My Theocracy Right or Wro…Right!

We can typically agree on morality until someone opens up a holy book. Put the reprehensible action on the pages of an antiquated text considered by many to be scripture, and suddenly the injunction to murder becomes not only morally acceptable but divinely sanctioned. If it is the decree of the creator-god, it must be the highest of moral actions! Thus, imagine my godless, secularist satisfaction in listening to my children taught from The Book of Mormon that if someone disagrees with you, you can label them a threat and, with the authority of the government, have them exterminated if they won’t agree with you. Use their reluctance to comply with your way of doing things as the excuse. I mean, only an atheist believes that, as Dosotevsky deftly pointed out in The Brothers Karamozov, without God, all things are permitted…right? 

Excuse my previous sarcasm. I was horrified to hear, from my new and expanding vantage point, the story adoringly told–to my children!–of a character named Captain Moroni, asking for and being granted permission by the governor and the majority of citizens in a primitive America, to kill those who opposed the political ideology to which he and they subscribed. They refused to take up the weapons in defense of their own country, thus providing a ‘just reason’ to have them exterminated. The epigram that has been rendered, if you look through rose colored glasses, all red flags simply look like flags must have an auditory corollary. How could I have once venerated this disgusting character and barbarous story as an example of what it meant to fight for freedom and to uphold high virtue? The book was “written for our day” after all. And it’s ‘inspired’ text instructs the reader to “liken” the scriptures to themselves.

In his book, The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins highlights the interesting and frightening research of Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. From Dawkins himself:

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’ . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.”

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

1) “In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.”

2) “In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.”

3) “Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.”

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua’s conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

1) “I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.”

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for the Israelites:

1) “I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.”

2) “I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.”

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: ‘It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one’s power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth!

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin’s experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents, or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out of Tamarin’s three representative quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behaviour, and 75 per cent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.”

(edited for formatting)

If you need me to explain to you why the above quotation is horrifying, you’re not the target of my writing even if you are the subject. The justification is together absurd and horrifying and, in no conceivable way, can be made to seem as if the injunction came from loving, omnipotent God that is no respecter of persons. Perhaps the only difference between Joshua’s story and that of Captain Moroni from The Book of Mormon is that the state-sanctioned murder of thousands is made to appear as a noble and heroic act of goodness and freedom conquering tyranny. To the victors often go the spoils and they alone are left to tell the tale of their conquering and they never malign themselves in the telling. 

Regarding Captain Moroni and the chief judge of the people, Pahoran: I have come to believe and written regularly of the struggle of humankind against tyranny. The real human struggle has been and always will be the struggle against totalitarianism. Absolutism is its methodology and it thrives by convincing its supporters that it serves them. Label the regime with any classification you want: democratic, people’s republic, socialist, stalinist. It really is by their fruits you shall know them. That is how I came to see the sordid but obvious totalitarian nature of what happens in the first twenty-two verses of Alma 51 of The Book of Mormon. 

According to the text, after many years of peace (v.1), suddenly there was a “contention among the people” for “there were a part of the people who desired that a few particular points of the law should be altered”(v.2). The leader of the people, Pahoran, called the Chief Judge, would not change the law (v. 3). We must assume that it was in his power to do so. And what, you may ask, did this small faction of citizens want changed? Before we answer that, this is not a governmental system that operates democratically, at least not in the way we understand in our day. There is no legislative body. Though the people may petition–the word itself is used several times in text–the chief judge has what seems to be not just judicial power as his title indicates, he also has legislative power (as shown in his denial to use said power to change the law) and executive power (as we will see later). 

The framers of the U.S. constitution and those of many subsequent democracies around the world realized that to have all three powers in one place constituted a tyranny. They separated the powers to limit the tyrannical capacity of any one group or person and that each governing body might check the abuse of another. While this system has been known to fail, the balance of justice has largely been as equitable as mere primates with our barbaric history could hope for as we seek, under the protections of our young governmental systems, to further realize untainted equality for each citizen under the law.

 Back to Pahoran: the minority who disagreed with their chief judge’s ruling, were angry and wanted him removed from power. Verse four even states that “there arose a warm dispute concerning the matter, but not unto bloodshed.” Sounds like a reasonable protest. Perhaps they stood outside the capital building or “white house” in Zarahemla (the capital of Christian peoples in first century B.C.E. America) with signs and chanting slogans like, “Stop Pretending You’re Not A King and Give Us the Real Thing!” Primitive as they were, they didn’t attempt a violent overthrow. They ought to be given some points for that. 

Verse five is where the “rose by any other name” business becomes unabashedly flagrant. For a man acting like a king and endowed with such power, it’s comical that it would be written, “those who were desirous that Pahoran should be dethroned from the judgment-seat were called king-men, for they were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land.” Do I need to point out that the text LITERALLY uses the word THRONE? 

Mormon’s love to publish the fact that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written The Book of Mormon because he only had a third grade education. This story proves that they are right about one thing, he wasn’t well-educated. His ignorance is on full-display here, further convincing me that he did, indeed, author this work of fiction. Pahoran had every power of a king and employed them. These dissenters simply wanted to replace the existing tyrant with one of their choosing. 

The only quality that marks Pahoran as a “freeman” is that he supported and maintained the religion of the people. Here, we have a tyrant becoming a theocrat. It is in “maintain[ing] their rights and the privileges of their religion” that they think they can call themselves “a free government” (v.6). Demonstrating a vestige of democratic principles, in verse seven, we are told “that this matter of their contention was settled by the voice of the people. And it came to pass that the voice of the people came in favor of the freemen, and Pahoran retained the judgment-seat, which caused much rejoicing among the brethren of Pahoran and also many of the people of liberty, who also put the king-men to silence, that they durst not oppose but were obliged to maintain the cause of freedom.”

