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.