[Note: I was invited to write the following essay as part of a collection intended to help young Latter-day Saints deal with difficult issues. My essay will be paired with another discussing the value of military service, written by a colleague who has served in Afghanistan. He and I agree on some things and differ on others—but among the things we share fully are mutual friendship and respect.]
Following Christ in Times of War: Latter-day Saints as Peacemakers
Bruce W. Young
The official position of the Church on war is reasonably clear. War itself is evil, but members are encouraged to fulfill their duties as citizens, including the duty of military service when required. In fulfilling that duty—as long as they do it in the right spirit—Church members who are required to take lives are not guilty of murder. The guilt for such actions, if any, lies with those ultimately responsible for the conflict.1
The moral and spiritual complexities of war and peace make applying the Church’s position to specific situations a challenging task. Scriptures and statements by Church leaders seem to lead in a variety of directions, sometimes denouncing war, sometimes seeming to justify it. Among faithful, believing Church members a wide range of attitudes may be found, from strict pacifism to enthusiastic militarism, with most members located somewhere in the middle, troubled by the evil of war but wanting to be good citizens who honor the sacrifice of those who perform military service.
In this essay, I explore war and peace from a gospel perspective with the aim of helping those who have experienced pain or confusion trying to make sense of these issues. I especially want to help any who, like me, have sometimes felt judged or excluded because their views don’t match those of many of their neighbors or ward members. I believe that no one who favors peace should feel like an outsider in the Church headed by the Prince of Peace. Though there is great room for individual understanding and application, the gospel—above all, the gospel as it has been restored in the latter days—requires of us charity, forbearance, respect for and appreciation of all of God’s children, and a desire for peace. The gospel does not and should not encourage anger, hatred, enmity, or pride. All of us should be troubled by war.
One of the great challenges in dealing with these issues is to avoid anger and harsh judgment toward those we disagree with. Those who favor peace during times of war often have a hard time truly being peacemakers in private and public conversations on the subject. And so while making a gospel case for peace on a global scale, I want to be a peacemaker in how I make that case. I believe the scriptures and teachings of Church leaders support efforts for peace and justify war only as a rare exception. But I acknowledge that others can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. The Lord has commanded us to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:16). At the same time there is scriptural support for the idea that war is sometimes a tragic necessity. Taken as a whole, however, the scriptures and statements of Church leaders—and especially the words and example of the Savior—consistently encourage us to seek peace, to exercise charity, and in every way possible to avoid violence, hatred, and revenge in our interaction with others.
Lessons of the Book of Mormon
On questions of war and peace, the scriptures offer a wide range of examples and attitudes, from the complete self-sacrifice of the people of Ammon to the Israelites’ wars of annihilation, in which entire peoples, including women and children, were killed—an example used tragically centuries later to justify exterminating Native Americans. Obviously, scriptural examples must be used with care and considered in the light of modern revelation.
With so many chapters describing armed conflict, the Book of Mormon has much to say about war. The war chapters have troubled many readers and have seemed to some to support war as a preferred option for solving problems. This last view, I believe, is seriously mistaken. Carefully read, the Book of Mormon shows the horrors of war, the dangers of war-fever and the lust for bloodshed and revenge it leads to, and the need for repentance and a change of heart brought about by the atonement before evil can be overcome on either an individual or a national scale. Among the many lessons of the Book of Mormon on war are these:
(1) The Lord will preserve his people, but they must do their part. That part includes practical preparation (for instance, the defenses overseen by Captain Moroni) but most importantly sincere faith, humility, and obedience. When the Nephites ceased to be righteous and relied on their own strength, they lost the Lord’s protection.
(2) The Lord can preserve his people in many ways. The Book of Mormon reports the Lord at times commanding military strategy and combat and at times commanding other options, including escape from enemies, patient endurance through years of bondage, and missionary work to change enemies’ hearts.
(3) The word of God is a stronger weapon than the sword: “the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them” (Alma 31:5). Even with the terrible threat posed by secret combinations, the righteous Lamanites used missionary work along with other methods and succeeded in “destroying” the robbers by converting them (Helaman 6:37).
(4) Even enemies in war are in reality our brothers and sisters. Once it is noticed, the constant reference to the Lamanites as “our brethren” sends a powerful message: through the centuries of conflict, the record keepers did not forget their familial relationship with those who were at times their enemies and caused so much grief and destruction.2
(5) Enmity and the desire for revenge bring destruction. Even when it is necessary or justified, war is essentially evil—in Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life it is associated with “the depths of hell” (1 Nephi 12:15-16). The Book of Mormon is unflinching in its grim portrait of the horrors of war. Battle is called “the work of death” (Alma 43:37-38, 44:20; Helaman 4:5); the books of Mormon and Ether especially depict “horrible” scenes of “blood and carnage” (Mormon 2:8, 4:11, 5:8; Ether 14:21); and the atrocities on both sides are appalling (see Moroni 9). Besides these general evils, the Book of Mormon emphasizes the terrible effects of war on people’s hearts. Especially as the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations collapse, the people “boast in their own strength” and swear to “avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies” (Mormon 3:9); “every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually” (Mormon 4:11); they “march forth from the shedding of blood to the shedding of blood,” “drunken with anger” (Ether 14:22, 15:22). Stunned by the depravity of his people, Mormon laments their lack of “order” and “mercy,” describes how “they have lost their love, one towards another,” and says: “if they perish it will be like unto the Jaredites, because of the wilfulless of their hearts, seeking for blood and revenge” (Moroni 9:18, 5, 23).
