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Editor’s Note: The following is part three in a three-part series. To see the first installment click here and the second 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 indicated the importance of discovering whether pacifism or non-pacifism is the correct Gospel view. In Part 2, I identified a small sample of claims/arguments thought to support pacifism and suggested briefly why each of them is mistaken. In each case, the problem lay in overlooking elements of the text.

Logical Puzzles

But failing to read carefully enough is not the only problem that occurs in pacifist claims. Part of the time there exists a logical difficulty as well. One line of thinking we might adopt, for example, is to (1) point out that Mormon had an intent and theme in creating the Book of Mormon and (2) then argue that the theme of the book is pacifist in character—from which it naturally follows that pacifism was the theme Mormon himself had in mind.

But while this approach might have surface appeal, it leaves us with logical puzzles (which I can discuss only in abbreviated form here). We might notice in our reading, for instance, that it is Mormon who expresses justification for the Nephite military action under Captain Moroni in Alma 43, appealing, with approval, to their need to defend their lives, families, lands, country, rights, and religion (Alma 43:47). Similarly, we might notice that Mormon expressed justification for fighting during his own lifetime in a comparable way. He tells us that he urged his people “with great energy, that they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes” (Morm. 2:23). Both instances are significant since, if it is true that Mormon fashioned the book of Mormon to be an anti-war text, then in both cases he is explicitly contradicting that intent. He is justifying people in fighting, and even urging them to fight, at the same time he is creating a book with the intent and theme that people should not fight.

It is also relevant that it is Mormon himself who describes Captain Moroni as a man of “perfect understanding” and as “firm in the faith of Christ” (Alma 48:11, 13), and who expresses the wish that “all men” were like him (Alma 48:17). This description is significant because it is hard to imagine Mormon praising Captain Moroni so highly on one hand—and specifically in the context of his extensive wartime conduct—while simultaneously creating a book intended to condemn exactly the way Moroni behaved on the other.

The same paradox hovers over the text every time Mormon specifically praises or refers approvingly to the wartime activities of any Book of Mormon figure, from King Benjamin to Moroni to Gidgiddoni. If Mormon is genuinely creating a text intended to convey a pacifist theme, it is natural to wonder why, rather than praise Captain Moroni without reservation, he wouldn’t find a way to condemn Moroni’s violence at least somewhere along the way. Surely, it is relevant that Mormon never condemns the violent behavior of Nephi, King Benjamin, Gideon, Alma, Moroni, Lehi, Teancum, Gid, Helaman, the two thousand stripling warriors, Gidgiddoni, his son Moroni, or even himself. But isn’t this exactly what he would do if he had a pacifist intent in creating the record? The odds, so it would seem, do not favor Mormon creating a book intended to condemn all war, while simultaneously—in the book—approving of, and even praising, Nephite figures who wage it.

A second serious anomaly is Mormon’s own engagement in conflict to the very end of his life: he died with a sword in his hand (Morm. 8:2–3, 5). It seems unlikely that Mormon would write a book urging one point of view while at the same time failing entirely to embrace that view in his own conduct. On such a reading it seems we must see Mormon to be self-contradictory, either because he was unable to follow his own pacifist advice, or because he was unwilling to follow it. He was either weak or hypocritical. But this creates a genuine puzzle: how could Mormon be of sufficient spiritual capacity that he could see the Lord at age 15 (Morm. 1:15) and be entrusted with creating the record that would be critical to accomplishing the Lord’s work of salvation in the last days, and yet not be of sufficient spiritual capacity that he could live up to the pacifist standard that he really held and desired to pass on to us? The inconsistency in Mormon’s conduct is as serious as the inconsistency in his messages.

So at its heart this approach seems to contradict itself. It asserts that Mormon had a pacifist intent and theme in creating the Book of Mormon and it relies on Mormon’s prophetic credentials to give his views force. The problem is that if Mormon had a pacifist intent in creating the book, he was such an abject failure at living it that we must see him as either a moral weakling or a hypocrite. But if Mormon was either a moral weakling or a hypocrite, there is no virtue in his support for pacifism; why should anyone care what he thought? So this argument is ultimately self-defeating. It appeals to Mormon because of his spiritual credentials, but if the argument is actually correct, it entails that Mormon did not really possess those credentials—which, of course, defeats the purpose of appealing to him.

Once we notice this we might then reflect on how we came to think in the first place that Mormon had a pacifist intent in creating the Book of Mormon. We might notice that he never says this himself and thus that the only reason we concluded it is because we decided that pacifism was the theme of the book—and then assumed, on this basis, that it therefore had to be his intent. But there is actually no evidence to support this. We end up with a self-defeating argument about Mormon because we were mistaken in the first place in assuming that he had a pacifist “intent and theme”—a view that he himself never expressed and, for that matter, that he never held.

There are additional twists and turns in thinking about the case of Mormon, but this much is sufficient to indicate the trouble the approach faces. More importantly, this example of Mormon is far from the only case of support for pacifism that actually relies on mistaken assumptions. For example, although there is not sufficient space to show it here, I can see no way to read the Sermon on the Mount as a pacifist document without making false assumptions in interpreting it. And the same is true regarding various additional passages that have been cited in favor of a pacifist interpretation. I also can see no way to read President Spencer W. Kimball’s famous message, “The False Gods We Worship,” as a pacifist statement without also making false assumptions. Like the claim that we can appeal to Mormon for support of pacifism, these efforts all have logical holes because they all rely on assumptions that are mistaken.

