The Book of Mormon, Modern America, and, of course, Nazis

In her provocative work Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt proposes a fascinating insight. “Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it—the quality of temptation,” she writes. “Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom…and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”

As Arendt explains, defining evil as temptation—as something that we are not allowed to do, that must be withstood at all costs, can create significant repercussions. We feel honorable when we overcome temptation because it takes courage and strength of character to do so, and it’s something that we owe, not only to ourselves, but to our communities. What happens, then, to a society where Christian acts of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, welfare, and understanding become seen by its members as temptation—and therefore the evil—against which we are expected to fight? One of the things that the Third Reich did spectacularly well was to convince its adherents that they were truly fighting for the greater good for all of humanity, and that the terrible things that they had to do to towards accomplishing that good, while unfortunate, were nonetheless necessary. To be kind they first had to be cruel. To be generous they first had to take. To be peaceful they first had to destroy. The behavior that is at the very heart of Christian belief came to be considered a betrayal, a temptation that must be withstood, even though almost 95% of Germans were professed Christians.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that Judaism was born as an act of defiance, and there is no question but that this tradition was carried on in Jesus’ teachings. This concept of defiance is an easy enough one to understand with the way we tend to tell the scripture stories, where evil actions are always depicted as easily identifiable, conscious, and intentional. We see in our mind’s eye prophets as heroes fighting on spiritual battle grounds where the lines and combatants are clearly defined between good and evil. But prophetic figures often have as much, if not more, of a struggle trying to get their own flock to listen to their teachings as they do those who are outright hostile. Why? Most of us have been taught our whole life that we must be kind, forgiving, generous, faithful, and patient, and we mostly agree that this is a good way to live life. What we struggle with is not necessarily the principle, but the extent. Christ’s teachings concerning how we are expected to treat others are excessive. They are radical. They set at defiance the expectations of worldly assumptions concerning utilitarianism, fairness, and reciprocity. They fly in the face of values surrounding a society’s own particular “greater good”, which almost always discourages, if not outright punishes, literal adherence to Christ’s teachings toward those with whom the group disagrees. This stands in direct opposition to Christ who teaches that, more than perhaps any other quality, the Christian disciple is identifiable by how they treat those people they don’t find worthy. In God’s eyes, it is our behavior towards those outside of our group that defines our faith.

The Book of Mormon is replete with a story that is so rhythmic that it is popularly referred to as the pride cycle. The people come to God, are blessed, begin to turn away, are humbled, come to God, and it all starts again. What is particularly noteworthy is that in every single case the first sign that the people have started to reject Christ is that they begin to otherize—to see others as objects to be used toward or who stand between them and their goal, a goal which is almost always held up as the greater good. And if we are upholding the greater good, then anyone who disagrees with us, by definition, is not; in fact, they are a danger that we may have a moral obligation to silence.

Christ’s way of living is not safe. These behaviors rebel against the rules by which the world plays, and the world seldom leaves such people unpunished. But the Christian story, and particularly the story of the Book of Mormon, is one of resistance. It is the story of audacity in the face of certain defeat. It is the reminder that we must listen even when we become mature enough to realize that those who we try to understand may still willfully misunderstand us; that we must care for those who may never care for us in return; that we must share with those who may always need help; that we must forgive those who are not repentant. In other words, it is to accept that we don’t get to decide who is deserving of our compassion. (Outrageously, it may even mean reaching out the hand of fellowship to the person who consistently makes us furious in Sunday School, the person who keeps telling us what we think, even—heaven forbid—the person with the bumper sticker for that candidate we hate.) These are not passive acts of endurance, nor are they idealistic promises of what can eventually come at some future date when everyone is finally forced to agree, but which in the meantime must be set aside for more practical measures. These are radical acts of defiance.

The Book of Mormon is not a history of great triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. If anything, its heroes generally fail more often than they succeed, (at least as far as their attempts to change the world go). The Book of Mormon is not a promise that if you just try hard enough, and have enough faith, that you will eventually arise victorious (in this life at any rate) over your trials and enemies. On the contrary, it is the promise that the very fact that you follow Christ means you will not always win; that there will be times of profound loneliness as you are seen as a traitor for choosing to forgive and to listen and to love; that you will be maligned for betraying the greater good that Christ-like behavior is seen as an obstacle to accomplishing. In a fracturing, tribalizing society, whether 1st century Zarahemla, 1939 Germany, or 2020 America, where Christ’s teachings become seen by many as temptations that must be withstood in order to attain the greater good, where listening to and caring for the other is seen as a betrayal of the highest order, living like Christ becomes the ultimate act of resistance, performed on a path that just not that many people take. One of the Book of Mormon’s greatest contributions is in teaching us what walking that path looks like. It teaches courage in the face of defeat, and defiance in the face of impossible odds. It is a history of hope—that doing what is good matters simply because it is right. It is a history of those who stood in the face darkness and injustice and greed and cruelty and resisted it. And as its believers, as heirs of the stories and the strength of the marginalized and maligned throughout the gospel’s history, we are now fortunately well-equipped to join in the resistance.

14 comments for “The Book of Mormon, Modern America, and, of course, Nazis

  1. Thank you for this! A post focused on real Christianity as it stands opposed to the political BS we seem to have such difficulty getting away from is refreshing and faith building.

  2. 60% of members voted for trump and many of them believe he will win. The other 40% ?
    Shortly it will become appearent even to them that Biden has won, or perhaps they will continue to follow their deluded leader, believing he was robbed.
    In the BOM there were prophets to put them straight.
    If Pres Nelson were to congratulate Biden on winning, would those who still expect Trump to win, believe Trump, or Nelson?

