And now for something completely different… nonviolence

29

August 27, 2012 by christopherpdavey

It could be considered strange that Mormon culture leans toward militarism more so than pacifism.  This ethotic trajectory is somewhat of a paradox for several reasons.  Please consider the following: scriptural support for the pursuit of Christian nonviolence, in both older and modern revelation; the plain, but not aggressive, anti-war message of many war-time prophets; and the antithetical Christlike outcome, in terms of intent and action, of the situation and structure of the battlefield and like scenarios.  This brief posting will assess these areas and give some, hopefully, thought provoking reasons for Mormons to consider nonviolence as at least an alternative to militarism.

It must first be acknowledged that the audience to this posting may well find common ground with the argument presented, and think that there is little that is challenging about the congruence of nonviolence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I suppose then that the intended audience for such a piece is not the actual audience.  Mormons at large, especially those in the US, and particularly those in “Red” states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, etc…) need to hear this message, if not for the reason that there may come a day when nonviolence may be (again) the only way to successful counter the challenges faced in a world that could become increasingly hostile to Christian practices and beliefs.  It is from this platform that I make the assertion that nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.  For the likely audience to this post I would add that nonviolence must increasingly be seen as not merely useful but a spiritual and practical necessity for Mormons, more so than militarism.

Imagine you are, as I was, a few weeks ago in a Sunday School class.  The ward itself is fairly young in that most families are either a recently married couple, or a couple with one or two children.  These demographics, incidentally, do not have a total impact on the following scenario, but only perpetuate the indifference to thinking in alternative, or perhaps truly radical ways.  We have come to the point of our Book of Mormon class which reviews the conversion and nonviolent acts of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis.  Alma chapter 24 describes a people committed to changing from a life of war making to a Christian life of service, compassion, and peace.  The analysis led, dutifully by our instructor, encouraged us to pick out the qualities of the truly converted.  I suggested that alongside their fundamental recognition of their status as “unprofitable servants” that these violence addicts now as part of their recovery had renounced war-making, thus recommending to readers the ideals and actions of pacifism as a quality of the truly converted.  Silence, predictably, befell the room.  Our instructor responded graciously and with some additional thoughts, but the following comments pointed straight toward the valiant use of warfare in other part of Alma, not least the “stripling warriors” from the second generation of these same sword burying converts.  It was as if John Cleese had uttered his famous Python line.

How, then, is this seeming paradox to be dealt with?  Alma 24 makes clear that nonviolence, or pacifism (in a radical sense these are generally synonymous), are qualities of the truly converted.  Consider the following three events: in response to the knowledge that the Lamanites would come upon these people they then renounce their lives of violence; following this commitment they bury their swords, primarily as an expression of repentance rather than nonviolence, although this certainly contributes to the latter; then when their brethren descend upon them to kill them these now pure of heart warriors die in protest of the act of war (and in defense of their Christian values), even genocide, being committed against them.  This final event demonstrates the power and efficacy of moral nonviolence in the dramatic conversion of the attackers.  In fact, throughout the Book of Mormon one could make a comparison of the efficacy of changing lives and bringing peace through preaching by bold prophets and missionaries, versus the combative approach of violently quelling threats.  The power extended here could be further explained be rethinking the following verses: Doctrine and Covenants 121:44 advocates this type of sacrifice, that our faithfulness to Jesus Christ comes above all even own lives if need be (for those with eyes to read); and in John 15:13, where if we have no greater love, like the Savior we willingly give our lives to those who would “despitefully use” us “and persecute” us.  D&C 98:13-48 extols the virtues of peacemaking and forgiveness as tried and tested lines of “defense” against violence and hate.  Included in these verses are also some indication on a Mormon perspective of the Just War tradition, however, explication here is probably best left to another, albeit related piece.

For many already versed in the association of peacemaking and Mormonism, as all should be, the warnings against warmongering (as possibly the first Mormon US president certainly promises to be) are not news.  The billboard placed on I-15 here in Utah in the recent past echo this sentiment by quoting from President Kimball’s “The False gods we Worship” address.  It would be helpful to quote this at large:

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication  of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

 “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)[1]

The presence of military industrial complex here in Utah (note the moral eyesore of the new NSA building near Camps WIlliams) further condemns us as a people under President Kimball’s warnings.  However, it is his admission of the group identity of “antienemy” that truly pangs the heart.  The ethos of the Cold War and the villainization of Islam continues a pattern of Western civilization’s mission of quelling difference and obliterating it.[2]  For Kimball, as stated in this address, renouncing war with its bells and whistles is a matter of faith not pragmatism.

