9/11 changed the way Americans thought about religion. It managed to, at once, increase Bible sales while prompting a new appraisal of whether religious devotion was even safe for a civil republic. I had been fortunate enough to have been raised in an environment in which Islam was acknowledged generally as a tremendous good. I had read the article in the Ensign celebrating Muhammad, so it never defined my views of Islam. My family was about as peaceful as they came. I had no reason to think that Mormonism or Christianity was anything but a system of peace.
But what of the blood-soaked Old Testament or the bones of Mountain Meadows? Did my Mormon community have a violent uncle living in the attic, kept safely out of my view? Was Jon Krakeur right?
Some years ago, I was going to an institute class on the Old Testament. I was skeptical. Yes, I get it–the Fall was a cosmic paradox, the law of Moses was a type and shadow of Christianity, and of course, we love re-appropriating scriptures in ways that were never intended. Studying the Old Testament is fascinating; studying the Old Testament in the same way we sing the hymns (pick 20 you like and then sing them for your whole life) is the fast lane to spiritual atrophy.
I had a seminar that went late that night, so I walked in after it had begun. Everyone seemed nice enough. The general topic of Old Testament violence came up (I don’t recall the exact verses, but let’s face it: Old Testament study could invite that discussion in virtually any given book). Thinking myself wise, I raised my hand with The Question That No One’s Been Able To Answer. We all have them. They’re our aces in the hole, our stones to be slung at the Correlated Goliaths.
As it turns out, mine was a no-brainer for any serious scholar of the Old Testament: “In Joshua 1-12, it appears that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites. Um, why would the God we know and love do that?” The instructor looked down at his scripture as he nodded his head in agreement. Past justifications I had heard compared the Israelites to a natural disaster (God can use the flood or a man; what’s the difference?) or even the Canaanites to a cancer that needed to be cut out en toto (sound familiar?). So I sat, cockily waiting to hear the same morally indefensible stuff I had heard for years. The next hour was peppered with comments such as:
“Joshua 1-12 is a deception. It didn’t happen.”
“Isaiah/Saul/et al. were probably more like the Taliban than President Monson.”
“The Mosaic Law wasn’t just a lesser law; the Old Testament was a lesser testament.”
I thought of the men who screamed Allahu Akhbar as the planes of 9/11 were about to crash into the Twin Towers. Were my spiritual forebearers capable of such madness? How could we as Saints be peaceful in practice while we heralded–without qualification–the conquests of men like Moroni and Mormon? In our efforts to promote discipline, commitment, and obedience, we celebrate the martial virtues that tend to promote anarchy and bloodlust. I respect the contributions of figures such as Moroni on a certain level, but I can’t smile and nod as he orders the summary executions of what, by all accounts, appears to be reckless insinuations and the summary execution of political dissidents.
Few Saints would ever endorse the killing of political dissidents if asked. But then again, that’s never how it works, is it? Christopher Browning has demonstrated how Adolf Hitler’s militarism transformed blue-collar men into hardened, merciless killers. Ronald Walker, Glen Leonard, and Richard Turley (along with Juanita Brooks and Will Bagley) have demonstrated how a wartime atmosphere can turn decent, humane Latter-day Saints like Nephi Johnson into accomplices in death.
Psychologist William James–painfully aware of the horrors of the Civil War and the death of his brother in battle–considered that perhaps the martial value system did have its virtues but that they needed to be applied to moral decision-making rather than warfighting. Obedience to captains might become obedience to conscience. We could value exactness in morality in the same way we value exactness in military formations. Our willingness to lay down our lives for a cause could become a willingness to live out our lives for a cause.
So we can condemn the radicals all we like. But until we acknowledge the Taliban in each of us, we will have failed to learn the most profound and transformative lessons of 9/11.