“Righteousness As a Counterculture,” New Era, Apr. 1972, 46
As fall quarter ended last year, a member of our branch here at the University of California at Santa Barbara stopped by my apartment to visit. He was taking the winter quarter off to do some traveling in Mexico and Central America. Since I have done some research regarding those areas, he wanted my recommendations as to what to see and where to visit. He was especially interested in things that related to the Book of Mormon.
I found it difficult to give him specific answers, so instead I tried to explain some reservations I have on the subject and then indicated those places I thought would be of interest to him. The specific places that I suggested are of little importance, but the reasoning behind my reservations crystallized during the course of our conversation. We both came away with an improved understanding of the Book of Mormon.
Up to the present time, archaeological efforts have failed to unearth documentable evidences of righteous Nephite cultures. By this I mean that artifacts may or may not belong to the Nephites. No one knows for sure. Apart from many still unresolved scholarly problems of geography and chronology, we are faced with the fact that the spectacular ruins and artifacts that are known appear to represent quite another type of civilization—one all too familiar to us and to the writers of the Book of Mormon. I encouraged my friend to visit a number of ruins and museums where he would see impressive remnants of societies that have their roots in an individual and collective rejection of the gospel message so often chronicled by Nephite prophets.
The more well-known pre-Columbian civilizations that have been unearthed to date are presumed to be basically military superstates. Their histories are tales of aggression and competition. The massive pyramids and other structures that remain as mute testimony to these peoples’ extinction hardly begin to indicate the nature of such societies. Scholars know that these states were complexes of extensive agriculture and technological power. Their technology has been described by the historian Lewis Mumford as a “mega-machine.”
The mega-machine was a precursor of our own automated, industrialized economy and was common to the great civilizations of antiquity. It differed from the present in that it used the muscle power of replaceable human laborers rather than fossil-fueled or electric machines to do its work.
Reliance on manpower seemed to have hardly slowed things, however, for if one man died (or one hundred), others were pressed into service. These were not just structures of brute force, though. Scientific refinements complemented the picture. Elements of ancient American metallurgy elude modern duplication; astronomy was highly advanced; and medicine was perhaps even superior to that which was available in Europe, especially in techniques such as surgery and dentistry. Nevertheless, technology and science appear not to have been the foundation of such societies, but rather its servants. Ultimately many of these peoples worshiped power and were dedicated to war.
Scholars have found few evidences of a concern for human welfare or a dedication to the dignity of man in Aztec, Mayan, and Incan societies, or in their predecessors or contemporary neighboring civilizations. What artifacts remain are shards of a socioreligious culture of war. Warfare not only served to aggrandize, expand, and maintain national territories, economies, and royal dynasties; it also provided the means whereby men, as in other apostate cultures, sought to create and insure a degree of worldly security.
The study of the history of religions has evidenced comparable attempts in the great civilizations of antiquity—and we hear its echoes even today. Basic to this pattern of religious observance and the counterfeit priesthood that directed it was a common practice of human sacrifice that was intended to rewind the cosmic clock, keep the sun on its path, maintain agricultural fertility, and perpetuate the mechanism of life. Toward such ends men will risk almost anything.
One well-known aspect of pre-Columbian culture was a game played on ball courts that have been found as far north as Flagstaff and Casa Grande, Arizona, and that are commonplace through Mexico and Central America (variations on the game are found throughout North and South America). The court and game were intricately related to these peoples’ understanding of the universe and man’s place in it.
At the center of each village, town, or city was a ball court. The court was divided up into “world quarters,” and often in its center there was a circular hole within a triangle that was filled with water and then plugged—a navel of the earth, around which all life revolved. Playing the game was basic to all that went on in the society. Little children imitated the play of their fathers and by adulthood were often highly skilled, but for the men it was serious business—a game of warriors.
In its most benign form, the adult game occurred at certain festivals and was the occasion for gambling in which men could become rich or bankrupt, even wagering themselves or their children into slavery. At other times, whole kingdoms could be lost on the outcome of a game, and often such games could be seen as substitutes for outright warfare on the combat of kings or their champions in duels of sovereignty.
The drawings, paintings, and stone carvings that have been discovered relating to these games, as well as the reports of those who witnessed the games and the rituals that preceded them, leave little doubt that in origin and in occasional practice these were games of life and death.
The game’s most well-known form was that of the Mayans. On each end of the center line that divided the rectangular court was a hoop or goal set some eight feet off the ground in the stone sidewalls of the court. These hoops were set perpendicular to the earth rather than parallel to it, as in basketball. The game was played with a solid rubber ball only slightly smaller than the hole. The ball was propelled back and forth between the two teams, whose members rebounded it off their shoulders, hips, and thighs (it was a foul if the ball touched elsewhere). Each team attempted to put the ball through its respective goal. While points could be scored in other ways and a game could be won by whoever first scored a predetermined number of points, a basket automatically decided the game.
Among some tribes, losing could entail no more than the loss of a few material possessions by the vanquished team and its supporters, whereas among other tribes victory might decide which team would have the privilege of sacrificing a commonly held prisoner or slave, or even ceremonially executing the losers themselves.
