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.)
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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).
 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.
 “First Presidency Message,” Conference Report April, 1942, accessed 19 August, 2012 (http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,4889-1,00.html).
 Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 38.