From Hill to Hill, Part 3: The Barbaric Other

But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose. (D&C 49:24)

This post is Part 3 in a series regarding the message and the challenge that the Restored Gospel raises against the contemporary political establishment of the United States of America.

The story of the Book of Mormon largely revolves around centuries of conflict between two peoples – the Nephites and the Lamanites. Consisting of the descendants of Nephi and those who followed him, the Nephites were a fair-skinned people who are initially characterized by a belief in the Christian God, an agrarian lifestyle, and an appreciation for written language and astronomy. After a few generations in the New World, they even abolished monarchical rule and established a republic. The Lamanites consisted collectively of the dark-skinned descendants of Nephi’s brother Laman and those who followed him, Nephite dissenters, and, most likely, transplants from other nations and peoples. They outnumbered the Nephites, and this fact led to much fear: the danger of a possible Lamanite invasion is a hammer constantly hanging over the Nephite people for much of the record. However, despite a few instances in which the Lamanites managed to pillage, enslave, and kill groups of Nephites, for centuries, the Nephite people remained largely free of Lamanite influence thanks to a stronger source of motivation, superior weapons and tactics, and the grace of God. Indeed, with two Nephite dissenters at one point rising to become successive kings over the Lamanites, it is clear that, despite their smaller numbers, the Nephites had more cultural influence over the Lamanites than the Lamanites had over the Nephites.

Some read synopses of the Book of Mormon and immediately pass judgment upon it as a racist book, as it supposedly suggests that dark-skinned people are inferior to light-skinned people. However, a more careful reading of the text shows that this is not the case. Indeed, it does not take long for the prophets among the Nephites to point out instances in which the Lamanites were actually more righteous than the Lamanites. Jacob, brother of Nephi, said that the Lamanites had stronger families than the Nephites (Jacob 3:5-7). When a large body of Lamanites – called the Ammonites – converted to Christianity and had to flee Lamanite lands to live with the Nephites, they were clearly identified as being more righteous than the Nephites. Helaman, leading their young men into battle, said that they were more courageous than any Nephites (Alma 56:45). Eventually, the Lamanites as a whole became more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). When the Gadiantons, an organization of outlaws and manipulative conspirators, grew to become a great threat to both the Lamanites and the Nephites, the Lamanites were able to destroy the organization by either convincing them to change their ways or killing them, but the Nephites were not so successful due to their tendency to partake in the corruption of the Gadiantons (Helaman 36:37-38). While it is true that the Nephites are clearly described as being more cultured and technological in the early part of the record, one would miss the message of the Book of Mormon entirely by taking this as a suggestion that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people. The true gauge of superiority is not technology or culture, but righteousness.

At a time when the conflict and ethnic strife between the Nephites and Lamanites was at its height, the sons of King Mosiah, having experienced a great change of heart due to an angelic encounter, decided to go forth among the Lamanites to preach the Gospel. Hearing of this intent, their Nephite friends tried to dissuade them. Ammon, one of the sons of Mosiah, later recounted these warnings:

For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, 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 26:24)

Such concerns were not unfounded. The Lamanites hated the Nephites, having frequently expressed this hatred through countless attacks and raids. How could Ammon and his brothers have expected to receive anything but animus and abuse from a people who hated his people so much? And yet, they went. They preached, and they did suffer persecution, but by the time they were done preaching, an entire province of Lamanites – the aforementioned Ammonites – had converted to Christianity and had become the friends of the Nephites.