(6) The horrors of war may bring either humility and repentance or hardness and despair: “But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened . . . ; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility” (Alma 62:41). At another point, the people see their sufferings in war as a judgment sent by God “because of their wickedness” and are “awakened to a remembrance of their duty” (Alma 4:3). For us as well, hope of salvation in times of war lies in our responding with humility, repentance, and faith.
(7) The gospel brings peace. The only true and permanent source of peace is the change of heart brought about by repentance and faith in Christ. Besides the examples of converted Lamanites and of Nephites whose hearts are softened so they “could not bear that any human soul should perish” (Mosiah 28:3), the Book of Mormon tells in Fourth Nephi of an entire era when enmity ceased “because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people” (4 Nephi 1:13-18).
Given the obvious evils of war, it is no wonder that the Book of Mormon describes the righteous as often being reluctant to wage it. Helaman says that he and his stripling warriors “would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone” (Alma 56:46). The Nephites are at times “compelled reluctantly to contend with their brethren”; “they were sorry to take up arms against the Lamanites, because they did not delight in the shedding of blood; yea, and this was not all—they were sorry to be the means of sending so many of their brethren out of this world into an eternal world, unprepared to meet their God” (Alma 48:21-23). War was at best a grim necessity in which the righteous engaged as an act of compassion to rescue those who would otherwise be subjected to “barbarous cruelty” (Alma 48:24). The Lord sometimes justified war with the aim of self-defense, but never—in the Book of Mormon at least—as an act of aggression.
Happily, righteous figures in the Book of Mormon found—or under divine inspiration were prompted to take—alternatives to the sword. Alma and his people prayed that the Lord would soften their enemies’ hearts (Mosiah 23:28-29). Through missionary work, the sons of Mosiah sought to “cure [the Lamanites] of their hatred towards the Nephites, that they might become friendly to one another” (Mosiah 28:2). Many of their fellow Nephites mocked their efforts, claiming the Lamanites were completely evil and urging, “Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:23-25). In contrast, the sons of Mosiah went “not with the intent to destroy our brethren, but with the intent that perhaps we might save some few of their souls” (verse 26). Of course, their success far exceeded their expectations.
The people of Ammon present one of the most powerful examples in all of scripture of an alternative to warfare. By willingly allowing themselves to be killed, they inspired compassion and repentance on the part of many of their enemies, so that “the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain” (Alma 24:26). Some have felt this is a special case that we should not feel obligated to follow—that the people of Ammon were justified in not taking up arms only because they needed to keep the covenant they had made as part of their repentance for their previous murders.
But the admiration recorded in the Book of Mormon toward the people of Ammon suggests that their refusal to fight was more than simply an exceptional condition for repentance. Ammon praises their willingness to “rather sacrifice their lives than even to take the life of their enemy” as an expression of “love” and then asks, “has there been so great love in all the land? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, there has not, even among the Nephites.” Then he contrasts the Nephite practice of military self-defense with the loving self-sacrifice of the people of Ammon (Alma 26:31-34). Ammon perhaps implies that these converted Lamanites were living a higher law, a law of perfect love that the Nephite people as a whole were unable to live at the time. Yet the record also praises the Nephites for risking their lives to protect the people of Ammon, suggesting not only that the Lord justified them in doing the best they could in the circumstances but that they too were demonstrating Christ-like love, though in a different way.
The main message of this episode may be the one stated in Alma 24:27: “the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.” A wholesale decision to follow the example of the people of Ammon might have preserved the Nephites as thousands more of their enemies were converted; or perhaps their enemies would have resisted conversion, requiring the Lord to justify the Nephites in taking up arms not only because of their own imperfections but also because of those of their enemies. In any case, the Book of Mormon offers the people of Ammon as a powerful example of goodness—faith, love, and integrity—to which we can aspire, prompting us to examine our own hearts as we face difficult circumstances comparable to those of the people of Ammon and their Nephite protectors.
The Savior’s Teachings and Example
The Savior’s teachings and example are, of course, the most authoritative guide for Latter-day Saints. The Savior pronounced a blessing upon “the peacemakers.” He taught that we must “love our enemies” and respond with a desire for their welfare even when they mistreat us. Many have pointed out that, however difficult, that must be our attitude even if we are required to defend ourselves.3 Though bold in his opposition to evil, the Savior forgave those who took his life. He advised his followers not to return evil for evil but to “turn the other cheek.”4 For strict pacifists, the Savior’s counsel—which he himself demonstrated in action—has been a literal guide. Others have taught that, while we should aspire not to retaliate in our personal lives, we cannot follow those teachings literally on an international scale. To me the challenge of following the Savior’s teachings internationally is not that they are not literally true—I believe that if followed by an entire nation they would have miraculous power—but that nations are such complex entities that coming to true unity on this matter would require a conversion that would itself be a miracle. But in the meantime the Savior’s teachings should guide our attitudes and efforts and inspire us toward a truer and deeper change of heart.
