The Book of Mormon depicts a fascinating constellation of legal, political, and social arrangements in its narrative. These arrangements shift over time as the complex history unfolds. The complexity of the social history of the peoples of the Book of Mormon provides ample material to busy serious scholars for generations to come. I am not such a scholar. But the society, laws, and government of the Book of Mormon peoples still fascinate and intrigue me each time I read. And sometimes wild ideas entertain me about the Book of Mormon peoples — like the thought that market dominant minorities have something to do with the volatile political and cultural situation, the ever-present feeling of societal tension, that fills the book’s pages.
The purpose of the Book of Mormon is surely to bring people to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ — to bring people unto Christ for their salvation. But even a superficial reading of the Book of Mormon uncovers the following thesis: For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence (2 Nephi 4:4). The narrative of the Book of Mormon surrounds this theme from its first appearance, as early as 1 Nephi 2:20, to the ministry of Jesus Christ to the inhabitants of the New World after his Resurrection in Jerusalem approximately six hundred years later, and beyond to the ultimate demise of an entire ethnic group at the dramatic end of the history. It is also the center of the Jaredite narrative in the Book of Mormon reaching back to nearly 2000 B.C.
We all know about the Nephite pride-cycle in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites did indeed prosper, not only economically but also politically. The text of the Book of Mormon supports inferences that the Nephites constituted an economically powerful aristocratic governing elite — an ethnicity that ruled both economically and politically. Other peoples certainly already inhabited the New World at the time that Lehi and his group migrated there shortly after 600 A.D. and Mulek and his group arrived there a few years later. It is reasonable to assume that the descendants of Laman, from whom Nephi had taken the birthright and Lehi’s blessing, would have been more likely to mix in immediately with the peoples and civilizations already present in the New World because we read that they were not diligent in keeping the commandments and precepts of the Law of Moses, which included proscriptions against associating with non-Israelites. The followers of Nephi would not have multiplied as fast. And yet, we read of their continuing prosperity and expansion, and of their political dominance through the kingship of Nephi and his descendants. In the Nephite pride-cycle, this prosperity constantly lures the people into a sense of security and they become lazy about keeping God’s commandments; in one way or another, they are then humbled through suffering and begin the cycle again.
Later on, when the Nephites embarked on another migration and found the people of Zarahemla, who were the descendants of Mulek, another Jew who had fled Jerusalem in the wake of the Babylonian siege and occupation, the Nephite leader Mosiah I assumed the kingship of the united people with surprising ease and almost as a matter of course. The Book of Mormon suggests that the Mulekites or people of Zarahemla were content with this outcome because of their appreciation of the language and records of the Nephites. But it has been pointed out that this is likely a rather one-sided view of this history:
The story from the Nephite side represents the event [of the unification of the Mulekites and the Nephites under the Nephite Mosiah I] as not only peaceful but enthusiastically welcomed by the locals [the Mulekites and whatever peoples they had mixed in with, since the Nephites as a group were emigrating into the Mulekite sphere]. From the point of view of some of the resident people, however, the transition may not have seemed so pleasant. The key reason why they “rejoiced” is said to be that Mosiah brought sacred records when they had none. The impressive fact of literacy itself could indeed have combined with possession of the mysterious sacred relics in Mosiah’s possession — the plates of Nephi, the brass plates, Laban’s sword, the Liahona — to confer an almost magical aura on Mosiah that validated his deserving the kingship. . . .
Political amalgamation did not erase the ethnic distinction between the two groups. . . .
It is plausible that later “contentions” and “dissensions” in Nephite society were in part led by unhappy descendants of Zarahemla who considered that they were not given their due when Mosiah became king. At least one man who “was a descendant of Zarahemla,” the Coriantumr of Helaman 1:15, “was a dissenter from among the Nephites” and came close to conquering the Nephites. . . .
A fascination with the extinct Jaredites was manifest among the Nephites from time to time [after their uniting with the Mulekites]. Mosiah translated the twenty-four gold plates of the Jaredites “because of the great anxiety of his people; for they were desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed.” Nibley identifies a number of names used among the Nephites that were clearly derived from the Jaredites and notes, “Five out of the six whose names are definitely Jaredite betray strong anti-Nephite leanings.” This permanent cultural impression on the Nephites he believes was made through the Mulek group. This unacknowledged influence from the Jaredites may have come via cultural syncretism between members of the Mulek group and local survivors from the Jaredite tradition. . . . Non-Nephite ways seem to have kept bubbling up from beneath the ideal social and cultural surface depicted by the Nephite elite record keepers. After all, the descendants of the people of Zarahemla probably always constituted a majority of “the folk” . . . . (John L. Sorenson, “The Mulekites,” BYU Studies, vol. 30:3:10-12 (1990).)
