Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Several bloggers have acknowledged that anniversary this month by responding to a challenge: link to whatever you wrote about the war in March 2003, and explain what, if anything, you were wrong about. I have put up my own response here. But for Times and Seasons, I want to reprint something else I wrote, just under four years ago: a post inspired by President Gordon B. Hinckley’s April 2003 General Conference address, “War and Peace”.
The original post, which I wrote with a non-Mormon audience in mind (the Bloggernacle didn’t exist in early 2003), is here. What follows is a slightly redacted version of the original. I interpreted President Hinckley’s sermon as a fairly obvious statement in support of the Iraq war, and wrote my post accordingly. I still think that interpretation is correct–and given that I have come to believe I was wrong to support the war, and thus look back on my writings from early 2003 with some chagrin, I can’t help but wonder if President Hinckley himself may have, over the past four years, looked back at his sermon, and done some reconsidering himself. Then again, maybe that reads too much of my own preoccupations into President Hinckley’s words.
Anyway, consider this an opportunity to revisit what are, to some of us, some pretty old arguments, as well as to think about what President Hinckley says, and what the scriptures say, regarding this war, and war in general. And hey–play nice.
This past Sunday morning General Conference session, President Hinckley gave a talk titled “War and Peace,” with explicit reference to Iraq. Since the church president doesn’t often speak on topical matters, and even more rarely on ones which are profoundly divisive with the church as a whole, this was a closely watched–and subsequently much discussed–address.
The majority of his sermon made use of powerful, traditional themes of spiritual consolation which, I would hope, resonate with the longings of any Christian. “Even when the armaments of war ring out in deathly serenade and darkness and hatred reign in the hearts of some,” Hinckley said at the conclusion of his sermon, “there stands immovable, reassuring, comforting, and with great outreaching love the quiet figure of the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. We can proclaim with Paul: ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38â€“39).” As that is one of my favorite lines of scripture, I took particular comfort from hearing the man I accept as a prophet of God to end his counsel to a world at war with it. But most of the debate which his sermon gave rise to didn’t result from his use of such themes; rather, it has focused on his statements on Iraq in particular, and what Mormons should or may think of a war such as this one. I want to focus on two passages from his sermon in particular: the idea of intervening–that is, making war–on behalf of liberal ideals, and the necessity of doing so anti-imperialistically. But first, a little background.
Mormonism has never been a clearly pacifist movement, though there are threads of Christian pacifism which can discerned throughout our scriptures (particularly in certain passages of the Book of Mormon) and history. But when the church began in the 1830s in New York and Ohio it fairly quickly encountered a good deal of sectarian hostility and violence, culminating in the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844. Even after departing to the Utah Territory the church continued to suffer abuse and harassment, this time mostly at the hands of federal authorities committed to stamping out the Mormon practice of polygamy (and, more broadly, to challenge the church’s theocratic authority over a large tract of mostly empty land, which in itself arguably led in at least a few tragic cases to a fair amount of internal violence). All this conflict left a mark on the church (and the country as well). So, rather than pacifism, what you find throughout early Mormon documents is a fair amount of antinomian thought: a waiting for the end of the world, in which the wicked oppressors of the church would receive their just reward at the hands of God. Until that day, members of the church were to defend themselves against their enemies, but according to God’s laws, not civil ones.
So, for instance, one can find in the Doctrine and Covenants a passage which apparently binds the church to renouncing war and bearing patiently any violence against ourselves or our families, at least up until the third offense; after that, if one’s enemy has been properly warned and comes yet once more against you, then “thine enemy is in thine hands.” This passage, and other similar to it, have been used to argue for the existence of a kind of revelatory “just war” doctrine in the Mormon tradition; one which conditions going to war on God’s explicit command, on having made peace overtures, and having already suffered violence without making a response, so as to make certain that we are not the aggressors (aggressive war is even more emphatically denounced throughout Mormon scriptures). At least one Mormon organization has made this argument explicitly, denouncing the war in Iraq as unjust and “grossly immoral” exactly because it fails to meet this scriptural standard.
