“If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak” (William Godwin).
What is the power of persuasion?
In the War in Heaven, Lucifer argued for compulsion, coercion, and the destruction of agency and consequence to ensure his prideful view of morality and virtue (Moses 4:3). However, the Father’s Plan and government worked only according to principles of righteousness and obedience under the direction of the Holy Ghost who helps us establish our earthly stewardships and dominions “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:41–46).
To the world, persuasion without compulsion is weak, ineffective, and toothless. Persuasion amounts to nothing more than a law without the coercive army of enforcement officers to ensure its compliance. In other words, in man’s view, persuasion is only persuasion and useful when, at the end of the day, some threat or reality of coercive and violent enforcement can settle the issue.
It is under this false traditional understanding that we are led to often interpret D&C 121:37.
That [the rights of the priesthood] may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
“In any degree of unrighteousness…”
There’s the rub. Therein is man’s seeming justification for all enforcement of coercion. It is not okay, earthly philosophy reasons, to use “control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men” in “unrighteousness,” but it is okay to use “control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men” righteously. In an ironic twist, as it so often turns out, “righteously” is simply however and whenever man and society accepts that violence and coercion is okay.
Conversely, Nephi offers an incredible example that goes against the grain of man’s philosophies and society’s reasoning concerning persuasion, as Nephi — to his brethren — never once utilizes compulsion. (Some have argued that Nephi utilized compulsion against Laban (after all, he did cut off his head — something that you can’t really come back from), and this is something that I will address in a future article. For this article, however, we are focusing on Nephi’s relationship with Laman and Lemuel). For as Lamen and Lemuel are always the figures resorting to coercion, compulsion, and violence, Nephi’s full intent with his brothers is towards persuasion.
There are many references to Nephi’s use of persuasion. Early on in the record, Nephi laments his brother’s hard heartedness and prays to God to soften their hearts (one form of persuasion). Nephi later tried logic, reason, and common truths to “persuade my brethren, that they might be faithful in keeping the commandments of God” (1 Ne 3:21). On several other occasions, Laman and Lemuel had physically beat, tied up, or coerced Nephi into precarious situations where it would have been — with our cultural sensibilities — justified and right in attacking and defending back.
The only real possible scenario of compulsion, coercion, and violence that Nephi ever approaches is the moment where — when filled with the Spirit — the Lord commands Nephi to stretch forth his hands to shock and shake Laman and Lemuel. This moment, however, was proceeded by Nephi warning his brethren not to touch him lest they “wither even as a dried reed” (1 Ne 17:48). This is not Nephi demonstrating the assertion of his power over Laman and Lemuel, but it was specifically because Nephi realized that he was “filled with the power of God, even unto the consuming of my flesh.” Nephi realized that he was prepared to host that much of the Spirit of God, whereas Laman and Lemuel would have been consumed. Nevertheless, after many days, the Spirit constrained Nephi to shock Laman and Lemuel with his touch, as the Spirit would testify to them that the Lord was God (1 Ne 17:53).
This moment of Laman and Lemuel being shocked is not the same type, purpose, heart, spirit, means, or end that is spoken of in scripture against coercion and compulsion. It was not compulsion at all, nor was it coercion. There was no forcing, coercing, or compelling Laman and Lemuel to do anything.
Nephi’s greatest ally was always the Spirit. In his trials and moments of need, Nephi stayed close to the Spirit — and the Spirit directed his path. This is a perfect pattern of D&C 121:43, as persuasion requires “reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards and increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” This is Nephi’s very character, as it is the pattern and character of those who will live in and built Zion before the Lord’s coming.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once observed that in a Zion-type society “we are taught often of the evils of compulsion in any degree. We count on contagion, not compulsion, to win others to our ways.”
As we go forward in our lives, let us evaluate those moments in not only our personal and family lives but our cultural and political lives, in how to creatively administer persuasion in lieu of coercion and compulsion. Let us give up the false cultural traditions of our ancestors towards a more perfect way, as we follow Nephi’s example of always keeping the Spirit to be with us (as we promise every Sunday with the sacrament ordinance) to envision a better way to administer justice that with the sword of compulsion.