Thursday, November 2, 2023

Sidelining Jesus: Appraising Mason's Thoughts on Peace and Ukraine


        Patrick Mason didn’t attend the LDS National Security Professionals earlier this year but his planned remarks have been published in Public Square. As with his very poorly argued book, he thanks a prodigious amount of people for providing feedback and guidance, but still produced an extremely flawed argument. Mason sidelines Jesus in favor of his own deeply flawed interpretations and misquotes while showing a shallow knowledge (and rejection of) just war.

Sidelining Jesus

        You might think that “side lining Jesus” is a rather harsh thing to say to a fellow Latter Day Saint but that line is used by Mason to denigrate the theories and people who disagree with him. Other people might have different theories than him, but they don’t follow Jesus any less.

        For example, Mason quotes President Nelson as saying, “Any war is a horrifying violation of everything the Lord Jesus Christ stands for and teaches.” But it was actually President Hinckley who gave the most comprehensive discussion of warfare to date. Unlike Presidents Nelson and McKay he recognized and respected other points of view. Moreover, President Hinckley quoted Alma 43:46-46 before saying, “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.” According to Mason, we have to believe that President Hinckley “sidelined” Jesus by quoting the war chapters and recognizing the just causes to use force.


Mason thinks that Jesus should be the center of nonviolent theology, yet Mason shows himself to be a mercenary by using (and often misusing) a variety of quotes. For example, he quoted Tertullian when he said, “In disarming Peter, Jesus unbelted every soldier.” But the problem is that Mason has never read Tertullian![1]

         Tertullian isn’t that hard to read. I found a translation online in a matter of seconds and spontaneously read it in a single sitting. If Mason had bothered to read Tertullian, or any other Christian fathers instead of out of context proof texts in pacifist volumes he would have been more cautious in quoting him. Tertullian rejected the danger of idolatrous military ceremonies and clothing. But many Christians still fought as Roman soldiers and many other Christian fathers like Clement supported the state’s right to use force and Clement prayed for the success of the emperor’s army. The summary of the dominant positions was to that a “vengeful spirit is denounced” not force itself.[2]

In summary, Mason admits he hasn’t read his source, applies it in isolation from Christian fathers, and then uses it to provide a veneer of classical education and the respectability of church fathers to his theories. But he shows the same slipshod style with all of his quotes. For example, in some places he quotes Martin Luther King and the liberal, Catholic Pope in a more privileged position than most of scripture. But in other places, when their words are no longer useful to him, Mason implies that non-LDS thinkers are less than restoration texts. At one point he quotes a Catholic and then says: “On the other hand…most authoritative scripture.”

Mason not only fails to read many seminal thinkers and selectively use others, but he also demotes restoration scriptures! He sidelines most prophets in the Book of Mormon by focusing on the anti-Nephi Lehi’s and Ammon. He redefines words to ignore explicit scripture like DC 134:11.” We believe that all men are justified in defending themselves.” He reinterprets Doctrine and Covenants 98, particularly verse 32 that says this law was given to Nephi and Abraham as a way to ignore the example of the Nephites and Abraham. The latter of whom, didn’t follow the Lords law of war but was blessed as a prince of peace and as the father of the faithful!

Thus his argument boils down to his thesis statement with my edits in italics: “Both incredibly selective and cherry-picked scripture and history, therefore, attest that self-defense can effectively take nonviolent forms.”

Just Read It

Most annoyingly, when he does discuss just war Mason uses “the list” or “the menu.” Its use here is ironic because I remember sitting at the 2011 conference on war and peace, and listening to presenters complain about the use of the “list.” This is what I call a rote listing of the just war criteria and its use here seems more like a straw man than engagement. My gut feeling is reinforced because he already listed a secondhand veneer of church fathers.

If he did have a good understanding of Just War he would realize the foundation is the heart. The heart of the Israeli baby about to be beheaded. The breaking heart of the parent that cries for justice as their soul is ripped in two. The heart of the soldier that wishes he could have been there to stop it, and the heart of the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story, who would have intervened if he had the chance. And Mason ignores that heart filled with love and pain and denies it’s just expression in the form of wielding the sword to stop those abuses.

Failing to understand this is what allows him to ignore just war so easily. But he tries to conflate nonviolent resistance in Ukraine while piggy packing on those who wielded the sword to defend their country. Just like he tries in his piece to piggyback off millions of allied soldiers during Second World War to give Danish nonresistance credit. (He also uses a false cause fallacy; Denmark was likely least damaged because it was the less strategically important for the allies to target. The narrow peninsula made it incredibly unsuited to military operations and the Germans would not relocate key industries CLOSER to allied airbases.) Nor does Mason recognize how many Ukrainians disappeared in the night only for their broken and raped bodies to be found in basement torture chambers. And he doesn’t understand how impotent his theories are in stopping those atrocities in the first place or rescuing them.

As I wrote here, the list or menu given in perfunctory fashion represents how just war theories have been watered down for the masses, to the point that many of their positive aspects of the theory, such as the protections for women and children are assumed, without giving credit to just war theorists. But the abuses of the theory by tyrants like Putin are attributed to just war theorists and the entire theory is dismissed as too basic or unhelpful. So just war theory gets blamed for the bad and given little credit for the good, and blithely dismissed by people like Mason.

