Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a three-part series. 

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.

Nothing is sadder than war, and yet nothing seems more common. While it is tempting to sit back and hope conflict will just go away, there is really no hope for this. That reality forces us to think about matters we would rather not: What is the right attitude toward war? What is the right discipleship attitude toward it? Is war ever permitted? If not, why not? And if it is, under what circumstances? What can possibly justify the devastation and human misery entailed by military conflict?

The Question of Violence in General

To begin considering such matters, let’s begin with an example. Suppose that you live during a time of war, that the village you inhabit lies in a battle zone, and that a military commander one day demands your help in fighting the enemy. You refuse, whereupon the troops take your two small daughters, aged six and eight, and rape them, murder them, and throw their bodies into a well to pollute the drinking water of the village.

This is an account of an actual event, and considering it helps frame the matter of violence in a serious and arresting way. Suppose that you refuse to help the military commander in the first place because doing so would involve you in acts of cruelty and murder of innocent people. Suppose further that you can prevent the military commander’s act of utter barbarism against your children only by shooting him and that shooting him will result in the commander’s death. Also, assume that the act will be secret and will have no effect on the wider war or its participants. Is it morally permissible to perform this act of violence?

This case is illuminating for two reasons. First, in my experience, most people seem to feel that it is morally permissible to kill the commander in these circumstances, even though they would find it hard to actually carry out the act. Indeed, many who fall in this category will feel that it is not only permissible, but morally obligatory to do so. Certainly, the parents of these children would likely feel this way, as most any parent would. Second, a fair number of people (again, at least in personal experience) who say that they are opposed to all violence actually waver when faced with a concrete circumstance of this sort.

The Question of War in Particular

When we enlarge the topic from a single act of violence to the scale of all-out war, people’s intuitions seem similar. Most feel that war is justified under certain circumstances, and, when faced with specific details of aggression and horror, many who describe themselves as opposed to war will find that they can actually support it in such situations. Thus, while many were able to condemn the very idea of war in the aftermath of World War I, they found themselves relenting in the face of the monstrous Nazi and Japanese threat of World War II.

It is not enough, however, just to claim that war can be justified in certain circumstances. We need to think carefully about exactly which circumstances justify entering war, and then we need to think carefully about what means are permissible to use in then conducting such defensive action. Western tradition has developed a framework in answer to these questions. This framework is called “just-war theory,” a set of principles that serves to crystallize and codify most people’s moral intuitions about when war is justified and how it must be conducted. Although this framework is secular in nature, it grew from the work of significant Christian thinkers, and most Latter-day Saints would find its principles congenial (though certainly not sufficient).

Pacifism

Not everyone, however, accepts the justifiability of war. Such people maintain that war can never be justified, despite what common intuitions might tell us. This pacifist view[i] is typically based on one of two moral arguments. On one hand, we might reject war because we reject violence itself. It is wrong to commit such acts—even in self-defense, and on any scale— and this obviously means that no war can be justified. On the other hand, we might accept the possibility of defensive acts of violence on a small scale and yet claim that war between nations is wrong because it entails misery and death on such a massive scale that its benefits can never outweigh its costs.

However one might argue for it, the pacifist point of view has been an enduring feature of discussions regarding war, even though its adherents have been in the minority. Pacifism has found expression, to one degree or another, in prominent Latter-day Saint scholars such as Hugh Nibley and Eugene England and is also conspicuous in a volume recently published by Kofford Books, War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (2012).

A Natural Tension

Speaking broadly, then, there are two fundamental views of war: pacifism, which argues that war cannot be justified and instead must be rejected as a matter of principle, and non-pacifism (of which just-war theory is an example), which argues that war is justified in certain circumstances.

It is easy to understand the appeal of both points of view. On one hand, all disciples of Christ detest violence; it is in the DNA of Christian embrace. And that gives pacifism a natural gravitational force: its appeal is both intrinsic and compelling. But an equally intrinsic and compelling influence in Christian DNA is the love of our families and of our brothers and sisters in general, and the obligation we feel to protect them from being brutalized and murdered.

The pull of these two moral forces creates a natural tension. The love of peace and the love of our brothers and sisters are both genuine, and both exert a natural influence on disciples of Christ. People end up leaning one way or the other, but it seems that everyone actually feels the pull of both.

The same tension seems to appear in the scriptures themselves. On one hand, Nephi, King Benjamin, Alma, Lachoneus, Gidgiddoni, Mormon, and Moroni all engaged in defensive war, and the Book of Mormon depicts the Lord himself as not only commanding them to do so, but as actually helping them in such battles. On the other hand, the story of the Ammonites burying their weapons, the report of other Lamanite converts doing the same, and the Sermon on the Mount all seem to teach that it is better to suffer violence than to resist it through violent means of our own.

