A Civil War in Zarahemla

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series The Book of Mormon as a Political Thriller

This piece is a continuation of a prior post, found here, where I discuss the culture wars of Zarahemla, and how those culture wars come to a head because of the influence of Alma2, Aaron, Ammon, and their brothers. I recommend reading that one first, since it sets the stage for this one. We are going to right in where I left off before.

Divine Intervention

One day, a miracle occurs. An angel stops Alma2, Aaron, Ammon, and their brothers, and chastises them. The angel addresses them and says that he has been sent to convince them of “the power and authority of God,” and that he has been dispatched in response to the prayers of Mosiah2 and Alma1. This directly establishes Alma1 as the spiritual successor to King Benjamin, and the new Church as having divine authority. There is suddenly no doubt for the sons of Mosiah that the establishment of Alma1’s church is God’s will.

Addressing Alma2, the angel calls to his remembrance his captivity in the land of Helam, and how great things the Lord has worked among the people, perhaps even because of their experiences in Helam. He is, in essence, inviting Alma2 to take a different lesson from those experiences: the same God that rescued them from Amulon is the same God that is leading the Church, and the same God that led Mosiah1 to Zarahemla. For Alma, this required a total reorientation of his worldview. It required him to relinquish the bitterness that he felt towards his father, towards his father’s church, towards Mosiah’s reign. It required him to relinquish his victimhood mentality, and to cease promoting that mentality among the people.

After three days of lying comatose, processing his experience, he arises and announces that he has been reborn through Christ, and that all must become new creatures through Christ. Aaron, Ammon, and his brothers marvel, as Alma2 has gone through the most dramatic change of all of them — he has transformed from an angry, embittered person to a man with a heart at peace with himself and those he once railed against. They start to marvel at the power of God to change men’s hearts, even the most stubborn of them — and they start to see the possibilities described by their father. They get a glimpse of his grand vision for Alma1’s new church: this could be what changes the hearts of even the most bloodthirsty of their ancient enemies.

And this results in more than a religious conversion for Aaron, Ammon, Omner, and Himni. This reorients them politically as well. For them, reclaiming the Lamanites — making them part of God’s covenant people — had meant uniting them under a single civic banner, acknowledge the right of Nephite rule. But with this new covenant community, the Lamanites could be reclaimed where they were. They did not need to relinquish their allegiances to Lamanite kings. Gone in an instant were the aspirations of uniting the children of Lehi under the charismatic rule of Nephite prophet-kings. National allegiances ceased to matter for them — both in themselves and in others.

And so they set down the banner of King Benjamin, and talk up the banner of Alma1, and in the process they realize that they were always one and the same. I picture this as the end of the Benjamin-loyalists; all holdouts against the new Church from those loyal to the old system disband and fall in line behind Aaron and his brothers.

This was devastating this was to the Zarahemla dissidents who wanted to resurrect the traditions of their grandfathers (or at least tweak the law to be more hospitable to those traditions). They had the hearts of the sons of the king, and they fully expected Aaron to ascend to the throne and champion their cause. They had to do nothing but be patient, and they would prevail. And yet, not only have Aaron, Ammon, Omner, and Himni forsworn their prior sympathies for the Zarahemla agitators, they are now preparing a missionary expedition to take this new church to the Lamanites. King Mosiah2 offers each of them the throne, but none of them want it — they simply want to serve the Church and preach the Gospel. The unbelievers now have no one to champion them.

And to add insult to injury, Alma1 decides to appoint Alma2 as head of the church — the very church he and the sons of Mosiah have been fighting against. Having Alma2 on their side had given the agitators a huge advantage in this culture war. Appointing that same Alma2 as head of the church now gave the church that same advantage, and for the same reasons. Amlici feels personally betrayed by Alma.

A Change in the Affairs of the Kingdom

Meanwhile, Mosiah is concerned about the “near miss” of having Aaron rise to the thone. His father and grandfather had toiled to implement a just system of law informed by Israelite tradition, and Aaron had threatened to undo that work and to renounce Alma1’s spiritual authority. He is similarly troubled by the stories told to him by Alma1 and Limhi, about King Noah’s wickedness in the Land of Nephi. He also translates and studies the history of the Jaredites, as given him by Limhi and his people, and is similarly troubled by what he found there, with a history of kings who lead the people into wickedness.

He realizes that the people of Zarahemla have been blessed to have a three consecutive kings who have honored God’s laws, and this may not always be the case, and it takes only one wicked king to undo the work of dozens of righteous kings to come before. And so he decides to make some changes, to make a change from a monarchic system of governance to a kritarchic system of governance. Since he has been invested in studying ancient records (Limhi’s records, Jaredite records, Israelite records), he probably saw this as a timely occasion to reassert the sort of judicial system of the ancient Israelites, prior to King Saul.

I will expand more on kritarchy in the next post. For a one-paragraph summary, a kritarchic system is one in which judges decide cases against an established body of law, but do not themselves enact or change laws. Rather, changes in law — should they be necessary — can be accomplished through the gradual accumulation of case law. In short, King Mosiah was putting an end to fiat-law. Local judges would be chosen by the people, but they would adjudicate according to Mosiah’s laws.

