Once again, reading these difficult passages, I see something prodigious in Nephi, something my soul longs after. At the same time, however, my soul recoils, and chapter four is the realization of the danger inherent in Nephi’s faithful outlook. I want to think that Nephi’s mistake was youthful inexperience—faith and zeal untempered by the wisdom and moral constraint of realizing that every human one confronts is a child of Heavenly Parents and a brother or sister [see comment 1].
Contextualizing our lives within the scriptures seems so right. This is how I want to read them—this is how I want to live. This is what I hope I’m doing as I read and write my thoughts, weaving myself into a temporally extended web, binding myself within the covenants that I have made, which are the covenants of God with his people in former and latter times, which binds me to the mothers and fathers who’ve gone before. With Nephi, I want to not only declare but experience (as he experienced) that profound Passover motto:
The Lord is able to deliver us,
Even as our ancestors;
And to destroy [insert obstacle]
Even as he destroyed the Egyptians.
But now, here, I can’t even chant this refrain in the way that Nephi does. I cannot make my obstacle a human to be destroyed as God destroyed the Egyptians. The Passover story is a horrific story. It’s not just one man that perishes to save a nation; rather, it is a nation of innocent children (and adults?) who perish to save an ungrateful people. Pharaoh stood as God’s manifestation on the earth, and consequently was able to give the order and have it carried out: murder all the Hebrew male babies. In a perverse twist, God stands as the heavenly manifestation of Pharaoh’s wickedness and murders all of the firstborn of Egypt.
It is better that one man should perish than that an entire nation should dwindle in unbelief. I can’t see how to accept this awful Old Testament ideology in a “literal” sense—a sense wherein I’m willing to see life sacrificed—and avoid cruelty and the loss of innocent life; I can’t maintain this pronouncement and at the same time hold to the pronouncement of Moses’s other book: that divine work and glory is the work of exalting all of God’s children. That is, I can’t see how to avoid making faith into the easily malleable fundamentalism whose trademark is the dehumanization of the “other.” If it is better that one man should die to save a nation, than why not: “It is better that thousands of innocent infidels should perish [e.g., in the World Trade Center], than that the whole world should dwindle in unbelief?”
Which, by the way, seems to be precisely what the story of Noah and the story of the Exodus confirm. Ah, but maybe here’s the critical distinction we can draw between the deliverances of Noah and Moses on the one hand, and the deliverance of Nephi on the other—the distinction between faith and fundamentalism. In the one, it is God who destroys—miraculously drowning the hosts—and in this story it is Nephi. This isn’t a fully satisfactory distinction—can we worship a God who acts just as Pharaoh and still avoid dehumanization? there’s the rub—but it seems a beginning. I have no choice, I must confront mortality and live in a world wherein everything eventually crumbles into extinction; and if I’m to have faith, then I must in some sense believe that God connects to the systemic, background variable of destruction, the ubiquitous perishing of everything. But nothing in this means that I must bloody my own hands or venerate the bloody hands of others. And it is certainly more consistent with both scripture and reason to claim that bloody hands are an abomination.
I can’t help but say to Nephi concerning his rationalization and the murderous tragedy with which he begins his reign as teacher and ruler: “Out, out, damn spot!”