I’m not, by nature, a pacifist. I remember as a young child wishing my dad was an air force pilot and bombed people out of those fantastic jets with shark faces painted on them. I played violent games and got into my fair share of fist fights at school (I even once fought with a weapon). Perhaps more relevant, my gut reactions when I or my family have been threatened have not been those of a pacifist. When faced with real or imagined danger, I’ve felt myself almost possessed with a visceral, aggressive passion, and I fully believe that in the right circumstance I would be capable of killing another. I grew up in a culture that is very accepting of violence and killing, within certain constraints. I’ve always known, loved and respected persons who made careers in the military—one of my closest friends is currently a Green Beret, literally on the front lines in Afghanistan. So it’s very, very difficult for me to candidly discuss my feelings, especially publicly. And it’s with a tremendous amount of inner dissonance that I admit that I find myself more and more a convicted, though undeniably imperfect pacifist.
To be clear, I’m not preaching here. I find condescending, self-righteous moralizing repugnant (though I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself on occasion), and on this particular issue I find both “woe is me” and “I have been blessedly enlightened” attitudes as distasteful as jingoism. Nevertheless, I’m writing a very personal, sort of motivated confessional, attempting to present a few of my thoughts on the matter and why I think pacifism is the right, if perhaps idealized commitment and response to what is inevitably a tragic mortality. It’s a question that I seem less and less able to avoid or place on the backburner.
It seems like it would be somehow better—more righteous, more genuinely pacifistic, less selfish—if my convictions came purely or even mostly from the scriptures or personal revelation. These things have certainly played a role (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the reality is, the most motivating force has been my gradually becoming conscious of how truly horrific this life experience has been for so many of God’s children—horrific to the degree that I personally can’t reconcile some of the destroyed lives with the plan of salvation as I understand it. History provides us with no shortage of harrowing, unfathomable cruelty—too numerous to catalogue. Our own history won’t let us forget Haun’s Mill, Mountain Meadows, or the two genocides recorded in the Book of Mormon. We don’t need to turn to history, however, with the atrocities being perpetrated in our own society (the war in Congo and the U.S. sex slave industry are as graphic and nauseating as anything could be, and are eerily similar to Moroni 9).
I, and most people I know, live in privilege and luxury. I have not, nor do I believe that it is any longer even possible that I could experience atrocities on the level that millions of God’s children have been sent to this earth to suffer. Instead of being horribly, physically and spiritually marred, I find myself sobbing in confused, guilt-ridden despair as I sit in all my comfort and am confronted by the magnitude and wretchedness of human suffering. I often wonder if pacifism is—at least for me and other pampered persons like myself—a response or luxury of the privileged. And I wonder if my tears and compassion are naively patronizing. The reality is, I don’t know exactly how I ought to feel or react in the face of these atrocities. But I know that violence-induced suffering (in all its forms) is as deeply wrong as anything I can imagine and more wrong than anything else I’ve witnessed.
In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky’s character Ivan gives a graphic litany of torture perpetrated against innocent children. Unable to justify this suffering or a God who permits it, and completely unwilling to remain implicated by remaining on the scene (just as he’d be unwilling to remain sitting in a theater where real atrocities were performed on stage), Ivan tells his brother that his solution is to “give back the ticket”—that is, commit suicide. I think Ivan gets it wrong (and I think Dostoevsky thought so too), because we’re not in an audience watching atrocities on stage; we’re part of the cast. Nevertheless, there’s something to what Ivan says. Pacifism in the face of violent suffering is for me a way of “giving back my ticket,” of utterly and with my whole soul rejecting any connection to the violence that has destroyed so many lives. (I also think that in addition to rejecting violence I have a positive obligation toward those who suffer, but that’s not the point of this particular post.) This is the main reason why I am (or at least want to be) a pacifist.
My personal despair and confusion are not the only reasons why the question of pacifism seems so urgent to me. Perhaps the next most important reason is the teachings of Jesus Christ. One of my best friends often quips that we’re much more happy teaching or believing about Christ than we are teaching or believing the things that Christ actually said. Christ’s teachings, if we take them seriously, are enough to make both conservatives’ and liberals’ skins crawl. I think that one of the most overlooked or glibly dismissed of his teachings is that we are required to turn the other cheek, offer our cloak to the offender, love our enemy (something difficult to do while trying to take their life), forgive all. One of the most moving ways in which Christ taught this is in his actions. I recently watched my son’s complete confusion when we were watching a video about Christ and he saw Christ heal the man’s ear just before being arrested. At first my son, like many of us in Sunday School class, flatly ignored the profound implications of that act; instead he started excitedly talking about how if he were there he would have performed all sorts of superhuman kung fu moves in order to beat off the bad guys and save Christ. So I had a discussion with him, rehearsing Christ’s line about the legions of angels at his command (if anyone has ever had a monopoly on violence, I suppose he did), and then made him watch the scene again. I don’t know how much he got that second time through, but I know he was perplexed.
