by Shawn Tucker:
When you read it carefully, you can hear the yearning. He had already tried once, and when that failed, he left town feeling low and dejected. I wonder how he felt, then, when the angel showed up. Keep in mind that not all of his previous interactions with angels had been … positive. In fact all of the previous experiences, which number exactly one, had been, well, let's just say "mixed" at best. When you end up knocked out for a few days and you feel like a farm implement used to churn up densely packed soil has chewed up your insides, you cannot call the encounter a total win. Sure, by the end Alma had repented and felt joy as powerful as his sorrow, but that came later.
So how did Alma feel when that same angel showed up? Did he recognize him? Maybe not, at least initially, because the angel had to tell him that they had met before. In any case, the angel had at least two items on his/her to-do list, with the other being a visit to Amulek. We don't have a sense of Alma complaining, and it is easy to imagine that he immediately, humbly, obediently, and even energetically returned to Ammonihah. Oh, and I have a clue about why he would do that: Alma's recent scripture reading.
Reading and Persuading
We can guess at Alma's recent scripture reading by looking carefully at Alma and Amulek's very public discussions with the people of Ammonihah; Alma has been reading about Melchizedek. Alma talks about him in Alma chapter 13. And what he says about him is not in any scriptures I know of—that Melchizedek was the king of a city that had become unrighteous, but by his faith and love and persuasion, he was able to bring them back to God. And that is what Alma wants; he wants to persuade the people of Ammonihah.
Alma and Amulek's work in Ammonihah shows the power and limitations of persuasion. Both face the angry hostility of priests who have come to accept Nehor's approach to divine authority. They also face a public that seems happy to praise and honor and financially support priests who will then promise all of them effortless and painless salvation. As this is only nine years into a new social and political order, one with judges instead of absolute rulers (and perhaps with increased personal responsibility), it seems easy to believe that the people of Ammonihah may want a "traditional" or even "conservative" approach to government and citizenship, one with powerful rulers and dependent subjects.
Everything about what Alma and Amulek do seems focused on persuading priests and public alike to embrace faith and Christ instead of priestcraft. Amulek's initial speech says, "Hey, I'm one of you, and maybe like you I've been ignoring God, but God called me, I got my stuff together, and this guy here really is a prophet." Both Alma and Amulek clarify scripture, the resurrection, and how the priesthood should lead one to Christ, not to the priest. Alma mentions Melchizedek because, with all of the power of his soul, he wants Ammonihah to be as blessed as Salem was.
One thing that might come to the fore about these chapters is the importance of persuasion. In a recent speech to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Stein Ringen talks about the nature of power. Extrapolating from his insights, neither the priests in Ammonihah nor Alma and Amulek can command the people to do anything beyond their willingness to obey. Both groups attempt to persuade the people. Alma and Amulek want to persuade all of them, including the priests, toward a different approach to priesthood and God and life in general. While some people are touched, at least to the point of revisiting the scriptures, enough people (and seemingly all of the priests) are not persuaded by Alma and Amulek.
But the conflict caused by Alma and Amulek's persuasive efforts apparently cannot be overlooked, brushed off, or just ignored. The priests and people cannot simply "agree to disagree" with Alma and Amulek or cannot simply say "well those are interesting points" and then go home and watch Ammonihah's Funniest Home Stone Carvings or whatever they do. No, in fact they feel compelled to violently purge anything that smacks of what Alma and Amulek have said. And they violently purge anyone who may have been persuaded. Perhaps the priests get everyone worked up about what a terrible threat Alma and Amulek pose, but the problem with this conclusion is that it overlooks the power of the people. In other words, this conclusion assumes that the priests have all of the power. The priests could not have done all of the rounding up and burning; the people had to be persuaded to do it. And they had to do something for which one would believe that every human has an innate aversion to do. In the end, it is as if Alma and Amulek's persuasive efforts force people to choose, and while one must assume a range of responses, enough people were persuaded by intolerance, fear, and hate instead of faith, hope, and love.
Some of the best recent thinking about power indicates that persuasion is the source of all power, but where priestcraft is persuasion that leads to the priest or some other non-divine end, priesthood power is persuasion that uses love and faith and hope to make the difficult but ultimately soul-satisfying path to God as enticing as possible.
Shawn Tucker grew up with amazing parents and five younger, wonderful siblings. He served as a missionary in Chile during the Plebiscite and the first post-dictatorship election. After his mission, he attended BYU, where he married ... you guessed it ... his wife. They both graduated, with Shawn earning a BA in Humanities. Fearing that his BA in Humanities, which is essentially a degree in Jeopardy, would not be sufficient, Shawn completed graduate work in the same ... stuff ... at Florida State University. He currently teaches at Elon University in North Carolina. He and ... you guessed it ... his wife have four great children. Twitter: @MoTabEnquirer. Website: motabenquirer.blogspot.com.
Image credit: "Alma Arise" by Walter Rane.