In my last post I introduced the theme that I will be exploring for the next few posts: what can we learn about race relations from the Book of Mormon? This is a timely subject, as we currently have protests and riots about racial justice in many American cities. One of the first lessons we learn is that love — the principal fruit of living the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the surest identifying attribute of a disciple — has the power to heal racism. Ezra Taft Benson, former President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it this way:
“We are commanded by God to take this gospel to all the world. That is the cause that must unite us today. Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction. Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.”
But how does this unity actually happen? Where does it begin? Let’s go back to the Book of Mormon and see what we can learn.
War and Peace
The Lamanites were a warrior society. Generations of boys grew up watching their fathers and uncles go to war, and when they came of age these boys went to war themselves. Fighting for conquest and revenge, they “delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us [the Nephites], their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually” (Jacob 7:24).
And the Nephites reacted to this treatment about how you might expect them to: with general resentment. They developed their own military tradition to wage frequent defensive campaigns, but they sometimes mused about going on the offensive to wipe out the Lamanite nation so that they could be done with all of these wars. The fact that the Nephites occasionally fantasized about genocide speaks volumes about the depth of their frustration.
But the Sons of Mosiah reached out in love to the Lamanites and succeeded in converting many thousands of them to the gospel of Christ.
“And it came to pass that the Lord began to bless them, insomuch that they brought many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, they did convince many of their sins, and of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct” (Alma 21:17).
The incorrect cultural traditions which these Lamanites had to abandon included the false narrative that Nephi and his children were the bad guys. Learning the correct history was a key part of changing their hearts (as it was for mine).
Accepting the Nephites and their religion did not make these people popular among their countrymen, however. The Lamanites who rejected the missionaries were so angry that they took their swords and swore that they would kill the new converts. You might expect that these Lamanite converts would respond to this threat by mustering their troops to defend themselves. They were no strangers to combat, after all. But when these warriors accepted Jesus, they refused to fight any more. They buried their swords and other weapons deep in the earth.
“And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands” (Alma 24:19).
Shortly after this ritual burial of their old ways, the unconverted Lamanites attacked them and slaughtered over a thousand people without meeting any resistance. The martyrs “praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword” (Alma 24:23). Many of the attacking Lamanites were so moved by the scene that they threw down their weapons and joined those who were lying on the ground praying.
What words of testimony could possibly speak louder than these actions?
“[…] yea, and we can witness of their sincerity, because of their love towards their brethren and also towards us.
“For behold, they had rather sacrifice their lives than even to take the life of their enemy; and they have buried their weapons of war deep in the earth, because of their love towards their brethren” (Alma 26:31-32).
When these Lamanite converts later fled to the Nephite lands for safety, their extreme pacifism was the greatest witness of their conversion, and a primary reason why the Nephites accepted and protected them.
Two generations later the Lamanites were stirred up to anger by successive waves of Nephite dissenters. Their armies marched into Nephite lands, conquering and occupying a large territory. After five years of fighting, the armies reached a stalemate, with the Lamanites still in possession of half of the Nephite lands.
Military power could make no further inroads on the problem, so a couple of Nephite missionaries decided to “try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5). Through the miracles which accompanied their ministry “the more part of the Lamanites were convinced” that their message was true.
“And as many as were convinced did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred and the tradition of their fathers.
“And it came to pass that they did yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possession” (Helaman 5:50-52).
Many of the Nephite dissenters, the ones who had started the war in the first place, also believed these missionaries from their former homeland. Feeling remorse for the terrible problems their actions had caused, they “immediately returned to the Nephites to endeavor to repair unto them the wrongs which they had done” (Helaman 5:17).
The power of truth convinced the Lamanites to disarm, and the race agitators to mend their ways. And both had a desire to be reconciled with the Nephites, even at great cost.
A few parallels can be drawn between the Book of Mormon people and our situation today in America. Both stories are marked by accumulated grievances over hundreds of years of conflict, and widespread frustration over the absence of an easy solution. In the Book of Mormon the “original sin” that sparked the feud was committed by Laman when he tried to murder Nephi, but every generation added fresh grievances. In the United States the “original sin” of racism was the enslavement of abducted Africans, but this was compounded by perpetuating the institution for 250 years, then legally oppressing the former slaves for another century. The formal outlawing of race-based discrimination in the 1960s has not completely reversed the cultural inertia of racism in America, and every generation (and it seems like every news cycle recently) has some new racial outrage.
We need to break that cycle, and stop adding fuel to this fire. It won’t go out by itself. Today we are harming one another with guns, knives, crowbars, lynchings, and riots. We absolutely must stop this violence. But we are also using words, harmful and hateful words. Arguments are pushed to extreme positions, and then used as bludgeons on social media, websites, political speeches, and even in presidential debates, to vilify one another. We need to bury these rhetorical weapons.
It would go a long way towards peace if we could see the truth in each other’s viewpoints. We must accept the stubborn fact that racism is still a problem in our country. Black Americans have a different experience of living here than white people do, because of racism. You don’t have to buy into every tenet of critical race theory, or believe that all white people are inherently racist, to acknowledge this.
But can we also agree that a lot of progress has been made? Just 60 years ago we had segregated schools and Jim Crow laws in the South. Now we have equality under the law, and minority communities have the legal tools to fight back against racial oppression. The peaceful protests of this year have garnered widespread support among people of diverse communities, even across the political spectrum and all around the world. The time is ripe to make the next positive steps of progress, if we are willing to take them together.
The Lamanite converts buried their swords and other tools of combat, but they also “did lay down the weapons of their rebellion, that they did not fight against God any more, neither against any of their brethren” (Alma 23:7). Which of our weapons are we willing to lay down? What lands will we yield up to their rightful owners? Are we ready to repair the wrongs which we have done to one another?
Reconciliation is the natural result of sincere repentance. When a person accepts Christ, they want to make right whatever wrongs they have done in the world. I want to be at peace with all of God’s children, all of my brothers and sisters. It is worth any price to have such unity.
I conclude with President Russell M. Nelson’s emphatic declaration in the 2020 October General Conference, one of the strongest declarations of anti-racism I have ever heard from that pulpit:
“Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in his eyes. The implications of this truth are profound.
Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I’m about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto him, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female.’ I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and his commandments, and not to the color of your skin.
I grieve that our black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”
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