The Savior also announced that he brought “not peace but the sword,” apparently referring to the conflict that would come, especially within families, as some accepted his teachings and others did not (see Matthew 10:34-36). But I do not believe the Savior rejoices in the conflict he knew would come. He also taught that “they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” and that “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished” (Matthew 26:52; Mormon 4:5; see also D&C 63:33).
Christ’s teachings on contention and anger are potently clear: “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Nephi 11:29-30). In place of contention and anger, the Lord invites us to exercise charity, a pure love not limited to friends or those we account as “good,” but universal in its scope.6
Statements of Church Leaders
Official statements by Church leaders over the past hundred years have focused on three issues: the need to avoid hatred during times of war; the comfort extended to Church members called to military service, especially to relieve them of feelings of guilt for the destruction and bloodshed in which they may be involved; and the power of the gospel of Christ to bring peace. Individual Church leaders have sometimes expressed personal views on war and peace, favoring or opposing specific military actions or discussing the dangers of and possible justifications for war.
During World War II, the First Presidency presented two messages responding to that conflict. In April 1942, they reminded members of the scriptural command, “Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16), explaining that “the Church is and must be against war. The Church itself cannot wage war, unless and until the Lord shall issue new commands. It cannot regard war as a righteous means of settling international disputes; these should and could be settled—the nations agreeing—by peaceful negotiation and adjustment” (94).7
Nevertheless, the First Presidency acknowledged that Church members “have always felt under obligation to come to the defense of their country when a call to arms was made” and that, in both World Wars, Saints had “served loyally their respective governments, on both sides of the conflict,” and should be honored for their heroism and sacrifice. Such men are not personally guilty of violating God’s commands when they take life in war. When responding to the “civic duty” that requires them to enter military service and when, “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.” In such cases, soldiers are “the innocent instrumentalities” of governmental authority they are “powerless to resist.” God will hold responsible—and in his own time and way judge—“those rulers in the world who in a frenzy of hate and lust for unrighteous power and dominion over their fellow men, have put into motion eternal forces they do not comprehend and cannot control” (93-95).
Knowing of the challenges of military life, the First Presidency encouraged those in the armed forces to keep the commandments and draw close to the Lord, promising them that, if they would do so, the Lord would comfort them: “you will feel His presence in the hour of your greatest tribulation” (96). Yet while promising the Lord’s blessings, they also acknowledged that the righteous suffer along with the wicked and that not all faithful Latter-day Saints would survive the conflict.
The following October, the First Presidency renewed their “declaration that international disputes can and should be settled by peaceful means,” “call[ed] upon the leaders of nations to abandon the fiendishly inspired slaughter of the manhood of the world now carrying on and further planned,” and stated that peace “will never be imposed by armed force,” for such a peace will be merely “the beginning of another war.” Reminding members that “this Church is the Church of Christ, who taught peace and righteousness and brotherhood of man,” the First Presidency stated that “war is of Satan” and that followers of Christ will seek peace (“First Presidency Message” Oct. 1942, 15-16).
Among the First Presidency’s greatest concerns was that members of the Church, in or out of the military, should not be caught up in a spirit of hatred and revenge: “Hate can have no place in the souls of the righteous. We must follow the commands of Christ Himself,” including the command, “‘Love your enemies. . . .’ . . . These principles must be instilled into the hearts of our children. . . . Woe will be the part of those who plant hate in the hearts of the youth, and of the people, for God will not hold them guiltless; they are sowing the wind, their victims will reap the whirlwinds. Hate is born of Satan; love is the offspring of God. We must drive out hate from our hearts, every one of us, and permit it not again to enter” (“First Presidency Message,” Apr. 1942, 90-91).
Early in World War II the Allies had condemned the bombing of civilians. Even before the United States entered the war, President Franklin Roosevelt called the practice a “form of inhuman barbarism” and said: “The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population . . . has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity” (“Appeal”). Yet as the war progressed, the Allies themselves resorted to the practice, firebombing many cities in Germany and Japan and finally dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the LDS Church never announced a position on the subject, J. Reuben Clark, a counselor in the First Presidency, spoke against the bombing of civilians. In a General Conference address after the war ended, President Clark argued that we had declined into “barbarism” by departing from internationally agreed upon standards for the treatment of civilians, as well as of prisoners of war and the wounded. He pointed specifically to the bombing of Dresden, “where it is said we killed in two nights more than two hundred fifty thousand people, men, women and children,” and to the killing of “hundreds of thousands” in Japan by the atomic bomb, which he called “the crowning savagery of the war” and “a world tragedy.” He lamented that Americans not only were not shocked but generally approved “of this fiendish butchery” and went on to condemn ongoing efforts in the United States to devise new ways of “exterminating peoples.” In response to experimentation with this aim, he said: “I protest with all of the energy I possess against this fiendish activity, and . . . call upon our government and its agencies to see that these unholy experimentations are stopped.” He warned, “God will not forgive us for this,” and called for God to help “put hate out of our hearts, a hate that is consuming us “ (88-89).
