Making it Personal: Atonement and Covenants (Alma 23-29)

Monday, June 29, 2020

This week we really dive in to the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and their covenant of non-violence. These chapters lend themselves to such a fruitful discussion about violence in the face of violence, non-violence, humility, the atonement, community, and gratitude. With such rich content to work with, we didn't want to leave out our favorite topics; so we tried to cover them all. Enjoy!

Scriptures mentioned in this episode:
  • Alma 28
  • Alma 23
  • Alma 24:23
  • Alma 29:11
  • Alma 26:36
  • Alma 29

Transcribed by Maddie Daetwyler of @lightenprint

C: Hi, I’m Channing

E: And I’m Elise.

C: And this is the Faithful Feminists podcast.

E: But this is not just any Come Follow Me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways that faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience.

C: We’ve saved you a seat on the soft chairs. So join us today for a conversation about Alma chapters 23 through 29 for the dates June 23rd through July 5th. We're so glad you're here.

E: Welcome back, everyone. So last week's chapters introduced us to Ammon. We read about Ammon chopping people's arms off, and King Lamoni’s conversion to the gospel. We talked about Abish and King Lamoni’s beautiful friendship and conversion, and also the conversion of King Lamoni’s father. And then in this week's chapters, all of the Lamanites who were converted now want to show their commitment to the gospel, and they've chosen a new name for themselves, the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. Part of their conversion also included a covenant that they made by their own choice to never commit violence again. They buried their weapons of war.

C: And it just so happened that some of their fellow Lamanites were really mad about this, so they decided to go to war against the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. The Anti-Nephi-Lehites responded by meeting them on the battlefield completely defenseless. The text says that 1,005 Anti-Nephi-Lehites were slaughtered before the Lamanites stopped their killing. But the Lamanites were so moved by their sacrifice that they became converted on the battlefield. The remaining Anti-Nephi-Lehites were soon welcomed and assimilated into the Nephite community for protection and friendship. But unfortunately not long after the Nephites and Lamanites went to battle again, and it was a harrowing battle with so much loss, and we read an Alma 28 about how they just grieved all of the people that they lost in this battle. And this week's readings and with Alma and the sons of Mosiah meeting each other on a hill and just rejoicing in linking back together, celebrating their friendship, and celebrating the glory of God. So this is a lot of stuff to cover this week, but we're so excited to talk about it. And the other exciting part is that we kind of embark on a new type of storytelling in the text. And today we've chosen to take a creative and contemplate of approach this week. 

E: Yeah, and this story has really thrown us for a loop because, let's be honest, it’s called our bluff. Channing and I have had conversations about how we feel like this story is highlighting for ourselves all of the ways that we try and show that we know the scripture stories sometimes better than the people that are actually living the stories for themselves. In the podcast we offer critiques because we have a very specific vantage point, and this very specific social location, which allows us to remove ourselves from the text just enough, so that we can say, “Come on, we can see all of your blind spots and your shortcomings, and we're going to call you out and we're going to hold you accountable.” 

C: But the hard part about this story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites is that it disrupts what we, Channing and Elise, think that we know. It's totally knocked us off of our armchair theology and said, “Fine. You think you can make broad sweeping claims about the moral superiority of nonviolence? Well, what about this?” And then the Anti-Nephi-Lehites are so committed to loving their enemies that they literally buried their weapons of war and go out to meet the army of the Lamanites who kill 1,005 of them. Our jaws drop as we were both moved by the incredible commitment to nonviolence, and horrified by the death they endured. And this story still trips us up. I think we thought we knew the way, which sounded like love and peace without any war. But then, when these people actually do it, when they actually do the things that we've been talking about, it's so unexpected that it disrupts everything that we understand about violence.

