A Nahuatl song, glorifying war as the very fulfillment of the American dream, captures the smugness of a great people in an impregnable city:
Proud of itself
is the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Here no one fears to die in war.
This is our glory.
This is Your command,
oh giver of Life!
Have this in mind, oh princes,
do not forget it.
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?
With our arrows,
with our shields,
the city exists,
Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 19 v.-20 r, in Miguel Leon-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 87.
"Songs proclaiming the glory and power of the Aztecs frequently reach an almost mystical exaltation," 86. It is a voice singing eerily from the dust--a voice of warning from the ancient peoples of America to the usurpers of their proud place.
Such boasting is a leitmotif in the Book of Mormon. This great city Jerusalem, or that great city Zarahemla, or this great city Ammonihah united stand as impregnable as heaven and earth to all contest human or divine. The theme of impregnability goes hand-in-hand with the book's insistence on destruction. As Hugh Nibley would tell his classes, that associated theme sounds its trumpet blast in the very first chapter of Nephi (verse 4): "The great city Jerusalem must be destroyed!" For a sense of how destruction goes on to weave its pattern throughout the entire book, he advised us to consult the concordance--and to be prepared for a shock.
It is Civilization versus God and repentance. Civilization, the state of the great City, must fall in her unrepentant pride (see Revelation 18). The idea reaches a fever pitch in Helaman 13:12-14: "Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla. . . yea, wo unto this great city. . . this great city. . .this great city. . . yea, wo be unto this great city." It is the Echo of History.
The elites of mighty Ammonihah slap Alma with their stolid refrain, "Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man [or one General Authority or one Church] among this people," and ream him out with their cant about their own particular little city and their own particularly novel, lovely, rational ideology being as lasting as earth itself:
Who art thou? And for that matter: Who is God?
"Who art thou? Suppose ye that we shall believe the testimony of one man, although he should preach unto us that the earth should pass away?
Now they understood not the words which they spake; for they knew not that the earth should pass away.
And they said also: We will not believe thy words if thou shouldst prophesy that this great city should be destroyed in one day.
Now they knew not that God could do such marvelous works."
That part about "one day" sums up the degree to which man will tempt God.
In due time--or ten chapters' space--"the people of Ammonihah were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness.
But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness" (Alma 19:9-10).
That last detail shows one everlasting irony: ever that great city stood, even at her peak, at the borders of man and beast--in reach of the wild.
"Nothing beside remains," though its infamy persists:
"And it was called Desolation of Nehors; for they were of the profession of Nehor, who were slain; and their lands remained desolate" (Alma 19: 11).
Perhaps the great lesson about civilization in the Book of Mormon is the utter unawareness of the inevitable fall--the great lesson of never learning the lesson at all, despite all the learned "profession."
For, but a few years later, we hear the Nephite boast sounded again:
Why do you suffer this man to revile against us?
For behold he doth condemn all this people, even unto destruction;
yea, and also that these our great cities shall be taken from us, that we shall have no place in them.
And now we know that this is impossible, for behold, we are powerful, and our cities great, therefore our enemies can have no power over us (Helaman 8:5-6).
One sentence, surcharged with irony, should haunt the memory of every reader of the Book of Mormon:
"And now we know that this is impossible."
It does not take the Lord long to respond.
The Lord acknowledges the great city, even while mocking her wearying pretense:
"Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla. . . yea, wo unto this great city. . . this great city. . . this great city. . . yea, wo be unto this great city" (Helaman 13).
Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire . . .
And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea. . .
And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth.
(3 Nephi 9: 3-5)
Where is mercy? comes the plea. My question is Where is Moronihah? Have you never, in the quiet of a big-city library, contemplated the whereabouts of Alexandria's bookshelf?
There can be no greater irony in the modern history of the Americas than the refrain:
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?
Speaking of the Great Cities of world civilization, the living Prophet, Thomas S. Monson, concludes:
"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and a comfortable life; and they lost all--comfort and security and freedom."
"Must we learn such costly lessons over and over again? Times change, but truth persists. When we fail to profit from the experiences of the past, we are doomed to repeat them with all their heartache, suffering, and anguish. Haven't we the wisdom to obey Him who knows the beginning from the end?" ("The World Needs Pioneers Today," Ensign, July 2013). "Doomed?" Doomed.
We remember, too, how the people of that great city Ammonihah, the Nephite answer to Bunyan's Vanity Fair and the Revelator's Babylon, longed to undermine the freedoms of lesser, more complacent cities, cities of the ancient, Pre-Columbian American dream:
"They do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people" (Alma 8:17).
That line of study suddenly becomes the most popular major of every stripe of partisan in Syria, Russia, Egypt, Washington DC, or Venezuela today. But complacency undoes the studious proud and the lazy ignorant alike.
Caught up in their studious dream, lost in their agenda, assured of their power, "in one day," from blue sky to "in Mexico night is falling," the moment of repentance passed. When the sun set, it was not "Like a shield that descends"--"eagles" and "jaguars" to the contrary.
(See additional verses of the triumphant song, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 86).
The site of the lost city, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, nearly the world's greatest city its its time, now also hosts earth's largest city. Together with all other great cities of the world, that Great City Mexico, or that Great City America, again attests, re-born, the struggle between God and Civilization, between the intricacies of ideology and agenda and the simplicities of repentance.
Elder L. Tom Perry, "Obedience through Our Faithfulness," April 2014, General Conference: "While some very intelligent and insightful people might believe our more complex time demands ever more complex solutions, I am far from convinced they are right. Rather, I am of the frame of mind that today's complexity demands greater simplicity."