So which is it? Which is more persuasive—the examples of Nephi, King Benjamin, other Book of Mormon leaders, and the reported actions of the Lord himself? Or the apparent examples of the Ammonites, other Lamanite converts, and the teachings of the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount?

Two Fundamental Possibilities

Given the apparent scriptural diversity, one possibility is to suppose that the scriptures present us with a genuine conflict and that there’s nothing, really, to do about it: the scriptures simply conflict with each other. In that case, one of the threads must be correct and the other incorrect—or, at a minimum, one of the threads must at least be morally better than the other. We really must choose between Nephi, other prophetic leaders, and reports of the Lord’s own actions on one hand, and the Ammonites, other converts, and the Sermon on the Mount on the other. One of the threads must overrule the other.

Another fundamental possibility, however, is that this conflict between scriptural threads is not actually genuine, but a mirage. According to this possibility, if we read the scriptures carefully enough we would see that the conflict is only apparent and that its appearance is due either to our own faulty assumptions or to our overlooking elements of the text—or both. If this turned out to be the case, then what would appear in the scriptures would be a unified attitude toward violence and war, not a disjointed one.

And if, through our careful reading and thinking, we discovered such unity, it would remove the tension identified above. It would resolve the conflict between our pacifist and non-pacifist impulses and it would resolve the appearance of competing threads in the scriptures. It would show, for instance, how the examples of the Ammonites and the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are fully harmonious with the examples of Nephi, Alma, and Mormon, as well as with the Lord’s own involvement in war. And, for that matter, such a careful and thoughtful view would show how the remarks of President Spencer W. Kimball on war are completely consistent with the remarks of President Gordon B. Hinckley.[ii] Perhaps most dramatically, this thoughtful view of the scriptures would show how Captain Moroni’s conduct is thoroughly harmonious with the Sermon on the Mount—indeed, how it actually expresses the Lord’s teachings in that sermon.

On this view, in short, the apparent conflicts in LDS literature might be due to our own mistakes. When we understand all of these episodes and teachings adequately, and when our thinking about them is sufficiently careful, all of them turn out to be consistent with one another and to actually coalesce, as one, in a single Gospel view.

The First Task: Determining the Validity of Pacifism

In light of all of this, the first major task in thinking about war is to determine the validity of pacifism. After all, if an examination of secular and scriptural arguments for pacifism shows them to be compelling, then our task in thinking about war is radically simplified. Since we reject war as a matter of principle, there is no need to explore the conditions that would justify military conflict, or to determine exactly what means are and are not acceptable in conducting it. These complex matters become moot.

More importantly, if pacifism is valid we know which view we must take of the scriptures—namely, that they in fact do contain the competing threads described above. Since there seems no possibility of seeing various actions of Nephi, Alma, and Mormon as pacifist in character, no matter how carefully we read the text, we must conclude that those actions were morally wrong. Or, at a minimum, we must conclude that they were morally deficient when compared to the pacifist standard that they might have met. Either way we are left with the reality of two competing threads in scripture, one of which, at a minimum, is morally deficient. And we are also left with the conclusion that many of the spiritual figures we have admired, and thought exemplary in every way, actually fail as proper role models in a major respect. Nephi, Alma, Mormon—and others—are not who we thought they were.

Since all of this is highly significant, and since the matter of pacifism lies at the center, it is critical to know the verdict: Is pacifism the correct point of view—or isn’t it?

Continued in part 2. Subscribe by clicking here to make sure you don’t miss it. 

Notes:

[i] A variety of positions regarding war have been called “pacifism” at one time or another. From a philosophical standpoint, however, the pertinent version of pacifism is the principled rejection of war for any reason. This is the standard sense of the term, and is the position I have in mind in this article. For a broader discussion of this point, see Even unto Bloodshed, 17–20.

[ii] For example, it is not uncommon to see some of President Kimball’s remarks in “The False Gods We Worship” as pacifist in character, while it is impossible to give anything like that reading to President Hinckley’s remarks in two conference addresses. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the U.S.’s subsequent entrance into conflict, President Hinckley commented that we should “stand solidly with the president of our nation. The terrible forces of evil must be confronted and held accountable for their actions.” Then, speaking of the requirement to be a peace-loving people, he says: “We are people of peace. We are followers of the Christ who was and is the Prince of Peace. But there are times when we must stand up for right and decency, for freedom and civilization, just as Moroni rallied his people in his day to the defense of their wives, their children, and the cause of liberty (see Alma 48:10) . . . Let us pray for the forces of good [in this conflict].” (See “The Times in Which We Live,” General Conference, October 2001, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2001/10/the-times-in-which-we-            live?lang=eng&query=%22the+times+in+which+we+live%22.) In a later address, after quoting a number of scriptural passages, President Hinckley said that “it is clear from these and other writings 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.” (See “War and Peace,” General Conference, April 2003, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2003/04/war-and-peace?lang=eng&query=%22war+and+peace%22.)