Alma 54 is one of the war chapters that Mormon included in his abridgment, which seems to call for extra analysis. This chapter consists mostly of two letters: one from Captain Moroni to Ammoron, king of the Lamanites, and one from Ammoron to Captain Moroni.
One of the most notable things about Alma 54 is Captain Moroni’s statement that Ammoron is a “child of hell”. This boldness continues to fascinate Book of Mormon readers, and fairly begs for more examination. Why such a strong declaration? To try to answer this question, I started to look more carefully at the text that precedes it.
I suspect that we must interpret Moroni’s letter through the lens of strategy, since verse three says that “Moroni resolved upon a strategem to obtain as many prisoners of the Nephites from the Lamanites as it were possible”. What was this strategy?
In verse 11 we see that he would only give up a Lamanite prisoner in return for a Nephite prisoner with their wife and children. Clearly Moroni is trying to skew the exchange rate. But surely Ammoron would notice this, right?
Also, it seems that if Moroni wants Ammoron to agree to this exchange rate, he goes about it in completely the wrong way, practically insulting his enemy when you’d think he’d be bending over backwards trying to “make nice”. What kind of strategy is this? It almost seems like anti-strategy.
I suspect that Moroni knew that Ammoron would notice the vastly inequitable prisoner exchange rate. How do you keep someone from noticing an unfair request? By inundating them with insults, accusations, and generally torking them off so that the unfair request simply blends into the background of massive offensiveness and seems like the least annoying thing to deal with.
So how does Moroni do this? He calls Ammoron to repentance multiple times, not with promises of God’s mercy, as is usual in calls to repentance, but only with threats of God’s wrath if Ammoron does not comply. He says Ammoron and his brother have been murderers. The general tone of Moroni’s letter is “I don’t know why I bother talking to you”, which is certainly insulting. It is notable that the most cutting portion—“it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell”—comes right next to Moroni’s terms for prisoner exchange. Moroni wanted Ammoron to spend all his time fuming over that little gem and little if any time considering the exchange rate. Moroni was deliberately trying to provoke Ammoron.
Probably the final evidence that Moroni was deliberately trying to be insulting is that this letter is incredibly abrasive when you compare it Moroni’s speech to Zarahemnah in Alma 44. In Moroni’s speech to Zarahemnah, Moroni uses the battle as an object lesson to try to teach the Lamanites about the efficacy and importance of faith in God and strict adherence to religion. There is no name-calling or spiritual condemnation present at all. The tone is positive and hopeful. The contrast between Moroni’s words in Alma 44 and Alma 54 could not be greater.
If we see Moroni’s letter in Alma 54 in this way, it becomes clear to us that we should probably not take his “you-child-of-hell” approach as a model for our interactions with nonmembers, apostates, and enemies. The better model would be Moroni’s speech in Alma 44 with its continual references to faith, God, and religion.
So if this letter was meant to be insulting, why did Mormon include it in his abridgement? What spiritual purpose could it serve?
Pondering this question made me think about what Mormon could have done instead of including the letter. What might Mormon have said? He could have said, “Moroni wrote a very insulting letter to Ammoron in which he asked for an unbalanced rate of prisoner exchange, but he concealed it in insulting language so that Ammoron would be madder at everything else and probably agree to the proposal just to spite Moroni." Which brings me to the realization that maybe Ammoron decided to agree to the proposal in order to try to prove that he was a better guy than Moroni seemed to take him for. As if he was saying, “See? I can be generous! I’m not a child of hell!” This must have been the very reaction that Moroni was trying to create. This must have been at the heart of his strategy.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps it is meant to help us recognize when someone is trying to manipulate us this way. There will be people who try to do this to us. They will try to get us to do what they want by trying to make us the bad guys in order to get us to give in and attempt to prove that we aren’t as bad as they thought. We’ve already seen this in California over same-sex marriage. We also need to be careful that we don’t use this tactic on others. It is emotionally manipulative. It may work in the short run, but in the long run it will backfire because if you express pessimistic expectations to people often enough, they begin to live up to them, and they give up trying to buck them.
