February 12, 2011 by J. Madson
Since the SL Tribune ran an article on my approach to the Book of Mormon I have received alot of criticism arguing that the Book of Mormon cannot be anti-war or against violence. In an article in the upcoming print edition of the Mormon Worker I will lay out some of my arguments. I would like to present a few here to help others understand why I read the Book of Mormon the way I do. I imagine I will do 2-3 posts. This will be the first laying out a couple of positions for discussion.
Within Mormon culture it has become common to justify war and conflict by an appeal to the Book of Mormon. Many have used The Book of Mormon to dismiss Jesus’ words, teachings, and life as a statement on how we should approach violence and war. Despite historical and scriptural evidence that early Christian communities refused to engage in warfare and violence, the Book of Mormon has seemingly allowed members to move the New Testament and Christian traditions of non-violence to the margins.
I believe this is a mistake and a failure to critically engage The Book of Mormon. René Girard, French historian, literary critic, and philosopher, has argued that “the gospel simply shows us two options, which is exactly what ideologies never provide. Either we imitate Christ, or we run the risk of self-destruction.”
The Book of Mormon addresses the question: how should we respond to our enemies and presents us with the same two options noted by Girard: we can either imitate Christ in loving our enemies and seeking at-one-ment with them or we can resort to violence. In other words, will we sacrifice fellow humans for our own benefit, or are we willing to sacrifice self for others? Will we follow the sacrificial economy of Satan, or will we imitate Christ in his voluntary self-giving for others? In the case of the Book of Mormon, both options are presented and the consequences of choosing violence are shown in Nephite self-destruction. Mormon and Girard both conclude, that “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished,” and that we must “lay down our weapons of war.” Or as Girard states it, “Jesus doesn’t need to finish off all the bad guys. They finish each other off.”
This message is highly relevant to those of us located at the heart of the American Empire. If this truly is a blessed land, even a promised land, and if God truly wants us to be a city on the hill as some claim, then all the more urgent the message of the Book of Mormon. Will we follow the example of the Nephites and Lamanites in refusing to give up our narratives and engaging in violence or will we love our enemies and seek at-one-ment?
Dennis Potter once wrote that unlike the New Testament which speaks to the powerless and victimless and society and promises hope and liberation in the Kingdom of God, that the Book of Mormon speaks to the powerful and mighty. In other words:
Liberation, in the Book of Mormon, is in the hands of the most powerful, just as atonement is in the hand of the almighty Son of God. And just as the almighty Son must give up that power and, in a very real sense, empty himself of his divinity, the liberation of the poor is in the hands of the prideful and wealthy. But instead of being a story of salvation in which the ideal of liberation is fulfilled, the Book of Mormon is a story of damnation in which the people of God are condemned and destroyed by the “wicked”. It is a warning to the “righteous” in today’s promised land. Those who believe that God is on their side, that they are more than the dust of the earth, and that the poor of the world deserve their destitute state, will find themselves condemned to a similar fate, unless they yield their wills to God, and like his Son, empty themselves of their pride, power, and wealth.
If Potter is correct, and I believe he is, than the message of the Book of Mormon should weigh heavy on our souls.
The Book of Mormon begins with a rivalry between brothers that escalates into a national/tribal conflict with little respite and ends with Nephite destruction.
When looked at broadly or macro level, The Book of Mormon shows how Nephite and Lamanite civilizations inability to give up founding narratives and myths about each other led to self-destruction. It demonstrates how violence only reinforced these narratives and stories while failing to address the underlying causes of conflict. In almost all cases Nephite and Lamanite violence led to more violence. The Book of Mormon is a critique of this violence, a plea to be wiser, a call to lay down our weapons of war and instead imitate Christ in seeking at-one-ment or peace as Paul described it: a breaking down of barriers between groups, even histories or narratives.
Independent of what Nephi, Captain Moroni or others individually thought of war, The Book of Mormon, as whole, demonstrates clearly that violence only begets more violence and leads to the extinction of Nephite civilization. And lest we think the Lamanites fared better, Moroni informs us that “the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.”
I will lay out six main points but since my first may be the most controversial, I will just present one in this post.
1) Nephite civilization was founded upon a violent act: the slaying of Laban. This foundational act helped define and form Nephite ideology and traditions about enemies. It held that violence can be redemptive and bring about righteous ends, that it is better to kill your enemies than lose your culture and civilization, and memorialized this into Nephite thought with the use of Laban’s sword as an emblem of their nation and power. This same sword was used as a facsimile by Nephi to create more weapons of war and was carried by subsequent Nephite rulers into conflict. To a large degree, the foundational act of killing Laban trapped Nephite culture into a narrative that was repeated again and again in future wars and conflicts resulting in the destruction of an entire people.
This belief was exacerbated with narratives of Lamanites as a wild, hardened, and ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them. In effect, any threat to Nephite society could easily be recast into the framework provided by the slaying of Laban justifying violence against those labeled as enemies. It should be noted that appeals to foundational events in justifying violence are not unique to the Nephites. One familiar example is using the ideas of liberty and freedom, appealing to the foundational logic of the American Revolution, to justify conflict in the United States.