The paradox raised earlier remains, however.  Especially the issue of LDS service persons fighting in US wars of imperial capitalism that retain their temple recommends and church standing.  President David O McKay, following the US entry into in 1942, spoke to this issue:

If, harkening to that call and obeying those in command over them, they shall take the lives of those who fight against them, that will not make of them murderers, nor subject them to the penalty that God has prescribed for those who kill, (…). For it would be a cruel God that would punish His children as moral sinners for acts done by them as the innocent instrumentalities of a sovereign whom He had told them to obey and whose will they were powerless to resist.[3]


As D&C 134 states the faithful are bound to the just laws and conduct of their sovereign (D&C 134:1-3, and 98:1-14) the moral status of combatants is clear.  However, squaring the moral circle is not complete here.  Comparing Church literature and presentations to servicemen given by general authorities to the reality of warfare, and one finds something similar to what Chris Hedges class the contrast of the myth and reality of warfare.[4]  Outside of the combat zone civilians and service persons are exposed and bombarded with what President Kimball calls “antienemy” propaganda, fuelled by the profane nationalism that separates us from “foreign” brothers and sisters, declared enemies or not. It is no doubt that LDS service persons are counseled time and again to maintain their worthiness whilst being engaged in military work.  Following Hedges, though, and for most soldiers, remaining distant to the moral degradation of warfare is extremely difficult; the addictive force and pressure to survive overrides all senses of mythic patriotism and nationalist fervor, hence reality wins out in the combat zone.

Compare also the following: the virtues of Captain Moroni and the so-called American values recreated in this season’s latest human zoo reality TV, Stars Earn Their Stripes.  The heavens shook at the valiancy of Moroni, who himself abhorred at the shedding of blood, “Now the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary; yea, and they were also taught never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives” (Alma 48:14).  Today, American culture, and most likely Mormon culture celebrates “raising the sword” with dangerous banality.  We should thank our “stars” that the ratings were so bad.  Structures and environments of violent conflict produces not glamorous, patriotic celebrities, but broken humans, who are subject to a Hedgsian reality that provides fewer and fewer moral choices.

Finally, two thoughts that help bring us closer to resolving the paradox.  The first is the timeline: we honor and respect figures like Captain Moroni and others who engaged in righteous warfare, since this time, rarely (with exception of actually tyranny and genocide during the early years of the Church) have modern-day prophets issued a call to arms.  The key event setting this tone, was Christ’s institution of the higher law during his earthly ministry, accompanied by such instruction as the Sermon on the Mount.  The latter frames the pursuit of perfection (in this life and the life to come) as being inseparably connected with loving enemies and creatively, not passively “turning the other cheek” as Christ actively demonstrated throughout his life (Matthew 5:43-48).  Secondly, and finally, nonviolence for the reasons above and many more not mentioned here, provides a Christlike path through conflict.  The disputes and challenges (be they distinctly connected with the pre-mortal conflict against evil or not) we experience in life will be much better met without violence, but with love, compassion and intelligence, not the kind of militaristic patriotism that is submerged American and often Mormon culture into an antienemy identity.

Nonviolence is not only the force of the weak and humble, it is the courage of the Christlike.  As violence continues to encircle our lives in Western societies, and penetrate the consciousness of even the youngest of children through popular media, now is the time more than ever to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16); and perhaps, truly, it is time for something completely different.

[1] Spencer W. Kimball, “The False gods we Worship,” First Presidency Message, June 1976, accessed 20 August, 2012 (http://www.lds.org/ensign/1976/06/the-false-gods-we-worship).

[2] Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).  This notion of obliteration of difference is central to Powell’s thesis.

[3] “First Presidency Message,” Conference Report April, 1942, accessed 19 August, 2012 (http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,4889-1,00.html).

[4] Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 38.

29 thoughts on “And now for something completely different… nonviolence

  1. kiwimormon says:

    Well said Christopher!

  2. zouarvehat says:

    Unfortunately, the christ like virtues of peace have to exist in a world where other war-like religions are on a crusade to annihilate civilization. We can be peaceful like the lamb, but we will die like the lamb with the wire at out throats if we are not careful.

    • christopherpdavey says:

      This is exactly the point though… often we may well be called on to go as the lamb has. Also, as hinted toward, there is a realm of underdeveloped responses to violence through nonviolent means. These result in less destruction and more productive outcomes (note again the Anti Nephi Lehis) and there are count examples of this today in recent history (East Timor, Serbia, Kosovo, Philippines, various Latin American countries and so on). For a true Christ how we die matters less than sacririce to God and our spiritual siblings.

    • Joseph says:

      zouarvehat,

      Your above statement is exactly why I would be wary of a strictly “rational atheist” ticket for the US Presidency. Anyone who feels they have some “superior” understanding of things that they are will to impose on others should be kept away from the ability to send us to war.