  3. A post well worth mulling over. A few thoughts:
    –First, I’m reminded of Elder Busche’s response to those who would ask how the Nazis convinced him and others to join Hitler Youth. Something along the lines of “They didn’t need to convince us! We were eager to do so!” Because they’d already been convinced that Nazism was the last stand against European decadence and atheism.
    –Terence Malick makes a similar point in The Hidden Life, with his portrayal of rural Austrians supporting the Nazi effort. They saw their way of life as disintegrating in the face contemporary political and economic forces. And of course the film tries to capture what it would mean to radically hold to Christ’s teachings. It’s not a happy ending.
    –Dostoevski famously noted “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals” and “The degree of civilization of a society can be determined by entering its prisons.”
    –My first thought in response to your description of the BofM’s first sign of folks going the wrong direction in the pride cycle (you noted it was othering) was, “Nah, it’s being ok with inequality.” But I suppose they’re two sides of the same coin. No one’s ok with inequality unless they’ve othered.

  4. Great quotes/thoughts. These are all reasons why I am intensely suspicious any time someone starts going on about the “greater good”, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it invoked unless it was being used to justify hurting someone.
    And I think your last point is really important. The impulse to feel pity and compassion are so strong in humans. To be able to see and accept another person’s suffering we have to create systems of judgemement that justify it–they deserve it, they don’t mind it, it’s their fault for not working harder, etc. To be able to accept suffering and injustice we have to otherwise.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts on this, Mary.

    As much focus as there is in the teachings of Christ on how we treat “others”, there is just as much consideration on how we treat our own. We often cite the Parable of the Good Samaritan in showing how we should treat those who are outside our social circle, but often forget that the same parable begins with the priest and the Levite who refused to assist one of their own.

    There is a balancing act between assisting others and assisting our own that can sometimes be difficult (cf. Jesus’s discussion with the Gentile woman in Matthew 15), but it begins with a recognition that we have an obligation to treat both as God’s children.

  6. Jon, You are here but have nothing to contribute. I am quite able to be interested in Australia and America, at the same time. At present America is in need of more help, so I am doing my bit.

    You have a country divided by its leader, we don’t
    You have a leader who has lost an election but refuses to concede, and showing his desire to manage the country by playing golf. We don’t
    You have an out of control pandemic, and your leader says it will end soon, without applying any solutions. We have been celebrating double donut days, no new cases, and no deaths, but have had an outbreak in one state, with 17 new cases, all now in isolation. No new cases or deaths in my state for 8 weeks.
    You have terrible racial tension, and your presidents solution is to play golf.
    You have the worst financial inequality in the world. We need to improve, but are a lot better.
    Could go on, but you wouldn’t be interested.

  7. Zerubbabel, You bring up a good point that we should be aware of the many ways in which otherizing happens, and it’s not always against people who are inherently different from us. The Good Samaritan is a good example. As soon as the traveler was dying the Levite and Priest no longer saw a man, they only saw something that could risk them becoming unclean if they touched it.

  8. Mary – you stated “2020 America, where Christ’s teachings become seen by many as temptations that must be withstood in order to attain the greater good, where listening to and caring for the other is seen as a betrayal of the highest order…” Would you care to give some specific examples? Thanks in advance!

  9. Off the top of my head, I think political debate creates some good (bad?) examples. While the way that many politicians talk to each other isn’t great, I feel more concern at how people discuss it in local settings. For example, I know families that have broken apart based on who its members voted for. Our own daughter was told by a few friends the other day that they thought it was wrong that she was friends with a boy who was a Trump supporter and she should stop being friends with him. She has other girls who told her the fact that she supported BLM means that she thought that people should be forced to have abortions and she hates America. As our daughter tried to talk to these two different groups she found the kids felt that it was actually morally wrong to listen to the perspectives of the other side. These are some personal examples we have had, but really, about 3/4 of what’s on Facebook can demonstrate it ;)
    Not all examples are political. I have a friend who is the kindest person you could ever meet who, when she left the church, was abandoned by her friends who, without talking to her, assumed that now she would be hostile and a bad influence. I also have friends who have left the church who assume that those who stay are all brainwashed or malicious and so not to be trusted on principle. While heaven knows these kinds of things are not new, I don’t think that there is any question but that the tribalism they evidence is becoming worse. (For more detailed info on a broader, more studied perspective Jonathan Haidt does some great work on this phenomenon. You might find The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind useful. Also The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki, who researches the sharp decline of empathy that America has experienced over the last few decades and how to reverse it.)

  10. Mary, thanks for sharing. I’m sorry for the pain. Take care and God bless you.

    Rev. 21:3,4
    3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

    4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

  11. It can also be difficult when one side is saying “We should find ways to get along” and the other is saying “I never want to get along with you.” Now of course you can probably find examples of both statements on both sides, but when summed up it sure feels like one side does it a whole lot more often than the other. At some point it just feels unhealthy to be giving advantage to the side that doesn’t want to work with the others.

  12. Mary we just read 3rd Nephi as a family and I couldn’t help but think of your post—Christ is completely preoccupied with the “disputations” and contention and the need for unity (which my read says is a kind of solidarity and commitment and willingness to reason together in good faith as opposed to singularity). Christ even declares that the purpose of the commandments is on account of the people’s disputations.

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