C: And also looking at our current political situation, this story feels both incredibly relevant and incredibly out of place. And honestly, we're worried that when people come to this section in scripture, they're going to hold it up as a new type of fundamentalism by saying, “In the face of violence, you need to choose love and peace no matter the cost, because look, though some of you will die, it's for a good cause. And so many more of you will be converted.” And I don't feel comfortable with that interpretation either. And so, as you can see, this story is tripping us up because it's interrupting what we thought we knew. The  Anti-Nephi-Lehites show us a new type of nonviolence that is really rooted in a personal relationship with God. And who are we to say, “We think we know better.” 

C: I think the question that we've walked away from the story is, “Why are the scriptures so freaking difficult? Why, why this story? Why now? We thought we knew everything.” And so honestly, we've spent every day, multiple times, talking about this text and trying to figure out what themes do we want to pull, what do we even talk about? And we keep coming back to some themes, but for the most part, what we've pulled out of this text is that there's so much to learn from these people. And what I find especially astonishing about this story is it’s an anomaly. We don't come across many stories in the texts that advocate for this kind of peaceful and non-violent approach to war and I think, simply because it is an exception and not the rule, that it deserves a really close and also really personal study of what the text is trying to teach us. And so, like I said before, we felt like, as we reviewed this text, that there were a lot of themes that we could choose from, and we feel bad about leaving any of them out. And so today we're going to try and discuss all of the different ways and all of the different lessons that this set of scripture is trying to teach us. And so the big question, the overarching question that we want to ask when we come to the scriptures this week, is what is this text trying to teach us? And we have a whole list of topics, and we're going to just go topic by topic and discuss some of the things that stuck out to us, parts of this story that were meaningful or especially relevant. And just talk about a whole bunch of stuff. 

E: When I first came to the text, one of the first themes that stood out to me, and one of the questions that I'm still grappling with is, what is it about the  Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ understanding of God that allows them to be so fully committed to non-violence? But it's more than non-violence, which is interesting to me because later in the scriptures Ammon says that it's the  Anti-Nephi-Lehites love for one another that's the driving force, that's why they want to remain nonviolent, because they can't imagine hurting or harming or being violent to people that they love. Even when those people are their enemies. And I found myself looking back in the scriptures to try and pinpoint their story. What is it about their conversion that allows them to stay so committed even as the Lamanites are coming to kill them. And what I found is two things. One, I think that there's an important role that remembering plays in this type of conversion, and the personal nature of the atonement. Thinking about this spiritual nature of remembering, I think one thing that the atonement does is that it asks us to… No, it doesn't even ask us, it requires that we become fully aware of all of the ways that we have turned ourselves away from God and turned ourselves away from others, and for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, this looks like harming people. And as they're trying to be reconciled to God, they are also simultaneously having to remember all of the people that they've harmed, all of the people that they've killed, all of the lives that they have absolutely destroyed. And this type of painful remembering, I think, is a key point in the atonement, because there's this duality. We recognize all of the ways that we were estranged from God. And we are simultaneously trying to reconcile ourselves with God. And I can just imagine the Anti-Nephi-Lehites saying, ”I cannot go back. I will do anything to not go back to the person that I used to be, and I'm going to do everything in my power to continue pointing myself toward God.” 

C: That's a fascinating theme to pull out of this set of scriptures. And I guess when I was listening to you, Elise, I almost wondered, have you ever had an experience, maybe not to that same level, or maybe you have, I don't know… have you ever had an experience like that, where you felt an acute awareness of the ways that you've turned from God and what happened after? 

E: I know that I have, because in my life, I try and do everything I can to not hurt other people, because I feel incredibly guilty and responsible when I do harm and hurt other people. But one other thing that I was thinking of is, I think when there are moments that I can look back on and I can remember myself learning something about God or feeling God connected to my life in a new way, where I know in that moment that things will never be the same from here on out. And I'm wondering if the Anti-Nephi-Lehites felt a similar way, that once they felt the overwhelming welcoming love of God, they knew that things could never be the same for them. They could never go back to living the same lives that they used to live. Because once you know God's love, at least for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, it's something that you never want to forget. And I feel like they're trying their very hardest to remember that love at all times.

C: I love that. 

E: But what about you, have there been moments in your life when you have felt kind of keenly aware of the ways that you've turned away from God, and how you've tried to reconcile that with God?