Just-War Theory and Key Latter-day Saint Texts

Of the many claims/arguments in favor of pacifism that I have examined, all of them suffer either from lack of careful reading or from reliance on false assumptions—or both. There seems to be no persuasive reason for rejecting the justifiability of war in all circumstances.

But once we conclude this, we face a new task: we must identify the circumstances under which war is acceptable, as well as the rules that must be followed in waging it.

A natural first step in this direction is found in just-war theory (mentioned in Part 1), since that framework is explicitly organized around these questions. However, while the modern just-war framework originated with the significant Christian figures Augustine and Aquinas, it makes no explicit use of scripture—and obviously, no use at all of the Restoration canon. Thus it is far from sufficient for addressing the concerns of Latter-day Saints. Our sources must be much broader. Fortunately, all of the standard works are relevant to this topic, and even more fortunately, all of the central teachings found in these scriptures are actually present, in distilled form, in five key texts. These are:

  • The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 and 3 Nephi 12–14
  • Alma 48
  • “The Times in Which We Live,” by President Gordon B. Hinckley
  • “War and Peace,” by President Gordon B. Hinckley
  • “The False Gods We Worship,” by President Spencer W. Kimball

These texts recommend themselves because any attempt to think about war from an LDS perspective must take into account comments they contain. In one way or another, each of them makes an important contribution to our understanding. In addition to being necessary, these blocks of text also seem to be jointly sufficient for fashioning at least a skeletal LDS view of war. When we have a reasonable understanding of the standard works in their entirety, it seems apparent that these texts express all the major teachings the scriptures contain about war, and in greatly distilled form. Together they allow us to construct an LDS framework for thinking about war—a framework that tells us what kind of society we must seek, how such a society must behave, the conditions under which any society can defend itself, and the moral principles it must follow in waging its defense.

A framework of this sort is possible because, once we read carefully and once we rid ourselves of mistaken assumptions, all of the relevant texts cohere, both logically and spiritually, in a single Gospel point of view. The various teachings and episodes are completely synchronized at a deep level; they presuppose, illuminate, and even instantiate one another. Once we appreciate this, we can see the following:

  • Why Captain Moroni’s wartime conduct was actually an expression of the Sermon on the Mount, not a violation of it
  • Why President Spencer W. Kimball’s remarks on war (thought by some to be pacifist in character) are actually consistent with President Gordon B. Hinckley’s remarks on war (thought by no one to be pacifist in character)
  • Why, despite burying their weapons of war, the Ammonites were not pacifists
  • Why all the arguments criticizing Nephi’s slaying of Laban are mistaken
  • Why it is a mistake to think that the righteous have no need to defend themselves on the basis that the Lord will protect them
  • Why it is a mistake to think that Christ’s behavior during the events leading to his death present an example for all to follow

And so forth. The list goes on. Many questions are answered when we bring care to our reading and thinking about Gospel texts. 

Tension Resolved

Appreciating the scriptures in this way not only permits the creation of a comprehensive framework for thinking about war, but also resolves the tension I identified in Part 1. As I said there, our intuitions seem torn between seeing justification for war in certain circumstances even while we detest the very idea of such violence. Moreover, the scriptures themselves seem at times to prohibit violence even though at other times they seem to justify and even promote it.

But here’s the good news. This tension is a mirage. It is driven by a question that goes something like this: Since the Lord obviously abhors violence, how, ultimately, can we consider employing it, even in self-defense? Put another way, specifically regarding scriptural teachings: Since (as discussed in Part 1) we are faced with competing threads about violence in scripture, which one of these threads should take precedence? Which should we embrace and which should we dismiss? Both versions of the question seem natural, and considering them gives rise to the tension I mentioned. But all of this is completely unnecessary, because neither of these versions is the right question. Both harbor false assumptions. To whatever degree we accept the way these questions frame the issue we accept those assumptions—and, regrettably, accepting those assumptions leads to intellectual cul-de-sacs. Such dead-ends cannot satisfy us and instead leave us chasing our tails: still uncertain, discontented, and, well . . . tense.

So let’s try a different question. Granted that the Lord abhors violence, what reason is there to think that he abhors all violence for the same reasons? Are all forms of violence the same? Do they all have the same moral character? Are the violence of a rapist and the violence of his victim the same? Do their violent acts have the same moral status? And are all forms of abhorrence-of-violence, then, the same?

And try this question. Why does scripture seem to countenance violence in some teachings/episodes and condemn it in others? Is there any reason to think the different cases and contexts are equivalent? Isn’t it more natural to wonder if there are differences between them and that that’s why they seem to teach different attitudes toward violence? For example, when we compare Captain Moroni’s conduct to the Ammonites’, don’t we also have to compare their situations—including their relative moral status? If, perchance, they did not enjoy the same moral status, isn’t it likely that what constituted correct behavior was therefore different for them?

Asking questions of this sort helps us de-clutter our minds and clear the way to examining various Gospel texts afresh. They are only the beginning, of course, but they start us on the path to seeing where we might have been mistaken in past understandings. It genuinely is the case that the various Gospel texts synchronize fully at a deep level and that—far from presenting disjointed and competing threads—they collectively illuminate the subject of war in a way that is completely consistent and whole.

It is only natural, I think, to hope that such sources actually speak with a single voice and provide clear direction on the most important matters of our day. The good news is that they do.