My memories of living in a time of war date to the Vietnam conflict, which divided Latter-day Saints as it did Americans generally. The Church repeated earlier statements about the general evils of war and the duty of military service. Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave a memorable address in 1968 “call[ing] [our] attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war—namely, the establishment of a bridgehead, small and frail now; but which somehow, under the mysterious ways of God, will be strengthened, and from which someday shall spring forth a great work affecting for good the lives of large numbers of our Father’s children who live in that part of the world.” Noting that he would “make no defense of the war from this pulpit,” he nevertheless bore testimony that God would turn the misery of war to good ends in his own time and way (“Silver Thread” 24).
Though some General Authorities disagreed (for the most part privately) about the war in Vietnam, officially the Church said, “We make no statement on how this country can or should try to disengage itself from the present regrettable war in Vietnam” (“First Presidency Takes Stand” 12). As a junior high and high school student during the conflict, I went from vague approval to pained opposition. The turning point for me was in 1966 when I began noticing and was soon revolted by news reports of what were called “kill ratios”—supposedly positive news that mathematically compared the proportion of our enemies’ deaths to our own in combat. Growing up in Utah, where most people supported the war, I found myself for the first time feeling like an outsider. I was somewhat comforted when I heard Church leaders speak occasionally of the evils of war.8 I was surprised but thrilled to hear President Harold B. Lee, in his prayer at the inauguration of Utah’s governor in 1973, ask that the engines of war might cease to wreak destruction on the earth—what I took to be a reference to the bombing of Cambodia, which was taking place at that time.
In speaking of war and peace, Church leaders have usually discussed general principles, but occasionally the Church has taken an official position on a controversial issue. For instance, in 1981 President Kimball and his counselors announced their opposition to a plan to base the MX missile system in Utah and Nevada. Noting that “Our fathers came to this western area to establish a base from which to carry the gospel of peace to the peoples of the earth,” they saw placing a massive weapons system there as “a denial of the very essence of that gospel.” The statement also warned against “the terrifying arms race” in which nations were then engaged and “deplore[d] in particular the building of vast arsenals of nuclear weaponry”(see “Statement of The First Presidency on Basing”; Lengthen Your Stride 156-58).
In December 1990, with war approaching in the Persian Gulf, the First Presidency stated, “At a Christmas season in which we witness turmoil in the world, we pause to remember that His gospel is our only hope for peace on earth and goodwill toward men”; and then, four months later, they expressed gratitude for the end of the Gulf War along with a “fervent hope and prayer that all nations involved will work in concert for a lasting peace. The collective prayers of the nation and the world should focus not only on a lasting peace, but on the needs of the many on both sides who lost loved ones and endured suffering in the conflict” (“First Presidency Christmas”; “First Presidency Endorses”).
As war began again in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, President Hinckley gave an address in General Conference titled “War and Peace.” He repeated the Church position that, though war is evil, we are under obligation to our respective governments to respond to the duties of military service and added his view that “there are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression” (80). He expressed sympathy for a mother who had sent her son to the war, but also to “other mothers, innocent civilians, who cling to their children with fear and look heavenward with desperate pleadings as the earth shakes beneath their feet and deadly rockets scream through the dark sky” (79). President Hinckley acknowledged differences of views among nations and among members of the Church on the rightness and wisdom of the current war and cautioned members to avoid contention as they expressed their views: “We can give our opinions on the merits of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties” (80).
With differences of opinion among Church members, President Hinckley focused on what all of us should do: pray for those in harm’s way; comfort those who lose loved ones; and “hope and pray for that glorious day foretold by the prophet Isaiah when men ‘shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Isa. 2:4)” (81). God “must have wept,” President Hinckley said, “as He has looked down upon His children through the centuries as they have squandered their divine birthright in ruthlessly destroying one another” (79). Though we may find this war justified, “we of this Church are people of peace. We are followers of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the Prince of Peace.” Along with our obligation as citizens and our desire to defend liberty, we should be among those “who long for peace, who teach peace, who work for peace” (80).
I found President Hinckley’s talk both moving and challenging—challenging because he called my attention to things that, in my revulsion at war, I had neglected. President Hinckley’s words have heightened my concern with those suffering from oppression and other evils around the world. Still, I believe that in responding to such problems, there is much we can and should do short of war—that war, in fact, generally causes greater problems than it solves and, if ever deliberately chosen, should be a tool of last resort. As President Hinckley said, reflecting three years after his General Conference address “on the terrible cost of war”: “What a fruitless thing it so often is, and what a terrible price it exacts” (“Experiences Worth Remembering”).