C: Yeah, I think for me, my experience that comes to mind first is, I kind of just had this moment… So my ecological awakening and my feminist awakening are pretty inner tied. But I had this moment where I kind of finally realized how precious and how important the earth and conservation are to me. And for me personally, I really interpret that as, for me, nature is so closely tied with the divine, that it's really difficult for me to separate that. And I think I had this moment where I just realized, wow, I am participating, in a lot of ways, in activities that are not good for the earth. And once I had this realization of all of the things that humans do that harm the earth, that harm plant life, and animal life, and non-living life, you know what I mean? Once I awoke to that, I felt two things. One, an overwhelming love just from my Heavenly Parents and from the earth that I felt like I never want to forget what it feels like to belong to something so much greater than myself. And then right along with that, I felt so much grief. I felt so much grief for the way that I had participated, probably even unknowingly, in things that had harmed something that I now loved so deeply. And since then, I have had to be really careful, or try to be really careful and really conscious, about what I participate in. It’s a double-edged sword, right? I'm so glad I have awoken to this, but at the same time, it's a lot of work, and the sacrifices that it requires are sometimes great. And so it's totally not the same thing as the Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ experience. But, in a small way, I can kind of see some similarities. 

E: I think what you're also bringing to light here is that is the fact that the atonement requires a powerful, personal response. Not only is it a powerful, personal relationship with God, but it requires us to respond powerfully to this thing. And that looks different for everyone, for you that looked like changing your behaviors to be more aligned with the things that you love about the earth and about God. And I think for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, the way that they are choosing to respond to the gift of the atonement is by doing everything that they possibly can to make sure that they don't ever go back to being in that hellish state that they were in before. And that looks like bearing their weapons of war. It means really committing to love God, and love others as a manifestation of God. 

C: I think that it really highlights, too, how deeply committed they were to this. Because like, I think about promises or other covenants that I've made in my life. And I always feel like I'm a pretty wishy-washy person. I admire their commitment because, for me, take for example, veganism. I have sworn to be vegan now three or four different times. And about a year later I'm I was like, this is too hard. It's not sustainable, which is a whole conversation for another time. But I am so excited about the Anti-Nephi-Lehites commitment to actually following through. And this was no small thing. It's not like… Okay, so for example, one time I was so afraid I was going to die because I ate raw cookie dough that I promised God that if I never ate cookie dough ever, ever again, that God would save my life this one time. Right? And I didn't eat raw cookie dough for seriously probably three or four years. And then I had a friend who was like, “Well, if you eat under cooked eggs, like fried eggs, you're essentially eating the same thing as raw cookie dough.” And I just had this realization where I was like, “Wow, that was a really dumb promise to make.” But this, the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, they were so serious, burying their weapons of war so that they could never touch them again, so that they could stay clean. That's what they say in the text. So that there's no evidence that could come up against them for shedding the blood of their brothers. They were totally committed. And honestly, I have mad respect for that.

E: And this remembering of who they were in the past, and being so open and ready to receive God's gift of the atonement and recognizing God is a merciful God who could have destroyed them, but has chosen to spare them out of God's love, that's a really humbling experience. And humility is actually another one of the themes that kept recurring to us in our study.

C: In the beginning of chapter 23, where the King of the Lamanites basically says, “God is so good.” This is when they make the covenant, when they buried their weapons, where the King of the Lamanites says, “God is so good that this is what we're going to do.” And so the humility shows up there as he essentially spends the entire chapter praising God and just being so grateful for the relationship that he and his people now have with the divine. And then humility shows up again when these people go out to meet the Lamanites in battle, and they don't just hide in their houses and wait for them to come slaughter them, they go out and they kneel before the Lamanites. And the scriptures say in Alma 24 verse 23, that they were firm. It says, “The Lamanites saw that their brother and would not flee from the sword. Neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword.” Holy crap. Can you even imagine? That would take so much strength and so much trust in their relationship with God to be able to say, this is my choice. This is what I'm doing. And this is how I choose to honor this relationship. And know and have such great faith in their God that they know that in turn, this act of love and devotion to their God would be returned to them by God. I just think it's fascinating. And so moving, I'm so moved by this example, even though it's like that paradox, right? I'm moved by this example of humility and love, but I'm also so sad about the fact that they have to die. Like I told you earlier in the week, Elise, I just want everyone to be nice to each other and I don't want people to die. And why does everyone die in the scriptures? This is all just a terrible story. That’s why this story is so hard for me. I don't want them to die. I want their love and their humility to be what saves them. And I guess it can be argued in some ways that it does, in an eternal perspective, but I also just wish that they had that opportunity living on earth. 