It is hard for us to imagine Captain Moroni using such tactics as psychological warfare. We are used to him being one of those shining examples of what to do. This may represent an example of what not to do. However, as I have studied this chapter, I have found some features of the letter that also exhibit Moroni’s goodness.
For instance, it is evident that he proclaims peace, (albeit imperfectly because it is overshadowed by the strategic elements). If we notice the repeated words, we can see it. There are four instances of the word “withdraw” and two instances of the word “repent”. In the first two cases, these two words are paired together—“repent and withdraw”. It seems clear to me that this constitutes a fourfold attempt to warn the enemy and lift the standard of peace. Captain Moroni had a duty to do this, according to the Law of Moses:
10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.This idea is elaborated on in what the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith on proclaiming peace:
11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.
12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: (Deuteronomy 20:10-12, emphasis added)
33 And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them.It seems to me that to proclaim peace and make an offering of peace involves making clear statements about what is perceived to be the reason of conflict and clear statements about what conditions the other side should meet in order to settle the conflict. This is so that everyone knows what the fight is about and knows how the fight could be stopped and avoided. By doing this, the agency of the opposing side is maximized by presenting them with clear choices. Moroni’s letter does this as he reminds Ammoron that the Lamanites have been trying to murder the Nephites and the Nephites will defend themselves. It is also seen in the repetition of “withdraw”.
34 And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue;
35 And if that people did not accept the offering of peace, neither the second nor the third time, they should bring these testimonies before the Lord;
36 Then I, the Lord, would give unto them a commandment, and justify them in going out to battle against that nation, tongue, or people. (D&C 98:33-36, emphasis added)
In the end, it is ironic that after Ammoron grants Moroni’s request for the specified exchange rate, the exchange never actually takes place. Moroni seems to have realized that it is better to deplete the Lamanite man-count, since exchanging prisoners would enable Ammoron to continue the war. He also seems to have realized that he didn’t need a prisoner exchange if he could liberate Nephite POWs with well-planned strategy.
Even more interestingly, Moroni declares later in Alma 55 that he will seek death among them until they sue for peace, but when he has the Lamanites at his mercy, once again he demonstrates his humanity and spares them.
In short, Moroni’s foray into psychological warfare manipulation tactics is short-lived and ultimately aberrational.
One other observation about Moroni’s letter and his general approach:
It is notable that Moroni doesn’t remove religious rhetoric from his letter, even though he figures that Ammoron will not accept it. (This consistency is also exhibited in a more exemplary form in his speech to Zarahemnah in Alma 44.) This is a great example for us today. It is very tempting to scrub religious references and ideas from our speech when communicating with those who do not hold the same beliefs as us. The increasing secularism around us makes it ever more difficult for us, especially when there are so many messages floating around about how we need to accept people, tolerate difference, embrace diversity, etc. Because of this, we face the temptation to hide what we are and what we believe in hopes that people will eventually accept us enough to listen later to what we say about religion. (But too often, that time never comes because we get out of the habit and we begin to worry that we will be rejected if we say anything at all, even after long acquaintance.) No, it is better to have religion in our discourse from the very beginning and bring it up as appropriate. (As long as the discourse is modeled after Alma 44, and not Alma 54.)
I have been trying be more open and comfortable speaking about religion in the last week, and I feel that it has helped people around me be more comfortable speaking about religion too. I’ve even had the opportunity to bear testimony to a coworker. We can make little islands around us of refuge from secularism where people can feel comfortable talking about the deepest feelings of their hearts concerning God, religion, and devotion.
Summary of lessons from Alma 54:
- Recognize when people are trying to get you to agree to their unjust demands by making you the “bad guy”. Don’t fall for it.
- Don’t hide who you are and what you stand for.