I listened to the Infants on Thrones episode about Johnny Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith when I went running today. It’s a book about Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who were raised in the LDS church and in adulthood became Mormon fundamentalists.1 As they went deeper into fundamentalism, they believed they were becoming more attuned with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This belief, combined with anger at a sister-in-law over religious and personal differences, led them to murder her and her infant in the 1984. Thirty years later, they show no contrition, still holding onto the belief that God commissioned the murders
Much of Under the Banner of Heaven is a meditation on fundamentalism and the relationship between faith and violence. Does believing in things that cannot be rationally explained predispose people to commit irrational acts? Krakauer draws on examples of violence in Mormonism’s early history (such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre) and juxtaposes them with modern Mormon fundamentalist acts of violence, such as the Lafferty murders and the kidnapping of Elizabeth Snow. Into this, it weaves the theme of following what one believes to be the Holy Spirit, and how dangerous that can be.
At least, that’s how I remember it – but maybe I leaned toward this interpretation because I had recently left a Holy Spirit-drunk congregation that was skirting dangerously close to a fundamentalist path.
Listening to this Infants on Thrones episode got my mind churning about a story in the Book of Mormon that has chilling parallels to the Lafferty murders: Nephi’s murder of Laban.
If you’re not familiar with it, Nephi is set up as a righteous, God-fearing prophet-in-training, and Laban is set up as an evil ne’er-do-well. Nephi has been commanded by his father to get some brass plates that are in Laban’s possession (exactly what the brass plates are is never fully explained, but it’s implied that they comprise a genealogy and various books of the Hebrew Bible, including Isaiah). Nephi’s family needs these plates because they’re going to leave Israel for the Americas, and they want to raise their descendants to have knowledge of the Scriptures.
Laban is a selfish, wicked politician who wants to keep the plates to himself for some reason – maybe because the metal has value, or maybe because he just doesn’t want to do Lehi, Nephi’s father, any favors. After all, Lehi has irritated most of Jerusalem by making a regular practice of publicly condemning its citizenry.
One night, Nephi goes under God’s direction to get the plates. He finds Laban in the street, passed out from drinking. The first-tim reader might think, “Awesome! This is the perfect opportunity for Nephi to break into Laban’s house and snatch the brass plates!”2
But that’s not what happens. Instead, the Holy Spirit tells Nephi to kill Laban. Those instructions go against Nephi’s instincts, his sense of justice and his ability to reason. There must be a way to get the brass plates that doesn’t involve killing a defenseless man, he reasons. So Nephi starts arguing with the Holy Spirit.
But the Holy Spirit keeps insisting, finally telling Nephi that “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). The implication is, “Either you kill Laban and your descendants can grow up righteous, or you don’t kill him and your descendants will be unrighteous.”
So, against his better judgement, Nephi kills Laban before going in to steal the brass plates.3
The moral of the story is that if God tells you to do something that makes no sense, you should do it anyway.
In mainstream Mormonism, there is the caveat that if you think the Holy Spirit is telling you to kill somebody, you should go talk to your Bishop before acting on it – at which point the bishop will tell you that you are not Nephi. Then he’ll either call the legal authorities or tell you that you need the help of LDS Social Services.
But that doesn’t negate how incredibly disturbing the story is.
The thing I keep trying to figure out is if the Bible has any stories that are quite this level of disturbing. Yes, there are a lot of disturbing stories in the Bible. There are big celebrations of genocide. There’s the woman who gets raped, killed and then chopped up into 12 pieces. There’s Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac to God, and then Jephthah actually going through with the child sacrifice thing by sacrificing his daughter to God.
But for some reason, Nephi and Laban bothers me more. It’s perfectly possible that it’s only because I didn’t grow up with the story. But it could also be the moral of the story: Do not listen to reason, because reason may contradict the will of God.
Most of the violent Bible stories are about people who are predisposed to violence anyway. They see violence as their only solution before they even ask God about it. Jephthah is the one who comes up with the idea that he needs to sacrifice something to God. God is completely silent in that story. It’s never implied that he’s demanding that sacrifice. Joshua has no qualms about slaughtering the Philistines; God’s instructions here are convenient, but perhaps not necessary for the Israelites to go to war.
Abraham comes really close to Nephi’s story, but God ends up telling Abraham that he doesn’t need to kill Isaac. The whole thing was just a test. So the moral ends up being quite different from the one in Nephi’s story, if almost as dubious.4
So, let’s play a game of The Book of Mormon vs. the Bible. Can anyone think of any examples in the Bible that explicitly teach that you should go against your own morals and God’s established law if the Holy Spirit tells you to?
The closest I can think of is in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit tells Peter that it’s okay to eat unclean animals – although I’m not sure that one counts since (to my knowledge) the dietary restrictions weren’t seen as a moral issue, but rather as God’s law for a specific group of people.
And what about alternative interpretations of the Nephi-Laban story? I’d love to hear some.
1I use the term “Mormon fundamentalist” here not to refer to a specific sect, but to refer to any person who subscribes to a fundamentalist form of Mormonism, which I’ll define here as a belief that Joseph Smith Jr. was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. Individual members of the LDS church may be fundamentalists, but fundamentalist Mormonism ≠ the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ≠ fundamentalist Mormonism.
2 You can hear a real live example of someone having just this type of reaction during a first read of the Book of Mormon in David Michael’s My Book of Mormon Podcast, Episode 2. The podcast deserves its own blog entry; I’ll add that to my list.
4 Most Christians and Mormons interpret this as a test of Abraham’s loyalty and willingness to obey; the fact that Abraham was willing to obey means that he passed the test. I prefer the interpretation that the test is of Abraham’s morality; God wanted to find out is Abraham so blindly obedient that he would kill his own son. Abraham proved that he was blindly obedient, and therefore failed the test. He was not as righteous as God wished him to be.