E: And for me, this is another reason why this story is so tricky because their act of non-violence doesn't stop the violence from happening. And that's what makes this a hard story for me to come to terms with, because when living in violent systems, sometimes the only way out of the system is to respond with violence. And I don't know how to make sense of that. But then on the other hand, what a great act of courage to say, “We know that we live and participate in a system of violence. We know that people are going to be violent toward us, and we're going to honor our covenant instead, regardless of what that means for the continuation of our lives and of our generations.” But I still don't feel comfortable using this story in our thinking now about the Black Lives Matter movement. I don't feel comfortable or even right in saying or making any type of claim that would say, “Hey, we know, black people, that you live in a violent system of white supremacy and racism, but why don't you just commit to loving these people as yourselves, and basically lay down to whatever comes to you.” I just don't think that we should make any type of claim about this story outside of its situatedness in the text, in that particular moment in history. 

C: Yeah. And I feel like too, kind of speaking to what you were talking about, when the writing and looting was happening, a lot of white people were telling the black community, “Hey, that's not the right way to do it. That's not the right way to protest. Remember your friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he advocated for peace and nonviolence?” And they essentially just used Martin Luther King Jr's words against the black community. I feel like essentially trying to make a statement about the text, trying to advocate for peace or nonviolence, to use this story outside of the context that it's in, in the scriptures, I think would be an irresponsible reading of this particular story, just because the situation surrounding it is so complex and we weren't there. And honestly, I think the most responsible reading that we could do of the text, and Elise and I have come to this after spending all day every day for a week with this story, and trying to do all kinds of mental hoops and jumping jacks to try and figure out what it means. I think the most responsible way to read the story is to recognize that each person has an individual relationship with God, and it looks so different. And this community, as a whole, had a shared relationship with God that looks really different from so many other stories that we see pop up in sacred text. And so I think maybe the text is asking us to kind of sit in that discomfort of recognizing that, “Hey, not everyone's relationship with God looks the same, but it's still worth honoring, especially if they're righteous.” And so I feel like we can't really argue with the Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ decision to remain nonviolent in the face of violence. But I also think that we can't take their story out of the text and say, look, this is how everyone should do it. Because if you read further in this week's readings, just like Elise said, it doesn't stop the violence. It stops the violence in that war, eventually, after 1,005 of them are killed, but even later, not even two chapters later, the Lamanites come again to battle against the Anti-Nephi-Lehites and they realize this is not sustainable. If we don't protect ourselves somehow, we're going to be slaughtered. And so they go to the Nephites for help and the Nephites end up welcoming them into the community and offering them the protection of their armies, and the Nephites go to battle the Lamanites, mostly in the name of protecting the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. And so there’s no clear cut and easy way to say that nonviolence is the best way or even the only way, because even in the text, that's not what happens. 

E: And I'm glad that you brought up the story of the Nephites welcoming in the Anti-Nephi-Lehites as refugees, and offering them all of the things that they need to stay protected and to stay safe. And the Nephites do respond with violence. And I think you're right. It's hard for us to make big sweeping claims about what these stories should teach us outside in our current day, but we can still say that, yes, atonement is a personal relationship with God and how we choose to move forward in a covenant with God depends on each person and each situation, whether that leads us to non-violence or violence in the face of violence. But I do think that if we push past what's better, the non-violence or the violence, what we do get to the heart of is love. And I do think that in that way, that aligns with Jesus Christ’s message and with God's message, because in a world where everything was perfect, love would be the thing that stops violence on both sides. Love would be the action that pushes us to nonviolence, whether we're on the offensive or the defensive, the violence would stop out of our love for one another. And I know that's a utopian, idealized way of understanding the world, but it's still a noble pursuit, and it still always has to be strived for, even though we live in social and political situations where the structures are violent. 

