The Seeker: Bin Laden’s death elicits varied responses

The angst being expressed over whether it is proper for a Christian to celebrate the death of an enemy reminded me of a story from the Book of Mormon.

Lehi is the patriarch of a family that is fleeing Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonian Exile. He is directed in a dream to send his sons to obtain the brass plates (containing the law of Moses and other records) from a man named Laban. The fleeing family will need these records to preserve their language as they enter the wilderness and leave civilized society. The eldest son approaches Laban and simply asks for the record, but he is angrily rebuffed. The brothers then try to buy it with gold and silver, but Laban simply confiscates their property and tries to kill them. Finally a younger brother named Nephi slips into the compound alone after dark and finds Laban alone, drunken with wine.

The Spirit instructs Nephi to kill Laban, but he hesitates. He has never killed a man before. He undergoes an internal dialogue with himself as to whether he should kill the man. The Spirit presses the need for him to kill Laban with these words: “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” So finally Nephi takes Laban’s own sword and cuts off his head.

Just as Nephi agonized over the decision to kill Laban, Mormon students who encounter this story often are troubled by it. Was it really necessary to kill Laban? Wasn’t there another way? A lot of anguished debate over this episode has taken place in Church classrooms.

But it’s interesting to see that this kind of anguished debate is in some measure culturally conditioned. In the 1940s Hugh Nibley, a prominent Mormon scholar, taught a required class in the Book of Mormon to a group of Arab-speaking near eastern students who were attending BYU at that time. Nibley recounts their reaction to the story as follows:

“It was in the first class ever held in Book of Mormon for Near Eastern Students, and the semester had barely begun when of course we ran smack into the story of how Nephi found Laban dead drunk in a dark alley and cut off his head — a grisly tale that upsets Nephi himself in telling it. As we rehearsed the somber episode, I could detect visible signs of annoyance among the Arab students — whispered remarks, head-shakings, and frowns of dissent. Finally, toward the end of the hour, a smart young man from Jordan could hold out no longer. ‘Mr. Nibley,’ he said, plainly speaking for the others, ‘there is one thing wrong here. It doesn’t sound right. Why did this Nephi wait so long to cut off Laban’s head?’ Since I had been expecting the routine protests of shock and disgust with which Western critics react to the Laban story, I was stunned by this surprise attack — stunned with a new insight into the Book of Mormon as a message from another age and another culture.”

Just as many young Mormon students find the story of Nephi morally complex and therefore challenging, I am seeing in the Mormon blogosphere a substantial amount of sympathy for the position some Christian leaders have advocated, that we should not raucously celebrate the death of another human being–even one as evil as Osama bin Laden. Others, however, have seemed to take the more linear approach of those young Arab students, reasoning that of course it’s appropriate to celebrate the destruction of evil.

Another verse from the Book of Mormon perhaps suggests a more nuanced Mormon approach to the question of how best to react to the news of bin Laden’s death:

“And also, that God would make it known unto them whither they should go to defend themselves against their enemies, and by so doing, the Lord would deliver them; and this was the faith of Moroni [a military captain], and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity.”

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