Today was High Council Sunday in our sacrament meeting. Our ward is going on trek come summer. If you know me, you know that I am not a fan of trek, but that I generally just ignore it.
The high councilor’s speaking companion said, “I know that those noble pioneers suffered what they went through in order to inspire the youth of today.” Martyrdom ain’t what it used to be, folks!
I suppose that there is a possibility that our Father in Heaven decided to put a group of handcart pioneers through hell in order to give the youth of today a good, if temporary, spiritual high. After all, Christ taught that the man who was blind from birth was blind that the works of God might be manifest in him. For that matter, God is remarkably casual when it comes to the death of the faithful. They are promised deliverance in the Book of Mormon, but, as the Anti-Nephi-Lehis can attest, deliverance is spiritual, not temporal. That the number of Lamanites who joined the people of God exceeded the number they had killed might look great on the rolls, but I’m skeptical that the families of those lost didn’t mourn.
So, maybe God is a utilitarian. So long as the numbers go up and general joy increases, a few spilt lives here and there don’t matter that much. Sure, this sort of callous disregard for human suffering might make a human seem monstrous, but this is God we are talking about. Our ways, His ways, etc.
Which is why, even if it is conceivable that our martyred dead are martyred by choice in order to inspire the feckless youth of the days to come, we should never, ever make that argument. Because where God might have the insight, the knowledge, the righteous judgment to pull that trigger and make that call, we do not. If we really are meant to remember the captivity of our fathers (which we clearly are) it is because we are to remember what God did for them. Unfortunately, as the speaker suggests, we have a tendency to turn the captivity of our fathers into a story about what God does for us.
There are, at least, two reasons why we shouldn’t argue that they died or suffered for us. First: it cheapens their deaths to make them about us, rather than about them. It is perhaps a dirty secret that Joseph Smith didn’t particularly want to die. Jesus asked that the cup be removed from him. While both eventually underwent a trial of their faith above my ability to comprehend, to treat those deaths as a foregone conclusion or necessary in the grand order of the universe makes them mechanical. Our martyrs become robots, driven by forces beyond their control to throw themselves into the gears of history. Rather than thinking of our martyrs as a series of noble suicides, we should consider why they made the choices that put them into danger. Putting the emphasis on their life, not their death, actually results in our remembering them as people, not symbols.
Second: it is prideful to assume that they did all they did for us. To remember the captivity of our fathers is to remember that they wanted to get themselves out of captivity. Yes, they wanted us, their descendants, free, too, but they were suffering and dying. They needed relief and making their death about our faith renders whatever relief they did receive beside the point. Those men and women on that frozen plain did not die because they wanted their great-great-great-grandchildren to believe (although they did). They definitely didn’t die so that other people, unrelated to them, could make a ritual of their suffering in order to manufacture testimony. They died because they wanted to live with God. They were driven into the maelstrom by their passion for God, not by some prescient desire to die a good death for be-ear-budded youngsters.
When Alma counsels the people of Zarahemla to remember the captivity of their fathers, it is because they have started to lose the thread of their faith. They have become prideful. They have become intolerant. But they were also the children of their fathers, not the great-great-great-grandchildren. The captivity of their fathers wasn’t meant to be abstract. It couldn’t be abstract. Alma was a child of the city of Helam, where people had toiled and suffered in slavery. If that failed to prick his heart as a youth (as it did), then expecting the terrible deaths of our long, long departed to do the same for our youth is too much. Alma only began to understand the suffering of his father when he felt that suffering himself, which suffering was the suffering of sin. I have a feeling our youth will come across that without our sending them to bed on the trail one night and having them wake up with a youth leader missing.
Of course, for some people trek or Especially for Youth or some youth conference or some morningside or seminary or something else is the thing that gets them on a mission and then home again in the gospel. Of course, after that, they are on their own again (and how are those youth retention numbers looking?). Maybe we should encourage some genuine soul-searching, repentance, and communion with God, instead of something that we can, relatively easily, mass-market?