C: And I think it's important to hold onto those utopian ideals. Like you said, it's still worth working toward, and I think that that highlights… I think a central part of this conversation that we haven't touched on yet is the importance of community. Each of us can have an individual relationship with God, but we also see community coming into play in this story, too. We see the community of Anti-Nephi-Lehites coming together and making the shared covenant. We also see the community of the Nephites welcoming them in as refugees. And we see these two groups working together within a covenant. The Nephites are doing the best that they can to honor God, they're under the leadership of the prophet Alma. They are trying the best that they can to honor this relationship that they have with the divine, and the Anti-Nephi-Lehites are doing the same, and it looks different. For the Nephites, it looks like protection. For the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, it looks like humility and submission. And so it's just interesting to me to see this interplay that happens in the texts between two communities that are both caring for themselves, caring for each other, and caring for God. 

E: Yeah. And I'm so glad you said that because I think in a really generous reading of this text, we could argue that both the Nephites and the Anti-Nephi-Lehites come from a place of love for God and for others. Their faith is a loving type of action, but that action looks different. In one situation, it looks like non-violence. And in another situation, just like you said, it looks like protection. 

C: And I think the implications are important because it showcases that there are different types of activism. There are different ways that we can advocate for one another. And I think, for me personally, that also teaches me to be humble. It teaches me that the way that I'm an activist or the way that I think advocacy should be done, maybe is not always the right way. Maybe Channing doesn't know everything about the world.

E: Well, and this brings us back to the beginning of the episode where we were saying that this story has knocked us off of our pedestal, knocked us out of our comfort of saying, “We know how you should have responded. We can see all the violence, and here's our critique, and here's what you have to do better. And I'm grateful for the texts, that it has knocked us off in these types of ways. 

C: Yeah. I remember that text we sent each other where I was like, “I'm so mad at this story, but I'm so glad that it's here.”

E: Yes, yes, exactly. Exactly. 

C: This text, I think what it really demonstrates is the complexity of relationship between humans and between the divine. There are some stories that are laid out in a simple, here’s the bad guy. Here's the good guy. Here's what you should do. Here's what you shouldn't do. And this story doesn't follow any of the rules. It doesn't do anything that we expect it to do. And so that's why it's frustrating, because it doesn't fit into any box. Like I said, it's an anomaly.

E: And though we're frustrated and perplexed and humbled by this story, we're also so grateful for it. We were looking forward to doing this episode, even in all of our frustration. And I think this same type of sentiment is actually highlighted really nicely in the text 3 times in chapter 24, we hear Anti-Nephi-Lehi sing his praise to God. Later in the text, we hear a Psalm from Ammon. And then in the last chapter of this section, chapter 29, we hear from Alma, and Alma’s is a mix of mourning and sorrow, and a really beautiful praise and gratitude of God. And so while these chapters concern war and violence, they also carry a markedly different tone than the previous chapters, given the act of nonviolence by the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, and these three Psalms. We hear Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s Psalm in chapter 24, verses 7 through 10. And some of the things that he's saying is, “I thank my God. My God is full of goodness. I'm thankful that God has softened our hearts, that God has allowed us to repent. I'm so thankful that God has forgiven us. Look at how merciful our God is.” And in Ammon’s Psalm in chapter 26 verses 11 through 37, Ammon says, “I rejoice in my God. I am weak and I am nothing, but God is my strength and God is my everything. God loosed us from the pains of hell. And I can't glory God enough, because God is so miraculous.”

And this is also when Aaron comes in and says like, “Ammon, come on, stop boasting,” and Ammon is like, “I'm not boasting of my own self. I am boasting of my God, and I will give thanks to my God forever and ever.”

