The collapse of Nephite society happened in just six years. That's six years from righteousness and unprecendented unity to the assassination of their chief judge and their fracturing into wicked, adversarial tribes who would soon be stoning the prophets.
Frankly, I find that terrifying.
How is it possible that a people who had experienced everything they had just gone through, who had repented and united for nine years while they were besieged by the Gadianton robbers, who had put aside ethnic differences and hearkened to their prophetic leaders and wept in thanksgiving for the Lord's protective blessings when the robbers were overthrown, how could they lose it so quickly?
The question is pressing. I need to know so I can take measures to ensure that it doesn't happen to me.
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at BYU, I attended a symposium where Hugh Nibley gave his opinion that the root of the problem was private property. Here and in 4th Nephi, the Nephites were righteous when they had (or likely had) all things in common and then, as soon as private property reemerged, they separated into classes and spiralled down into iniquity.
That analysis doesn't hold for me. The pattern is real, but I think Nibley misdiagnosed the cause. Private property existed at the time of the Saviour's post-resurrection ministry in the Americas. It did not prevent them from embracing His teachings then and growing to the point where they could establish the United Order. In truth, private property is an essential prerequisite to consecration. You cannot give what is not yours. This is a vital concept I learned as a parent. If my toddler has a toy and I take that toy and hand it to a sobbing sibling while urging my toddler to share, I haven't taught "sharing;" I've taught powerlessness to my toddler, and I've modelled using superior power to take from others. Sharing requires choice, which rests on ownership. Consecration arises out of the overcoming of selfishness, not the eradication of the opportunity to be selfish.
Mormon has a different explanation for the speedy unraveling of the Nephites. He states it twice in the space of two chapters. First, in 3 Nephi 6:15, he writes, "Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this -- Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride." Then, in 3 Nephi 7:5, he repeats the message: "And all this iniquity had come upon the people because they did yield themselves unto the power of Satan."
So first of all, Satan had great power. And second, the people yielded themselves unto that power.
Where did Satan get great power?
I think there were a few things going on. First of all, the people had particular vulnerabilities. Yes, they'd been righteous for the last few years, but they had grown up in homes where Satan's influence had been rampant. We don't get a lot of details about the home behaviors that were going on in recent wicked times, but one doesn't trample all over ones neighbour in pursuit of material gain, then go home and show unconditional love to ones spouse and little ones. So this was a generation that had likely learned that people couldn't be trusted and security came from collecting things. They'd grown up in a zero-sum environment, where they learned to see another's gain as their loss. They'd learned hypocrisy and its accompanying fear. That gave Satan power.
Second of all, the people had an established pattern of speedily cycling between righteous periods and wickedness. One thing about cycles is that the more they're repeated, the more they seem to take on a life of their own. It's like a pathway is laid down and expectations and habits direct us to follow that same path. It seems significant to me that 35 years earlier, Samuel the Lamanite warned the people to repent before the coming of the Lord. He told them that if they didn't,there would be devastating consequences to their posterity -- in fact, their civilization would end in 400 years (Helaman 13:9). Four hundred years seems a long time and not much of a motivator to a self-absorbed audience that was willing enough to hurt their neighbours right now. But maybe Samuel wasn't trying to motivate. Maybe his words were more of a warning to us than it was to them. Because what actually happened is the people, for the most part, did not repent before the sign that proved the Lord had been born. They did then undergo a mass conversion, which they only managed to maintain for maybe 5 years. And then they cycled back down, only to be stirred up to repentance one last time by the threat of the Gadianton robbers. Their need to gather and unite against their common foe seems to have kept them in the righteous peak of the cycle for a longer period, but the pathway down was well-beaten and oiled, and once they started to fall away, they slid swiftly. We never again see that cycle repeat among the Nephites. Those who were spared during the destruction of the wicked were able to establish Zion. And then, generations later, when the Nephites fell into apostasy, their descent was an uninterrupted slide. I wonder if Samuel's prophecy had something to do with that.
