In my last post, I discussed the issue of war in the Book of Mormon and the diverse experiences it covers. One reader commented that the Book of Mormon doesn’t deal with diversity, but with a shallow dichotomy. I’d like to respond a little more fully, or rather, let Hugh Nibley do most of the responding for me.
The Book of Mormon emphasizes an ancient doctrine, the doctrine of the Two Ways, which Hugh Nibley discussed in several of his writings. Yes, the complexity of life still involves an ultimate choice between opposing forces: do we choose God and life, or something else? The ancient perspective on the Two Ways, though, is not necessarily superficial, nor is the extensive treatment of the Book of Mormon on war simple, predictable, or merely two-dimensional.
Let me first introduce Nibley’s comments on the Two Ways. In his famous essay, “The Expanding Gospel,” Nibley writes:
The main idea of “the plan which God laid down . . . in the presence of the First Angels for an eternal universal law,” according to the Clementine Recognitions, is that “there shall be two kingdoms placed upon the earth to stay there until judgment day, . . . and when the world was prepared for man it was so devised that . . . he would be free to exercise his own will, to turn to good things if he wanted them, or if not to turn to bad things.”102 In the Dead Sea Scrolls and the earliest Christian writings this is expressly designated as “the ancient Law of Liberty.”103
The Didache, one of the oldest (discovered in 1873) Christian writings known, begins with the words, “There are two roads, one of life and the other of death, and there is a great difference between the two,” which difference it then proceeds to describe.104 All the other so-called apostolic fathers are concerned with this doctrine, but one of the most striking expositions is in the newly found Gospel of Philip, a strongly anti-Gnostic work: “Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers to one another. It is not possible to separate them from one another,” in this world, that is, though in the next world where only the good is eternal this will not be so.105 This is the doctrine of “the Wintertime of the Just,” i.e., that while we are in this world men cannot really distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, since in the wintertime all trees are bare and look equally dead, “but when the Summertime of the Just shall come, then the righteous shall bear their leaves and fruit while the dead limbs of evil trees shall be cast into the fire.”106 It is another aspect of the plan. “We believe that God organized all things in the beginning out of unformed matter,” says Justin Martyr, “for the sake of the human race, that they, if they prove themselves by their works to be worthy of his plan, having been judged worthy to return to his presence [so we believe], shall reign with him, having been made immortal and incorruptible. At the creation they themselves made the choice . . . and so were deemed worthy to live with him in immortality.”107
There are many other areas of doctrine and important rites and ordinances set forth in the newly found writings and in the longer known texts which must now be reread and reconsidered in the light of recent discoveries….
Lest you mistake the simplicity of the Two Ways with superficial, shallow thinking, read Lehi’s treatise on the topic in 2 Nephi 2, where concepts of free agency and our mortal journey are thoughtfully intertwined with the concept of opposition, all rooted in the Two Ways. Nibley has shown at length that Lehi’s teachings fit beautifully in the world of Lehi in the 6th century B.C. 2 Nephi 2 deserves carefull reading and contemplatin: it’s cool, deep, and ancient. Sure, with your eyes tightly shut you won’t see much, but there is a lot of beauty to ponder and depth to contemplate.
In “The Prophetic Book of Mormon,” Nibley again mentions the Two Ways but also raises the issue of war, which ties well into my previous post:
When the early church began to grow in power and influence and worldliness, the ancient doctrine of the Two Ways was quickly replaced by that of the Two Parties. The former specified that there lies before every mortal, at every moment of his life, a choice between the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness; but the latter doctrine taught that righteousness consisted in belonging to one party (ours), and wickedness in belonging to the other (theirs).
The doctrine of probation is the inescapable choice between Two Ways, everyone having a perfect knowledge of the way he should go. None may commit his decision to the judgement of a faction, a party, a leader, or a nation; none can delegate his free agency to another. “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). We cannot protest innocence on the grounds of having been given bad advice, doing what we did for the best interests of a country, doing only what others were doing, or being forced to do it by the need to check and frustrate a nefarious enemy. Those who make those pleas, which have become popular in our day, dismiss any thought of repentance for themselves. Has even one of the many convicted of great crimes in high places of recent years ever admitted moral wrongdoing? Has any ever even hinted at a need for repentance?
It is easy to imagine absolutes, and to think and argue in terms of absolutes, as the theologians have always done: Good and evil, light and darkness, hot and cold, black and white—we know exactly what they are; but in the real world we have rarely experienced the pure thing—our own experience lies between. Yet standing in the middle ground, we are faced with absolute decisions. It is not where we stand, says Ezekiel, that makes us good or evil in God’s eyes—no one has reached the top or bottom in this short life—but the direction in which we are facing. There we have only two choices. The road up and the road down are the same, says Heracleitus.50 It all depends on the way you are facing. You are taking either the up-road or the down-road; there is no third way, for if you try to compromise and go off at an angle, you will never reach either goal. You are either repenting or not repenting, and that is, according to the scriptures, the whole difference between being righteous or being wicked.