Conditions that Might Justify War
Though all that I know of war repels and grieves me, I acknowledge that there may be rare circumstances when war is necessary. If it is at best a response of last resort, we must do much more to practice patience and forbearance and seek understanding and mutually acceptable solutions, even if they are unpopular. Merely being passive is not an adequate response to injustice and oppression. But many kinds of efforts short of violence are possible: bearing bold witness against evil, promoting goodness and goodwill, engaging in non-violent resistance to injustice, and exercising faith in God’s power to resolve problems that appear beyond human solution. War and other violent actions bring short-term results; but the long-term effects, including bitterness and a desire for revenge, often take generations to overcome. As the First Presidency stated in 1942, “force always begets force” (“First Presidency Message,” Apr. 1942, 95). In counseling Latter-day Saints in South America, President Kimball encouraged them to avoid violence in seeking to deal with evil and injustice: “Wouldn’t [those seeking change] be far better off to align themselves with the constructive forces and attempt a slower, more peaceful way to reach the same ends?” (Lengthen Your Stride 333).
If injustice, oppression, and evil in themselves do not justify war as the preferred response, what then might justify war?
The Book of Mormon teaches that we should “defend [our] families even unto bloodshed,” though it also suggests that the Lord may offer alternative ways of dealing with attack or oppression (Alma 43:47, 48:15-16). The Doctrine and Covenants outlines a “law” for Latter-day Saints indicating that, if they are attacked once or even twice or three times, they should not retaliate but should “bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge” (D&C 98:33, 23). But if they are attacked a fourth time after having given their enemy warning, the Lord may “justify them in going out to battle.” Even in that case, however, “if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness” (36, 30-31). The main principle here seems to be that, though defense is justifiable, every effort should be made to make peace even when we are threatened with attack. In no case should Latter-day Saints give the first offense. Like the ancient Nephites, we are taught “never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword . . . except it were to preserve their lives” (Alma 48:14).
President David O. McKay expanded upon these ideas by listing cases when, in his view, war might or might not be justified. After asserting that war “produces hate” and “is incompatible with Christ’s teachings,” he notes that nations may, nevertheless, be justified in taking up arms on two or perhaps three conditions: “There are . . . two conditions which may justify a truly Christian man to enter—mind you, I say enter, not begin—a war: (1) An attempt to dominate and deprive another of his free agency, and, (2) Loyalty to his country. Possibly there is a third, viz., Defense of a weak nation that is being unjustly crushed by a strong, ruthless one.” According to President McKay, the conditions that do not justify war include “a real or fancied insult given by one nation to another,” “a desire or even a need for territorial expansion,” or “an attempt to enforce a new order of government, or even to impel others to a particular form of worship, however better the government or eternally true the principles of the enforced religion may be” (71-72). In President McKay’s view (which does not represent an official Church position but which I believe is in harmony with gospel principles), war is not justified as a means of overthrowing an evil regime or bringing greater light or civilization to benighted peoples.
Perhaps another condition that might justify intervention is a breakdown of civil order that threatens innocent lives. As thousands have been slaughtered in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere in recent years, I have wondered whether nations working together could have done more, including the use of armed force, to prevent bloodshed.
What of responding to an attack before it happens—in other words, what of preemptive warfare? Recent events have shown that such an approach is hazardous, that in response to an imagined threat a nation may itself become the aggressor and create turmoil rather than containing it. The Book of Mormon suggests that preemptive warfare also brings moral and spiritual hazards. Gidgiddoni counseled the people against attacking the Gadianton robbers and instead to “wait till they shall come against us,” “for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands” (3 Nephi 3:20-21). When military campaigns are undertaken by the Nephites to revenge previous offenses or to prevent future ones, the results are always disastrous. At one point the Nephites’ success in battle leads them to “boast in their own strength” and swear that “they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land.” Describing the destruction that results, Mormon says that “it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them” (Mormon 3:9-11, 4:4).
I don’t pretend that these Book of Mormon examples exactly parallel modern conditions. Yet as a book written for us, the Book of Mormon ought to guide our approach in significant ways, especially in reminding us that righteousness will be our greatest protection and that taking an aggressive posture in order to protect ourselves may lead to our destruction.
In recent years, some have presented yet another possible justification for war, arguing that we must rid the world of evil and that we must do so by destroying the perpetrators of evil. To me, this seems a particularly dangerous notion, based on a profound and unscriptural misunderstanding of evil and its role in our world. Indeed, some of the greatest evils the world has seen have been committed by those who thought they were destroying evil. The pagans of the ancient world easily identified their enemies as evil and sought to destroy them; too many in the modern world have followed their example. The gospel of Christ provides a profoundly different understanding.
First of all, the gospel teaches us that God is in charge of punishing evil: “Vengeance is mine,” the Lord says (Mormon 3:14-15). Second, Christ teaches that the world is not divided into good people and evil people, but that all of us are in varying degrees subject to sin. We have all “gone astray” and, even at our best, are “evil” compared to a perfect Heavenly Father (see Matthew 7:11).9 Some of God’s children are, in fact, deeply caught in the web of evil, and we must make necessary efforts to protect ourselves and our loved ones. But the solution to evil will not come by identifying the most hardened or enslaved sinners and destroying them. For one thing, we “cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (D&C 10:37). “[T]he whole world groaneth under sin and darkness” and will never come fully out of that bondage through violence, but only through repenting and accepting God’s will (D&C 84:53-58; see also D&C 123:7).