Games that were similar in ritual function, though perhaps not in the manner of play, were also commonplace in the Old World, and while the Greek Olympics were a step up (in that losers simply lost a game and not their life or possessions), the later Roman Circus with its contesting gladiators was a simple reversion to an older pattern of worshiping the power of life and death.
War was a more common source for victims of human sacrifice, however, than were the games. Prisoners of war were valuable because a society could put them to death with little strain on internal national stability. Collections of mythology contain many stories about kings who were forced to seek among their own people (rather than strangers or foreigners) for sacrificial offerings to dragons, wild beasts, or gods—and such tales usually end with the king being overthrown. The unpopularity of these kings was not because they were practicing such sacrifices, however, but rather because they had to choose the victims from among their own subjects or even their families. Such kings were basically military failures, unable to capture sufficient prisoners to sustain the cult of sacrifice, and that was an unforgivable sin in a society that believed in and worshiped war and the prince of war, rather than the Prince of Peace.
When civilizations such as that of the Aztecs were not actively expanding or defending their territories through warfare, they still had need of sacrificial victims. For this reason the Aztecs maintained a type of yearly ritual with their neighboring states, known as a “war of flowers.” In spite of its name, this was no scattering of rose petals. Matched forces would meet on a fair field (neutral battleground) to fight, wound, duel, and kill, all with the single purpose of taking prisoners from each other. No territory or property changed hands, no rulers were deposed by the outcome, and no peoples were subjugated. Each competing society simply obtained live offerings for its own sacrificial cults. Friends and relatives made no attempt to rescue those captured by either side, for all understood that this was just one of the risks of the game for those who chose to play, and those who died in the battles were considered great heroes, while deserters and cowards became objects of the people’s scorn.
The sacrificial religions of both the Old and the New Worlds are a result of the most extreme misunderstanding and perversion of the gospel, revealed by God to Adam, which taught that mankind could only gain immortality and happiness through the voluntary sacrifice of God’s Only Begotten Son and each man’s corresponding sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit. While men seem ever ready to attempt to buy worldly security and immortality by counterfeiting the sacrifice of Jesus and murdering their fellows, few desire to offer the sacrifice of a changed and repentant self. On that unwillingness hangs most of the sorrow of human history.
As one visits the ruins and museums of Mexico and Central America, he can view countless artifacts: beautifully worked ornaments of jade, gold, and silver; woven feather work and clothes of incredible finery; weapons; great temples with bloodied altars; and contrasts of conspicuous luxury and intense poverty. To observers today, it appears that the stuff of many of these civilizations was a pride in dress and possessions, the respect of men, and a desire for security in this world.
Coming from Jerusalem and having the records on the brass plates, the Nephite prophets would have been well aware of the overall pattern of sacrificial religion as it was practiced in the Old World and would have never willingly taken part in such worship, though some of them did fall its victim. On the other hand, those who chose to follow Laman and Lemuel (who so often complained and manifested homesickness for the apostate world that they had left behind) could have readily reinstituted such forbidden practices in the Americas.
It is virtually certain, however, given what we know about the rituals surrounding most of the pyramids and temples of the Americas, that no righteous Nephite would have built or worshiped in such structures. As we read the Book of Mormon, we find the prophets constantly warning the peoples of these many evils. When such warnings went unheeded, division, strife, wars, and suffering were the inevitable results. The Book of Mormon shows how such conditions soon degenerate a people into a crude and warlike horde that will follow any fast-talking and successful leader—even if he gained his position by murdering his predecessor.
The Book of Mormon also teaches us that we are pilgrims in this fallen world, and that our security is not of this world. It paints a clear picture of what happened to unrighteous Lamanites and Nephites when they put their hopes in this world. And yet it lays down strict admonitions as to how we are to be concerned with the temporal welfare of our fellowmen, even at the risk of our own well-being—just as with Christ’s example of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament.
The gospel of righteousness has always stood as a counterculture to the main current of world history. The historical Abraham stood diametrically opposed to the sacrificers of his day, as did Alma’s church in the wilderness, and so should we today. Our hope is immortality and exaltation in the celestial kingdom through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must stand opposed to contemporary pseudo-countercultures that would offer us instant chemical happiness; a kingdom of man on earth; physical pleasure; the freedom to violate God’s law by denying that eternal truths exist; hope in some political ideology or worldly philosophy; science, a medical means to immortality; a revolutionary restructuring of society; or some other man-made substitute for repentance and rebirth.
There is no easy replacement for the laws of God, and there is only one plan. Part of that plan is to do everything we can to help others temporally, while never forgetting that our highest priorities and commitments should be to living a righteous life, marrying and building a home where others of our Father’s spirit children can be raised under the priesthood in an atmosphere of godliness, bringing others to repentance and union with Christ through the ordinances of the gospel, and saving our dead.
From the archaeological evidences available at this time in history, most pre-Columbian civilizations appear to represent futile attempts at being a “now” generation. As we contemplate the ruins of such cultures and the results of the choices that they made, we find an eloquent testimony of the truth of the message of the Book of Mormon.
As individuals we must each choose to heed or ignore that testimony.
There is much in our contemporary world and societies that is similar to the apostate cultures described in the Book of Mormon. But just as it was then, so is it now—followers of Christ are expected to mold and create their own counterculture, a culture whose values are founded in righteousness.
Personally, I’m very happy to be numbered among those who prefer the plan of God.