I was struck this week with some important takeaways from the story of Zarahemnah, the first enemy general on whom Captain Moroni cut his teeth. Those takeaways are about anger, hatred, power and political subjugation, and they seem significant in the political climate of today.
Zarahemnah was the commander of a combined army of Zoramites and Lamanites. We don’t know much about him. Was he of Zoramite, Lamanite, or Amalekite origin? The record doesn’t tell us, but it does let us know that he was a usurper who wanted to amass power that wasn’t his, and that he had a clear strategy for doing so.
Alma 43:6-7 tells us that he appointed only Zoramites and Amalekites as captains of his armies, for the simple reason that they were the most bloodthirsty and best able to inflame the people’s hatred and anger toward the Nephites. That wasn’t just to make them more fierce in battle. Rather, it was to “usurp great power over them,” that is, over the Lamanites, “and also, that he might gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage.”
He stirred the Lamanites up to anger in order to usurp power over them. Like Amalikiah, who came a few years later and seems to have borrowed from his playbook, it appears that Zarahemnah was not someone who would normally rule in Lamanite Society. His name sounds Mulekite, not Lamanite. But the Lamanites had rejected their king after he converted to Christianity, maybe seven years earlier. Perhaps there was a leadership vacuum and Zarahemnah decided to make a play to take over.
He went about it by pointing the people’s anger and suspicion at the Nephites. He inflamed their grievances, probably invented grievances, and specifically assigned his henchmen to keep them enraged. Why? Because the angry mind, like the fearful mind, is neither wise nor discerning. That way, they didn’t notice that he was quietly gathering power into his own hands and bringing them into subjection to his will.
The message I get from this is first, to always beware of anyone who is trying to make me mad. Stirring up anger is a power play, primarily against the person who’s being seduced by rage to surrender sober second thought, and secondarily, against the target of their anger. I want to be an agent — someone who lives intentionally — not a tool, so I should refuse to give anyone the power to make me mad.
Second, I must never myself use anger as a motivator, because I don’t want to demean others by treating them as tools. I want to treat them as agents.
And how does all of this apply in the current political climate, particularly around COVID-19?
There are so many possible applications.
It is possible that designing individuals are using fear of COVID-19 in the same way that Zarahemnah used hatred of the Nephites to amass power. It is possible that the pandemic is being blown out of proportion by seekers after power. It is also possible that they seek to chip away at our civil liberties, that they are using the pandemic as a cover for their agenda, and that they are diverting suspicion by stirring up anger toward those who resist public health protocols.
It is also possible that designing individuals are deliberately inflaming people against the government, public health officers and each other in order to undermine society, prolong the pandemic and amass devoted followers who do not question their claims and leadership. It is possible that they are deliberately minimizing a serious threat by calling it a “plandemic” and that they are sounding the alarm about population control through vaccinations in order to terrify and anger their audience. They may even talk about those who support and obey COVID protocols as wilfully blind supporters of an evil state.
Furthermore, it’s possible that both of the scenarios above are true. There may be designs to erode civil liberties and designs to unravel the social fabric operating at the same time in different quarters in a way that gives momentum to both.
So what should I do?
First of all, whatever the reality, I need to be using my best thinking, so I need to eschew both fear and anger. I’m assisted in doing that by taking my cues from Russel M. Nelson, who I believe to be a prophet of God. I believe that it's especially for times like these that God ordained prophets. I’m reassured by President Nelson's words at the outbreak of the pandemic:
“My dear friends, our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ know us, love us, and are watching over us. Of that we can be certain. These unique challenges will pass in due time. I remain optimistic for the future.”
I was strengthened by his November 20, 2020 counsel to flood social media with expressions of gratitude for the next seven days. At the time of that invitation, I was starting to feel a sense of panic about the political situation in the US. I’d been hearing people on both sides talking about potential civil war. But giving thanks for seven days gave me a perspective of hope. And, to my relief, the January 6th insurrection did not devolve into civil war.
That kind of leadership strengthens my confidence that the Lord is guiding His prophet. So does the implementation, in the months before the pandemic, of a new model of ministering and the Come Follow Me program (designed to move the center of gospel study to the home, with the Church in a supportive role). Although both of those changes had value in and of themselves, the timing was remarkable. They seem to have come forth by divine design just in time to help us better connect, unite our families and deepen our discipleship during a period of social distancing.
With that in mind, I can more calmly face the swirling confusion over COVID-19 and come to conclusions that feel secure to me.
When COVID-19 started to spread in North America, I took my first cues from President Nelson. He treated it as a genuine threat to public health. He called a virtual General Conference and, if I recall correctly, cancelled in-person Church meetings even before that was mandated by public health protocols.
Then, last summer, I started getting messages from friends, persuasive videos about how the pandemic was hoaxy or not nearly as serious as our governments wanted us to think. Because my background is in journalism, I decided to verify some of those videos' claims. A lot of what they said couldn't be verified. The speakers expected us to take them at their word. But there were a few things that could be checked, so I zeroed in on those. What I found was that those "facts" were far from true and that the makers of the videos must have known it. (Those videos now appear in Messenger as "attachment unavailable" so I can't provide much by way of detail). This led me to the conclusion that there were individuals who were deliberately creating and spreading conspiracy theories. And they were targeting them at people like me and my friends, who tend to prize liberty and to be suspicious of government overreach.
That's not to say that there hasn't been government overreach. Apostle David A. Bednar's June 2020 address on COVID-19 and religious freedom suggests that there has (and that was June, before the second wave) He offered a sober warning that "government power can never be unlimited," and that "in a time of crisis, sensitive tools are necessary to balance demands of religious liberty with the just interests of society."
I have read about troubling examples of government heavy-handedness in addressing COVID. And not just heavy-handedness; inconsistency and sometimes, incomprehensible policies.
So, I am led to the third possibility listed above; that there are people on both sides of the issue seeking to usurp power by creating a climate of fear and anger around COVID-19.
What can I do about it? At the very least, I can refuse to be part of the problem. And I have been. The first published version of this post came across as dismissive and suspicious toward people who read the indicators differently than I do. There's a lot of dismissiveness and suspicion going on right now. There's a lot of people who are both afraid and angry and inclined to use mechanisms like pressure and shame to get others to do what we think needs to be done with regard to government overreach or COVID-19. But that just leads us into Zarahemnah's territory. Right now, we need to be seeing each other as friends and neighbours. We need to be praying for each other. And, I believe, we need to take care of our own stewardships and allow others the right to take care of theirs.
So here's my pledge:
Understanding that society is deeply divided about the right way to approach COVID-19 and that anger, shame, isolation and fear are also threats to personal, public and political health, I pledge the following:
I will give you the benefit of the doubt, however you choose to protect your health. I will honour your right to exercise your judgment and I will assume that you are doing your best with the information you have. Even if you get sick and it affects me, I’m going to assume you were acting with good intent.
I will give myself the benefit of the doubt and follow the measures that I believe will protect me and my contacts. I won’t subject myself or others to situations I feel are unsafe because of social pressure, nor will I expect you to socialize with me in a way that feels unsafe to you.
I will pray for our leaders, that they will have wisdom in addressing the crisis and be able to put the welfare and liberty of the people they represent ahead of any personal ambitions.
If you would like to take this pledge as well, please do so. Please feel free to spread it on social media.