Editor’s Note: The following is part two in a three-part series. To see the first installment, click here.
Duane Boyce is author of the new book, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Kofford, 2015), which has received high praise from Daniel C. Peterson and Royal Skousen. Duane received his Ph.D. at BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study at Harvard University. He has been on the faculty of BYU and is the co-author of four books.
In Part 1, I identified why reaching a conclusion about pacifism is the first major task in thinking about war. After all, if we discover that pacifism is the correct point of view, then our analytical task is essentially completed: we don’t need to think about the circumstances that justify war and we don’t need to identify acceptable and unacceptable methods of waging it. Moreover, if pacifism is correct, then, as I also explained in Part 1, it follows that a host of Book of Mormon figures (such as Nephi, Alma, and Mormon) all behaved wrongly—or at least deficiently—when they exercised violence in defending the Nephites.
What I did not mention in Part 1, but which also follows if pacifism is the correct view, is that various Book of Mormon reports about the Lord are simply false. After all, multiple prophetic figures in that book report the Lord’s approval of war in certain circumstances, as well as reporting the Lord’s actual involvement in war to help his people. And yet if pacifism is the correct moral standard, it would have been wrong for the Lord to act in these ways—and since there is no possibility that the Lord did wrong (or that he did anything even morally deficient) it follows that the accounts reporting such involvement have to be false.
So the question of pacifism vs. non-pacifism is far from narrow. The outcome reverberates with consequences that are both significant and far-reaching, and this makes the matter deserving of appropriate attention. Is pacifism the correct Gospel point of view?
A Brief Look at Some Claims that Would Lend Support to Pacifism
Although a fair number of people hold pacifist convictions, I know of no systematic and comprehensive scriptural argument for the position. There are, however, many smaller-scale observations and attempts that seem to lend credence to pacifism and thus to give people reason to think that it would be the obvious conclusion if they examined the matter of violence and war with care. Although it is not possible to cover all such attempts/observations in the space of an article, it is nevertheless possible to mention a handful and to indicate, in the briefest way, why they do not succeed in supporting a pacifist conclusion.
Nephi and Laban
One claim that has been made to support a non-violence reading of scripture is that although Nephi exercised violence in slaying Laban, Nephi later came to regret that action. He bewailed his “wretched” nature and asked, “Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (2 Ne. 4:27). This indicates that Nephi felt remorse for his slaying of Laban and thus that he was actually wrong in doing so. Therefore, when understood properly, this famous non-pacifist episode actually condemns violence rather than condoning it.
While persuasive on the surface, there are actually multiple reasons to reject this account. By the time Nephi made this report, for example, he had actually faced a multitude of enemies over a long period (Jacob 1:10), and actually speaks in this psalm specifically of “enemies”—plural (2 Ne. 4:22). He also speaks specifically of enemies who had “quaked” before him, as well as of having “anger” toward them (2 Ne. 4:27)—neither of which is true of the incident with Laban. Far from “quaking,” Laban was actually passed out during the episode, and, far from being angry, Nephi slew Laban only after being prompted by the Spirit and only after resisting that direction. Moreover, it is telling that Nephi speaks on this occasion in the present tense even though he is doing so years following the incident with Laban, saying, “Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” Nephi’s use of the present tense indicates that he was either referring to a contemporary enemy or using the term in a general sense.
All of these features of the text are inconsistent with the conclusion that Nephi was thinking of Laban in posing his self-reflective query. Indeed, everything in the text seems to indicate that he was not thinking of Laban. Thus, if we want to insist that Nephi must have had Laban in mind—and thus that he felt remorse for having slain him—we have to do so even though nothing in the text indicates this and even though all of the clues in the text actually contraindicate it.
In addition to this, of course, it is relevant that the episode with Laban was merely Nephi’s first act of violence. As mentioned, Nephi seems to have waged defense against assailants for the majority of his life. Thus, even if we thought Nephi did feel remorse for his slaying of Laban—and thus that he believed it was wrong—we would have to conclude that he felt the same way about every subsequent act of violence he committed over the course of his life. But then we’re left with a view of Nephi as one who committed wrong acts throughout his life and yet who received revelations, beheld visions, entertained angels, was taken bodily by the Spirit to high mountains, and saw the Lord. Is it plausible to suppose that someone doing so much wrong could simultaneously enjoy so much that was divine? It does not seem so. In the end, what the text actually appears to indicate is that Nephi regretted having to face and thwart enemies, and that he regretted the anger he felt toward them for the devastation and conflict they caused. What it does not indicate is that he was actually wrong to thwart them and that he felt remorse for doing that.
Pacifism’s Effectiveness: The Example of the Ammonites
Another claim for a non-violence interpretation of scripture is to assert that pacifist response is more effective than violence in bringing others’ aggression to an end. For example, the Ammonites’ strategy of self-sacrifice succeeded in ending the aggression against them for a significant period. This indicates the effectiveness of pacifist conduct and suggests this practical effect as one reason for emulating the Ammonites’ example.
But this interpretation, too, faces textual problems. Recall, for example, that after the second attack suffered by the Ammonites (Alma 27:2–3), they never again followed the strategy of self-sacrifice, even though they had opportunity to do so. Indeed, following the second attack, the Lord himself instructed the Ammonites to leave their lands for safety, observing that they would face further assault and would “perish” if they remained (Alma 27:11–12).
