Monday, August 25, 2008

Why don't we put Anti-Nephi-Lehities on T-Shirts?

Mormons love the story of the 2000 Stripling Warriors. There are invigorating songs, t-shirts, action figures, cartoons; little boys dress up and want to be like them, and even the BYU head football coach references the story to inspire his team.

In Sunday School this week we covered both this and the foundation story of the Ammonites or the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi and I was struck by how disproportionately the two stories have manifested themselves in modern Mormon culture.

As a young boy it was perhaps natural to aspire to be a stripling warrior, I mean--just look at those guys, what scrawny preteen wouldn't want to have arms like that. However, as I advance in years after yet another birthday, I am increasingly troubled that we often glorify the militarism side of the story and brush over the pacifism element of the story. I wonder if the the choice in artwork and song would be different if the LDS Church were dominated by followers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and not by lifetime members of the NRA?

There are of course multiple reasons why the stripling warrior story has become more popular. The name for one, "Anti-Nephi-Lehities" does not carry the same machismo as the brawny "stripling warrior." I will point out that that phrase "stripling warrior," let alone, "strapping warrior" which is more often the connotation and visual depiction, is never used in the text itself. The text does use the word 'stripling' in it's constant emphasis on how young the boys were and it uses the term soldiers not warriors. (In passing I'll also point out that the term AntiNephiLehi often strikes readers as funny because of our association of the Greek root "anti" meaning "opposition" but greater textual analysis shows cultural and textual consistency, another score for Joseph Smith).

If the visual depictions were more accurate they would more likely approximate the images we see of boy soldiers in the modern era although the comparison stops there as the stories of valiant youth fighting to preserve the life and liberty of their pacifist parents is not even comparable the the innocent suffering of kidnapped-at-gunpoint slave soldiers in the Congo or Uganda.

I look forward to seeing the piece of art that will depict the parents as the heroes and the tender young boy soldiers going to fight as a noble but ultimately tragic necessity.

1 comment:

Julie Bradshaw said...

Maybe it's because I'm a girl that I never coveted the brawniness of the stripling warrior's arms. I have always loved this story because of the tremendous faith, love and loyalty it represents. When I was younger I was especially taken with the miracle that not one of them was slain. It was the first time I remember being aware of the power faith and obedience can have in our lives. Now, as I've gotten older and have watched wars throughout the world play out, I am struck by their humility and aversion to violence, evidenced by their statement to Helaman that they would not slay their brethren if they would leave them alone. They aren't running off to war, anxious to kill or exact revenge as we see in so many conflicts. They would love to be free from war and bloodshed, but are forced to fight to defend, in faith, their land, freedom, families, and religion, trusting in the teachings of their mothers (which, incidentally, is in part what I think these war chapters are supposed to teach us: that this is the only justification for any kind of bloodshed, but even then we are to do everything we can to avoid it).

I am especially struck by the bravery these young boys exhibit in helping their loved ones keep their covenants. I wonder if I would make a comparable sacrifice for my parents. I hope I would. I think I would. I think it would be remarkable if we all took obeying our covenants as seriously as the Anti-Nephi-Lehits did, to obey no matter the cost. I agree that their story is one to be admired and emulated.