Intro to a Non-violent reading of the Book of Mormon

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February 12, 2011 by J. Madson

Since the SL Tribune ran an article on my approach to the Book of Mormon I have received alot of criticism arguing that the Book of Mormon cannot be anti-war or against violence. In an article in the upcoming print edition of the Mormon Worker I will lay out some of my arguments. I would like to present a few here to help others understand why I read the Book of Mormon the way I do. I imagine I will do 2-3 posts. This will be the first laying out a couple of positions for discussion.

Within Mormon culture it has become common to justify war and conflict by an appeal to the Book of Mormon. Many have used The Book of Mormon to dismiss Jesus’ words, teachings, and life as a statement on how we should approach violence and war. Despite historical and scriptural evidence that early Christian communities refused to engage in warfare and violence, the Book of Mormon has seemingly allowed members to move the New Testament and Christian traditions of non-violence to the margins.

I believe this is a mistake and a failure to critically engage The Book of Mormon. René Girard, French historian, literary critic, and philosopher, has argued that “the gospel simply shows us two options, which is exactly what ideologies never provide. Either we imitate Christ, or we run the risk of self-destruction.”

The Book of Mormon addresses the question: how should we respond to our enemies and presents us with the same two options noted by Girard: we can either imitate Christ in loving our enemies and seeking at-one-ment with them or we can resort to violence. In other words, will we sacrifice fellow humans for our own benefit, or are we willing to sacrifice self for others? Will we follow the sacrificial economy of Satan, or will we imitate Christ in his voluntary self-giving for others? In the case of the Book of Mormon, both options are presented and the consequences of choosing violence are shown in Nephite self-destruction. Mormon and Girard both conclude, that “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished,” and that we must “lay down our weapons of war.” Or as Girard states it, “Jesus doesn’t need to finish off all the bad guys. They finish each other off.”

This message is highly relevant to those of us located at the heart of the American Empire. If this truly is a blessed land, even a promised land, and if God truly wants us to be a city on the hill as some claim, then all the more urgent the message of the Book of Mormon. Will we follow the example of the Nephites and Lamanites in refusing to give up our narratives and engaging in violence or will we love our enemies and seek at-one-ment?

Dennis Potter once wrote that unlike the New Testament which speaks to the powerless and victimless and society and promises hope and liberation in the Kingdom of God, that the Book of Mormon speaks to the powerful and mighty. In other words:

Liberation, in the Book of Mormon, is in the hands of the most powerful, just as atonement is in the hand of the almighty Son of God. And just as the almighty Son must give up that power and, in a very real sense, empty himself of his divinity, the liberation of the poor is in the hands of the prideful and wealthy. But instead of being a story of salvation in which the ideal of liberation is fulfilled, the Book of Mormon is a story of damnation in which the people of God are condemned and destroyed by the “wicked”. It is a warning to the “righteous” in today’s promised land. Those who believe that God is on their side, that they are more than the dust of the earth, and that the poor of the world deserve their destitute state, will find themselves condemned to a similar fate, unless they yield their wills to God, and like his Son, empty themselves of their pride, power, and wealth.

If Potter is correct, and I believe he is, than the message of the Book of Mormon should weigh heavy on our souls.

The Book of Mormon begins with a rivalry between brothers that escalates into a national/tribal conflict with little respite and ends with Nephite destruction.

When looked at broadly or macro level, The Book of Mormon shows how Nephite and Lamanite civilizations inability to give up founding narratives and myths about each other led to self-destruction. It demonstrates how violence only reinforced these narratives and stories while failing to address the underlying causes of conflict. In almost all cases Nephite and Lamanite violence led to more violence. The Book of Mormon is a critique of this violence, a plea to be wiser, a call to lay down our weapons of war and instead imitate Christ in seeking at-one-ment or peace as Paul described it: a breaking down of barriers between groups, even histories or narratives.

 

Independent of what Nephi, Captain Moroni or others individually thought of war, The Book of Mormon, as whole, demonstrates clearly that violence only begets more violence and leads to the extinction of Nephite civilization. And lest we think the Lamanites fared better, Moroni informs us that “the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.”

I will lay out six main points but since my first may be the most controversial, I will just present one in this post.

