The first half of 3 Nephi begins to address some disquieting/depressing themes. Just a few thoughts/observations.
Miracles don't convert us. They might impress us in the short term. But in the long term we can always find ways to explain them away or ignore them if we wish. Conversion is ultimately a product of an inner yearning to reach out toward and be touched by God.
At the recent Affirmation Conference in Mexico City, a number of us witnessed protests in the wake of the brutal murders and burning of 43 student protesters, a tragedy that brought to the fore the pervasive, endemic problem of government corruption by powerful drug cartels. It was heart-breaking to hear our Mexican Affirmation members express despair about whether there is any hope for change, whether this terrible corruption can ever be rooted out and power returned to the people. Since then, I have been reading and watching documentaries about the drug cartels (fed by U.S. drug trade) to try to understand this whole thing better. The more I learn, the more heartbroken I feel. This is not just a central American problem... It's a U.S. problem. The cartels get their power from the gangs, and the gangs started here in the U.S., to feed the hunger for drugs. And the gangs have appeal because of the terrible, grinding poverty that the U.S. has allowed to fester within and beyond its borders.
At the same time, I have been reading in the Book of Mormon about "secret societies" set up by nefarious individuals for the purpose of accumulating personal gain and power; how they used terrible oaths of allegiance to blind and enslave people; and how they used fear and intimidation to undermine democracy. In one of the documentaries I watched (produced by National Geographic), a young man who had gotten involved in one of the most powerful narco gangs in the U.S. talked about how once he got involved in the gang, it was like some kind of darkness had descended over him (he used the image of his eyes being covered or blinded), how he could no longer see or act beyond what gang leaders told him to do. Gang members spoke of having lost count of how many people they had killed, including people they had considered their closest friends.
There is a real and terrible darkness in the world. 3 Nephi 8:20-23 describes a literal darkness that descended in the wake of the crucifixion, but there is a metaphorical darkness that is every bit as real in the world today, and that inspires the same kind of despair that 3 Nephi describes. We don't have to look too far to see the evidence of it. And if we don't believe in a light greater than the darkness, a light that can inspire us to stand up to the darkness, and if we don't believe in a life that transcends this mortal coil, a life that gives our deaths meaning, and that would permit us to defy the kind of death that the powers of darkness use to try to manipulate us, there is no hope.
The message of these chapters in the Book of Mormon is that there is light and life and hope. But it demands of us patience and humility; it demands of us a commitment to one another, to care for one another. At times, it can also demand a kind of courage or heroism that seems impossible. But I have a testimony of how God can strengthen us beyond what we thought possible when the situations we face demand it.