Third, evil is a necessary condition of our mortal experience, a natural consequence of the principle of agency. To seek to destroy evil by force is to succumb to Satan’s plan. If successful, such efforts would frustrate one of the purposes of our lives, which is to encounter evil yet choose good instead. An ancient apocryphal source quotes the apostle Peter as saying, “We must bear wicked men with patience, . . . knowing that God who could easily wipe them out, suffers them to carry on to the appointed day in which the deeds of all shall be judged. Wherefore should we not then suffer whom God suffers?” God knew his children would do much evil, “but as one who knew there was no other way to achieve the purpose for which they were created, he went ahead” (qtd. in Nibley167-68).
Finally, the gospel teaches that our efforts to rid the world of evil must begin with our own repentance and be followed by teaching the gospel through example and precept. President Joseph F. Smith taught, “Let us conquer ourselves, and then go to and conquer all the evil that we see around us, as far as we possibly can. And we will do it without using violence; we will do it without interfering with the agency of men or of women. We will do it by persuasion, by long-suffering, by patience, and by forgiveness and love unfeigned, by which we will win the hearts, the affections and the souls of the children of men to the truth as God has revealed it to us” (250).
Patriotism in a World-Wide Church
Our efforts to come to a gospel understanding of war and peace and to purify our own hearts are complicated by our being members of larger communities, to which we owe loyalty. The Church has long taught that we should be good citizens wherever we live and that our citizenship may include the obligation of military service.
True patriotism, as I understand it, involves gratitude for the blessings that come with living in a particular nation and positive efforts to improve and protect that nation. At the same time, the gospel requires us to take a global view: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men?” (2 Nephi 29:7). Loyalty to our own nation may tempt us to denigrate those of other nations, even to consider their lives expendable while we hold those of our compatriots precious. Joseph Smith opposed such partiality: “[W]hile one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men” (218). Consequently, “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family”—or his own nation—“alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race” (174).
True patriotism does not mean believing God is on our nation’s side, simply because it is our nation. Wiser souls have suggested that God may not be pleased with either side in an armed conflict and that, rather than assuming God is on our side, we should seek to be on his side. Near the end of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln submitted that “The Almighty [had] His own purposes” in that conflict and that neither side could rightly claim complete divine approval. Lincoln’s words were echoed by the LDS First Presidency during World War II when they said, “On each side they believe they are fighting for home, and country, and freedom. On each side, our brethren pray to the same God, in the same name, for victory. Both sides cannot be wholly right; perhaps neither is without wrong. God will work out in His own due time and in His own sovereign way the justice and right of the conflict” (“First Presidency Message” Apr. 1942, 95).
Perhaps the greatest danger of what many take to be patriotism is its association with pride. While the word “pride” sometimes means nothing more than affection and gratitude, national pride often involves the enmity and egotism President Benson associated with the word.10 Can pride be a national sin? That is yet another lesson of the Book of Mormon. Latter-day Saints are advised to “beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old” (D&C 38:39). Mormon tells us that “the pride of this nation . . . hath proven their destruction except they should repent” (Moroni 8:27).
In our own day, President Kimball has warned Latter-day Saints of a false patriotism based on enmity and pride:
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. . . .” (“The False Gods We Worship” 6)
Despite President Kimball’s strong language, the Church has not condemned its members who have chosen military service or had it required of them. In fact, it has honored them for their courage and faithful service. Among the General Authorities have been many who have served in time of war and even a few professional military men. Several great figures in the Book of Mormon, including Mormon and Moroni, were soldiers as well as prophets. However, they often performed their duties with sadness. Mormon even refused to lead his people into battle as they became increasingly wicked, and when he returned to his work as a military leader he did so with no hope that his people would avoid spiritual and physical destruction.
Since Latter-day Saints live in many nations, they owe their loyalty to various kinds of governments and sometimes have found themselves on opposing sides of international conflicts. It must have been difficult for Germans to understand what true patriotism meant during Hitler’s reign, especially since the Church still expected the German Saints to be loyal to their country. Under oppressive regimes, disagreement with a country’s leaders can be deadly, as it proved to be to at least one young Latter-day Saint in Hitler’s Germany, a young man named Helmuth Hübner (see Holmes and Keele 257-58). Such regimes have regularly used “lack of patriotism” as an excuse to persecute those who disagree.12
President Hinckley has emphasized that, when we disagree with our political leaders, we should do so respectfully and legally. But he has reminded us that, in democracies at least, we can disagree, even on matters of war and peace (“War and Peace” 80). I believe that true patriotism not only allows but at times requires disagreement with the decisions of national leaders and with the views of one’s fellow citizens. If I believe my nation’s leaders are mistaken, I should present my views as clearly and persuasively as I can. But I believe I should do so respectfully, not demonizing other people because I disagree with their views.