    • LDSDPer says:

      This would be reasonable if Christians weren’t more warlike than most others–if not all others–

      • Joseph says:

        What would be more reasonable? I certainly did not mean to communicate that I think so-called “Christians” aren’t war-like. As Mark Twain pointed out in the short story “Mysterious Stranger,” “Christians” have perfected the art of killing more effectively than anyone else I know of. But I don’t see a group of atheists (i.e. Christopher Hitchens and others) who feel that their idea of “rationality” should be imposed on everyone else as being any less dangerous. It is their similarity to the Religious Right that bothers me, not their differences.

  3. J. Madson says:

    Nice post. Yes, you are certainly preaching to the choir but it is always good to be reminded that there is a way of peaceableness and grace that we can follow over the choice of violence. I love the simple statement of the first Christians in palestine who called their faith “the way.” For them, Christianity was a way of living, a way of interacting even with enemies which was personified in the life and death of the preacher from Nazareth named Jesus who was willing to be put up on a cross rather than rule as the rulers of Gentile kingdoms do with blood and horror.

  4. Tariq says:

    Well argued, Christopher. There is no question about it that a truly Christ-like society would be a nonviolent, non-militaristic society.

    Nevertheless, I am not a pure pacifist, as I believe there are instances in which violence is justified. For example, I would never — on the grounds that all violence in wrong — tell the Zapatistas that they were wrong to take up arms in 1994. Nor would I ever tell a woman who used violence to defend herself from an attacker that she should instead have been like the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, and just let the attacker have his way with her.

    But those examples are a far cry from delighting in bloodshed the way the military and the police do. “Who are we!” chant military trainees, “Marines! What do we do? We Kill, we kill, we kill!” I can hardly imagine Captain Moroni pumping up his troops with such bellicose chanting.

    For those people who do strive to be pure pacifists, however, I have a question for consideration. Is it possible for a non-violent society to have capitalism, police, prisons, and a military? Leo Tolstoy, a pioneer of Christian Anarchism, (Emma Goldman called him the “last true Christian”) argued that one cannot truly be a pacifist (or a Christian) unless s/he withdraws support from these institutions that rest on violence. In other words, argued Tolstoy, you cannot be a true pacifist, against all violence, without also being against capitalism, the police, the military, and prisons.

    • christopherpdavey says:

      Fantastic thought. Indeed, if we are to be true Christians and perhaps then pacislfists there are many structures of violence that must also be fought against throught nonviolent stratgies. Speaking in terms of true peacekeeping there is certainly a role for just policing which can be a more effective response to violence than militarism. See David Cortright, amongst others, for more here.

      • Tariq says:

        Yeah, Cortright is a good scholar. I read his book Soldiers in Revolt. A good book that tells a very important story; U.S. soldiers who opposed the Vietnam War.

    • J. Madson says:

      Tolstoy is my homeboy. I recently acquired copies of his personal letters. He is so good. A real Christian. So let me get this straight tariq: no capitalism, police, military, and prisons. Sounds like a slice of heaven.

    • LDSDPer says:

      I like those words, and I need to read more of Tolstoy–

    • james stewart says:

      can you recommend some specific tolstoy writings to explore this concept more? thanks!

      • J. Madson says:

        The Kingdom of God is within you

      • J. Madson says:

        also The Death of Ivan Ilyich and What Is to Be Done?

      • Tariq says:

        In addition to those, there is a great little Tolstoy book called Government is Violence: Essays on Anarchism and Pacifism.
        It’s a compilation of some of his overtly social and political writings. An interesting thing about Tolstoy is that as he grew older, he also grew increasingly more radical and increasingly more Christian in his philosophy. He even wrote some articles for anarchist periodicals, including an article for Emma Goldman’s magazine Mother Earth.

  5. Ron Madson says:

    Thank you for your contribution here and adding your voice to the Mormon Worker. Love it, and Chris Hedges is, imo, a real latter day prophet. As I see and hear members in my ward stockpile guns/ammo and speak of “others” as threats in coming days, one wonders how the message of peace, globally and on a personal level, has been lost on us as a faith community.

  6. gomw says:

    Just one thought/question before I reply to the heart of your excellent and thought provoking article:

    I’m not sure that Romney is PROBABLY the next president and I don’t believe he is promising a peaceful USA.

    There is no question in my mind that we are taught by Christ to abhor war. The lamanites who lied down and died showed more courage than their children who fought so vallantly; yet in our teaching and practices, the stripling warriors get far more reverence.

    The Book of Mormon is indeed a history of warfare but in nearly all cases the wars were in defense of the homeland. In my view, the only war we have fought in defense of our homeland was the second world war, It is the only war in which we were invaded. The Revolutionary War was a war to protect the weathy. We most likely have received our independence without it. Canada did. The 20th century wars have been increasingly non defensive and the recent oil wars are pure evil and imperialistic. The “democratic” governments we establish are purely puppet governments subject to the command or our government.

