An Anti-Nephi-Lehi Conversion Story
During my first year of studying at the University of Bradford, while doing a bachelor’s in peace and development studies, I became like most other first year students overwhelmed with the problems of this world. What we were learning in the first year was pretty much to recognize violence in all its different forms and manifestations. At times we talked about what could be done about the different violent conflicts, but most of those discussions were saved for later years. To put it mildly, I was in deep despair. I think that what was most upsetting to me was the fact that I was born in 1977 and that most of the problems that the world was facing were problems that were not of my doing. In fact, they were issues that stem from decisions that were taken long before I came into the world. Is it then fair to say, ‘Good luck, kid – it’s a damn mess, but you are the one who is going to have to clean up’?
I must say that as a child, at home, I was not the one that would enjoy having to clean up after other people’s mess, especially if they were perfectly capable of cleaning it up themselves. In this case, many of them are either too old, too set in their ways, or too dead to do anything about it. For somebody like me who has always been an enthusiastic family historian, I must say that I was throughout my first year in Bradford quite upset at what those who preceded me had left behind. On one of those cold and rainy days that you get all too often in Northern England, I went to the Peace Library located on the second floor of the University library. It’s a separate little library in a very little room in the far north corner of the building with shelves filled with hundreds of books dedicated to peace.
I approached the librarian who happened to be an older lady and I think she was a catholic too. Anyhow, catholic or not, she was quite something. I was volunteering at the Peace Library and we sometimes started chatting to each other. She asked me how I was. On this particular day, she realized that I was not myself – or at least I seemed very preoccupied. After I explained to her why I felt the way I felt she said, “It seems to me that you need some inspiration – a little something to cheer you up. This is what you should do: Choose a shelf according to a theme that you think might be most relevant to your situation. Go to that shelf and then close your eyes and let your finger run over the books, and when you feel something special, take that book and read it. That will be what you will need to hear.”
How could I refuse? When you feel there is no way out, you might as well try something like that? So I did. It was kind of in line with my Mormon upbringing, that the Spirit teaches us all truth and leads us to all truth. I chose the following theme: inspirational leaders. I needed inspiration, right? As I closed my eyes and was passing my fingers over the books on that particular shelf, it just happened that I did feel something as I approached the middle of the shelf. I said to myself, “this can’t be?” and decided therefore to ignore it. But then as I continued and moved my finger away from that book in question, my warm fuzzy feeling disappeared. Well, I was a bit surprised at that, and returned therefore to the place where I had felt something, and indeed the feeling came back. I opened my eyes and reached for the book in question. It had a little crown on it that somebody had drawn with a yellow marker. The book was small and red, with no cover title. Imagine my excitement! This could only be the right thing for me to read – didn’t my name mean ‘the King’? I opened the book and on the cover page I could read the following:
Stride towards Freedom, the Montgomery Story, by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Well, there was my answer, and all I had to do was to read the book. It is the story of how a people responded to the call for action, when Rosa Parks, aged 42, refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. Parks’ action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a story that Martin Luther King recounts in the little red book I had in my hands.
More importantly, there is a chapter in that book where King describes his conversion to the principles of nonviolence and to the use of civil disobedience in the face of injustice. What more did I need, right? King had studied several writers, but the life of Mohandas Gandhi was probably what inspired him the most, and as he studied this man’s writings and actions in India, he realized that nonviolence had to be the answers to the problems of his time and of his people! Didn’t he also inherit a huge mess, I say?
It is in “the Story of my Experiments with Truth” that Gandhi writes his autobiography, also explaining his fight against segregation in South Africa as a young lawyer and his coming to terms with what he coins the Truth – Satyagraha. The book was first published in 1927 and delves into his childhood upbringing to the time he was elected leader of the Indian National Congress in 1921. He says that his life was so public after that moment that there was no need for him to write about it in his autobiography. However, Gandhi also had his ideas from somewhere, and it turns out that he had read perhaps the single most influential book to the peace movement: “The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy was an avid writer, famously known for his epic story “War and Peace”. This other smaller book however, finished in 1893, reasons with the reader and argues ultimately that there is only one Kingdom to which we should all be loyal to and that is the Kingdom of Christ. If needs be, we should disobey unjust laws passed by corrupt governments for the simple reason that there is a higher law to which we all should give heed. Tolstoy believes, rather optimistically, that because the Gospel is becoming more and more known to the world and understood for what it is, more and more people will come to the same conclusions as him. There is no way we should let ourselves be drafted into military service for example and come to commit the gravest of crimes – murder – and justify our actions by saying that we were ultimately just following orders. Do you not have a conscience of your own? Would you rather be an agent of injustice, than a servant of God? But even a brilliant man like Leo Tolstoy gets his ideas from somewhere.
Henry David Thoreau seems to be the single most quoted source. He wrote the book “Civil Disobedience”- but that is a chapter all of its own.
Needless to say, I became a new convert to what I termed already back then as “a latter day satyagraha” and have not and do not plan on ever looking back. For somebody like me who had actually spent two years in the military and who was even considering a career in the army – because I thought that I was good at it – I am glad that life wanted it differently. Honestly, the single most important question that was ever asked me was the one I got from one of my recruits in base camp where I was working as a training officer prior to my studies in Bradford. A very poignant question that made me rethink my entire Latter Day Saint worldview: “Hey Sergeant! Aren’t you a Christian?” Yes, I replied. “So what on earth are you doing here?”
Truly enough, as a (onward) Christian Soldier, I was teaching young men that violence indeed is a way to solve your differences with others, both as a person and as a nation. Well, it obviously did not sound very Christ-like to this young fellow. Who was I fooling? Quite a few, it turns out.