A major, but often ignored, theme of the Book of Mormon is the collapse of societies and civilizations. The book concludes by recounting the destruction of both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. As I’ve written before, I believe there’s a lot in those accounts that is relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. There are important differences between the two accounts, however. With the Nephites, they were destroyed by an external adversary, due to their pride, wickedness, and failure to repent despite the mercy the Lord had previously extended to them. While one could see the Nephite-Lamanite divide as a case of polarization, the Lamanites were ultimately spared. In the Jaredite case, however, the conflict was internal, and both sides destroyed themselves in an act of civilizational suicide.
It is perhaps particularly applicable to the social and political climate in which we find ourselves today, that the Jaredites never stopped in their conflict to wonder whether they had any other options. After another period of prolonged conflict, their choices devolve into two: Shiz or Coriantumr. Doubtless there were Jaredites who were exclaiming that everyone must choose, and that it was a binary choice. It was certainly the case that many Jaredites chose their side because of their terror of the other:
And there went a fear of Shiz throughout all the land; yea, a cry went forth throughout the land—Who can stand before the army of Shiz? Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!
And it came to pass that the people began to flock together in armies, throughout all the face of the land.
And they were divided; and a part of them fled to the army of Shiz, and a part of them fled to the army of Coriantumr.
After all, do you want Shiz/Coriantumr to win? If you don’t choose Coriantumr/Shiz, then all you’re doing is helping Shiz/Coriantumr! At least, many say such things today, and it’s entirely possible that at least some Jaredites said something similar.
Now sometimes there are only a few available choices, and one must try to choose the better one in difficult circumstances. But sometimes, neither choice is correct. Witness Nazism vs Communism on the Eastern front, where two genocidal and evil ideologies faced off, and some choices could be based on but little than “who doesn’t want to kill us right now?” In some cases, there are no good choices. But what would certainly be incorrect in such circumstances is to conclude that, because the other is evil, the other must be good and be embraced. This is a perennial temptation through the ages, a pattern in which we are tempted to accept the evil in one thing merely because it is opposed to another evil thing. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:
[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.
The Jaredites became so consumed with their hatred for the other side, they never considered that they didn’t have to choose a side, and that by choosing a side, they would end up destroying both sides. But that was the result of their decisions, even over the heads of their leaders. In perhaps the most interesting part of the account (and one I’ve discussed before), we learn that Coriantumr, though he had rejected repentance earlier, had begun to regret that when faced with the destruction that was happening, and went as far as offering to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). Shiz demands Coriantumr’s life as well. It’s possible that Coriantumr rejected that, but any response of his is not recorded. Instead we read (Ether 15:6):
And it came to pass that the people repented not of their iniquity; and the people of Coriantumr were stirred up to anger against the people of Shiz; and the people of Shiz were stirred up to anger against the people of Coriantumr; wherefore, the people of Shiz did give battle unto the people of Coriantumr.
The resumption of hostilities – the final resumption that will conclude in the death of every combatant save Coriantumr – is thus ascribed not to Coriantumr’s reply, or even Shiz’s bloodthirstiness, but to the anger of “the people” of both sides. The people of Coriantumr himself were prepared to keep killing and dying in his cause, even if he himself was prepared to concede at least his position to spare the people.
The only other individual, save Coriantumr, who survived was Ether, who did not pick either side. Yet it was Ether’s legacy – his writings – that continued, which survived the destruction of his whole civilisation and which were preserved for future civilisations to come. It was Ether who ultimately made the most difference, and did the most good, by not choosing either side, but by choosing something higher.
We live in an age in which political and cultural rivals and opponents are increasingly regarded as evil and are called enemies, in an age in which we are increasingly told we must pick a side, and in which increasing numbers are embracing extremism out of fear and hatred of others. This is a familiar account, and one that may well have a similar result. The leap towards violence seems so much smaller once one is dealing with enemies rather than mere opponents you might disagree with. Yet whatever the wider society does, we do not need to embrace evil to fight evil. We can reject such a binary choice. We can choose differently. We can choose higher.