Chapter 1: 1 Nephi 1- 5
Mormonism saw itself involuntarily drawn into the wider debate of fundamentalism and religious motivated violence by Krakauer’s book “Under the Banner of Heaven: the Story of a Violent Faith” published in 2003. At the core of Krakauer’s argument lies the double murder committed in 1984 by Ron and Dan Lafferty, a pair of brothers in Utah belonging to LDS ‘apostate’ groups, widely referred to as Mormon Fundamentalists because of their continued or renewed practice of polygamy.
Krakauer amongst others believes that the roots to the ‘divinely’ commissioned crime lies deep in the history of the Mormon faith. The book makes special reference to the Mount Meadows Massacres in 1857 and refers to past allegations of practices of ‘blood atonement’ among the early Mormons. In response to the book, LDS Church public affairs officials made statements refusing ‘to extrapolate truths from isolated examples of religious excess’ and think that Krakauer had, instead of contributing to a wider debate on religion and violence, obfuscated many facts and created more confusion than clarity with regards to Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Personally, I think that in the then-current climate of discursive truth on the link between terror and fundamentalist interpretations of religion (islamic or christian), skeptical and critical reports towards religious extremists and in broader terms towards the religious traditions that provide meaning to their violence are well founded (see LDS church video teaches about war). Apologetics, although helpful in putting the records straight by distinguishing the differences between good religion and religion ‘gone bad’ are not necessarily addressing the root of the problem.
why Nephi killed Laban
An example may be taken from the Book of Mormon, in which the first prophet-leader Nephi killed Laban to appropriate himself brass-plates that contained the history of his forefathers in Jerusalem, including the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament: “And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Nephi 4:12-13)
It is important to recognize that Nephi, probably recounting the killing of Laban many years after it happened, quotes God’s spirit in almost exactly the same words as the Jewish priest Caiaphas later used in an ends-justifies-means argument to the Sanhedrin in order to condemn Christ: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”. (John 11:50) But even more troubling is the evidence that Nephi’s account directly contradicts the full revelation of God’s nature as the One revealed in Christ who utterly rejects violence – and who demands that we do the same.
The Lafferty brothers used this passage in court to defend the slaying of their sister-in-law and her baby. Some Mormons persist on using this passage of scripture today to rationalize violent rhetoric, justify the use of capital punishment or indeed to excuse other violent acts. In fact, the Book of Mormon is often used to justify war or violence, the LDS church leaders often do so – based on the assumption that the Spirit of God or that God himself indeed teaches his children that the end justifies the means. For those of us troubled by such rhetoric and actions, no other passage has seemed more contradictory to New Testament and other Book of Mormon teachings about the impartiality and absolute goodness of the Lord – and about the central role nonviolence plays in Christ’s mission.
I will go and do the things which the Lord has commanded
Eugene England, a late peace advocate in the LDS church, offers a challenging reading of the killing of Laban in his essay “Why Nephi killed Laban“. He connects the killing of Laban with God’s command to Abraham to kill Isaac, suggesting that this was the test designed to push Nephi to the limits of the human dilemma of obedience versus integrity and to teach him and all readers of the Book of Mormon something very troubling but still very true about the universe and the natural requirements of a saving relationship with God. “What if it is to show that genuine faith ultimately requires us to go beyond what is rationally moral, even as it has been defined by God – but only when God himself requires it directly of us? And what if each reader is intentionally left to solve the dilemma on their own through a vicarious experience with the text?”
England further argues that God’s revelations are given to prophets “in their weakness, after the manner of their language” (D&C 1:24), indicating that scripture is at least partly limited to the perspectives of the writers, not simply expressive of God’s perspective. He also believes that ‘prophets may also be inspired to describe accurately and fully real human dilemmas of the kind Nephi experienced in ways that open up, with rich and educational moral perplexity, the full challenge of human violence’. Our difficulty with apparently contradictory scriptures may be a matter of understanding how God’s justice and his mercy work together to bring us to self-knowledge and guilt, but also to self-acceptance and repentance.
the ambivalence of the sacred
In a way, cynics like Krakauer fail ‘to appreciate the profoundly humane and humanizing attributes of religion and the moral constraints it imposes on intolerant and violent behavior. While on the other hand’, R. Scott Appleby, a professor in religious peacebuilding and the author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred, argues that ‘apologetics fail to consider that an authentic religious precept – a sincere response to the sacred – may end in subordinating human life to a higher good, albeit either a willingness to die, or a willingness to kill’.
In order to argue the case for nonviolence, and to draw power for our nonviolence from the restored truths of LDS gospel principles – as this website tries to do – one has to differentiate religious actors between violent religious extremists and committed nonviolent peacemakers and posit them on both extremities of a large spectrum of possible religious responses to conflicts: “While the extremist sees physical violence against his enemies as a sacred duty (see Zion cannot be built up), the peacemaker strives to sublimate violence, resisting efforts to legitimate it on religious grounds. Both types ‘go to extremes’ of self-sacrifice in devotion to the sacred, both claim to be rooted in or renewing the fundamental truths of their religious traditions”. In these ways, they distinguish themselves from people not motivated by religious commitments – and also from the vast middle ground of believers.
My nonviolence, the latter day satyagraha I am exploring on this site, is both religiously motivated and grounded in peace theory. I seriously believe that Jesus, our exemplar, showed us the way with truth to life, and the way goes from the garden of Gethsemane to the hill of Golgatha.