President Hinckley did not mention any of the aforementioned scriptures in his sermon. Some members of the church have taken that to be plain evidence that he did not intend to expound doctrine, but rather was only giving his personal opinion. I won’t go into that hermeneutical debate here. What I can say is that, opinion or otherwise, Hinckley presented clear, if qualified, support for the war in Iraq, recognizing at the same time that there are and will continue to be broad disagreements, both within and between the various national bodies which members worldwide reside in, over the war; this is to be expected, since as he put it, “as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders.” (This, of course, may well be the reason that Hinckley found little guidance from the 19th-century revelations cited above; they clearly address the Mormon church as a more or less sovereign people, and since that, for good or ill, hasn’t been even metaphorically true for well over a century, perhaps it is reasonable that those statements should be ignored.) Furthermore, Hinckley was especially careful to emphasize that those members of the church who support the war do not (and must not) assume that the policies presently being pursued by the coalition forces endorse a general war against Islam or any particular Muslim people; also, he clearly stated that dissent was both a right and a privilege in democratic societies and should be exercised (though he drew the line at “legal” dissent, however one chooses to interpret that).
The crucial political passage, however, was when he spoke of an “overriding responsibility” we have, as a “freedom-loving people” (referring presumably to members of the church, though it would be duplicitous to deny that Hinckley obviously had his own life experience as an American in mind here) to “fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression.” The scriptures he cited at this point are notorious ones in the church (or at least notorious for those of us who dislike the spin often put on them by the mostly conservative American church membership): passages from the Book of Mormon which speak of rallying to the cause of the “title of liberty,” and of God lending His blessing to those who go to war “inspired by a better cause” rather than simply fighting on behalf of “power.” If this sounds like a certain kind of humble, Gladstonian, liberal interventionist position….well, good, it sounds like that to me as well. Not that Hinckley ever described such wars as “good” causes–only that “there are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight.” (The existence of an obligation, it should go without saying, does not in itself transform an act into something good.) The fact that he spoke of this moral cause as necessarily qualified by “times and circumstances” allows a tremendous amount of debate into this “doctrine,” if it is such. Indeed, the matter of “cause” may be easily and often subject to abuse–especially given that “liberty” need not and should not always mean the same thing to all people, thus requiring any such announced “cause” itself, and not merely the circumstances of making war on its behalf, be subject to consideration and critique. But nonetheless, President Hinckley’s statements do give us Mormons, I think, an entrance to productive thinking about how to support this war, as well as about just war principles–something which, as the church spreads, I believe we will increasingly have to engage in.
One last point. President Hinckley, in a fascinating passage near the beginning of his sermon, after describing war as one of Satan’s tools, mourned the way we “are prone to glorify the great empires of the past,” including “the vast British empire.” That rhetorical choice didn’t seem to make sense to me at first: if he wanted to talk about the evils of war, he could have easily talked about how we glorify armies, soldiers, weapons; how we make a big deal out of military heroism and get our blood up when we see scenes of war. But he didn’t; instead, he spoke of how imperial ambitions lead to “brutal conquest,” “subjugation,” “repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure.” (That “life and treasure” bit in particular has an almost 19th-century, anti-imperialist ring to it.) So clearly he didn’t simply want to condemn warfare; instead, he wanted to rebuke certain causes to which warfare is put. I don’t know how well-read a man President Hinckley is, but there’s no way any halfway informed American citizen (and by this I mean someone who reads Time magazine) can be unaware of the vaguely imperial language which has surrounded much of the planning and execution of this war: neoconservative “democratic imperialism” and so forth. I can’t help but feel that President Hinckley included this passage in his sermon because he wanted to underscore the care which must attend any attempt to tease out a Mormon position on war on the simple basis of “cause.” That he believes we are sometimes “obliged” to do so is apparent; that it is also a dangerous thing to do, a thing which invites triumphalism, is equally apparent.
I really don’t know what Hinckley imagines should or must happen in Iraq, but I came away from his sermon with two convictions. First, that it is justifiable, sometimes, with full consciousness of the sin invariably involved, to fight even a faraway war for a good (i.e., liberal, freedom-loving, rights-defending) cause. And second, that those who let the cause go to their heads, who flirt even distantly with the idea of using power to remake the world, have in fact left the cause behind: they have become advocates of empire, and the prophet of the Mormon church has little sympathy, historical or otherwise, with them. I am grateful that in my writings on the war I have always made it clear that I don’t think being willing to fight on behalf of liberal causes need be the same thing as defending a kind of “liberal imperialism”; still, I feel the sting of Hinckley’s reproach. What the prophet has to say to all Mormons, I think, is that we’re playing with fire here–indeed, we’re all in the fire, all us mortals–and just because we may not see our way clear to transcending it doesn’t mean we are free from watching carefully how we use it, or how it may be used (or abused) in a good cause’s name.