This makes it clear that the Lord himself did not believe the Ammonites would end aggression in this circumstance by prostrating themselves in front of their enemies. Indeed, he instructed them not to do so precisely because he foresaw that such conduct would not end the aggression against them. Nor did the Ammonites pursue a strategy of self-sacrifice at the time the younger Ammonites went to war in order to assist the Nephites avoid destruction (Alma 53). Since this kind of self-sacrifice had worked before, and had brought an end to the violence, it is natural to wonder why the Ammonite elders didn’t act similarly to end the aggression this time and thus try to prevent their sons from having to enter the war.
The same question arises when we consider the Ammonites’ behavior some years after they had relocated to the land of Jershon, and prior to the events of Alma 53. Lamanite assailants sought to invade the land occupied by the Ammonites and yet abandoned their aims because they “were exceedingly afraid of the armies of the Nephites.” The Lamanites turned away, not because of any act of self-sacrifice on the part of the Ammonites themselves, but because of the diligent preparation and imposing presence of a well-equipped Nephite army (Alma 43:19, 21–22). Indeed, we have no report that the Ammonites even considered a course of self-sacrifice at this time.
All of this raises doubts about the actual effectiveness of pacifist response to aggression, as well as about the suitability of following the early example of the Ammonites’ self-sacrifice. The claim that we should follow the Ammonites’ example seems to lose force when we discover that even they didn’t follow it. It seems to lose additional force when we discover that the Lord himself instructed the Ammonites not to pursue that path precisely because he foresaw that doing so would not be effective in ending aggression.
The Ancient Promise to Nephi: Conflict and Nephite Unrighteousness
Another view thought to support non-violence is the assertion that Book of Mormon wars occurred only because the Nephites were unrighteous. Every war they fought was completely unnecessary because the Lord promised Nephi that the Lamanites would never bother the Nephites if only the Nephites remained righteous (1 Nephi 2:23).[i] We cannot, therefore, draw support for righteous conflict from the Nephites, since it turns out that the Nephites were always unrighteous when involved in conflict.
This claim, however—like the others—also appears to suffer when we examine the text more closely. It turns out that the Book of Mormon actually reports multiple occasions on which the Nephites suffered attack even though they were righteous[ii]—a feature of the record that straightforwardly disproves this categorical claim about them. Furthermore, whatever we might think the ancient promise to Nephi meant, Book of Mormon figures who actually lived under the promise did not understand it to say that they would suffer no attack by being righteous. They understood the promise to mean only that they would prevail when assaulted and thus that they would be protected from destruction. Among others, this was the view of King Benjamin, Alma, Captain Moroni, and Mormon. So the claim that the Nephites were unrighteous whenever they were attacked, and thus that they were in violation of the promise to Nephi, is actually not supported in the record.
A Sample of Additional Claims
These three examples are far from all of the claims/arguments that appear in the literature. Indeed, there are more than forty others that also might be thought to support a pacifist interpretation of scripture. Here are four of them, to provide just a sample:
- God has promised that he will fight for his people. This means that God’s people don’t need to defend themselves if they are righteous because God will provide that defense for them.
- Nephi’s slaying of Laban is not an argument against pacifism because his killing of Laban was actually a murderous act of scapegoating, and his account of the episode (explaining it in terms of the Spirit’s direction) was a lie.
- Pacifist and non-pacifist approaches are both approved in the Book of Mormon; the difference is that pacifism is more It is the better, more divine approach. Thus, while Captain Moroni’s violent conduct in defense of the Nephites was completely justified, the pacifist conduct of the Ammonites in not defending themselves expressed a higher morality.
- Doctrine and Covenants 98 identifies an immutable covenant of peace, and the Saints are in rejection of this covenant because President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed support for U.S. military action in circumstances that violated this immutable covenant with the Lord.
It is obviously not possible to address such claims in in this space, much less to address the many others that also appear in the literature. Suffice it to say that each of these claims is mistaken. It takes space to examine them all, but all of them do indeed fail when scrutinized. In the final analysis, it turns out that pacifism is completely implausible as the correct reading of scriptural teachings and episodes.
But in a sense that means our task is now more difficult. If we cannot reject war as a matter of principle, then we have to deal with the obvious next questions: When, exactly, is war justified, and what, exactly, are the appropriate methods for conducting it? Since the scriptures provide such a vast landscape for study, is it possible to discover and distill the principles to create an overall structure for thinking about war from a Gospel perspective? And can such a framework be logically and morally consistent? Since, as I emphasized in Part 1, the scriptures appear to contain competing threads regarding violence, one must wonder if that appearance isn’t, at heart, a function of our own errors—our overlooking elements of the text and/or our inadequacy in thinking about various teachings and episodes. If we repaired such errors, would all of the scriptural elements that now seem to compete actually coalesce in a way that is completely harmonious and complementary?
In short, is there any chance at all that Captain Moroni’s conduct was an expression of the Sermon on the Mount rather than a violation of it?
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[i] Although the promise to Nephi appears first in this passage, it is reported—in one form or another—at least twenty times in the Book of Mormon.
[ii] See, for example, the following passages, along with the surrounding discussion in Even unto Bloodshed (pp. 77–85): Alma 48:20–25; 60:12–13; Jarom 1:5–7; 3 Nephi 2:11–17; and W of M 1:13-14/Mosiah 2:31.