The Prodigal Son and The Book of Alma

In the early middle chapters of The Book of Alma, there is an account of Nephites who, full of grief over how they used to persecute the faithful, have renounced their royal lineage and dedicated themselves to a life of preaching. This life of preaching is directed towards the enemies of the Nephites, the Lamanites. These four repentant missionaries are ridiculed for thinking that they could convert the Lamanites. They record that others said it would be better to kill the Lamanites than to try to talk to them. It is clear that the enmity between the peoples is not a one-sided affair.

The four missionaries, against the expectations of their peers, are successful in converting a substantial number of Lamanites to their belief. Other Lamanites oppose that conversion and threaten to destroy the convert population. The converts in their thousands seek refuge among the Nephites. The Nephite leadership grants them a portion of their lands and welcomes in the fellow-believers. In a sense, the prodigals have returned after many generations.

Like in the parable of The Prodigal Son, there is resentment. While not directly connected in the narrative of The Book of Mormon, it’s just after the arrival of the converts – who are not asked to change or assimilate in any way – that we see records of parts of the Nephite population cracking along tribal and social lines.

Unasked in the narrative are the questions that these groups must have had – why are these enemies suddenly granted lands? What about the rest of the tribal groups that have been loyal all these years? Do we trust these converts? Is it wise to have such people, so recently enemies, given a place of trust in our nation?

Consider a statistic from after the Second World War. The Allies surveyed the German population about their attitudes toward Jews and racism in general. The survey came back with 12% of the population expressing extreme antisemitic attitudes, 18% of the population expressing strong antisemitic attitudes, and another 21% of the population showing as not particularly antisemitic, but generally bigoted in their attitudes towards other ethnic and cultural groups – racists, in a word.

An important key in the narrative of The Book of Mormon is how the convert population, who demonstrated complete pacifism and accepted death rather than lift a weapon, continues to show that pacifism after they have emigrated to Nephite lands. That implies that, among the Nephites, they faced attacks and chose to submit to violence rather than become part of it. And who would those attackers be? The Nephites who refused to shed their hatred – the Nephites who refused to forgive.

This refusal to forgive then goes beyond acts of violence directed at the immigrants. The Nephite confederation itself begins to split. In the hundreds of years of enmity portrayed in The Book of Mormon, given the “kill them all” attitude expressed openly among the Nephites, it should not be a surprise that a sudden embrace of these Lamanite converts should lead to rifts in the Nephite population. One group, the Zoramites, portray themselves as victims and defect to the Lamanite tribes. Another group, the king-men, refuse to accept the legitimate government of the people and seek to create their own political structure with them at the top. Both the king-men and the Zoramites are hostile to individuals portrayed as loyal and faithful to the Nephite church, so it stands to reason that they are just as hostile, if not more so, to the Lamanite converts. If their attitudes were as hardened as those of the postwar Germans, this is no stretch of the imagination.

The parable of The Prodigal Son is as much about groups of people as it is about individuals. When enemies reconcile, we cannot allow ourselves to refuse to join in the reconciliation, at risk of becoming enemies ourselves. A prosperous group that paints itself as a group of victims when a less-fortunate population is taken in is a group that itself is making an enmity towards God, for God is Love.

The risk of any period of extremism and rivalry is that the feelings run so deep that reconciliation is impossible. Both sides of the rivalry are then doomed to destruction as they make mutual war on their common enemies, those who have shed the rivalry and who have found a way to forgive.

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