Then there’s the Book of Mormon. It’s filled with stories and themes that fuel pacifists. My two favorites are, first the sons of Mosiah’s response to the threat of hostile Lamanites. At least a portion of Nephite society advocated preemptive violence, while Ammon and his brothers advocated missionary service (Ammon’s obviously a complicated example; I like to think that, like many of us experienced on our missions, his investigators taught him the full meaning and implications of his teachings). Then there’s that whole big, messy war or series of wars that extend from mid-Alma through mid-Helaman. To begin, while the Lamanites are clearly the provokers, the Book of Mormon makes clear that one of the largest contributing factors to the war is the wickedness of the Nephites (reminds me of Missouri). Luckily they had Captain Moroni to put the fear of God into both the Nephites and the Lamanites and eventually win the day. Or not quite. Immediately after Moroni’s hard fought victory, the Nephites ultimately lose and are entirely unable to violently retake a full half of their lands. They do eventually get these lands back, “winning” the war, but not through violence. Instead it’s through the preaching of the gospel by Nephi and Lehi (and undoubtedly others). As to the highly praised Stripling Warriors who forsook the pacifism of their parents, we rarely finish telling their story—it appears that after the war they went up North and resolutely rejected the preaching of the prophets Nephi and Lehi.
Giving my own pacifist telling of the story, I know that there will be readers absolutely itching to object and tell the story differently. I recognize that one can read these sections of the Book of Mormon differently. But I assure you, from my perspective, my telling appears to be exactly what the message is, without any bending or subverting of the text. And while I’m willing to concede the legitimate possibility of others genuinely seeing these stories differently, I think there’s much less wiggle room when it comes to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Next, there’s the teachings of modern day prophets like President Kimball:
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 anti-enemy 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, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44-45.)
We forget that if we are righteous the Lord will either not suffer our enemies to come upon us—and this is the special promise to the inhabitants of the land of the Americas (see 2 Ne. 1:7)—or he will fight our battles for us (Ex. 14:14; D&C 98:37, to name only two references of many). This he is able to do, for as he said at the time of his betrayal, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now
pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53.) We can imagine what fearsome soldiers they would be. King Jehoshaphat and his people were delivered by such a troop (see 2 Chr. 20), and when Elisha’s life was threatened, he comforted his servant by saying, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be
with them” (2 Kgs. 6:16). The Lord then opened the eyes of the servant, “And he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” (2 Kgs. 6:17.)
Enoch, too, was a man of great faith who would not be distracted from his duties by the enemy: “And so great was the faith of Enoch, that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch.” (Moses 7:13.)
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? 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)
Again, I know about the obvious objection that not all prophets are like President Kimball. Many of them, including our late President Hinckley, appear to explicitly justify war. Some rather credible sources have even gone so far as to claim divine sanction for their involvement in war. None of the statements I’ve seen by these prophets, however, places a willingness to kill one’s enemies above the option of pacifism. Nor would it be surprising if God granted sanction to his people to pursue options that he did not prefer—he’s certainly done this in the past (e.g., divorce, word of wisdom breaking, the whole corpus of Mosaic Law). The scriptures are clear that God grants us knowledge and wisdom and “commandments not a few” as we are righteous and willing to receive. Rather than claiming a conflict between the statements and actions of Christ and those of his prophets, it’s easy to see that there may be a spectrum of acceptable to ideal behavior (we’re comfortable with the idea of telestial, terrestial, and celestial laws or of “good, better, and best” options). Nor can we infer from individual exception commandments from God (e.g., Abraham’s instructions to kill Isaac) that God doesn’t ultimately endorse pacifism.
But the reality is, while I genuinely believe there’s a divine endorsement, I don’t need one. We can all see the nobility of forsaking violence and forgiving rather than answering violence with violence, the nobility of Christ’s over the Mosaic injunction. I don’t think anyone faithfully reads the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis without being profoundly moved by their response to violence. Nor do we hear President Hinckley’s story about the woman forgiving the juvenile delinquent who nearly took her life with a frozen turkey or President Faust’s telling of the Amish response to a brutal murderer without knowing that there is something divine in these pacifistic acts of forgiveness. I think we’re moved because we see a connection between these acts and the acts of our Savior Jesus Christ who forgave his murders to the point of pleading for God to also forgive them, the act of atonement and passive suffering for all of us. Regardless of it’s not being collectively required, each of us can see that pacifistic forgiveness is one potential way of standing as saviors on Mt. Zion.
But again, perhaps I’m wrong in my theological speculations and motivations for pacifism. Perhaps those of you itching to argue with my theological claims are right. Returning to the mess I began with, I’m absolutely convinced of the evil and diabolical nature of violence. I don’t think Ivan’s solution is justified. We’re already implicated, we’re already thrown into the miasma of mortality, and I’m quite skeptical as to whether, given the absence of an explicit, pointed revelation on the matter generally (and perhaps in each individual case), we can ever really know for certain how best to respond in the face of violence. But I’m more comfortable erring on the side of pacifism than anywhere else.