1) Nephite civilization was founded upon a violent act: the slaying of Laban. This foundational act helped define and form Nephite ideology and traditions about enemies. It held that violence can be redemptive and bring about righteous ends, that it is better to kill your enemies than lose your culture and civilization, and memorialized this into Nephite thought with the use of Laban’s sword as an emblem of their nation and power. This same sword was used as a facsimile by Nephi to create more weapons of war and was carried by subsequent Nephite rulers into conflict. To a large degree, the foundational act of killing Laban trapped Nephite culture into a narrative that was repeated again and again in future wars and conflicts resulting in the destruction of an entire people.

This belief was exacerbated with narratives of Lamanites as a wild, hardened, and ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them. In effect, any threat to Nephite society could easily be recast into the framework provided by the slaying of Laban justifying violence against those labeled as enemies. It should be noted that appeals to foundational events in justifying violence are not unique to the Nephites. One familiar example is using the ideas of liberty and freedom, appealing to the foundational logic of the American Revolution, to justify conflict in the United States.

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12 thoughts on “Intro to a Non-violent reading of the Book of Mormon

  1. Felix says:

    I’m new to mormonism. I have noticed that the church is against “murder” while others churches is against “killing”. Maybe i’m wrong.

  2. Jason Brown says:

    Great work as always Josh. Can’t wait to read the print edition!

  3. Forest Simmons says:

    Back in the mid eighties one of my Vietnamese students and her father agreed to hear the full time missionaries after I introduced them. The father, a pacifist, could not get past the story of Nephi killing Laban. We went over the argument with him that “it was better for one man to perish than for an entire nation to dwindle in unbelief,” stressing Nephi’s extreme reluctance, and the idea that God, the giver of life, could also rightfully take it, etc. but he wasn’t convinced; Mr. Nguyen never did get past that stumbling block.

    Now I wish I would have said that we don’t believe that the Book of Mormon prophets were perfect men. Moroni suggested that we profit from their mistakes and be thankful (when we notice one) that the Lord has made us wiser than they (with regard to the mistake in question).

    I wish I would have simply shared my testimony of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon; it was brought forth by the gift and power of God for a great and marvelous purpose, but that doesn’t make the writirs infallible. They were humbly aware that they were not perfect, and wanted us to learn wisdom from their imperfections.

  4. J. Madson says:

    Forest I think you have expressed perfectly the interpretive key to understanding the text. The second we get away from the cult of personality and stop deifying characters and writers in the BoM we can step back and learn from their mistakes.
    There are many great things about individuals in the text but there are also many regrettable things.

    It is fascinating to me how the sword of Laban is used by Nephi after “robbing/taking” (depending on your perspective) the plates. He tells us that he immediately starts making weapons of war modeled on that sword for what he sees as inevitable war. It is this same sword that all Nephite kings apparently take into battle. It is a very potent symbol in Nephite culture and unfortunately reinforces the idea that lamanite lives are worth less than Nephite culture.

    I wonder why Nephi’s blessing by Lehi is left out. Did Lehi tell him to salvage his relationship with Laman and Lemuel. Was there another way? I look at the OT and see Joseph and his brothers reach at-one-ment. In one of the most touching stories Jacob sees the Lord and realizes there is no need for enmity, pride, and competition with his brother. he send animals and other gifts to appease Esau. He waits alone in the field praying and when Esau comes they have at-one-ment. Esau has done well in the world, Jacob offers him the birthright (berekah) back and Esau says there is no need, there is enough for all. I wonder if Laman, Lemuel, Nephi could have reached that point and realized there is no need for rivalry or in God’s kingdom there is enough for all.

  5. Joseph says:

    I do have a different view on this. I don’t want to be seen as trying to win an argument, just presenting another alternative view that I think ends up in a similar place. In many ways my thoughts on this have actually been prompted by J.’s post here, so this is not an entirely independent line of thought.

    Having said that, I do disagree that Nephi’s act of slaying Laban is at the heart of all future Nephite and Lamanite troubles. It is a pivotal event, but I believe for different reasons. I think, rather than the American Revolution, a more apt comparison would be the partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil by Eve and eventually by her husband Adam.

    A point that is missed in accusing Nephi of being the cause of all future Nephite/Lamanite wars is that Nephi disliked and ultimately rejected violence, which I feel can be demonstrated by the text.

    First off Nephi states “Never at any time have I shed the blood of a man. And I shrunk…” But the Spirit urges Nephi onward. In Adam and Eve’s case, that Spirit was Satan, but that wouldn’t have to be the case for Nephi.

