Introducing The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 2
Rev. Dr. Fatimah S. Salleh was born in Brooklyn, NY to a Puerto-Rican and Malaysian mother and an African-American father. Dr. Salleh received her PhD in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also earned a master’s degree from Syracuse University in Public Communication and a master’s in Divinity from Duke University. She launched A Certain Work in 2018 in an effort to provide racial equity consultation and training for organizations and churches. In 2021, she launched Salleh Ministries Inc., a religious non-profit, to focus on wellness and well-being for clergy and activists.
Margaret Olsen Hemming is the former editor in chief of Exponent II. She is the art editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and sits on the advisory board for the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts. She earned a master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University.
In the introduction to Volume One of this series, we expressed the importance of reading the Book of Mormon through the lens of social justice and liberation theology and described the necessity and value of this type of interpretation. While the Book of Mormon has been analyzed in many different ways—including symbolically, historically, and as a work of literature—never before has it been the subject of a verse-by-verse reading focused on issues of the oppressed. Given that holy text has so frequently been used throughout history to further oppress people who already stand at the margins, the absence of an alternative reading seems striking. Reading scripture with the intent of finding and amplifying messages of liberation and justice offers hope and relief to the least of these.
The response to our first volume using this interpretation of the Book of Mormon was extraordinary. We received messages from readers around the world, particularly from women, BIPOC, and queer folk. Many told us that for the first time in their adult lives, they felt excited by and drawn to the Book of Mormon. In personal conversations, people tearfully told us they had prayed for a book like ours for many years. While we had hoped the book would resonate, we were overwhelmed and humbled by the impact readers described. We struck a chord and identified an urgent gap in the discussion.
At the same time, we felt disappointed, though not surprised, to also hear from those who felt we had no right to publish a study of the Book of Mormon. Those respondents questioned our authority to interpret scripture. These comments strengthened our conviction that not enough commentaries about the Book of Mormon have been written by women and people of color. Our faith community needs to see these populations speaking about scripture. Every person engages with holy text through the filter of their own personal experiences, culture, and family background, whether or not they are conscious of it. Women have distinctive questions and insights to raise about the Book of Mormon. People of color have particular issues that may resonate with their experiences in the world. Knowledge is, in part, a matter of perspective. We hope this book encourages all readers, whatever their background and experiences, to ask and wrestle with questions different from the ones they have previously considered.
What does it mean to read the Book of Mormon for the least of these? Liberation theologian Miguel A. De La Torre wrote that, “Reading the Bible from the margins of society is not an exercise that reveals interesting perspectives on how other cultures read and interpret biblical texts. To read the Bible from the margins is to grasp God in the midst of struggle and oppression.” Similarly, the work of reading the Book of Mormon through the lens of social justice can feel heart-rending and disturbing. The Book of Mormon is, fundamentally, a tragedy and a book about loss. It poses big questions about where and how God shows up in periods of terrible violence and heartbreak, particularly in the books of Mosiah and Alma. This text demands that readers not look away from the existence of war, rape, torture, and oppression in our world. The term “bondage” appears 66 times in the Book of Mormon, almost entirely in the books of Mosiah and Alma. This speaks to the horrifying reality of slavery and the damage it inflicts on people’s bodies and souls. The Book of Mormon does not tolerate the excuse of ignorance, asking us to examine the worst parts of human behavior and wrestle with the question, “How does an omniscient and all-loving God allow these things to happen?”
Our approach evaluates status-quo readings of well-trodden stories and interrogates less-typically discussed stories for important truths. We examine leadership models and the idea of prosperity gospel, extrapolating the spiritual definition of what it means to “prosper in the land.” In addition, we show further evidence for the ways Nephites and Lamanites are constructed identities meant to stoke racism and animosity, and not ethnic differences. The books of Mosiah and Alma return again and again to the concept of community: how to build it, how it fractures, and what happens when people choose themselves over others. The people of Zeniff leave and Mosiah welcomes Limhi and Alma’s people to the land of Zarahemla. The sons of Mosiah form loving friendships with people they previously considered enemies. The Zoramites evict a portion of their own people, then declare war on those who offer them sanctuary. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies establish the land of Jershon, which becomes a beautiful place of safety for anyone who needs it, regardless of nationality or background. The Nephites struggle again and again with dissenters who choose their own interests over their people. In these discussions, we often refer to “beloved community,” which references the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s phrase for an ideal where everyone strives to benefit the common good, seeks justice for all people, and helps build an integrated society. We could, and sometimes do, also call this Zion. The books of Mosiah and Alma offer beautiful and sometimes tragic collisions of people and how their complicated interactions sometimes come close to, and often fail, to meet this ideal. The tragedy of the Book of Mormon is that ultimately, the people choose their own interests over beloved community. This may also be the tragedy of our modern time.
Story-telling and letters also feature prominently in the books of Mosiah and Alma. Characters frequently separate in these books—Alma the Elder is in Lehi-Nephi while Mosiah is in Zarahemla; Ammon is with the Lamanites while Alma the Younger is in Ammonihah; Moroni and Helaman face different fronts of the war—and story-telling and letters serve to share their experiences with each other (and the reader). Thus, while the record in the first third of the Book of Mormon seems directed toward an unspecified future reader, the text of Mosiah and Alma frequently shows the characters communicating to one another. These sections emphasize the spiritual power of narrative and memory work. The stories preserved in this holy text have equal value to the sermons and doctrinal explanations. When Ammon finds Limhi and when Limhi’s people and Alma’s people return to Zarahemla, one of the first things they do is sit down together and read one another’s records and tell their histories. The preservation of these stories on brass plates—the very existence of the Book of Mormon—speaks to the sacredness of story-telling, particularly as a part of community.
This volume analyzes what get often referred to as “the war chapters” of the Book of Mormon, which some skip over. As we show, passing over these chapters is a lost opportunity. The frequently violent events of these books and the principal characters often struggle with what role God plays in that violence. When things go well for the Nephites in battle, they see God directing their military strategy. When they fall under siege and slowly starving to death, they wonder if God has abandoned them. When they suffer under the burdens of enslavement, they see God’s punishment. When they walk free into the wilderness, they speak of God’s miracles. In this volume, we have carefully tried to not strip God from other people’s narratives. Particularly in dark times, people must be allowed to interpret divine intervention in their lives in their own way. At the same time, we can recognize it as their truth without accepting their interpretation as universal truth. This is how they experienced God, not necessarily the totality of truth about God. Whether or not we accept how they interpret the events of their lives, the narrators of the Book of Mormon ask us to sit with them in difficult questions about how the divine interacts with a world that includes so much suffering.
As you read Volume Two in this series, we hope you will consider which voices in our society speak with spiritual power but get widely ignored. Frequently, the most important and powerful perspectives come from the margins of society—from brave Lamanite queens to an unnamed maid acting as a spy to the Anti-Nephi-Lehi community modeling how to welcome refugees. We also want you will see how God shows up in the unlikeliest of places and in the most harrowing times. Finally, we hope the world will see the Book of Mormon as a tragic warning of the perils of choosing power and self-interest over humility, compassion, and justice. As Alma discusses, joy and sorrow often coexist. The clarion call of this volume is of the urgent need to dedicate ourselves to building beloved community. We pray that it may offer a word of healing and liberation for a wounded world.
Volume Two of The Book of Mormon for the Least of These is available today. You can order from your local independent bookstore or here.
 Miguel de La Torre. Reading the Bible From the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.