by Michael Haehnel
Sexual Sin Likened to Murder?
One of the most infamous passages of scripture for those of us who are queer is Alma 39:3-5:
Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.
Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.
Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
The common interpretation is that the “these things” that Alma refers to are any on the long list of sexual sins. For some adherents, these include not only adultery and fornication but also masturbation and pornography. Most orthodox Latter-day Saints also include any sort of same-sex intimacy, regardless of whether the partners are legally married.
Years ago, when I was personally struggling with feelings about my own sexuality, I sought to buttress my self-repression with the strictest, most conservative observation of moral cleanliness. As part of this, I embarked on an exercise of exegesis to explain why sexual sin is third only to denying the Holy Ghost and committing murder. I developed a scripture chain that tied in the ultimate downfall of the Nephites.
But something felt wrong. It just did not sit well. As I examined my discomfort, I decided ultimately that as well-intentioned as my efforts were, God did not concur. So I abandoned my endeavor to explain why sexual sin is roughly equivalent to murder.
Years later, I returned to the same passage of scripture and discovered that it did yield essential truth, but in an entirely different direction than I had been taught to believe.
Coming into the Middle of a Conversation
The key lies in the phrase “these things.” Pronouns like “these” refer back to something that both the speaker and the listener understand. As bystanders to the interchange between Alma and his son, we don’t have the complete background. It is reasonable to infer that what we are reading in Alma 39 is not the first discussion Alma and Corianton have had concerning this incident. So “these things” could refer to a number of behaviors that only the two of them understand.
From the passage itself, we have two possibilities as to what Alma is referring to when he uses the phrase “these things”:
• “Thou didst forsake the ministry”
• “Thou didst…go…after the harlot Isabel.”
Most readers would conclude that forsaking the ministry, although serious, would not be in the same league as denying the Holy Ghost or committing murder. On the other hand, many readers are inclined to believe that sexual sin is serious, so for them, elevating it to just below murder is not a huge leap. But is sexual sin what Alma is talking about when he uses the words “these things”? Or do he and Corianton understand something different?
Subsequent verses shed more light. Verse 9 appears to corroborate the idea that “these things” are sexual sins:
Now my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things; for except ye do this ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. Oh, remember, and take it upon you, and cross yourself in these things (empasis added).
The repetition of “these things” in the above passage appears to confirm the idea that Alma is referring to lust and lustful behaviors. However, a little further down, we read Alma’s motivation in speaking to his son—i.e. the imperative that Alma is following:
Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.
And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities;
That ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly; but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done (vs. 11-13, emphasis added).
Alma is responding to a specific commandment from God, the gist of which is that his son, Corianton, stop leading others toward wickedness and spiritual destruction.
The wording “lead away the hearts of many people to destruction” is striking. Granted, a bad example does not usually lead others to physical death, but according to Alma, it can lead to a spiritual equivalent. This is not the first time that Alma uses strong language about activity that leads people not to believe. Speaking of his own exploits before his conversion, he says
Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction (Alma 36:14).
Alma did not physically murder anyone, but he sees his actions as murder because they led to the spiritual downfall of other people.
A Reasonable Interpretation
Suddenly it all falls together. Alma is horrified that his son, Corianton, has—in a moment of pleasure-seeking and indolence—undermined the credibility of Alma’s missionary efforts. Alma sees a repeat of history: he as a young man had intentionally undermined his father’s work to declare the gospel of Christ. Just as Alma saw his own youthful activity as something akin to murder, so it is reasonable that he should characterize Corianton’s behavior in similar terms. It is credible, therefore, to infer that the “these things” he was referring to are in fact any activities that lead to others’ loss of faith. Alma would have his son and anyone within the sound of his voice understand that spiritual injury to others is comparable to physical violence.
So Alma 39:3-5, rather than laying monumental guilt upon those involved in sexual activity, forcefully accuses anyone whose behaviors undermine others’ faith and spirituality.
Time to Stop Guilting Others, Time to Examine Ourselves
It is time to stop referring to extramarital sexual activity as second only to murder. It is time to stop laying crushing guilt upon each other—especially our youth—because of pornography or masturbation. It is time to stop discrediting same-sex partners as living in abomination. It is time to stop judging one another by their sexuality, sexual activity or gender identification.
It is high time to make a clear-eyed self-assessment: “Is anything I am doing causing another person to lose hope, to question God’s love, to abandon spirituality?” It does not need to be a deliberate, egotistical enterprise to overthrow people’s faith. It does not need to be an excursion into prideful self-indulgence. Rampant paranoia and guilt-mongering concerning sexuality and gender, to the extent that they discourage a person’s confidence in the gospel, also constitute spiritual violence.
Regardless of the motive or specific behavior, Alma’s indictment would be the same: anything that sabotages the relationship between God and God’s children is “abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.”
I leave it to the reader to ascertain what behaviors, individual or institutional, may fall under this condemnation.