Moreover, what’s left out of the discussion of just war theory are very specific prohibitions and guardrails designed to stop abuses of espoused principles. For example, while the principle of just war is recognized, every discussion of it in theory is followed by a lengthy series of warnings about the chaos, bloodshed, and factionalism that can happen when it is applied and a suggestion to pursue alternatives. The interaction of just war theories with the Book of Mormon provides the very kind of discussion and insights that are often lost in rote proof-texting and goes deeper than “partisan allegiances and the urgency of battle” that still permeate the discourse among Americans and Latter-day Saints 20 years after the start of the most infamous preemptive war in American history.[3] Mason doesn’t recognize any of the above nuances of theory. How could he when the closest he got to actually reading the theory was a second hand quote of Tertullian and straw men “list” of just war?

Bring Me a Higher Love

        Duane Boyce once talked about the need to clear away weeds so the seeds can grow. It serves an important function to dispatch Mason’s bad arguments. But there is an argument in favor of force that accounts for all scriptures and not one series of (pacifist or just war) scriptures.

        There are two significant impulses, I would call natural rights, and both are correct. The first is that war is wrong. No man should be killed. Laozi said that even victorious warfare should be treated like a funeral.[4] If Adam and Even hadn’t fallen, or Nephi and Laman kept the family together, there would be no evil and no war. But we don’t live in a perfect world and because people are in danger of losing their fight right, they have an obligation to fight for the second right.

        Good-hearted people everywhere have the impulse to wield the sword to stop injustice. And while Mason gives lip service to the second impulse, he prioritizes the first. In his tortured word games of “justified” he splits the two. But they are connected. Moreover, he denigrates the second by calling it a “sin.”

        His argument is constructed by boiling the frog. The urban myth says the frog will jump out of boiling water, but if you put him in water and gradually raise the temperature he’ll stay in the pot and get boiled. He starts with something broadly agreeable, just war in Ukraine, stopping murderous bad guys and praising the World War II allies as partners of nonviolent Dutch resisters. He then does some word games about the term justified to make just war something sinful that God needs to justify. He builds upon those ideas to then suppress all sorts of clear scripture that justifies warfare. All the time he is including tons of caveats and exceptions to try and appear sensible, he then concludes by calling war a corruption and sin that should be avoided. At one point he even said we need to “[invite soldiers] into a space of repentance and reconciliation.” In other words, he calls them unjustified sinners. He seals it with a proof text from a single modern, non-doctrinal source in President Nelson’s Ukraine war talk.

        In the real world his theories indicate his sympathy and praise for Tank Man, (the Tiananmen Square protestor that stood in front of the tank) but offers impotent solutions to an authoritarian state that sends him to a concentration camp before killing him. He even contends that if Tank Man picked up a rifle in revolt against his authoritarian regime he would need to repent. Or to use a more recent example, he condemns the defenders of Israeli women and children. Those defenders tried to stop the beheading of their children and similarly depraved acts of terror. And for their troubles, Mason calls them to repentance.

        He does this in such conciliatory language that you don’t notice it. But his rhetoric spits on the military service of every good-hearted soldier that fought for freedom. I don’t need to repent for defending my family nor do Israeli soldiers for defending theirs. Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable, despite Mason’s wrangling of scriptures.

        So Mason complains that just war feels right but isn’t right. But I’d counter that it feels right because the defense of liberty comes from an innate or natural sense of right of wrong. And Jesus agrees. Assuming the Good Samaritan came upon the beaten traveler in the middle of the attack, no reasonable person would turn the other cheek of the beaten traveler, renounce war, proclaim peace and stand idly by, wait until the traveler was attacked three times, or question the legitimacy of action by citing long-standing ethnic tension in the region or perhaps the culpability of the traveler. The love of the Good Samaritan for his neighbor, and the love that we should have, would compel violent intervention! That is why I agree with all the scriptures that Mason cites. You should love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), but can defend, or love, even unto bloodshed (Alma 43:14). We overcome evil through righteousness (Romans 12:14-21), but also by resisting it with the sword (Alma 61:14.) As the many church fathers that Mason ignored would argue, wielding the sword is an expression of love not a corruption of it.

        At the end of his piece he calls for us to love our neighbor. I agree, the problem is he spent thousands of words ignoring dozens of scriptures and people explaining the fundamental role of love in taking up arms. If he wants to be seen as less, in his words, “smug, self-assured, arrogant, and judgmental in the supposed righteousness of my near-absolute nonviolent position,” he should start by not accusing his opponents of “sidelining Jesus.” He might also stop laughing and snickering at his opponents while among fellow peace proponents. Take it from someone who was bombed with a gotcha question from Mason at a war and peace conference in 2011, and believes the loving heart is the foundation of just war, recognizing his smugness is a good step, but he has a long way to go.

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

[1]His footnote reads: Idolatry 19, p. 73, quoted in Lisa Sowle Cahill, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Pacifism, Just War, and Peacebuilding (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), 77. Updated: See also: fns. 6-10 in Patrick Mason, "Zionic Non Violence as Christian Worship and Practice," in How and What you Worship: Christology and Praxis in the Revelations of Joseph Smith, Rachel Cope, Carter Charles, Jordan T. Watkins eds., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 2020. In fact, every footnote in that piece referencing Christian fathers refers to a secondary source. 

[2] David Corey, J. Daryl Charles, Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Institute, 2012), 47.

[3] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York, Basic Books, 2015,) xxix.

No comments: