Dealing With Dissent
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
When I was serving in a challenging companionship on my mission, my mission president gave me a piece of valuable advice. He said there are two ways to learn from another's example. One is by seeing things done right and resolving to follow that pattern. The other is by observing mistakes and resolving not to make those mistakes ourselves.
We Are Invited To Acknowledge and Learn From the Mistakes of Great Leaders
I believe the Book of Mormon is full of both kinds of teachings. And it's not just the heroes that do things well. For example, the Lamanites, who generally come across as the bad guys, are held up by the Lord as models for the Nephites in their loving kindness toward their families (Jacob 3:7). Nor is it just the villains that make mistakes. The record is a history of real people. The great leaders of whom we read are striving to do what's right, to come closer and closer to "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." But they're not there yet and they don't want us to think of them as infallible. Nephi says, "if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself" (1 Nephi 19:6).
Moroni echoes that message and explains the value of a record that shows us warts and all. "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection," he writes, "neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been" (Mormon 9:31).
A Possible Overreach in Captain Moroni's Military Discipline
In that spirit of learning and trying to extrapolate principles for my own life, I found something unsettling in the later Alma chapters: Captain Moroni's efforts to not just combat the arguments of the king-men, but also to subjugate them, forcing them to vow allegiance contrary to their belief.
It begins in Alma 46, with the thwarting of an attempted coup d'etat. The record doesn't give us details about the underlying causes of the schism between the followers of Amalikiah and the rest of the Nephites. We know that they took up arms as a result of the agitations of Amalikiah and a group of men with middling authority who wanted more. The leaders of the movement were after power. But the grievance they seized on and the forms of flattery they used to draw away the masses, many of whom belonged to and dissented from the Church, are not recorded.
It was a time for decisive action. Amalikiah and his followers apparently wanted to destroy the Church and overtake the government. Moroni saw the crisis, created the Title of Liberty and gathered multitudes to the defence of their liberty and their religion. The conspirators saw that they were grossly outnumbered and that the support of their followers was cooling. They decided on a strategic withdrawal to the land of Lamanites. The immediate threat was neutralized.
But Moroni knew that Amalikiah and his power-grabbing lieutenants wouldn't be content with relocation. They wanted to rule and to that end, they would stir up the Lamanites to invading the Nephites. So he led his troops to intercept them while they were still in Nephite land. He wanted to capture Amalikiah and bring him to justice. Amalikiah and his inner circle escaped, however, leaving Moroni to deal with the rebellious army he left behind.
They were an army and Moroni was Chief Captain of the Nephite armies. It appears that he dealt with this as a matter of internal, military discipline (Alma 46:34).
As participants in an attempted coup, every man who'd risen up in rebellion could potentially be executed. But Moroni had no taste for blood. So he resorted to the same strategy he'd used with Zarahemnah and the invading Lamanite/Zoramite hosts. He offered them a choice: a covenant, in this case to "support the cause of freedom," or death. The vast majority chose the covenant. Some, significantly, chose death (vs 35).
Maybe the few who chose death were just extremely stubborn. And maybe they were men of conviction, idealists who were willing to give their lives for their cause. Unlikely? What possible cause could bring an idealist to "seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty" (vs 10)? We know their leader was an evil, scheming opportunist as were the members of his inner circle. We know their cause would have led the Nephites down to destruction. So, can't we assume that its supporters were all people of ill will?
I don't think we can, for this reason: the cause was sufficiently compelling that it drew many to dissent from the Church. It was so widely supported that, until Moroni raised the Title of Liberty, its supporters thought they had the numbers to reorganize the government. And because, in my own observation, every extreme agenda rides piggy-back on a just cause. That's where demagogues and tyrants get their traction. They seize on a legitimate grievance, inflame people's feelings against the injustice, and promise to fix it if they're placed in power. I think that's what Amalikiah and company did to gather an army of supporters behind them.
Possible Cause of Dissension
We don't know what the grievances were. The scriptures don't say. But we are invited to liken the scriptures unto ourselves, so I find it instructive to imagine current conflicts as they might have manifested in ancient days. Here's a scenario that could have happened -- there's nothing in the record that contradicts it and some details that might even be considered to support it. Imagine that in Nephite government, the Mulekites and the descendants of Zoram were barred from the upper echelons of power. The Lord had promised Nephi, "Inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren" (2 Nephi 2:22). What if that designation as ruler and teacher was passed down, whether by revelation or tradition, to Nephi's descendants and became entrenched when King Zarahemla (a Mulekite) surrendered the throne to Mosiah I (a descendant of Nephi)? Since Nephi had ordained Jacob and Joseph as teachers (and his children may have intermarried with theirs and Sam's) their descendants may also have belonged to the ruling class. And what if the ruler-role was often misunderstood and abused, if Nephites were not exempt from the human tendency to unrighteous dominion? What if a presumption (possibly subtle) of Nephite supremacy became a hallmark of Nephite culture?