First, Pahoran did listen to the people though we already know that it was in his power to change the law regardless of what the people said. Second, when these king-men lost their attempt at changing the law peaceably, they did not oppose the ruling. Sounds like a peaceful and democratic attempt at pursuing one’s political ideals. They failed, but they remained civil.

Remember the “executive power” in government? Here is another example of its tyrannical use in this chapter. In the next several verses, we learn that an enemy of the Nephites was preparing to wage war against them. Say what you will about the king-men here. According to the story they were happy with this attack by their countries enemies and refused to fight to protect it. The military leader, Captain Moroni, became “exceedingly wroth because of the stubbornness of those people whom he had labored with so much diligence to preserve; yea, he was exceedingly wroth; his soul was filled with anger against them. And it came to pass that he sent a petition, with the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him (Moroni) power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death” (vv.14-15).

Moroni was so concerned with “put[ing] an end to such contentions and dissensions among the people” that he believed the end justified the means. Luckily for him, the tyranny of the majority won, and the voice of the people was given what it wanted. They could slaughter their fellow countrymen if they refused to submit to conscription (v.16). Just like a good democracy of free people, the government allowed the military to act against its own people. Of course, it is again put in religious terms here because, as verse seventeen says, it was necessary “to pull down their pride and their nobility and level them with the earth.” Instead of saving his own army to fight their enemies, he decides to risk their lives to fight citizens who were NOT uprising.

Use of military against one’s own people, particularly those not in rebellion but, in a civil manner, opposing a government action, is a hallmark of despotism. And, with all three governmental powers in the hands of Pahoran, the king-men had no one to whom they could turn for redress. Sounds like the freemen were such in name only. I’m reminded of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others who labeled dissenters as “counter-revolutionaries” and used their military might to slaughter them by the millions. In the end, “there were four thousand of those dissenters who were hewn down by the sword; and those of their leaders who were not slain in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was no time for their trials at this period” (v.19). 

This is the first time any type of judicial proceeding is mentioned. It ought to be said again that Moroni’s intention and injunction was “to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.” When they saw the army coming it was to kill them if they did not comply. Ironically, in verse twenty-two, it is actually said that this Captain Moroni was “subjecting them to peace and civilization!” It reminds me of Christopher Hitchens pointing out the demeaning irony of a person telling him, “Of course we have free will! The boss insists on it.” 

Which group acted with impunity, as if they held the “divine right” to do so? Do I need to add the medieval, sanctimonious “of Kings” to drive the point home? Was their cause so, absolutely right that they must eliminate dissent? That’s what many communist and fascist regimes have done and how they’ve justified it. The communists always call their nation “the people’s ___________” to, as Pahoran did with “the voice of the people,” behave as if the majority of common men and women sanctioned their actions. Simply label anyone who disagrees, no matter how peacefully, as “counter-revolutionaries” or “dissidents” and sentence them to death without due process. One man becomes judge, jury, and executioner and is given authority by another man acting as a despot would. Lenin encourage Stalin to be more brutal, to raise the death toll, to strike fear in the heart of any who would dissent against their workers’ revolution. Bring down the nobility! Up with the poor and humble. Lenin is to Pahoran as Stalin is to Captain Moroni.

Who are the king-men in this story? Just because you label someone a king-man, doesn’t make them one. If Pahoran and Moroni are kings in their “new clothes” they’ve managed to convince not only their B.C.E. subjects that they are freemen but also to convince their highly educated, twenty-first century audience of the same. Like a naked tyrant, everyone is unwilling to point out the obvious. Pretty soon, everyone goes along with it. After all, they’ve just seen Moroni slaughter fellow-citizens who dare to peacefully ask for a change in the law he didn’t agree with. You have the power, you create the labels and the people accept them. 

If anything, this is a cautionary tale from which we ought to learn a different lesson. Do not to let those in charge have too much influence on what you think! And learn how you think! In a democracy, as we know it and as should have been understood by an omnipotent god inspiring a book of scripture “for our day,” citizens can work to change laws to match their ideals and goals. They understand that they have to change individual voters perceptions to make this happen. Or, in a republic, you petition your legislators to work at changing the law. This seems to be what the king-men attempted and failed to do.

In a tyranny (theocracy) all that you need to do is to change the populace as a whole. Kill off entire populations or classes that stand in your way. Take their lives or their property. Instill fear in those that survive the purge. That’s how you get your way. It’s not just the leaders who crave this. Look at the French revolution and the zeal of the people who supported it?

Don’t think that Mormon’s are opposed to kings or even that they believe kings are okay but democracy is better. King Benjamin and King Mosiah are revered characters in The Book of Mormon. Aside from their example and that of many others in their holy texts, one verse I’ve often heard quoted in Sunday school is from Mosiah 29:13. “Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.”

This, my friends, is the attempt to establish a theocracy. Does anyone reading this really want sharia in the United States or Europe? Would you like for adultery to be punishable by stoning? Would you be concerned if it became illegal to wear clothing of mixed fabrics? Does slavery as outlined in and sanctioned by the Bible be alright with you? Even in a democracy or a republic, if you want another to have to live by your standards, your might be inclined to tyranny over them. We can agree that murder is wrong for everyone. But should no one be allowed to eat meat? Or drink wine or coffee? What about work on Sunday? 

Perhaps we would do well to learn from Oscar Wilde who said, “Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and to be more, and to do more.”

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