C: I love in verse 11 that Ammon says, “I do not boast in my own strength nor in my own wisdom, but behold, my joy is full. Yea, my heart is brim with joy and I will rejoice in my God.” And that's exactly what he responds. I seriously love Aaron. He's like, “I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.” And I just love reading how proper it is, you know, but Ammon’s just so overcome with this great gratitude and joy and love of God that he can't hold it in anymore. I just pictured them in some meadow or field somewhere, and Ammon’s just running and dancing around, “God is so good!” It just seems so celebratory to me. 

E: Yeah. And it is a striking image because these people are offering these Psalms of praise and gratitude in the midst of war and violence. And that's a remarkable thing to be able to remember, to remember that God is always caring for us, even as things are not going well. In Ammon’s psalm, I find one of my most favorite lines of scripture. It's in Alma chapter 26, verse 36. And it's the very last line. And after being reminded of it here, it's something that I always want to include as a daily continual prayer. That just says, “Blessed be the name of my God who has been mindful of us, wanderers in a strange land.” And for me, that just gets right at the heart of how I understand what it means to be on earth and trying to have a relationship with a God. And I love the continual use in this whole set of scriptures, the emphasis that's placed on my God, to perhaps suggest that it's a personal God that shows up for me. And that looks different than the personal God that shows up for you. And in my own life, I do feel that God is continually mindful of me, and the line that says “wanderers in a strange land,” that feels true to me. I feel like we are trying to make our way through a world that we don't know anything about. We just know that we have to be here, that we are here and we’re relying on our God to help us make sense of it. 

C: Oh, you pulled out such a literally perfect piece of scripture. I don't even have a comment to make on it. I just love it so much. And I feel like for me, personally, Alma 29 actually mirrors my own experience with God a little bit more accurately than Ammon’s does, because for Alma, he kind of does this whole lament in the beginning of his psalm. You know, this is the portion of scripture that he says, “Oh, that I were an angel,” and just kind of wishes that he had this almighty power where he could just preach and have it be immediately effective and have everything go his own way. And he kind of goes through later in the texts that kind of says, “I know I shouldn't be wishing for this. But it's righteous, right? So it's okay for me to wish that this would happen.” And I totally resonate, not necessarily with his message, but with his depth of emotion where it's his joy paired with his grief. And I feel like that is always my experience with the divine. I have so much grief. But that's also always contrasted with the depth of joy that I feel in that relationship. And so the chapter, and this week's readings, end with Alma just basically saying, “I'm so filled with joy, because I see in my own life that people are being brought closer to God, being brought closer to repentance, and being brought into relationship with the divine. And I feel like that's something that I really can relate to with Alma. That gives me a lot of joy, too, when I hear that I get to be a part of someone else's experience or understanding about their relationship with the divine. For me, I live for those moments. So I think that they're so exciting. And so this chapter, just the depth of its back and forth between, “I'm filled with joy, and also filled with sorrow, and joy again, and greatest God, and all of these things,” I'm like, yep, I can totally relate to that.

E: It's really been a fruitful set of scriptures for us to come to and to work through what it means to honor the text as it offers its own interpretations to us to grapple with. And we're really grateful that you all have stayed with us and participated in that, too. 

C: And so the question that we want to leave you with today is, we haven't even covered all of the topics that this set of texts brings out, but we've covered a few, and I guess our invitation that we want to end with is that you come to this week’s scriptures with the question of, what is this story trying to teach me? Because we could go over all of the thousands of themes from this story, but where it really matters and what's really going to be the most effective reading of this text is to bring your whole self to it, and allow yourself to be changed by the words of Alma and Amon and Anti-Nephi-Lehi. And also by the examples of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites and of the Nephites. And just allow the text to move through you, and change you, and influence your understanding and your relationship with yourself and with God. And with that, we just say, we love you. We're so glad that you're here and we got to have this conversation, and that we get to share it with you. And so on that note, we'll see you next week!

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