As the Lamanites came to learn the Gospel and grew in their understanding of the things of God, prophets began to arise from among them. Just as Nephite prophets had called Lamanites to repentance years before, these Lamanite prophets crossed over to preach to the Nephites, who had grown haughty, prideful, decadent, and vain. The most memorable of these was a prophet named Samuel. Traveling to the Nephite capital of Zarahemla, Samuel scaled the wall of the city and began to cry repentance to the people. Certainly, seeing his dark skin and his clothing, many of the people were immediately incensed at the audacity of this Lamanite. Who did he think he was? The Gospel had gone from the Nephites to the Lamanites, after all. The Nephites had heard it already. This Lamanite needed to go back and preach to his own people. And then, revulsion turned into anger as they heard a Lamanite catalog their many sins. Some were not angry, but immediately sought out their religious leaders, seeking reconciliation with God. Others decided that this arrogant Lamanite must die. Taking up their bows and slings, they shot arrows and rocks at him. By the grace and power of God, however, none of these projectiles could hit him. He continued to stand upon the wall and deliver his message. Seeing the miracle in this, even more of those hearing Samuel’s words decided to repent and seek reconciliation with God. However, there were many who still resisted Samuel’s words and resented him for speaking them. Since their arrows and stones had missed, they took up their melee weapons and went up the wall after him. At this point, he finished speaking and finally fled.

Like the inhabitants of Zarahemla listening to Samuel, when it comes to hearing the words of prophets, we can all be divided into three groups. The first group hears, immediately feels the truth of what is said, and seeks reconciliation with God. The second group hears and immediately starts firing back with objections and arguments. Upon seeing that none of these objections or arguments manage to hit the mark, though, we realize our folly and seek reconciliation with God. The third group, undeterred by failure to hit the mark with objections, simply takes resistance to the next level.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I completely believe that, while the events in the Book of Mormon actually happened, the narrative has also been structured in such a way that clear parallels are meant to be drawn with the events and concerns of our time. Like the Nephite Republic, the United States of America has stood as a paragon of innovation, prosperity, faith, and freedom. However, like the Nephites in the time of Samuel the Lamanite, we have become top-heavy, destabilized by our arrogance. We think that our philosophy of government makes us superior, though it is increasingly becoming a thing of theory rather than practice. We think that our freedom makes us superior, though we waste it on addictions and trivialities. We think that our heritage makes us superior, though we have largely betrayed it. We think that our past victories make us superior, though we continue to hollow out the strength that made said victories possible. Some of us even think that our racial identity makes us superior, even while the demographic gaps in prosperity throughout the world are rapidly closing. Most Americans would not know it, but Qatar, Singapore, and Brunei all have a higher per-capita GDP (PPP) than the United States. By 2050, Taiwan and South Korea both will have passed us up. As for China, not only will it have passed us up as the world’s largest economy (based on PPP rather than nominal currency value) by the end of the year, but it is also catching up in STEM education. China is even well on its way to having more Christians than any other country in the world. Therefore, even while I talk about my country’s inspired origins, I cannot bring myself to identify with my more jingoistic peers in the political arena. Even if this country is not on the decline in and of itself, its prominence or primacy relative to other countries is quite clearly on the decline.

The Restored Gospel’s message to the United States on this wise, then, is the same message that was delivered by Samuel the Lamanite: Repent. There is nothing intrinsically superior about us, and in various ways, the peoples whom many of us view as being backward and reactionary actually exhibit many virtues that we would do well to emulate. This is not to say that Islamic extremists in Arab countries are right and we are wrong. Rather, it is to say that, so long as we continue on our present course, our period of primacy as a society will soon come to an end. If we are to be saved, it will only be by espousing the correct principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – principles that are beginning to flourish in the hearts of other nations, even while they shrink and decay in our own.

For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)

The Gospel is going forth in Latin America. It is going forth in Southeast Asia and India. It is going forth in Africa. It will soon go forth in the nations that are now closed to it. It is blessing the lives of people throughout the world. Meanwhile, it has stalled in North America and Europe. As our families deteriorate, as we finance our retirements on the backs of those not yet born, as we institutionalize inverted morality, and as everything that gave us any excuse to think that we are any better than the rest of the world continues to evaporate, we can expect to see more and more instances of the supposed “backwards”, “barbarian”, “heathen”, and “heretic” populations of the world becoming stronger as we become weaker. As the blessings of God begin to pour out upon them, we will begin to see a stifling in the flow of such blessings to us. We just may live to see massive amounts of missionaries flowing from Shanghai, Mexico City, and Cairo to preach the Gospel to the heathens in Los Angeles, Houston, and London. When that day comes, the message from God will be the same as it has always been: Repent.