Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Heart Problems, The Book of Mormon and The Just War Tradition

    I’ve talked about this issue before. In my first thoughts on preemptive war I discussed how if you read the account carefully in Mormon 4 he is complaining about their false oaths, bloodlust, and not that strategy. As I wrote:

    Mormon 3:15 also seems to prohibit preemptive war. However, the real sin recorded by Mormon was not the offensive tactics but rather the bloodlust and vengeance that dictated Nephite strategy (v. 14). One might also say it was their false oath (to a false god?) in Mormon 3:10 that finally forced Mormon into his utter refusal. Again, that doesn’t have much to do with their strategy. The seemingly unequivocal anti-war sentiment expressed in Mormon 4:4 does not record any saying of the Lord, but can just as easily represent a strategic description… If this is a command against offensive action it is also contradicted by other writings by Mormon. This is most clearly seen in a reevaluation of Alma 48:14. The traditional understanding of this verse is a prohibition against offensive warfare. But a slightly different reading suggests the Nephites are rather commanded to never “give an offense” except “against an enemy” and “to preserve their lives” (Alma 61:3).

    I expanded on that concept just a short time ago with many examples from the Book of Mormon.

    In Mosiah the people of Limhi were in bondage due to iniquity not strategy (Mosiah 23:12) In the multiple descriptions of Captain Moroni, not delighting in bloodshed was more important than strategy (Mormon 7:4). We might compare that attitude with the how the Lamanites are recorded as “rejoicing over the blood of the Nephites” (Alma 48:25). This could also be another ethno centric account of “barbarous cruelty” of the other side (Alma 48:24).  

    None of the above has to do with strategy. That might seem like an awkward admission given the point of the blog. But it gives me the impression that when we are exclusively debating strategy, we are missing the point. We should be examining our collective hearts. Yet we can’t ignore strategy either.  We can’t see inside other people, and we are too quick to judge and accuse other people based on strategies. We aren’t asked to sit passively on our thrones, but to resist whatever evil with swords that we couldn’t with words (Alma 60:21; 61:14). While it is secondary to our hearts, deciding when and how to engage in warfare still matters.

The Heart in Just War

    With those passages in mind I’ve been rather impressed with that dualism in the Christian Just War tradition. Most of their writings have focused on the difference between the mind and body. In reviewing the church fathers most of them commented on the general nature of Christians to be peaceable, content, and conciliatory as Justin Martyr said.[1] But contrary to popular perception, they still didn’t reject soldiering. Christians are recorded by Tertullian as fighting (he only rejected the danger of idolatrous military ceremonies), and many Christian fathers like Clement supported the state’s right to use force, and prayed for the success of the emperors army. The summary of the two positions to be peaceful and to fight in wars after hundreds of years of early Christian thought was given as a “vengeful spirit that is denounced” not force itself.[2]

    I find this particularly interesting as this is how I’ve responded to those that try to bash soldiers and non-pacifists over the head with Section 98. It says to renounce war and proclaim peace. I agree, in my heart I oppose and denounce warfare, but its unfortunately something that is justified on occasion. They never liked that answer as they believe the section should lead to an avoidance of warfare. Duane Boyce has done an excellent job of showing how unworkable that section is as a guide to foreign policy.[3]  

    The mention of “unfortunate” in the previous sentence is important, as the Nephites were “sorry” to take up arms against their brethren because they didn’t want to shed blood, and send so many damned souls back to God before they could repent. (Alma 48:23) Both ideas are found and even prevalent in Christian thought. Augustine was just as worried about where the souls of dead soldiers would go as he was about warfare itself. The Medieval monk Gratian warned that force should be used for love of justice, not for love of inflicting punishment.

    Augustine started the concept of “benevolent harshness” which is a term he uses to describe the mindset that should accompany the actions. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but he used the example of a parent that punishes a child. That punishment is harsh, but it is done out of love and Martin Luther compared it to a doctor that has to save the patient by sawing off a limb. Modern writers might think of it as major dental work like a root canal. Its painful but necessary and the dentist does it out of a sense of compassion to save the patient from long term pain.

    John Locke focused on natural rights more than scriptures but comes to the same conclusions. John Lock said it was permissible to defend against aggression, but force should only be used as calm reason and conscience dictate, and not in extravagant passion. When I hear about passion and anger, I’m reminded of a great body of Chinese literature that stressed the avoidance of fighting out of anger and it’s connection to spiritual principles.