    So Nephi, having acknowledged that he must cross a boundary to save a future civilization, does so, much as Eve crossed a boundary in eating the fruit for benefits to her posterity. Those of the LDS faith do this ritually in the temple. I would suggest that we do the same with Nephi in reading the Book of Mormon.

    Now, having crossed that boundary, a choice can be made. One can continue down the destructive path begun by crossing the boundary, or it is possible to take a valuable lesson that could not have been learned without crossing the boundary (William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is an interesting non-Mormon exploration of this idea), and move in a more positive direction. This is what Happened with Adam and Eve, and I believe it happens with Nephi as well.

    The reality is Nephi does seek at-one-ment with his brothers. He forgives them again and again and again. But Laman and Lemuel can never be forced to accept that at-one-ment, and they choose to reject Nephi’s offers. When Nephi realizes his efforts are never going to be successful, he prays to have anger removed from him (2 Ne 4), and then he does the only thing that can be done: he leaves. He doesn’t try to hold on to a “Promised Land.” He doesn’t use the justness of his cause to act violently towards Laman and Lemuel. The first king Mosiah follows Nephi’s example, again letting go of a “Promised Land” in order to save lives.

    That’s the part readers of the Book of Mormon miss. While it is recognized that Adam and Eve needed to partake of the forbidden fruit, the scriptures do not have them doing so repeatedly. They cross the boundary, learn the lesson, and repent. We are supposed to do the same. I believe the same goes for Nephi’s experience. We are supposed to ritually go through a violent act, and then learn from that experience to reject violence.

    Josh does bring up a good point about the Sword of Laban. The Book of Enoch points out that learning how to make swords was taught by fallen angels as part of a conspiracy that led to wars and destruction. This is a text Nephi would have had. I do not understand why Nephi kept the Sword of Laban, but he certainly must have known that in keeping it and using it to create more swords he was perpetuating a craft that was the result of a conspiracy of fallen angels, and this had resulted in civilizations being destroyed before. I don’t claim to understand or have an explanation for this.

    Anyway, I realize this is compressed, and I have left things out (though maybe not enough, I recognize this is a bit long). I also realize that paradoxes exist, but there are those who would argue that accepting paradoxes is necessary to spiritual progression (I mentioned Blake previously, and Lehi was another).

  6. J. Madson says:

    Joseph

    I actually dont argue its at the heart of their future troubles as you will see in subsequent posts. What I do believe however is that this foundational act which is a very key part of Nephite culture made it much easier for them to engage in violence against the Lamanites. Once you adopt the attitude or belief that it is better someone die for your own security, culture, etc then it becomes easy to justify future conflicts. Just as we americans use liberty and freedom as code words to justify wars of aggression, the slaying of Laban helped serve later Nephite narratives and rationales for going to war. This is independent of whether what Nephi did was correct (Although I have serious doubts). I would even say that my point is independent of whether we think Nephi was good the rest of his life. My point is that the sword becomes bound up with Nephite Kingship and culture. There is no doubt that the origin and history of this sword was a key part of their culture.

    In analyzing Nephites text lets remember it is only one side of the story and it is written many many years later. It is a very political text meant to confirm to the Nephites why they are right and why Nephi should be in charge. There are some very glaring problems in the text as Grant Hardy pointed out in his recent book. Things like why is Nephi’s blessing by Lehi purposefully missing, why do they offer sacrifice for sin when Nephi returns from killing Laban. Despite Nephi’s contentions to the contrary, why does he use military language before seeing Laban, why does the sword catch his attention first and foremost. See how quick he is to threaten Zoram with death. We see none of the soul searching like we did with Laban. Grant Hardy documents how Nephi consistently looks down on his brother whereas Lehi never has the same judgmental attitude but always is filled with hope for them.

    • Homer says:

      Which Hardy text are you referencing specifically? Just curious.

      P.S. Great food for thought in the OP. Raised a couple of questions I haven’t yet contemplated (i.e. Nephi’s blessing, the whole story of the sword, etc).

      P.P.S. Wasn’t Laban’s sword supposed to have been one of the things in the same box where the gold plates were buried? There’s a modern day analogy here we might be missing, but I just don’t know the history all that well.