So it is indeed the Way of Light or the Way of Darkness, but when two ways were identified by the churchmen with the two parties by the churchmen—ours and yours—the doctrine was exploited with inexorable logic: Since there are only two sides, one totally evil and the other absolutely good, and I am not totally evil, I must be on God’s side, and that puts you on the other side. This doctrine has been worked for many years in Utah as a political ploy. With withering contempt, Isaiah denounces the comfortable logic: It is not for you to say who is on the Lord’s side, says the Lord; that is for me to say, and those who most loudly offer their support and cry “Lord! Lord!” are those of whom I must disapprove (Matthew 7:21). “See the foe in countless numbers, marshalled in the ranks of sin,” we sing, as if we have already chosen sides and know who the bad people are, because we are on the Lord’s side. “Fight for Zion, down with error, flash the sword above the foe, every stroke disarms a foeman,” and so on. No error on our side? The point of all such hymns is that it is sin and error that we are fighting, not people guilty of sin and error—for we are all such people, and each one can only confront and overcome sin and error in himself. You cannot tell the righteous from the wicked, the Lord told Joseph Smith, you cannot tell your friends from your enemies. Be still and let me decide the issue! (D&C 10:37).
In his last letter to his son, Mormon considers the battle already lost (Moroni 9:20); sometime before, he had decided that his people had passed the point of no return: “I saw that the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually” (Mormon 2:15). Yet he insists that he must go right on struggling as long as he is alive: “For if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God” (Moroni 9:6). Only after this life are we safe in home. And what was the “labor” he had to perform? Who was this “enemy of all righteousness”? Not the Lamanites! “Notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people” (Moroni 9:9). No, the call was to “labor diligently” with his own people, “notwithstanding their hardness” (Moroni 9:6), even though ‘[he] fear[s] lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them. For . . . they have lost their love, one towards another; and they thirst after blood and revenge continually” (Moroni 9:4—5). Earlier, though, the leader of the army, Mormon, had laid down his arms and “utterly refused” to march against the Lamanitesbecause his own people were going to battle seeking revenge for the blood of their brethren. And what was wrong with the “Green Beret” scenario? The Lord had strictly forbidden it. And now, in the letter, he tells Moroni that he is actually praying for the “utter destruction” of the Nephites “except the repent” (Moroni 9:22). And they had not repented, and he had given up hope. And yet Mormon died fighting the Lamanites, who were not as wicked as his own people!
Is there no solution to the cruel dilemma? There is, and the Book of Mormon gives it to us in a number of powerful examples. Perhaps the foremost is Ammon, the mightiest man in battle of all the Nephites. He became wholly convinced that there was a better way of handling even the most vicious and determined enemy than by killing them. The Nephites laughed at him, but he went right ahead: he would go on a mission and preach to the Lamanites. You are crazy, they said, there is only one sermon those wretches understand: “Now ye do remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites, and they laughed us to scorn? For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth, . . . as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language” (Alma 26:23—24). And what could be more sensible? There is only one possible solution. “And moreover they did say: Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:25). But not for Ammon: “We came . . . not with the intent to destroy our brethren, but with the intent that perhaps we might save some few of their souls” (Alma 26:26). Nothing guaranteed, you understand, but anything was better than the other solution. So Ammon recalls how he and his friends went “forth amongst [the people], . . . patient in our sufferings,” going “from house to house . . . . We have entered into their houses and taught them . . . in their streets, . . . and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks, . . . stoned, . . . bound, . . . and cast into prison” (Alma 26:28—29). What could have been worth paying such a price in inconvenience and humiliation? “We have suffered . . . all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul” (Alma 26:30). This alone could break the vicious circle of provocation and revenge that was destroying both people.
And Ammon brought thousands to his way of thinking. A whole nation of great warriors laid down their arms and refused to take them up again even at the cost of their lives. When they were moved by great compassion to come to the aid of Helaman and Alma, who had given them protection and who were being desperately sore-pressed by their enemies, those two heroes intervened with powerful preaching that persuaded them not to change their wise decision. The Ammonites became the most righteous, the most saintly people in the Book of Mormon, after a period of agonizing repentance, in which they refer to their former deeds of valor on the battlefield as pure murder, and wonder whether God will ever forgive them. They utterly rejected taking up arms under any circumstances and turned the tide of affairs of both Nephites and Lamanites.
Alma learned the same lesson. After holding the highest and most influential positions in the land, which enabled him to bring pressure to bear on all decisive issues—commander of the armies, chief judge, head of the church—he laid aside all his high offices and did “go forth among his people, . . . that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way,” after all his experience, “that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony” (Alma 4:19). With all his vast experience Alma was convinced that he could do more good and actually have more influence as a simple missionary than as head of the state, head of the army, or head of the church! And so he takes his leave, disappearing all alone over the horizon into the midst of hostile and unbelieving people, never to be heard of again. Once the people saw that the great man had lost his official clout, they treated him almost as badly as they did Ammon.
The treatment of war challenges lazy stereotypes and simple assumptions. Good guys? There aren’t many. Really, it’s just the Lord, and that’s Whom we must choose and not fight against any more, because we, like the people of Ammon, have probably been fighting against Him much more than we knew. Our enemies may be more righteous than us. What we call patriotism may be treason. There are few easy answers and simple characterizations except that we must seek the Lord and the One Way that leads to Him, and with His help, bring many of our brethren and apparent enemies to love and serve Him as well.
The Book of Mormon is a deep, sophisticated, and beautiful book, not a shallow fraud. Read it, ponder it, and break past the limiting assumptions you may have made. It’s worth study, contemplation, and prayer. It’s why I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.