Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stripling warriors and self-organization

We are pretty familiar with these verses:

16 But behold, it came to pass they had many sons, who had not entered into a covenant that they would not take their weapons of war to defend themselves against their enemies; therefore they did assemble themselves together at this time, as many as were able to take up arms, and they called themselves Nephites.

17 And they entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage.

18 Now behold, there were two thousand of those young men, who entered into this covenant and took their weapons of war to defend their country.

19 And now behold, as they never had hitherto been a disadvantage to the Nephites, they became now at this period of time also a great support; for they took their weapons of war, and they would that Helaman should be their leader. (Alma 53:16-19)

“they did assemble themselves together” (v16) I was reading this recently and for the first time it stuck me how extraordinary this was and it just seemed to get more amazing with every verse. It is hard for us to grasp it because it is written so matter-of-factly. I’ll try to explain.

No one assembled them; they assembled themselves. This indicates the level of initiative they had. But not just initiative; they were unified too. (Can you imagine 2,000 of our young men today spontaneously deciding they have to do something about a national problem and assembling themselves for a meeting to discuss it?) Maybe they had some natural leaders among them who passed the word around that there was something important they all had to talk about. But in any case, they came together of their own volition.

And they entered a covenant to fight to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage. I really wonder how they got to that point of decision with so many young men gathered together. I’m trying to imagine how it happened. Some of them had to give speeches and voice their concerns and summarize their position and make the proposal of the cause they had to fight for. And the Spirit of the Lord must have been present too. (Would they have decided to make a covenant if it had not been?)

In any case, it is amazing that such a mass of young men were able to come to agreement that they should take action and that they all saw the need for a covenant and willingly took it. It is a great example of taking collective action, thinking seriously, taking responsibility, and making an extremely serious commitment.

One of the things about organizing in response to a threat is that it is very easy to make all kinds of resolutions when your mind is wrought up with concern about it, but at some point, other concerns come to take their place and then it is difficult to call forth the same fervor of feeling when it is needed to bring ourselves to action well after the first rush of enthusiasm has past. I imagine that it is the continual concern of all leaders to keep their people motivated so that they will act when the moment for action has come. Evil leaders try to keep their people in a continual foment of anger with recitals of the wrongs they suffered and calls for retribution. Good leaders have it harder because they refuse to use anger or hate and they depend upon their people to have proper feeling and be rational at the same time. So, I imagine that the stripling warriors were well aware that their concern might flag over time, but they knew how powerful a motivator it would be to keep a covenant. (They knew very well about how their fathers went to extraordinary lengths to keep their covenant.) So they decided to use the power of covenants to hold them to their determination to fight for their fathers and their country. The covenant would not keep their feelings wrought up; rather, it would become the motivator for the time when they might be less interested in fighting and when the drudgery of army life had begun to wear away their resolve.

Here are some more scriptures about organizing ourselves.

And thus I grant unto this people a privilege of organizing themselves according to my laws. (D&C 51:15)

I love that. We don’t have to wait to be commanded. We can organize ourselves as long as it according to righteous principles.

Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing;….That your incomings may be in the name of the Lord; that your outgoings may be in the name of the Lord; that all your salutations may be in the name of the Lord, with uplifted hands unto the Most High….Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege. (D&C 88:119-122, emphasis added)

This has a number of important ideas about organizing ourselves. First, the importance of preparation. Evidently these things can’t be completely spontaneous but require some planning. Second, that everything be “in the name of the Lord,” which I think means something that the Lord would approve of. Third, a teacher is chosen from among the group so that there can be some leadership and order. Fourth, that everyone gets to have their say with the complete attention of the whole group. Fifth, that those speaking should do their best to edify the group (so that no one’s time is wasted). And sixth, that everyone in the group has equal privileges (so there has to be enough privilege that people want to participate, but not so much privilege that the operation of the organization becomes unwieldy or collapses under its own weight).

Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, to prepare and organize yourselves by a bond or everlasting covenant that cannot be broken. (D&C 78:11, emphasis added)

It is notable that after the stripling warriors organized themselves, they sought for priesthood leadership, asking the prophet Helaman to be their leader. To me, this indicates that no righteous self-organization is complete without priesthood leadership.

In a number of ways church has done what the stripling warriors did. In Nauvoo, the women decided to organize themselves into a Relief Society and they went to Joseph Smith with their proposal and constitution and he led them to organize under the direction of the priesthood. The D&C scriptures above describe three separate ways that the church organized itself: establishing a storehouse, starting the school of the prophets, and building temples.

Organizing ourselves isn’t just for the young. It can be any age group that is concerned about something in society and feels the need to do something about it.

What I’m not sure about is how and when this can be applied in our lives. When is it appropriate to self-organize? I’ve had difficulty trying to come up with a way to apply this in life today and it seems to be for several reasons.

First, it seems that the cause for concern has to be serious enough to unite large numbers. This kind of organizing can’t be for unimportant or frivolous purposes. Sorry, but craft night is out.

Second, we face an uphill cultural battle to organize ourselves because our culture values individualism over collective action. When purposeful movements grow beyond a certain point, naysayers argue that all the participants are “sheep.” Also, the movement undergoes greater scrutiny because naysayers will try to find fault with the movement to justify themselves for not joining in, even if it is a good cause. (There are people who fear becoming too passionate about a cause because they fear how it will affect the rest of their lives and take over. They forget the words of Christ that whosoever will lose his life for Christ’s sake will find it.)

There two ways that the Book of Mormon gives us insight on times that is not appropriate to self-organize—seeking revenge and forming secret combinations.

Mormon tells about how the Nephite armies of his day swore by all that was forbidden them to avenge the death of their brethren. It could be that these Nephites were taking their cue from the old story of the stripling warriors, but they were perverting it and applying it to a corrupted cause—revenge. This was why Mormon utterly refused to lead them any more. It would certainly offend him to find religious oaths taken for such an unjust purpose. Any good priesthood holder would want to decline to lead such a group with such a purpose.

Mormon also tells how groups of Nephites self-organized into secret combinations. In one case the goal was to assassinate the leader who had condemned their leader to death (see Helaman 1:9-11). In another case it was to deliver from the grasp of justice certain judges who had overstepped their authority and had prophets killed. (see 3 Nephi 6:25-30). In other cases the goal was to get gain and acquire complete control of the government so they could do what they wanted with impunity (see Helaman 6:21-23). These negative cases help us know what self-organization purposes should be avoided.

The Lord gives us the privilege of organizing ourselves and wants us to do it according to celestial laws. What causes do you see that seem to call for self-organization?

Bonus link only slightly related to this topic: The Theology of Counsels by Richard Bushman gives great insights on how revelation leads the church today and how counsels evolved. Check it out!


Unknown said...

Beautiful post. I have two boys, one is a Deacon & one will be a Deacon this summer. I love to share with them the dedication of these young men in the Book of Mormon. Here is another great angle to share with them. THanks!