    • Joseph says:

      Good points. I’m not convinced of Nephi’s guilt, but I don’t claim to have answers on everything. These are definitely interesting ideas you are exploring. And your main point about the disastrous end of the Nephite civilization is one of the most important messages of the Book of Mormon for us, and it’s one we readers of the book too often miss, so I don’t want to get caught up in minor differences. I look forward to future posts!

  7. Homer says:

    Ah, here it is:

    “The symbolism associated with the sword of Laban reaches to our day. The three witnesses of the Book of Mormon were promised that they would see the sword of Laban, as well as the gold plates, the breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim (D&C 17:1). An incident recounted by Brigham Young affirms that the protective hand of the Lord remains extended in behalf of his people and over his sacred records. President Young tells us that Oliver Cowdery accompanied Joseph Smith when the latter returned the plates to the Hill Cumorah. “They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room [within the hill]. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed and on it was written these words: ‘This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” (Brigham Young, JD 19:38)”

    D&C 17:1

    “BEHOLD, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a aview of the bplates, and also of the cbreastplate, the dsword of Laban, theeUrim and Thummim, which were given to the fbrother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord gface to face, and the hmiraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the iRed Sea.”

    And this:

    “But what of the sword? Had the weapon, like the brass plates, come down from the fathers, as a regal treasure of Joseph? Was it accidental, or an act of Providence, that Nephi brought the sword as well as the plates out of Jerusalem to the land of promise? It is interesting to learn that, according to Jewish tradition, the antediluvian patriarch Methuselah slew myriads of demons with a “wonderful sword,”7 a weapon Abraham is said to have inherited, by which he “conquered the kings. . . . Esau thus received it, as heirloom, from Isaac, since he was the first-born. This sword passed to Jacob when he purchased the birth-right.”8 This miraculous sword of Methuselah, described as being “more [precious] than money,”9 was not the only treasure secured by Jacob from Esau. A special rod, known later as the “rod of Aaron,” was also procured by Jacob, who eventually “bequeathed it to his favorite son Joseph.”10…Another sword figures prominently in later Israelite history, when David, like Nephi, slew and decapitated his adversary Goliath with the enemy’s own sword (1 Samuel 17:51), and then deposited the weapon at Jerusalem or in the sanctuary of the priest at Nob in the lands of Benjamin.13 As a fugitive fleeing from the wrath of Saul, David later obtained Goliath’s sword from the priest Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:8—9). Eventually, this weapon is said to have been inherited by David’s famous son and successor, King Solomon.14

    Accounts of swords (herev or hereb) as emblems of sacred kingship and authority are prevalent in antiquity. Semitic nations such as the Babylonians and Assyrians venerated particular swords. Tiglath-Pileser I, one of Israel’s conquerors, dedicated his “copper lightning flash” as “a trophy of victory, in a chapel built on the ruins of one of the vanquished cities.”15 The Assyrian god Ramman is also frequently represented on monuments as armed with a “two-bladed flaming sword.”16…According to medieval tradition, the famed Germanic hero Siegfried, of the Niebelungenlied, obtained a certain sword which enabled him by “ancient law” to acquire “the rights of the first born.”20 Often such inherited swords were buried or “stored for another generation, to be given to a descendant for a further lifetime of use.”21 The Pandyan prince, Kumara Kampana, before going into battle against the Muslims, was given a “divine sword” by a goddess, while another sacred weapon came into the possession of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar, where the blade was “handed down from generation to generation.”22

    As Hugh Nibley has aptly stated, the “kings and leaders of the people, as the trustees of the heritage of culture and dominion, are the regular keepers of the record, “which is had by the kings’ (Omni 1:11), handed down from father to son . . . along with the national treasures.”23 Occasionally these records and artifacts fall into the possession of unrighteous men, as in the case of Laban and Omni (1 Nephi 3:23—26; 4:13, 17; Omni 1:2), though they still are held by individuals belonging to the proper lineage or royal seed.”

    Sorry. Just got my interest piqued in it.

  8. J. Madson says:

    Homer,

    Understanding The Book of Mormon is the title I believe.

  9. George says:

    Josh:

    Are there any updates on your paper you’re writing on this subject? I’m looking for something worthwhile to read on the subject, and thought again to this topic.

  10. J. Madson says:

    George, yes. Something should be coming out soon. You can see a more condensed presentation of some of the ideas here

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