That’s a direct quote from Alma 4:9, part of this week’s Come Follow Me material, if you’re following along. The first few chapters of Alma, covering about six years, recount a dizzying tale of religious division, political conflict, civil war, and destruction, followed quickly and rather surprisingly by peace (“there were no contentions nor wars in the land of Zarahemla,” 4:1), hardship (“the loss of their flocks and herds, … the loss of their fields of grain,” 4:2), and then, just two years later, sudden prosperity (exceeding riches, fine silks, many flocks and herds, lots of gold and silver, “which they had obtained by their industry,” 4:6). Rather than celebrating this amazing economic recovery, Mormon the editor bemoans the concomitant rise of pride, avarice, and a scornful attitude toward others. In verse 9 we read:
And thus, in the eighth year of the reign of judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride …
The typical summary of the conflicts and wars in the Book of Mormon is that the righteous Nephites were always being attacked by wild and unrighteous Lamanites. But a more detailed review shows it was dissension within Nephite society, Nephite civil wars, and “envyings” and strife among the church members themselves that was the source of most of the conflicts. Interesting.
It just so happens the our present-day Church, and us along with it, is heading right into a scenario that will possibly present many stakes and wards with significant and unprecedented contention and conflict. Because when LDS chapels are again open for business, there are going to be three groups of Mormons: (1) those who attend and don’t wear masks; (2) those who attend and do wear masks; and (3) those who choose not to attend at all at the present time. If there has been tension and occasional conflict between maskers and non-maskers (or between regulations requiring masks and those who are determined not to wear them) at your local grocery store or retail outlet, I’m thinking a similar dynamic might rear its ugly head at church.
How it plays out depends in part on what guidelines or requirements local stakes and wards end up issuing. If masks are required, some non-maskers might feel inclined to assert their right to choose otherwise. If masks are optional, maskers might overtly avoid non-maskers. If there is unmasked singing, some maskers might just walk out and go home. The Church-wide guidelines that were issued last week about reopening are very general. The specific guidelines that local units will issue and attempt to follow will have to get down to the details of which meetings are held, what the seating arrangements will be, how the sacrament will be administered, whether there is singing, whether masks are optional or recommended or required, and so forth. These are very tricky decisions for local leaders to make.
The best scenario: Local leaders work hard to make everyone feel welcome and safe, and encourage all to support others to make their own choices in light of their own beliefs and medical or health circumstances. I’m hoping Latter-day Saints rise to the occasion and not give others in their ward a hard time — either giving a masker/non-masker a hard time or judging those who choose to stay away from church for a few more months (until the hoped-for vaccine arrives, perhaps).
The worst scenario: If leaders don’t try to preempt that sort of strife, or even actively stoke it by so strongly endorsing a mask or no-mask position that half the ward feels unwelcome. If there is visible animosity between maskers and non-maskers. If the situation is so muddled or tense that lots of people stay home, not just those who are at risk.
Well, actually the worst scenario would be if a ward becomes a cluster of virus spreading, a few dozen ward members get sick, and two or three people die. That could lead to some very ugly contention and strife. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
I have great hope for my own ward and my stake. In the ward, two of the three bishopric members are doctors. I’m pretty sure they appreciate the danger of taking a bold rather than a cautious approach to re-opening. As for the stake, an ER doc who has had recent experience with COVID patients and has had direct communication with colleagues fighting the epidemic in other cities is on the high council. So the stake presidency will get some sound, reliable information to guide their thinking. Not all wards and stakes are so lucky. It’s not clear how much input and guidance Area Authorities or senior leaders are going to send down the line to stake presidents and bishops. There might be a lot of variation in how wards and stakes do their reopening.
Summing up: (1) We have no idea yet what the details of the actual reopening plan at any particular ward or stake are going to be. (2) Lots of potential for strife and bickering among the members who return and attend church. (3) Potential judging of members who choose not to return for a few months. (4) But the opportunity to rise above the tension and anxiety of the moment and support each other, regardless of mask/non-mask or attend/stay-at-home choices. This could be a very tough few months, church-wise. Or it could be our finest hour.