For me, it has been challenging and sometimes painful to find myself surrounded by neighbors and family members—most of them members of the Church—who disagree with me. At times I have felt my Church calling prevented me from speaking openly lest I offend others and seem to be presenting my personal views as Church doctrine. At all times, I have wanted to preserve charity and fellowship. As I have tried to listen carefully and sympathetically to others who disagree with me, I’ve found far more common ground than I might have thought: I’ve discovered that we share the same fundamental values but view their application differently. I have generally come away respecting those I disagree with, finding elements of their views that have helpfully tempered my own, and especially recognizing that, despite their views, which I have sometimes found abhorrent, I should be grateful for the goodness of their lives and their hearts. Again and again, I have been reminded of my own imperfections and the limitations of my understanding. To me, it would be tragic if I allowed the bond of charity to be sundered by differences in political views, and it would be tragically ironic if I allowed my appeals for peace to become an occasion of enmity and conflict.
The Condition of Our Hearts
As I have done my best to understand the teachings of the Church on war and peace, I have been impressed that these teachings, though often challenging, form a consistent whole in harmony with the spirit and teachings of Christ. War is evil, yet we must remain faithful and seek to be righteous even in the midst of its horrors. God is at the helm and will turn all things to his purposes. We must be good citizens, yet our vision should be attuned to God’s will rather than to narrow national self-interest; and we must broaden our hearts and seek to love and serve all of God’s children.
As the world grows more dangerous, I am afraid we may be tempted to think we are exempt from these teachings as we focus on mere survival. Depicting the Nephites and Jaredites descending into barbarity as they approached destruction, the Book of Mormon may be warning us precisely against such an attitude. Self-protection at all costs may lead to actions that will make us unworthy of being protected. If, in order to protect ourselves, we engage in torture, oppression, and the slaughter of innocent civilians, why should we be preserved rather than the enemies who are guilty of similar offenses? Perhaps the final lesson of the Book of Mormon is that those who become like their enemies in wickedness will be destroyed because the Lord will remove his protection. Desperate efforts at self-preservation may have the effect of self-destruction—first, moral self-destruction, then physical.
The Book of Mormon teaches that we must be willing to protect our families, even unto the shedding of blood—which I assume means our own blood as well as (possibly and unfortunately) the blood of our enemies. Yet this teaching is tempered by other gospel principles: that we should seek solutions short of bloodshed, that we should trust in God and follow his commands even when they seem contrary to our self-interest, and that we must love all of God’s children. Ultimately, the reason we should seek to protect ourselves is so that we can be of service, like Alma, who prayed for protection so that he could “be an instrument in [God’s] hands to save and preserve this people” (Alma 2:30). Yet, as the Savior taught, we should fear the destruction of our souls more than that of our bodies (see Matthew 10:28). I believe that, likewise, we should worry more about inflicting harm than about suffering it.
Why is war so evil? It produces hatred, cruelty, suffering, and despair—and these are bad enough. But perhaps worst of all, it leads us to view other people—our brothers and sisters, precious children of our Heavenly Father—as threats or obstacles or objects to be destroyed. One of the worst things about warfare, as Elder Robert Oaks has pointed out, is that it leads us to forget that the people against whom we are directing deadly force are individual human beings, with faces (Let Not Your Heart).
The Savior taught that, as conflicts and calamities increased in the last days, “men’s hearts” would fail them “for fear,” and “the love of many [would] wax cold” (Luke 21:26; D&C 88:91; Matthew 24:12; D&C 45:27). The most terrible effect of such turmoil is clearly the hardening of hearts it can produce, a hardening I see in such familiar phrases as “Let’s go kill some bad guys.” I have been deeply troubled to see many, including some Latter-day Saints, taking joy in the destruction of war. A few years ago, a patriotic program was organized in my community for school children and their parents. I was horrified to learn that the audience had been encouraged to cheer as they watched slides showing planes unleashing their bombs. I imagine the Savior responding as he did to his disciples when they wanted fire to descend on their enemies: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56). Elder Lance Wickman has taught that we should be repelled by the evils of war, not rejoice in them. To soldiers in the battlefield, he says: “Be grateful if you are repelled by what you have seen in the combat zone. Revulsion is how righteous and spiritually sensitive people react to the horrors of warfare” (Let Not Your Heart).
In his dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith said, “O Lord, we delight not in the destruction of our fellow men; their souls are precious before thee; but thy word must be fulfilled. Help thy servants to say, with thy grace assisting them: Thy will be done, O Lord, and not ours” (D&C 109:43-44). That seems to me precisely the attitude we must have toward the destruction of war. Evil will bring evil consequences, and “the wicked shall slay the wicked” (D&C 63:33). Yet we must never imagine that the Lord delights in the destruction of his children: “neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man” (Ether 8:19; see also D&C 63:31).
Living in such times as ours is a test of what we really believe. We can anxiously focus on physical survival, or we can have faith that God will protect us—especially protect us in the most important, eternal ways—if we trust in him. We can put our trust in “gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications,” or we can believe that the word of God really is more powerful than the sword (Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods” 6). We can view our enemies as monsters who must be destroyed, or we can grieve for the evils they do and seek to return good for evil, even as we do what we can and must to protect ourselves.
Even if battle seems the only alternative, we must never delight in bloodshed or cease to pray for the gift of charity. Shortly after World War II, an apostle taught that we should feel compassion and brotherly love even for someone as appallingly evil as Hitler.14
We must also extend respect and kindness toward those we disagree with on issues of war and peace. And—another lesson that many including myself need to learn better—we must seek to understand in some measure the challenges and horrors soldiers in battle undergo, feel compassion for their suffering, and honor their courage and devotion to duty.
