By Joshua Madson
We must never forget that the Book of Mormon begins with the destruction of Jerusalem and ends with a horrible scene of blood and carnage even the destruction of the Nephite civilization. From its opening pages until its conclusion it pleads with us to be wiser than our Nephite forebearers, to learn from their imperfections, and to come unto Christ. The Book of Mormon is not merely a collection of stories and morals for us to emulate, but it is a tragedy, a warning, a voice crying from the dust.
Unfortunately, many of us use the Book of Mormon to justify our behavior rather than as a warning to do better and learn from the Nephite’s mistakes. One common example of this is the appeal to Nephite culture to justify our nations current conflicts. This mistake is twofold; first we assume that the Nephites in times of war were always righteous despite explicit statements that the Lamanites would only attack in times of wickedness and second we selectively choose the verses that support our current war while ignoring other verses which do not; whether it be the fact that the Nephites in Alma’s day never began wars, never invaded others lands, and never sought to overthrow a foreign government.
In 1 Nephi 12 we read a segment of Nephi’s vision given to him by an angel of the Lord. This portion of the vision is a remarkable overview of events contained in the Book of Mormon leading up to the final destruction of the Nephite people. Of particular interest in this chapter is the manner in which the vision challenges our assumptions.
The vision begins with Nephi seeing multitudes of people. It is clear from the context that these events occur prior to the coming of the Savior. In particular Nephi notes that
“multitudes gathered together to battle, one against the other; and I beheld wars, and rumors of wars, and great slaughters with the sword among my people. And it came to pass that I beheld many generations pass away, after the manner of wars and contentions in the land; and I beheld many cities, yea, even that I did not number them.” – 1 Ne. 12:2-3.
Here Nephi clearly sees the various wars and battles including the significant war chapters in Alma prior to the coming of the Lord. The vision immediately changes to apocalyptic events. Here, Nephi uses the same language found in 3 Nephi 8-10; “mists of darkness”, “vapor of darkness”, “lightnings”, “thunderings”, plains broken up, cities sunk.
It is then that “the Lamb of God” descends, shows himself, reveals his doctrine, and calls twelve new apostles to minister unto Nephi’s seed. It is here that the text reveals what we already know but too often choose to ignore. Nephi is told by the angel to “Look” and he
“beheld three generations pass away in righteousness; and their garments were white even like unto the Lamb of God. And the angel said unto me: These are made white in the blood of the Lamb, because of their faith in him. And I, Nephi, also saw many of the fourth generation who passed away in righteousness” – 1 Ne. 12:11-12
Note, that in the entire vision, this is the only instant that the Nephites are called righteous. (this is not to say that no righteous individuals ever lived among the Nephites or that the Nephites never had moments of righteousness). However, what the vision seems to indicate is that this is the defining moment in their history. It is in this period of three generations that we should look for our righteous culture to model, that we should seek to emulate. Remember, these are the generations that received Christ’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. These are the generations that not only heard Christ’s teachings but lived them; they held all things in common without rich or poor, and all lived free politically, spiritually, and economically. And they had no contentions but rather the love of God. Rather than the false divisions based upon class, the divisions causing wars based upon ethnic, cultural, or even national identity they saw all humanity as one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
The vision then quickly resumes pace showing the eventual destruction of the Nephite civilization. Of particular interest is the angel’s observation upon Nephi seeing war and destruction begin again,
“Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.” – 1 Ne. 12:16.
This is the same river near the tree of life, the gulf that divides the wicked from the righteous. Is the Angel in fact relating the filthy waters, the depths of hell to violence and war? The Angel continues listing the various causes that lead to war and destruction: temptation, spiritual blindness, hearts without love, vain imaginations, and pride. It is while these very things are spoken that Nephi sees the end of his civilization followed with generations of death and carnage.
As we find ourselves engaged in conflict throughout the world and our government currently contemplating more wars of aggression, wars of preemption, and wars of vengeance we must remember that the Book of Mormon is a warning. We must remember that we cannot justify our national sins by citing Nephite wars. Even they needed the message of Christ. If we want to emulate them, let us emulate their willingness to renounce the divisions and temptations that lead to war found in 4 Nephi. We have a choice. We can choose a better path or we can continue in the same path that led to the end of the Nephite civilization. If we cannot learn from their mistakes then for all intents and purposes the Book of Mormon remains a sealed book.
On September 14, 2001, only days after a horrific act of violence on US soil, congress authorized sweeping authority to the president to retaliate against those who attacked us. The vote was 98 to 0 in the Senate, and 480 to 1 in the House. Only one member of congress pleaded for us to step back, take time to mourn, and not become the evil we deplore. One day later, the President declared that we would find those who attacked us, “smoke them out” and seek “not only revenge.” In this relatively short period of time, our nation took the steps leading to the invasion of Afghanistan and overthrowing of its government.
Why did we attack Afghanistan? If we are honest there is only one answer, vengeance. In the days following 9/11 and in the time prior to the invasion of Afghanistan did we not swear as a nation that we would avenge the blood of our slain? Even the operational name of “Infinite Justice” like the term “crusade” was a blatant attempt to sacralize our desire for vengeance. This was later changed to “Enduring Freedom” because perhaps it was still too honest, remember retributive justice is state sponsored revenge. In case we have doubts, the emotions of anger, hatred, the lack of proportionality, the amount of force, and even our use of torture are a testament that this was an act of revenge regardless of titles.
And why then did many support the subsequent invasion of Iraq? Regardless of the reasons of those in power, the American public was sold on the belief that Iraq was linked to Al-Qaeda and 9/11. Why were we told that Iraq was linked to Al-Qaeda? Why was this connection, this pretext so necessary for our invasion? Because public support of our invasion of Iraq, like that of Afghanistan was mainly rooted in feelings of revenge. It should be no surprise then that while only 3 percent of the US public thought Iraq was linked to the 9/11 in the days following, that by early 2003 shortly before the US invasion, the ABC News poll showed 45 percent of Americans believed Iraq was linked to 9/11 and 44 percent of Americans believed most or some of the hijackers were Iraqi’s despite the reality being none. Even as late as June, 2007 the Newsweek poll showed 41 percent of Americans still believe Saddam was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.
All the while we boasted in the great strength of the US military. Capturing the terrorists would not do, we wanted “Shock and Awe” signifying an invasion of overwhelming decisive force, dominant battlefield maneuvers, and spectacular displays of power to paralyze an adversary’s perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight. (Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock And Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University, 1996).
If we are honest in reading the Book of Mormon we will recognize our current wars for what they are. Are we really that different from those whom Nephi saw perish?
“they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies. And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land.” – Mormon 3:9-10.
We know why their civilization ended; we are told empathically and implicit in this is a warning,
“And when they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that they would go up unto their enemies to battle, and avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren, behold the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Vengeance is mine, and I will repay; and because this people repented not after I had delivered them, behold, they shall be cut off from the face of the earth.” – Mormon 3:14-15.
What did the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ forbid? To invade enemy lands, and avenge themselves. The Nephite’s had their Book of Ether to warn them, we have their history to warn us. May we be wiser than both the people of Ether and the Nephites. This is the Book of Mormon’s plea to be wiser, that rather than kill our enemies, invade foreign lands, avenge ourselves, “that we lay down [our] weapons of war, and delight no more in the shedding of blood”