How does a culture reckons time indicates what is important to them. We count our years since the birth of Christ. Up until the events recorded in Mosiah 29, the Nephite people had reckoned their time according to how many years it had been since Lehi left Jerusalem . Now, they would begin to count their time by the first year of the reign of the judges. It is clear that their change from being ruled by kings to choosing their own judges by the voice of the people had a major impact on their thinking and society.
The Book of Mormon is not only a commentary on personal spirituality and a witness of Jesus Christ. It also sounds a warning through its pages, like an air raid that repeats and repeats less someone didn’t hear the first time, that how a people are governed and the society they create can profoundly influence their opportunities for righteousness. When Communism swept through the countries of eastern Europe, their religions were systematically stamped out. The worship of God was forbidden; gathering for church meetings was illegal; the reading of scriptures was an offense for which you could have been turned into the secret police. For the younger generation growing up in the clutches of this iron fist, God was not even part of their mental construct. He was not considered, not in their viewfinder.
Yet, it doesn’t just take a tyrannical, atheistic regime to affect the spirituality of a people. A people can be eroded by an evil ruler who slowly corrupts their world with his immorality or oppression as King Noah did. The government helps set the moral tone of a nation. It plays a major role in determining what principles a people live by. It taxes-and therefore has enormous power to oppress a people. It determines the social contract that glues a society together. It plays upon the strings of the economy.
Clearly, the Lord’s people are not to close their eyes to how they are governed in their particular country. They are not to sit idly by while a government runs amuck. Part of citizenship in the kingdom of God requires involved, proactive citizenship in our countries here on earth. Thus, the Book of Mormon should be taken not only as a primer on good government, but also as a bellwether to determine when a government and society have gone astray. This remarkable book should be our filter through which we view our world and governments. The thoughts of these ancient prophets are not just about their particular challenges at their particular time. They are written for us-who live in a sophisticated, technological world far away from theirs, but are burdened by the same issues and the same corrosive tendencies.
King Mosiah Proposes Judges Replace Kings
None of Mosiah’s sons would accept the kingship. They felt a higher call to be missionaries. The power or prestige of rulership held no attraction to them compared to the nitty gritty, hard and dangerous work of preaching to the Lamanites. Truly, their conversions had been complete. The throne that men have coveted and killed for over the centuries was passed up by them without even a backward glance. Instead, “They were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble (Mosiah 28:3).
Who then should be king? Mosiah explained, “If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father, Benjamin did for this people…then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you” (Mosiah 29:13). The problem is not the idea of the rulership of a king; the problem is placing that much power in the hands of one person who may abuse it. The famous saying is: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Weaknesses and dispositions toward evil are magnified with power. Even King David, whose heart had been pure, was corrupted by power. Joseph Smith said, “It is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (121:39). When a king is unrighteous, a whole nation mourns and can falter. He can enact laws after the manner of his own wickedness.
Mosiah’s reasoning in turning to a system of judges was twofold. First, the judges would be bound by the rule of law and judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 29:25) The rule of law is the basis of civilization and must be guarded with every energy. Where law is plowed down or compromised, humanity is ruled by the whim of the powerful, and the scramble is for power at any cost. Second, judges would be chosen by the voice of the people. This was a democracy Mosiah proposed.
The resounding optimism of Mosiah about the wisdom of the people should give us all hope. Where a people can choose, “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law-to do your business by the voice of the people (Mosiah 29:26).
“I have a complete confidence in the aggregate wisdom of the…people, if they are given and made to understand the facts,” said President J. Reuben Clark. “The wisdom of the mass is always greater than the wisdom of the individual or of the group. The few may be more subtle, more agile-minded, more resourceful; they may for a time push to the front and scamper ahead in the march; they may on occasion and for a time entice us down the wrong highway at the crossroads. But the great slow-moving, deliberate-thinking mass plods along over the years down the Divinely appointed way. Led astray, they slowly, cumberously swing back to the right road, no matter what the toil or the sacrifice may be, and when they start the return, they crush whatever lies in their path. So has humanity come up through the ages. (J. Reuben Clark, Jr. cited in Jerreld L. Newquist, comp. Prophets, Principles and National Survival, p. 110).