As a prosperous, market dominant ethnic minority that also tightly retained aristocratic political control, the seeds of the Nephites destruction had long been sown, ready to be triggered by their blunders into the pride cycle with the presumable effects of further alienation of the suppressed majority of mixed-blood Mulekite/Jaredite/Lamanite/other that may have constituted the rest of the society. At least, this is the insight that Yale Law Professor Amy Chua has brought to my reading of the Book of Mormon recently.
I have been reading Professor Chua’s intriguing 2003 book World on Fire: How Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday) lately. Professor Chua describes her own identity as a member of a market dominant ethnic Chinese minority in the Philippines who has felt the consequences of such status in her own family. Aside from being fabulously wealthy (“Just 1 percent of the population, Chinese Filipinos control as much as 60 percent of the private economy . . . . (3)”), her family has also been subject to ethnically-motivated murder and the indifference of the Filipino police force. Chua identifies market dominant minorities at the base of virtually all hotspots of violence around the globe, including “white wealth in Latin America” (49 – 77), “the Jewish billionaires of Post-Communist Russia” (77 – 94), and various market dominant minorities in Africa (95 – 126). Chua analyzes the effects of such market dominant minorities through the rejection of markets and the rise of dictatorships and/or ethnic cleansing. Perhaps most interestingly, she broadens her view of market dominant minorities first to a regional perspective identifying Israeli Jews as a regional market dominant minority in the Middle East, and then the United States as a “global market-dominant minority” (229 – 258). Stable western countries do not face dramatic or destabilizing market dominant minorities at this time because their legal, economic, and political systems have developed to their current state over time and through internal processes. By contrast, “for the last twenty years the United States has been promoting throughout the non-Western world raw, laissez-faire capitalism — a form of markets that the West abandoned long ago” (14). This is similar to the neo-conservative new “Leninism” decried recently by none other than Francis Fukayama. Essentially, Chua argues that, in the context of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, raw capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of such market dominant minorities while democracy increases the political power of the poor majority. That is, politicians can focus the hatred of the majority against the market dominant minority by virtue of their prosperity and market control. It is a real problem that has led to genocide and other violence and upheavals time and time again in the last few decades.
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites, who prospered based on the promise given to them from the very beginning, were not only plausibly a market-dominant minority by virtue of their prosperity, but they were also a politically-dominant minority by virtue of the monarchy and the later hereditary judgeships. It stands to reason that this would have only further alienated the ethnically different majority. Nephite society is continually plagued with civil wars, unrest, uprisings, “king men,” and political assassinations, much like the numerous examples cited by Chua in her treatment of market dominant minorities. In fact, such alienation of the majority echoes in the words of the leader of the terrorist-like society of Gadianton robbers at a time when large numbers of people had defected from both the Nephites and the Lamanites. Giddianhi writes an epistle to Lachoneus, leader of the Nephites with the following statement:
And it seemeth a pity unto me, most noble Lachoneus, that ye should be so foolish and vain as to suppose that ye can stand against so many brave men who are at my command, who do now at this time stand in their arms, and do await with great anxiety for the word — Go down upon the Nephites and destroy them.
And I, knowing of their unconquerable spirit, having proved them in the field of battle, and knowing of their everlasting hatred towards you because of the many wrongs which ye have done unto them, therefore if they should come down against you they would visit you with utter destruction. (3 Nephi 3:20-21.)
Of course, in this instance, Lachoneus waited out the siege and the Nephites eventually defeated the Gadianton robbers. But the same complaints are brought time and again by the robbers and the Lamanites, often in alliance with one another. In the end, the Nephites face genocide at the hands of the unsavory union of the two and their society crumbles as they both suffer and commit the most brutal atrocities known to humanity (Moroni 9:7-10).
I would hope that in addition to bringing people to Christ, the Book of Mormon can serve as a warning that society must be righteous to maintain its very civilization but also that the concentration of wealth and pride has real consequences. The very demise suffered by the Nephites in the Book of Mormon his played out time and time again as market-dominant minorities are targeted in many societies throughout history and currently all over the world. If we are to break out of this cycle, it will be through righteous living (as a society) which must include equity for the poor and suffering in accordance with the two “new” commandments of Jesus and with our own consciences that whisper, as a friend has duly noted, that poverty is evil and must be overcome.