Meanwhile, I believe the troubles of our times should not distract us from our positive mission as Latter-day Saints. I have always loved Joseph Smith’s description of the essence of the restored gospel: “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers” (316). As President Kimball put it, “Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies” (“The False Gods We Worship” 6).
We must pray for peace and for the softening of our own and others’ hearts. We must “renounce war and proclaim peace” in our personal lives as well as in nations and the world at large. We must do so not only by seeking peaceful solutions to world problems but by being peaceable in all our relationships and our communications. I believe we may reasonably differ on specific applications of gospel principles on war and peace. But we can agree that “the greatest of these is charity.” And we can all experience the peace Christ brings to our hearts as we turn to him in faith and seek to follow his example and teachings.
Benson, Ezra Taft. “Beware of Pride.” Ensign May 1989: 4-6.
Clark, J. Reuben. Conference Report Oct. 1946. 84-89.
“The First Presidency Christmas Message.” The Church News 8 Dec. 1990. 3.
“First Presidency Endorses Presidential Proclamation.” The Church News 23 March 1991. 5.
“First Presidency Message.” Conference Report Apr. 1942. 88-97.
“First Presidency Message.” Conference Report Oct. 1942. 7-17.
“First Presidency Takes Stand on Vietnam War.” The Church News 24 May 1969: 12.
Gilbert, G. M. Nuremberg Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947.
Hinckley, Gordon B. “Experiences Worth Remembering.” Devotional address given at Brigham Young University (31 Oct. 2006). 6 Oct. 2008 <http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=11434>.
– – – . “A Silver Thread in the Dark Tapestry of War.” Conference Report Apr. 1968. 21-24.
– – – . “War and Peace.” Ensign May 2003: 78-81.
Holmes, Blair R., and Alan F. Keele, eds. When Truth Was Treason. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Kimball, Edward L. Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005.
Kimball, Spencer W. “The False Gods We Worship.” Ensign June 1976: 3-6.
Lee, Harold B. “From the Valley of Despair to the Mountain Peaks of Hope.” New Era Aug. 1971: 4-9.
– – –. “Teach the Gospel of Salvation.” Ensign Jan. 1973: 60-63.
Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled—a Message of Peace for Latter-day Saints in Military Service. DVD. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln.” The Avalon Project, 1996. 19 Sept. 2006 <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/lincoln2.htm>.
McKay, David O. Conference Report Apr. 1942: 70-73.
Nibley, Hugh. The World and the Prophets. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954.
Richard, George F. Conference Report, October 1946. 137-41.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939.” 6 Oct. 2008 <http://www.dannen.com/decision/int-law.html#E>.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Ed. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977.
Smith, Joseph F. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, III-IV. Trans. Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
“Statement of The First Presidency on Basing of the MX Missile.” Church News 9 May 1981. 2.
True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004.
1 In addition to First Presidency statements cited below, the Church position may be found in the article on “War” in True to the Faith 183. Edward Kimball has summarized the Church position as follows: “The Church position appears to be that war is evil, that defending one’s country is excusable and even laudable, and that conscientious objection to military service is permissible but not encouraged” (Lengthen Your Stride 284).
2 Contrast King Noah and his followers who delight in killing Lamanites: “And it came to pass that king Noah sent his armies against them, and they were driven back, or they drove them back for a time; therefore, they returned rejoicing in their spoil. And now, because of this great victory they were lifted up in the pride of their hearts; they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites; and thus they did boast, and did delight in blood, and the shedding of the blood of their brethren, and this because of the wickedness of their king and priests” (Mosiah 11:18-19).
3 E.g., see True to the Faith 183: Those in military service “should go with love in their hearts for all God’s children, including those on the opposing side.”
4 See Matthew 5:9; 3 Nephi 12:9; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35; 3 Nephi 12:44; Matthew 5:39; 3 Nephi 12:39.
6 See 1 Nephi 11:17; 2 Nephi 26:24; Ether 12:33-34; Moroni 7:46-48; and many other references.
7 Quotations in this and the following two paragraphs are from “First Presidency Message,” Conference Report Apr. 1942. For similar teachings during World War I, see Joseph F. Smith, chapter 45 (pages 399-406).
8 E.g., see Lee, “From the Valley” and “Teach the Gospel.”
9 Compare the truth expressed by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart” (615).
10 In the address “Beware of Pride” President Benson said, among other things: “In the scriptures there is no such thing as righteous pride—it is always considered a sin. . . . The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. . . . Pride is essentially competitive in nature” (4).
12 While imprisoned for trial after World War II, Hermann Goering was quoted as saying: “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. . . . [Yet,] voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country” (Gilbert 278-79).
14 The apostle—George F. Richards—had a dream in which he embraced Hitler as a brother. After describing the dream, he said: “I think the Lord gave me that dream. Why should I dream of this man, one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and one of the wickedest, but that the Lord should teach me that I must love my enemies, and I must love the wicked as well as the good?” (140).