It can be overstated how devastating this change was to the unbelievers in Zarahemla. First, the laws of the community are already hostile to the traditions they wanted to resurrect. Second, Mosiah explicitly states that the nation had been nearly imperiled by an unbeliever rising to a position to change those laws. (The king has thus marked the group as enemies of the state, unsuited for power or legal authority.) Third, Mosiah expressly changes the affairs of the kingdom to prevent this from happening again. He sets up a new system based on the body of law that the unbelievers feel is slanted against them, and then eliminates any (easy) mechanism for willful change of the legal code.

Finally, Mosiah then sets up a system whereby judges can review the rulings of other judges, and impanel a group to oust them if they deviate too far from the established legal code. There is no way for the unbelievers to gather and set up a local judge who would adjudicate against the legal norms they wanted. The new system was, in other words, explicitly hostile to the aims and wishes of the dissidents in Zarahemla, set up specifically to thwart them in their attempts to undo the legal system created by Mosiah and Benjamin. And then, to top it off, Mosiah installs Alma2, their former friend and betrayer, and the head of the church, as the first chief judge of this new system. They were expressly disenfranchised, and then their new enemy was placed in charge of the new system.

The Match in the Tinderbox

This precarious state of affairs is how Alma2 starts his tenure as chief judge. Near this time, Nehor is now openly sympathetic to the Zarahemla dissidents, and also teaching a variant of Alma1’s (now Alma2’s) doctrine. He is teaching of a God who looks away when his children commit sin, “beating them with a few stripes” and then saving them at the last day. It’s possible that he even used Alma2 as an example — a man who had rebelled against God, and is now high priest of the church. So we need not worry too much about our own sins. God will use even the wicked for his purposes, and then save us all. He was also critical of Alma2’s leadership in the church, arguing that church leaders should gain popular support — something Alma2 is quickly losing among the Zarahemla dissidents.

And thus is the state of affairs when Alma1’s old friend Gideon confronts Nehor and challenges his teachings. Think of it: Gideon has stepped forward to defend Alma2, as well as the church. In the resulting confrontation, a physical fight breaks out. I wonder if it wasn’t actually clear to Nehor’s group who was the aggressor really was — after all, this is the same Gideon who chased his own king up a tower to kill him. The man is known for being a hothead in defense of what is right, and not being afraid to speak his mind. But it’s a complicated case because he is also very old, and even if he did instigate it, Nehor clearly had the advantage of strength and youth, and the capacity to retreat. Perhaps there was no clear cut answer.

But that didn’t stop members of the church from taking Nehor straight to the chief judge — perhaps bypassing local judges on the way. And it’s not at all clear that Nehor received a trial that would be considered fair by today’s standards. Those who accused Nehor were loyalists in the church, the presiding judge was the high priest of the church, and the defendant was, besides murder, chiefly accused of teaching people against the church. The victim was the presiding judge’s oldest friend, and defendant was the judge’s former friend (and now enemy). Everything was stacked against Nehor here.

Now, I assume that Alma2 judged the case with prudence and care. But my assumption is not what’s important here. In retrospect, an age in which the very concept of mitigating conflict of interest was foreign; they might have assumed that the people most vested in the case were the best judges of it. Regardless, it looked deeply unfair to the Zarahemla dissidents. So when Alma2 condemns Nehor to death, this was not seen by many as a just verdict or a fair process. It was a match set on a parched field that was already ripe for a fire. The Nephite community erupts in controversy.

We read that those who did not belong to the church began to persecute those that did in earnest. Many among the church became proud and began to contend with blows and physical violence — perhaps there were riots and mobs as well. Many hearts were hardened, and blotted out of the church. All this brought sore affliction upon the church. And Mormon reinforces for us that while there was no law against someone’s belief, the Israelite legal code was nonetheless enforced. We read that to quell this dissent, Alma2 and the judges through the land began to enforce that code strictly, to the point that the dissidents “became more still, and durst not commit any wickedness if it were known.”

A Civil War Breaks Out

And this is where Amlici steps in. In my version of the story, he is of the order of Nehor and a former friend of Alma2. His central argument leans on the case of Nehor: no one who is a priest in the church should also be a judge. And so it was that Amlici “would deprive them of their rights and privileges of the church; for it was his intent to destroy the church of God.” The anger of the Zarahemla dissidents against the new system, the church, and against Alma2 was palpable. And so Amlici begins to gain traction, enough so to trigger a referendum.

Now these referendums are not merely elections, nor is this some form of direct democracy. The people could not just vote into effect changes to the law. Rather, these might be compared to a modern constitutional convention. Mosiah2 did not leave the people without a way of peacefully dissolving the reign of the judges, should the system fail. But I don’t think that a mere majority was enough to trigger the provision: it had to be a super-majority, at least.

