is the Book of Mormon's Gideon a convert to peace and nonviolence?
When I made the decision to join Community of Christ, it wasn’t (just) because this was a denomination that aligned with my current religious and social values, but because I knew it would be a denomination that pushed me to improve my current religious and social values. I know that I have room to grow in being a better person and in making the world a better place, and I felt that Community of Christ is a denomination that would not only show me grace for who I was but also walk with me as I tried to grow in these ways.
This was on my mind this morning as I listened to a podcasted sermon from the local Bluegrass United Church of Christ. I’d stopped by this church’s booth at the 2022 Lexington Pride Festival just a week before; I was pleased to see so many local affirming churches present and eagerly took pamphlets and stickers from their booths. This morning, when I was out for a run, I listened to a couple of recent sermons from this church. The most recent sermon—preached the day before July 4th—was powerful and moving; drawing on the ongoing January 6th hearings, the co-pastor was clear:
Make no mistake, January 6th was not about patriotism. It was a full-on display of White Christian Nationalism in all its rage. White Christian Nationalism says that anyone who’s not White, not Christian, not American is bound to bow to those who are. Friends, that idea is not just wrong, it’s evil, and we’re calling it evil. I think as followers of Jesus, we must speak out against what we believe is evil. When someone invokes our God to incite violence or discriminate others, we gotta call it out. It’s our obligation as believers.
I grew up in the church that largely bankrolled Prop 8, so I get it when people say that believers should keep religion out of politics. When it’s that kind of religion and that kind of politics, I now tend to agree with that line of thinking (though at the time of Prop 8, I was certainly complicit—if not actively involved—in my church’s efforts). However, I want my religion to inform my politics in standing up against White Christian Nationalism and to push my thinking about what a just and peaceful society looks like. I want my faith to inform my politics in the way that Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith informed his.
Shortly after this morning’s run (and with that sermon still on my mind) I spent a few minutes in the Book of Mormon (as part of an ongoing project and noticed something that I had never noticed before. This something relates to peace and nonviolence, one area where Community of Christ has been pushing my thinking—exactly in the way that I hoped it would. To be honest, I struggle when I consider the church’s current guiding question and try to figure out what I believe non-violence means and what I think being a peace church entails. It’s a good struggle, though, the kind that promotes the growth that I’m looking for from this denomination.
What I noticed was a journey in the life of the minor character Gideon. Throughout the Book of Mosiah, Gideon serves as a counselor to another character, King Limhi. When we first meet Gideon (Mosiah 9:77-81; LDS 19:4-8), he has drawn his sword and sworn in his wrath to kill Limhi’s predecessor and father, the evil King Noah. Gideon has chased Noah to the top of a royal tower, but the vantage point allows Noah to notice an approaching, hostile army. In a bit of self-serving deflection, Noah convinces Gideon to put his regicidal plans on hold so that the people can stand against the invaders. This first impression doesn’t suggest that Gideon is a violent, cold-blooded murderer, but it does underline that he believes that violence is sometimes the best solution to a problem.
This impression stands in contrast with the next time we hear directly from Gideon, in Mosiah 9:134 (LDS 20:22):
“Let us pacify the king, and fufill the oath which we have made to him; for it is better that we should be in bondage than that we should lose our lives; therefore, let us put a stop to the shedding of so much blood.”
In a relatively short time, Gideon seems to go from wanting to kill his own king to wanting to pacify a conquering king. He seems to be souring on violence as a solution to a problem; however, as we will shortly see, he clearly doesn’t see accepting bondage as a great long-term solution. Gideon’s view prevails in the short term, but in the following verses, Limhi’s people clamor for war against their oppressors, and the king reluctantly grants their requests, resulting in three bloody but unsuccessful attempts to gain back their freedom. We don’t know if Gideon participated in that fighting, but when we hear from him again (Mosiah 10:6; LDS 22:3), he begins by more or less begging the king to listen to him—has he been arguing for nonviolent solutions only to be overruled?
At any rate, the solution that Gideon then proposes demonstrates that this character is committed to standing against oppression but doing so in a nonviolent way. He is the one who plans the liberation of his people by getting the Lamanite guards drunk and then fleeing into the wilderness. This story supposes a relatively small number of guards—few enough to all get drunk simultaneously—so it seems plausible that Gideon could have argued for killing the guards instead of getting them drunk (or having them killed after they got drunk). That’s not the approach that Gideon takes, but it is the one that wins the day.
This story gets more interesting when we consider Gideon’s death in Alma 1. We met Gideon in the Book of Mosiah as a man who got angry, drew his sword, and tried to kill Nehor. In the first chapter of the Book of Alma, Gideon is killed by a Nehor: a man who got angry, drew his sword, and succeeded in killing Gideon. This narrative is complicated by Nehor’s subsequent execution by the state, but I nonetheless think it’s noteworthy that in Gideon’s final confrontation, he doesn’t seem to draw a sword on his own. He stands against evil by “admonishing him with the words of God” (Alma 1:11; LDS 1:7).
For all the troubled history and the troubling content of the Book of Mormon, it’s little readings like this that continue to make me love the book. There’s certainly not enough here to argue that this should be the authoritative way of reading this text, but I think that from now on, I’ll always read Gideon as a convert to peace and nonviolence—and use his story as fuel for my own conversion in this way.
- Book of Mormon
- Community of Christ
- Capitol riot
- Christian nationalism
- Proposition 8
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