The Mulekites were vastly more numerous than the Nephites. In a scenario like this, they'd be ruled by a minority that presumed superiority. Mulekites might be able to serve as judges in their own communities, but not one of them, however skilled, brilliant and faithful, would be eligible to serve as a higher judge where he would make decisions binding on lower, Nephite judges, or on Nephite communities. They might have felt like second-class citizens and it would have rankled, especially when some among the ruling class were dishonourable, grasping, and puffed up.
What if Amalikiah's rallying cry was the overthrow of the Nephite ruling class along with the religion from which it claimed its authority, and the establishment of a kingdom with a Zoramite and Mulekite nobility?
An Aside on Power Imbalance
An important aside. Even if this imagined scenario were accurate, it would not necessarily follow that the restriction of rule to the descendants of Nephi was wrong. It may have been tied to a restriction of priesthood authority to descendants of Lehi, which may have been instituted by revelation. Certainly, the tendency of individual Nephites in authority to puff themselves up and to look down on those they considered "beneath" them would have been wrong. But here's a principle about power: institutional power (both political and ecclesiastical) tends to be an illusory good. I believe that part of what the Lord intends for us to learn in mortality is how to deal with power. How to exercise it righteously, as a servant rather than a dominator, and how to claim and hold onto godly, personal power in the face of unrighteous dominion. That learning necessitates the existence of power imbalance, which is a learning opportunity for both the person with more and less institutional power. Sooner or later, both learn that God's power is the only power that counts, and that is inextricable from personal righteousness (D&C 121:36).
Moroni seems to have understood about the deceptiveness of institutional power and the pricelessness of personal, godly power. Whatever the actual sources of conflict, for him, the issue wasn't about social classes or power. It was about defending a free system of government and the freedom to worship according to conscience. To his eyes, the grievances of the rebelling masses may have seemed insignificant, just a convenient excuse seized on by Amalikiah and company and distorted entirely out of perspective. Furthermore, it had been just a year since he had repulsed the combined Zoramite/Lamanite army, with so many casualties on both sides that they didn't even number their dead. He knew that Amalikiah would stir up the Lamanites to renewed aggressions and he was going to do everything in his power to prevent that. But Amalikiah escaped. So Moroni had to deal with the misguided rebels that were left behind.
I suspect that he believed the rebels' grievances would fade away without Amalikiah's agitating influence. So he figured he could reinstruct the rebel army in the truth, inspire them with the Title of Liberty, and bring them on board with a covenant to support the cause.
Here's the problem. It isn't possible to teach anyone while holding a sword to their throat. What you get from them is constrained submission, not learning. And a covenant made at the point of a sword is no covenant at all.
Over the short-run, it seemed like Moroni's strategy toward the rebels worked. Civility was restored and Moroni turned his attention to defensive preparations. Within the year, Amalikiah sent an enormous invading army that was first frightened away by the fortifications of Ammonihah and then routed at Noah without the loss of a single Nephite life.
But the story was different five years later. With the death of chief judge Nephihah, there arose a political faction intent on replacing the Nephite system of judges with a monarchy. I'm assuming that most of the "king-men" who drove that movement were the same people who had been forced, five years earlier, to make a covenant to support the cause of freedom. Now, instead of attempting a coup, they were trying to transform the system by popular vote. The voice of the people, however, favored the system of judges.
Just at that moment, Amalikiah decided to invade. The king-men "were glad in their hearts" (Alma 51:13), and no wonder. Amalikiah was the one who had stirred them up in the first place. Perhaps they honestly believed he would elevate the political status of their people by subjugating the ruling class Nephites and placing Zoramites and Mulekites in positions of authority. Evidently, the majority of the population (which was predominantly Mulekite) disagreed with them, but maybe they thought the majority was brainwashed and didn't know what was good for them. In any case, the king-men supported Amalikiah's cause and refused to take up arms against him.
It was a bad time for civil unrest. The Nephites were under attack. So Moroni obtained a decree that required them to defend their country on pain of death, and there followed a brief civil war in which 4,000 king-men were killed, their leaders captured, and the rest compelled to submit to the Title of Liberty and to take up arms in defence of their country.
What follows in the account is an overly optimistic assessment of the outcome: "And thus Moroni put an end to those king-men, that there were not any known by the appellation of king-men; and thus he put an end to the stubbornness and the pride of those people who professed the blood of nobility" (Alma 51:21).
He didn't. At best, he once again drove the movement underground, while the Lamanites under Amalikiah succeeded in sequentially overthrowing fortified city after fortified city on the North, near the East Sea. Meanwhile the cowed dissenters continued to brood in discontent. A couple years later, an unspecified intrigue among the Nephites in the South near the West Sea resulted in the Lamanites obtaining a number of cities there. "And thus because of iniquity amongst themselves, yea, because of dissensions and intrigue among themselves they were placed in the most dangerous circumstances" (Alma 53:8,9).
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Moroni, the king-men's underground movement continued to grow, especially in the capitol. Eventually, about five years into the war, they came out of hiding, drove out Chief Judge Pahoran and crowned King Pachus who swore allegiance to the invading Lamanites. They cut off support to the Nephite armies on the borders and nearly brought about the overthrow of the country.
What Could Have Happened Instead?