Given the severe divisions and the riots, many of the people began to assume that the system had indeed failed. They might have assumed that the kritarchy was indeed the source of their divisions (which is the narrative the Zarahemla dissidents are spreading through the people). But if they were to revert back to a kingship, it would not be a prophet-king on the throne, it would be Amlici. And so referendum comes against Amlici. Not because everybody liked the kritarchy — but rather it’s because they did not trust Amlici to be the one to lead a new kingship. And so they vote to preserve the kritarchy, for now.

And this is when the civil war breaks out. The Zarahemla dissidents have exhausted all mechanisms of recourse. And so they fight. I won’t get into details of the war, but the people are divided, with the Zarahemla dissidents led by Amlici, and the loyalists led by Alma2. (Important note: not all of the Zarahemla dissidents join with Amlici.) Thousands upon thousands on both sides are killed. And furthermore, as the Amlicites retreat, Alma2 and his army pursues them until the Amlicities join up with a Lamanite army that was already entering their lands, possibly to take advantage of the civil discord (more on their origins later).

Just imagine the stories they tell the Lamanites: Mosiah2 has such disdain for those who do not share share his faith that he set up a whole new system of governance designed to disenfranchise them. Alma2 systemically enforces the laws to punish unbelievers, executing his former friends. And now the armies of Alma2 are hunting them down to kill them all. They are immediately embraced as refugees, and Alma2 is immediately seen as a tyrannous foe to be stopped at all costs. So the Lamanites fight on behalf of the Amlicites. The tremendous battle that follows decimates the Nephite loyalists that remain.

Alma2 Retires from the Judgeship

Also, is it any wonder why Alma2 steps down as chief judge, as soon as Lamanites are driven away (multiple battles happen first) and peace is restored to the land? First, the civil war was largely catalyzed by Alma2’s controversial cases as judge (i.e., the trial of Nehor). It was his role as high priest that made those cases controversial. The war that followed centered around Alma2’s leadership. The idea of “conflict of interest” and impartiality has almost certainly become a thing now, debated and discussed by Alma2 and the other judges.

Also, we must realize that people do not go through a civil war like this and come out unscathed. Alma2 is the victor. The rights of high priests to officiate as judges is preserved. The dissidents are blamed for a great slaughter among the people, and for betraying the people to the Lamanites. The people of the church are no longer humble. They are angry. They have no patience for dissidence against their laws. Those who do not join the church are now treated with suspicion. We read that “they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.”

And so Alma2 steps down, and begins to teach the people in earnest. He turns the judgeship over to Nephihah, and devotes himself to the ministry. He reminds people of the captivity of their fathers. He reminds them that their current “triumph” is made possible only through God’s grace and mercy in years past. He reminds them of the way they feel when they are in communion with God. He invites them to recommit themselves to the Savior, not merely in name but in fact. He goes to the land of Gideon and teaches them there about the Atonement and the meaning of their covenants.

And then Alma2 goes over to the land of Ammonihah, where the Zarahemla dissidents have gathered. These are the order of Nehor who did not join with Amlici in his cause. Now, the people of Ammonihah were still under the jurisdiction of the chief judge. And so their judges were still required to judge according to the Israelite law; as Mosiah2 explained, “And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge.”

And so the people of Ammonihah were in a precarious position: they could choose their own judge, but that judge must not decide cases too far astray from the laws of the land, or he would be deposed by the chief judge (Nephihah). And so there arose in Ammonihah a class of lawyers who could argue cases with subtlety, to make a case for rulings they prefer under the body of law they’ve been given. Furthermore, where you cannot bend the law, you might bend the judges; bribery, though illegal, was a known problem in Ammonihah.

Again, let’s look at this from the viewpoint of those in Ammonihah. They were betrayed by their friends. The legal system was changed to disenfranchise them. The high priest of the church murdered their leader under the color of law in a stacked legal proceeding, and then raised up an army to chase and kill many of their friends and compatriots. And now that same leader is now in their city, on behalf of the church, crying repentance to them. It’s a miracle Alma2 survives the encounter.

And Alma2 cannot help but blame himself. He was the one that sentenced Nehor to execution. He was the one that led armies against Amlici. He was the one whose explosively controversial tenure as chief judge ended up tearing Zarahemla apart at the seams. In his role as high priest, he has seen miracles, but he also alienated unbelievers across the land in seemingly irreparable ways. And before that, he helped draw many of these people into the dissident camp to begin with. And so “while he was journeying thither,” he was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul, because of the wickedness of the people who were in the city of Ammonihah.”

Imagine then how incredibly, humbling, and reassuring it was when an angel visits im and says, “Blessed art thou, Alma; therefore, lift up thy head and rejoice, for thou hast great cause to rejoice; for thou hast been faithful in keeping the commandments of God from the time which thou receivedst thy first message from him.” The angel tells Alma2 that despite everything that has happened at his hands, God considers him a faithful servant. The angel tells Alma2 to return immediately to Ammonihah and warn the people to repent.

And thus begins a new stage in Alma’s life.

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