Last April President Nelson commented on matters of war and peace during his addresses. His words seem authoritative. But if we examine longstanding issues the church has seen before this is not the case. This post explains his words, the competing ethics in the scriptures, and the way church leaders apply the gospel during times of war using historical examples. They show that President Nelson’s words about bringing peace, are only one part of the story and his words in general were more narrow than past church leaders during times of war.
He commented on the war during his Saturday and Sunday talks. On Saturday he said:
[Christ’s] gospel is the only enduring solution for peace. His gospel is a gospel of peace. His gospel is the only answer when many in the world are stunned with fear. This underscores the urgent need for us to follow the Lord’s instruction to His disciples to “go … into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” We have the sacred responsibility to share the power and peace of Jesus Christ with all who will listen and who will let God prevail in their lives.
On Sunday morning he said:
Any war is a horrifying violation of everything the Lord Jesus Christ stands for and teaches. The Savior commanded us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies and to pray for those who despitefully use us. It can be painfully difficult to let go of anger that feels so justified. It can seem impossible to forgive those whose destructive actions have hurt the innocent. And yet, the Savior admonished us to ‘forgive all men.
My call today, my dear brothers and sisters, is to end the conflicts that are raging in your heart, your home, and your life. Bury any and all inclinations to hurt others — whether those inclinations be a temper, a sharp tongue, or resentment for someone who has hurt you. … We are followers of the Prince of Peace. Now more than ever, we need the peace only He can bring. How can we expect peace to exist in the world when we are not individually seeking peace and harmony?
Case closed right? We should seek peace and stay out of conflict. Unfortunately, President Nelson makes the same mistakes that past church leaders and theologians have. He only presents one ethic when there are actually competing ethics in scriptures. In fact, when compared with past president his words are more narrow and one sided.
In my forthcoming book on just war I describe what happened during World War II:
McKay acknowledges some of the competing ethics found in the New Testament but takes great pains to minimize those that support the use of force. He says those instances of Jesus using force, or using the sword, do not refer to a foreign policy. But ironically, he does so by narrowing the scope of Jesus’ words and deeds, even as McKay [and now President Nelson] take the opposite approach and maximize the Saviors teachings about peace in the Sermon on the Mount to directly apply to foreign policy. If one assumes that Jesus’ teaching that he brings the sword is not “any justification for one Christian nation's declaring war upon another,” then in the same vein, the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek should be considered a personal standard and not a guide to foreign policy.
President Hinckley also spoke about war and peace and offered different insights. He started, unlike President Nelson, by acknowledging the “contradictions of the peace of the gospel and the tides of war.” He recognized the duty for citizens to obey their sovereign authority, and for soldiers to obey the oaths they made. He acknowledged the right to protest as part of renouncing war and proclaiming peace in section 98.
But the majority of his talk offered scriptures in support of just warfare:
When war raged between the Nephites and the Lamanites, the record states that “the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for … power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.
“And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God” (Alma 43:45–46).
The Lord counseled them, “Defend your families even unto bloodshed” (Alma 43:47).
And Moroni “rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
“And he fastened on his headplate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren” (Alma 46:12–13).
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.
It can be seen here that President Nelson was hardly the final word on the subject. In fact, compared to the scriptures, and previous statements from Presidents McKay and Hinckley, his was one sided and borderline superficial. He is the current leader, and quoted Jesus, so most many members will declare the debate over and use this a cudgel against those who believe differently.
Mormon doctrine is not found in single statements from church leaders. The scriptures and modern-day leaders have competing ethics regarding war and peace. And the strongest ones, like those from Presidents Mckay and Hinckley, account for all the scriptures. Weaker ethics instead latch onto some and ignore others and they don’t maximize their own while simultaneously minimizing others (something that Mason and Pulsipher do in their book as well). Those that believe in peace don’t take a prophet’s words about peace, and then unironically use them to start rhetorically violent fights against their fellow saints. But that is what happens often. (But don’t worry, “they don’t wish to offend.”)
President Nelson offered some good words on peace. I share
the same wish for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, the desire for peace in the
face of unchecked slaughter is what Thomas Aquinas called an evil peace.
And I can’t support a peace that allows slaughter, regardless of some
superficial remarks in conference from the current leader of the church.
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 “Message of the First Presidency,” One Hundred twelfth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, , (Salt Lake City; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 90-94.)