in God, they have a prophet, they are hard-working and industrious, and in general try to be good people. The Lamanites don’t have the same faith as the Nephites, but they do believe in a “great spirit.” We don’t know all the specifics, but from what the Nephites tell us about them, they are less technologically developed, they run around in loin cloths, and eat raw meat (possibly some narrator bias going on there). The Nephites and Lamanites are constantly at war with one another. The Lamanite king has just amazingly been converted by a few daring and committed Nephite missionaries. All the Lamanites aren’t happy about this, and the disbelievers turn on the king and his followers who have become Christians. As a sign of remorse for the many sins and murders they have performed in the past, the Lamanite believers make an oath to God never to take up arms again. In an epic battle, the following ensues:
Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.
And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.
I have always admired these righteous followers of Christ. I still find it unfathomable how determined they were not to defend themselves. As Mormons, we typically honor a different example when confronted with a threat: Captain Moroni and the title of liberty: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” We fight to defend what we hold dear. These Lamanites are a conundrum to us. Where do they fit in?
As a kid reading this story, I tried to find out who was right. Because someone always has to be right. Right? The typical answer, the the one that I used myself, was that the Lamanites were a special case; their oath of pacifism was a sign of their devotion, but isn’t a general expectation of members of the Church as a whole. That seems to be the approach the Nephites took when they encountered these fellow disciples. (But even this interpretation isn’t universally held among Mormons. For an interesting discussion of Mormon perspectives on war and peace, see the book “War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives“).
I think that is a fair interpretation. But now, let’s examine this in our day. What would you think if you met a Mormon today who was a particularly passionate pacifist? He wasn’t preaching about it in Church or anything, but he would sometimes bring it up in Sunday School lessons, and his Facebook wall was filled with anti-war posts. Is this something that you kind of avoid and side step? Do you talk with him and find out why he believes that? Or you think it could actually be an expression of his faith? Usually not. At least, I think most of us would try to look past his seemingly extreme political views rather than seeing it as a gift.
Let’s expand it a little more. What if, instead of pacifism, you have a member of your ward who is particularly passionate about serving homeless people, constantly serving in soup kitchens, bringing them to church, and advocating for support programs? What about a brother who is an LGBT ally, asking Church members to be more inclusive, mentioning it in testimony meeting, and inviting you to ally nights? There are hundred of other things– perhaps climate change, refugees, minorities, people with disabilities.
When I re-examine this scripture, I see that there is room in the Church for all of them. Not only room for them. We need them. We need them to help us become more Christlike. Each of these members has unique things to contribute to our wards and stakes. Just because we don’t feel the same drive as them doesn’t mean that they are extreme. I think that we as imperfect and finite beings can’t do it all ourselves. Thank goodness there is someone who cares so deeply for our LGBT brothers and sisters that they are willing to dedicate their lives to it. I will support him and do what I can to help too. Thank goodness there is a sister who cares so much about U.S. soldiers, and I will try to get a Christmas card out to someone in the armed forces.
As Elder Holland said, there is room for you in the choir. And they are a blessing to us. They help us see what it truly is to love our brother. Love is action is specific and not general. Inevitably, that requires us to narrow our focus. I’m thankful for brothers and sisters who are helping to show God’s love, and to make the world a better place to live in. “And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” We are all united in our faith in Christ, but we serve Him in different ways, and we need each other.