Mosiah adds this warning, however: “And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land (Mosiah 29:27).
The People Choosing Iniquity
What makes a people choose iniquity is an important question for our day when in many respects our society is unraveling. Certainly one of the keys is found in President Clark’s message. People need to be given the truth about an issue. They need to have the facts laid out clearly before them and understand the consequences of what they choose.
In a day of mass media, we have marvelous opportunities to understand the facts. Unfortunately, however, the media can also be a tool of masking the facts and creating spin. The news often comes with a bias. The choice of stories to be covered and the way they are handled reflects that bias. People become used to being fed highly dramatic stories. News agencies learn that bad news pays. Our attention spans have become short and issues that take some explanation to thoroughly understand are often overlooked. We can let ourselves become people who choose iniquity by refusing to study candidates and issues well enough to understand where integrity and right thinking lie.
At this time, when society is whirling around many central issues concerning family and morality, it is critical to be a citizen who is actively choosing that which is right. That means taking a part, becoming informed, influencing the public discussion, writing letters.
What Mosiah is telling us is simply this: In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. Their leaders are a mirror of the people themselves. If we complain of our leaders and point fingers at their immorality, or if we lament over government waste or irresponsibility, we need to also look back to ourselves.
Another major and often overlooked theme in scriptures is God’s great distaste for inequality. Mosiah says, “And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land” (Mosiah 29:32). We get a clearer picture that this is a reflection of God’s caring love for his children when he says, “For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there-and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just” (D&C 38:26).
Inequality is a source of much of the pain and sin of this world as people climb to prove their importance, scrambling for wealth and power. In this ceaseless turmoil, the proud see others as someone to best, or climb over, or use to further their own agenda. They build resumes instead of building each other.
As a loving Father, God loves equality. What is requested, however, as we learn in this chapter, is equality of opportunity. “Therefore they relinquish their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance through all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38). This is very different from demanding for equality of outcomes which is Satan’s way. He would ensure that not one be lost. Equality of opportunity fosters freedom. Demanding equality of outcome fosters bondage. It means someone else is controlling vast aspects of our lives to ensure the outcome.
In the chapters that follow as the book of Alma begins, we see the deep teaching and arrangement of the scriptures. Mosiah has warned what happens when a wicked ruler comes to power, and then, as if fulfilling his very words, Amlici seeks to be king. Though he could not gain the voice of the people, those who followed him numbered enough that they came to war against the Nephites. What followed was misery and bloodshed.
Even though they were joined by the Lamanites, the Amlicites did not prevail, however the story reveals a fascinating idea. As they joined the Lamanites, the Amlicites placed a red mark upon their foreheads, not knowing they were fulfilling the words of God: “Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them. And again: I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also. And again: I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed ( Alma 3:14-16).
What an irony it was that in their very act of rebellion, they fulfilled God’s word. God does not need to destroy the wicked. Their practices always lead them to destroy themselves. They create through their immoral and unrighteous ways the very world that leads them to their end. The Amlicites cursed themselves with the very mark God said he would put upon them.
Alma Leaves the Judgment Seat
By the ninth year of the reign of the judges, Alma saw the wickedness of the church and he saw the great inequality among the people. “Some were lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted” (Alma 4:12). Wickedness was rampant, and Alma was very sorrowful. How could he best help the people? As the head of the land, how could he stay this flood of evil?
Hugh Nibley said, “After holding the highest and most influential positions in the land, which enabled him to bring pressure to bear on decisive issues-commander of the armies, chief judge, head of the church-he laid aside al his high offices and did ‘go forth among his people,…that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way,’ after all his experience ‘that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony’ (Alma 4:19). With all his vast experience, Alma was convinced that he could do more good and actually have more influence as a simple missionary than as head of the state, head of the army, of head of the church! And so he takes his leave, disappearing all alone over the horizon into the midst of hostile and unbelieving people.” (Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, p.466).