There's a striking contrast between the Nephite's extraordinary success in repulsing the Lamanites at Ammonihah and Noah in 72 BC and their struggles and heavy losses between 67 BC to 62 BC. Why the difference? Moroni himself said, "Had it not been for the war which broke out among ourselves; yea, were it not for these king-men, who caused so much bloodshed among ourselves; yea, at the time we were contending among ourselves, if we had united our strength as we hitherto have done; yea, had it not been for the desire of power and authority which those king-men had over us; had they been true to the cause of our freedom, and united with us, and gone forth against our enemies, instead of taking up their swords against us, which was the cause of so much bloodshed among ourselves; yea, if we had gone forth against them in the strength of the Lord, we should have dispersed our enemies, for it would have been done, according to the fulfilling of his word" (Alma 60:16).
What if, instead of pursuing after Amalikiah and his rebels back in 73 BC, Moroni had just let them go? We can't say for sure, but there are some reasonable possibilities.
Amalikiah would still have stirred up the Lamanites to war against the Nephites.
Amalikiah's supporters among the Nephites would have been gone.
The Nephites could have united against a common enemy, strengthening internal unity, rather than compelling the support of dissenters, which deepened fractures.
With a unified defence under the Title of Liberty, the Nephites could have gone forth in the strength of the Lord, and they could have counted on His deliverance.
Some of the dissenters who joined the Lamanites might have discovered that Nephite citizenship, whatever its failings, offered them more personal liberty than subjection to a self-serving king, and may have found their way home with a real devotion to liberty.
There are a number of principles I learn from this that apply to my own life.
Dissenters Can't Be Strong-armed Into Submission: Even when I'm sure I'm right and that the complaints of dissenters are exaggerated or misguided, I can't bring them around by shaming or punishing them into submission to my rules or my way of seeing things.
My Best Approach Is To Seek Unity: Rather than forcing my way, I'm much better off to listen to concerns until I really understand them. Then, if there's justice in them, we might be able to agree on how to fix things. Or, I may be able to share understanding that helps resolve the dissenter's concerns with a different perspective.
We Can Agree To Disagree: If we can't achieve unity, sometimes the next best solution is to give each other space to disagree -- however much space that needs to be. If the issue is big enough, if we can't agree on the direction we're heading, we may need to part ways. That's better than trying to impose our will on each other and struggling with continuous internal fractures.
I think these principles are universal. They apply in the home. They apply in politics. They apply in issues of faith.
On issues of faith, these are the principles that I see the Brethren applying. But dissenters often don't give them credit because agreeing to disagree (including excommunication) is often perceived as an attempt to strong-arm dissenters into submission. It's not. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. No faction, however justified they may feel in their demands, has the right to impose their position on the Church. And the Church has the responsibility to define both direction and membership criteria by revelation.
To be more specific, I don't know why priesthood office was denied to church members of African heritage for more than a hundred years. I do understand that President Young's personal views about Black people were distorted, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the restriction on priesthood ordination he instituted was uninspired. I do know that the revelation to reverse that policy was arduously sought by more than one Church president before being granted to President Kimball, his counselors and the Twelve in 1978. I believe the Lord had redemptive purposes in His timing for that change, because all His purposes are redemptive. I don't believe it's appropriate to demand that the Church apologize for the restriction, which I don't understand, or for resisting pressure to lift it before the Lord gave that direction. But I do think that I have inherited subtle attitudes of white supremacy. I need to listen to my brothers and sisters who feel like second-class citizens in the Church and make what adjustments I can to make them fully welcome. And I rejoice over the visible efforts of the Brethren to address those concerns, including President Nelson's locking arms with leaders of the NAACP, the 2018 "Be One" celebration, and, reaching further back, the Genesis Group, a hand-clapping, call-and-response-testimony-giving fellowship for Black members that was created seven years to the day before the lifting of the priesthood ban, and that continues to bless members today.
Again, I have devoted significant searching and pondering to understanding why women are not ordained to priesthood office in the Church. I believe the Lord has redemptive purposes for this too, and I believe I've been blessed with a glimpse of some of them. But I also believe that the concerns of women who feel invisible in the scriptures, unheard in counsels, and vulnerable to domination in the home, are real and should not be denigrated. I see the Brethren hearing those concerns, seeking revelation and instituting a long list of meaningful changes, like seeking out and including women's stories in Saints, like women being able to serve as witnesses of priesthood ordinances, including in the temple, and other changes that are too sacred for public discussion. Some people consider these changes in practice and ritual to be mere tokens. They promote their belief that nothing short of priesthood ordination for women meets the demands of gender equity. The doctrine that God has assigned differing gender roles to His sons and daughters is anathema to them. They can't accept it, they demand that the Church recant it, and they actively work to persuade other women that the Church is oppressing them. That may be an appropriate time to agree to disagree. Excommunication in such a case is not a "punishment" or an effort to strong-arm agitators into submission. Instead, it's an effort to make space so that both parties can pursue their different directions.
I'm personally inspired by what the Church is doing in pursuit of unity. For myself, I want to work harder at that. Even when we have to agree to disagree, I want to learn to be better at being respectful neighbors.