    I served in the Korean War and frankly wondered why I was called to do so; although the thought of refusing never entered my mind. I believe the Korean War was a turning point for some in the concept of pacificism or non violence. Since then the wars have become increasingly imperialistic and unnecessary. I cringe when I hear it said that our Mormon soldiers or any other soldiers are fighting for our freedom. That is the mantra of the corporate desire to control our government.

    I don’t know if we can lay down and die the the Anti-Nephi-Lehis but now that the military is all volunteer, we can certainly stop volunteering. IMO, that should be the LDS position.

    • geno@3945 says:

      Assessing WWII as a just war, or a moral defense of homeland is also questionable. The Nazi threat should have and could have been responded to through nonviolent monkey wrenching of the industrial and economic system. International views of the Nazis plummeted following Kristallnacht and would have provided a popular platform, given the presence of key moral and political imagination, to engage in nonviolent action that could have averted the Holocaust reaching its peak. Secondly, the Japanese had grand visions of invading the US but lacked the manpower to do so, etc… A body of ’60s era, and beyond, literature dedicates much thought toward civil defense of a country. Denmark is of course an excellent WWII example.

    • LDSDPer says:

      many of those who volunteer are financially desperate–

      • Tariq says:

        True. When the economy is bad, military recruitment rates tend to increase. Most people who join the military don’t do it out of bloodlust or maliciousness. They do it for economic reasons.

  7. Joseph says:

    Nice essay. I do agree with Tariq in that I am not a pure pacifist. But taking the Book of Mormon’s teachings on war as they stand, and also past leaders of the LDS Church, many of the wars the U.S. has engaged in have not really been justified. We are supposed to have peace as our goal, and not just as a “touchy-feely” “hope it happens in the next life” kind of way. And while this is preaching to the choir, we need sermons as well. And it helps give ideas to maybe bring up in Gospel discussions in other settings.

  8. Joseph says:

    I should also add that I don’t think anyone is going to go to Hell for being a Pacifist.

  9. LDSDPer says:

    good article; I suppose some people may feel that there are times when they are justified in defense; I don’t know–
    I’ve seen too much violence, and I’m not sure that I would rather not just die–
    but then there are those I might be trying to protect; I don’t know–
    I love the anti-Nephi-Lehites; they are my heroes.
    In today’s climate, though, as far as political leaders are concerned, there is nobody who promises an end to the perpetual wars–
    Those on Mormon blogs who believe that Democrats are more fair socially still must defend the fact that the current POTUS is not stopping the wars–
    and those on Mormon blogs who believe that the Republicans are more financially responsible have to defend the fact that the warmongering begun by Republican presidents and continued by a Democratic president are one of the most financially wasteful things the current government is doing–
    There are no left/right paradigm solutions here–
    There is not a major political candidate running for POTUS who will stop these wars, and that is disheartening, if not discouraging–

    but thank you for reminding those of us who are discouraged that at another time in another place . . . there were those with courage who did the right thing–

    • james stewart says:

      there is ron paul who seems to want to end all international military engagements. i don’t support him, but i sometimes wonder if overlooking his darwinistic pro-capitalist sentiments is worth it if it means ending the violence that is america as we know it today?

      • That’s a real dilemma: Austrian economics is a major test of one’s credulity, but on the other hand those wars are the great sins of our nation. Since I suspect our economy would suffer greatly without those wars anyways, I think the potential damage of his economic policies would be a moot point: Had Ron Paul won the Republican nomination, it would have been reasonable to vote for him.

  10. […] “I suppose then that the intended audience for such a piece is not the actual audience. Mormons at large, especially those in the US, and particularly those in “Red” states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, etc…) need to hear this message, if not for the reason that there may come a day when nonviolence may be (again) the only way to successful counter the challenges faced in a world that could become increasingly hostile to Christian practices and beliefs. It is from this platform that I make the assertion that nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.” (Davey, 2012) […]

  11. […] “I suppose then that the intended audience for such a piece is not the actual audience. Mormons at large, especially those in the US, and particularly those in “Red” states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, etc…) need to hear this message, if not for the reason that there may come a day when nonviolence may be (again) the only way to successful counter the challenges faced in a world that could become increasingly hostile to Christian practices and beliefs. It is from this platform that I make the assertion that nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.” (Davey, 2012) […]

  12. […] “I suppose then that the intended audience for such a piece is not the actual audience. Mormons at large, especially those in the US, and particularly those in “Red” states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, etc…) need to hear this message, if not for the reason that there may come a day when nonviolence may be (again) the only way to successful counter the challenges faced in a world that could become increasingly hostile to Christian practices and beliefs. It is from this platform that I make the assertion that nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.” (Davey, 2012) […]

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