In any case, Satan had great power in the acute vulnerabilities of the people, their insecurities and woundedness from the environments in which they were raised, and in the well-beaten paths of the pride cycle, which had already had effect in their lives. Neither of these sources of Satan's power determined their destiny, though. Their downfall was not in their vulnerability but in their "yield[ing] themselves unto the power of Satan." What was that about?
It's interesting to me that the beginning of the crisis starts with a secret combination among the powerful, the lawyers, judges and "they who had been high priests" (3 Nephi 6:21) This seems to be new. Previously, we've seen people of "high birth" who wanted political power. I've theorized that they might have been descendants of Zarahemla, who may have been barred by non-Nephite descent from priesthood ordination and higher political offices.
Now, though, it's the people who have traditionally held onto power, and including former high priests, who are trying to overthrow the government. Could there have been a power shift? I wonder. In 3 Nephi 2:15 we read that the believing Lamanites were numbered among the Nephites, their skins became white and "their curse was taken from them." This is purely speculative, but what if this refers to an event similar to the June 1978 extension of the priesthood to all worthy male members?
If so, it seems that the reactive fallout was delayed. But when the people left their fortified megacity, returned to their homes, and began to prosper, they also began to neglect their spiritual sustenance. Class distinctions began to arise again and old habits of thought may have arisen to the forefront. What if an extension of priesthood privilege to all worthy men meant that there were now more people qualified to serve in priesthood roles than there were positions? What if priesthood offices became more temporary (as we experience them today), and all of a sudden, men who had presided over congregations for years were now expected to return to their congregations as regular members and to give way for someone of Lamanite descent to preside? What if they were used to thinking of themselves as superior to the Lamanites and had 600 years of tradition and cultural teachings that supported that notion? What if they equated priesthood position with personal importance and they were now being called to repentance by living prophets of Lamanite descent?
Whatever the source of their discontent, they dealt with it by "yielding themselves unto the power of Satan." They quietly put those prophets to death.
Powerlessness is scary. It's also an essential part of mortality for all of us, a vital opportunity to make a choice. We can grab after coercive power, the power of Satan, and lose ourselves in the process. Or we can turn to God, the source of secure and non-coercive power, and we can find ourselves. The Judges, lawyers and former high priests chose Satan's power. When their extrajudicial killings came to the attention of the government, they plotted a coupe and assassinated the chief judge.
And here's where things get really tragic. The majority of the people were infuriated by this secret combination. There was "a great contention in the land, insomuch that the more righteous part of the people had nearly all become wicked." (3 Nephi 7:7). Rather than appoint someone new to the judgement seat, they broke up into rival tribes that were united by one thing, their hatred of those who'd murdered the prophets and the chief judge.
It turns out that Satan doesn't much care whether he enrages us against the righteous or against the wicked. It doesn't matter to him whom we target, only that we target. Because the moment we give ourselves over to anger and hatred, he has us in his power.
Here are my takeaways:
I need to give my children a legacy of solidity. Unfortunately, they've experienced family breakup, twice. That makes them vulnerable, but it doesn't define them. And what I can do to combat their vulnerability is to consciously hold fast, to chart a different path from the pride cycle, to choose again and again and again to repent quickly and stay close to the Lord, without needing to hit bottom. This is especially the case when cultural slide is going on. If surrounding society is rotating around the pride cycle, it's more important than ever to not be "normal" by following along. More futures than ours may depend on our beating down a path that leads upward instead of down.
I need to follow the living prophets, even and especially when their counsel challenges my preconceptions or feels threatening to the places where I hold a personal stake. That doesn't mean blind following. It means pulling my preconceptions out of the box of things unquestioned, examining, finding and discarding the flawed aspects, synthesizing, and getting the guidance of the Holy Ghost that will lead me to conviction.
I need to eschew Satan's power and seek after God's. That means avoiding contention, even against the wicked. It means practicing patience, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned in the political arena just as much as in the church, the community and the home. The only time when it's okay to reprove with sharpness, to braid a whip and cleanse the temple, so to speak, is when moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And that means that at such times, I will be feeling meek, not superior.
The last item seems the most pressing to me right now. It's the area where I feel most vulnerable and where I feel we, as a society, are most at risk. I pray that I and we can avoid yielding ourselves unto Satan's power.