    Cao Mie said that a legendary ruler should reject “rage and fury’s mindset.”[4]This is an important command that receives treatment in multiple records. In a rare point of agreement the Five Lost Classics said that rage can be an ulcer for the emperor.[5] This is important as anger can cloud the needed analysis of a ruler or general and lead to rash commands from a ruler, or what I call strategic idiocy, and tactically it can incite soldiers to plunder and punish the people.

    This hot anger would also make it difficult for the ruler to see subtle items that indicate significant items. For example, by being angry at another ruler he might miss important elements of analysis such as the way the ministers respond to the ruler, the quality of soldiers and all the things that a ruler should do in assessing the upcoming war and calculating in the temple: [The ruler who uses] these principles to pacify and calm their own desires in order to hear what is said, to examine activities, to discuss all things…Although these things are not the matter at hand, by seeing the subtle you shall know the greater significance.[6]

The Heart Reconciles War with Sermon on the Mount

    Most importantly than missing important strategic signs, it leads to tactical aggression and massacres. The angry heart, in Christian or Chinese thought leads to increased violations of ethical or moral conduct. The greatest example of this avoidance comes from the Sermon on the Mount.  There, we are commanded to be peacemakers and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:9, 38). This has been elevated by some, including pacifists from antiquity to the present into binding prohibitions against warfare.[7]  But they are not binding and exclusive scriptures. John the Baptist didn’t command the centurion to abandon his profession, but only be content and deal justly (Luke 3:14).  Jesus met a soldier and praised his faith, also without telling him to quit his beatitude breeching military service (Matthew 8:8-10). Jesus himself didn’t turn the other cheek when confronted by high priests (John 18:23). And just about every just war thinker cited Romans 13:1-4, where Christians should be subject to earthly authority and rulers are God’s servant when they use the sword. Paul Ramsey probably provides the most succinct explanation of how force can be loving. Using the example of the Good Samaritan, sometimes a person, or government representing the people must use force to protect and be a good neighbor.[8] That loving force also provides the important limits included in just war because the force to stop victimization shouldn’t be used in such a reckless and aggressive manner that it creates new victims.  All of this is before we consider restoration scriptures that clearly outline the just use of force.  


    In short, the heart problems I’ve discussed go to the central argument of Christians for how to turn the other cheek and be peacemakers, while at the same time making and prosecuting warfare. The answer first formed by Augustine (with some traces in early Christian thought) and then refined by later thinkers was that people’s hearts should always remain peaceful. Warfare should be done for a sense of justice, and not because of loving warfare, plunder, and punishment.

    As I’ve mentioned before, it is nice to read about topics I’ve already discussed. It provides confidence that I’m on the right track and my analysis is keen. In this case, the concept of heart problems I first discussed over ten years ago is part of a long tradition of great thinkers (and okay ones like me) that discussed how to reconcile the City of God and the kingdoms of men. This concept will be a pivotal chapter in the next book I’m writing. The chapter will cover 3rd Nephi and Christ’s retelling of the Sermon the Mount, and naturally reconcile the rest of Book of Mormon with Christ’s Sermon. The entire book will fully engage restoration texts with the concept of Just War. As Benjamin Hertzog said, it is vital for LDS thought to intellectually emerge from the confines of the mountain valleys the Saints once occupied, and engage the robust body of thought that exists.[9]

 I work as a freelance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button at the bottom of the page, or buy one of my books linked in the top left. 


[1] David Corey, J. Daryl Charles, Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Institution, 2012), 29.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed (West Jordan UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 156-157.

[4] Caldwell, Ernest. “Promoting Action in Warring States Political Philosophy: A first Look at the Chu Manuscript Cao Mie’s Battle Arrays.” Early China 37.1 (2014): 259–289.

[5] Robin Yates trans., Five Lost Classics, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 113.

[6] Michael Broschat trans., Guiguzi: A Textual Study and Translation, (University of Washington PhD Thesis, 1998), 142-143.

[7] This material will be an important chapter of my book and I plan to offer specific examples from pacifists, discuss why modern pacifism was a reaction to increased deadliness of weapons, and the other scriptures of the New Testament, including examples from Jesus, that undermine using the Sermon on the Mount exclusively. For brevity I didn't include it here.

[8] Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility, (Rowan and Littlefield, 202),143-144.

[9] Hertzberg, Benjamin R. (2014) "Just War and Mormon Ethics," Mormon Studies Review: Vol. 1 : No. 1 , Article 15.