Updated: Aug 17
In the late 19th century, the aging Cardinal Henry Edward Manning said to the young poet Hilaire Belloc, "all human conflict is theological."
Belloc explained, "all wars and revolutions, and all decisive struggles between parties of men arise from a difference in moral and transcendental doctrine", since no man, "arguing for what should be among men, but [takes] for granted ... that the doctrine he consciously or unconsciously accepted was or should be a similar foundation for all mankind. Hence battle." (Belloc, 1958)
By "theological" we can cast a wide net to encompass all moral world views that describe some standard of right and wrong. Marx, Mao, Moses, and many others inhabit this bottommost layer of the Culture Stack. They are the prophets, poets, and philosophers that proscribe what a culture believes is good and evil. From there, every society builds a corresponding and compatible political, economic, and social structure that significantly influences the makeup of families, businesses, churches, charities, media, the arts, governments, etc.
And so, understanding the theological or moral position of one's society and leaders is crucial to shedding light on their motives and goals so we can hopefully work together, eschew error, and avoid "battle". One authority we can turn to is the original sources of our own moral foundation and that of others, and draw comparisons.
In 2019, my church began a new program entitled "Come, Follow Me" in an effort to help individuals and families spend more time studying and discussing the scriptures, one such original source. Last year, we studied the New Testament.
This year we are studying a companion volume to the Bible that describes the history of some of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas and their successes and failures in following God's commandments.
Entitled the "The Book of Mormon", named after a prophet-historian who compiled and edited many centuries of records circa 400 C.E., this book is another testament of Jesus Christ. You can learn more about this book and request a free copy here.
Earlier this month the reading comprised chapters 43-52 of a book called Alma, wherein the history of three leaders is related. Even though these events took place 2,100 years ago, I was struck by how applicable they are to 2020. Then, as now, the people were split into bitterly divided factions. Two of these leaders, Zerehmnah and Amalackiah used flattery, manipulation, deceit, and violence to gain power over one group in an attempt to gain power over both groups. They exploited the desire for power in those around them to get power for themselves. The third, Moroni, worked tirelessly to elevate the people rather than himself. This episode illustrates the difficulty in maintaining a cultural ethos of humility, self-mastery, industry, equality, and sacrifice for family and community - and the ease with which an ethos of envy, exploitation, and subjugation can arise. It
A comparison of the leadership styles of these leaders is instructive as we evaluate the speech, actions, and motives of our own leaders.
Zerahemnah, for example, appointed leaders of a "wicked and murderous disposition... over the Lamanites [i.e. one of the factions]... that he might preserve their hatred toward the Nephites [the other faction], that he might bring them into subjection to the accomplishment of his designs...[which] were to stir up the Lamanites to anger against the Nephites...that he might usurp great power over them,...bringing them into bondage" (Alma 43:6-8, emphasis added).
Moroni who went to battle against Zerahemna had a very different motivation. He believed that "the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church... to support their lands, and their houses, and their wives, and their children, that they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies; and also that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires" (Alma 43: 30,9, emphasis added).
Once the war was won, the moral leaders of this latter group saw that the noble motives that had previously been sufficient to bind the people together began to wane. Internal factions began to develop now that the external threat was extinguished. These leaders organized religious instruction and sent teachers among the people, but they were rejected. The people "grew proud, being lifted up in their hearts, because of their exceedingly great riches; therefore they grew rich in their own eyes, and would not give heed to their words, to walk uprightly before God" (Alma 45: 24).
The leader of this dissenting group was a man named Amalickiah who "was desirous to be a king." His fellow dissidents "were seeking for power" and "led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people. ...There were many...who believed the flattering words..., therefore they dissented; and thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous" in spite of the "exceedingly great care" of the moral leaders. (Alma 46:4-5).
Moroni, the military leader who had fought successfully against external threats now found it necessary to face these internal threats. The record describes that he "prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land." That he, "poured out his soul to God," saying, "surely God shall not suffer that we, who are despised because we take upon us the name of Christ, shall be trodden down and destroyed, until we bring it upon us by our own transgressions" (Alma 46:13, 17, 18).
Moroni traveled throughout the land seeking those who would "enter into a covenant" to "maintain a free government" (Alma 46:35). He placed the responsibility for commitment, action, and change, upon the individual common citizens.
Moroni worked, "preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God," that is, to an objective morality outside of themselves. The record describes Moroni as characterized by gratitude, a tremendous work ethic, a firm faith in Christ, dedicated to defending the rights of his people.
Of him, it was said, "if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men" (Alma 48:17).
Amalackiah, on the other hand, sought to "reign over all the land," and to this end, he too "proselytized" in a way, among the Lamanites, and "hardened the hearts, ...blinded the minds, and stirred them up to anger" and "obtain[ed] power by fraud and deceit," eventually becoming their king by killing his predecessor and marrying the widowed queen. The dissenters that followed him became "impenitent", "wild, wicked, and ferocious, ...giving way to indolence and all manner of lasciviousness" (Alma 47:36).
The subsequent chapters relate the necessity of diverting enormous time, energy, and resources from productive enterprises that might have increased the prosperity and comfort of the Nephites, to defense. Battles ensued and Moroni's people emerged successful, so much so that "there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi. ...There was continual peace among them, and exceedingly great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, (Alma 49: 30; 50:23)
And yet, once again, dissent entered within this group, in spite of their happy and peaceful circumstances. This time, a man named Morianton inspired his followers with his "wickedness" and "flattering words." Again, vigilance and action led to the uprising being quelled. (Alma 50:35)
The record discusses the unity of and interplay between religious. political, and military leaders. Nephihah, the political leader at the time had performed his duties with "perfect uprightness," died and was replaced by Pahoran who took "an oath and sacred ordinance to judge righteously, and to keep the peace and the freedom of the people, and to grant unto them their sacred privileges to worship the Lord their God, yea, to support and maintain the cause of God all his days, and to bring the wicked to justice according to their crime" (Alma 50:39).
In spite of Pahoran's fulfillment of his oath, yet another internal group rose up who "were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land" because they themselves "sought power and authority over the people" (Alma 51:5,8).
Moroni's attention was diverted internally, "breaking down the wars and contentions among his own people, and subjecting them to peace and civilization, and making regulations to prepare for war." Amalackiah seized upon this opportunity of weakness and was successful at overtaking "many cities..., slaying many" (Ama 51: 22,27,28).
In 1790 Dublin, John Philpot Curran said, "the condition upon which God hath given liberty is eternal vigilance." Are we vigilant? What should we be on the lookout for? If Cardinal Manning is right, that "all human conflict is theological," what are the "theology" or worldviews of the loudest voices in our day?
As I read these chapters and considered these questions, I was reminded of several important lessons from history:
The greatest threat to a nation often comes from within. In his 1838 Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln's famously declared, "if [danger] ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide."
Leaders have a significant impact for good or ill on a society. They set the tone, articulate the vision, and frame the dialog of their time. Freedom-centered leadership is a lot of hard work.
Man is a dual-natured creature. We want power if we can get it. We can either manipulate others to get what we want or cooperate with them in mutually beneficial ways.
Among the leaders of our day do you find any that espouse individual responsibility as a condition of liberty and progress? What are their motives?
Do you find any that espouse victimhood or stir up their followers to anger, envy, and resentment? What are their motives?
Which do you feel is the superior approach to the progress and happiness of society?
What tone are today's leaders setting? What vision do they articulate? How is our national dialog framed?
Belloc, H. (1958). The Cruise of the Nona. Harmon, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. Cited extract available online here.