Readers of the Book of Mormon encounter war and a lot of it. Indeed, the entire narrative seems to be driven by a cycle of conflict between competing groups. Destruction via war may come as a result of wickedness or oppression may be heaped upon the righteous for the purposes of teaching humility and demonstrating the power of God. The Book of Mormon war stories read as mythic narratives with brave heroes and cunning villains, clear lines dividing the good from the bad and the oppressed from the oppressor. Despite the relative simplicity of these narratives, however, there is something to be learned from the Book of Mormon on issues of war and peace; especially in today’s incredibly volatile geopolitical climate.
There are three war stories in the Book of Mormon which I find particular instructive. The first relates to the Lamanites who eventually became known as the people of Ammon. The second is the conflict between Moroni and Amalikiah and the third is the Nephite battles recounted by Mormon after the Nephites had fallen deep into apostasy long after the coming of Christ.
The story of the people of Ammon is as dramatic as it is moving. Prior to being converted to Christianity the people of Ammon were Lamanites; Lamanites who had been violent and aggressive towards their Nephite enemies. After their conversion these people adopted a new name to distinguish themselves from their former Lamanite bretheren: Anti-Nephi-Lehies. (See Alma 23-28) The influence of their spiritual conversion was so strong that a major component of their new faith was an absolute rejection of violence. A rejection so powerful that even when attacked by their former Lamanite bretheren who resented the influence of Nephite traditions (Christianity) encroaching into their lands, these newly Christian Anti-Nephi-Lehies refused to take up arms and allowed themselves to be slaughtered without resistance. Eventually their attackers were so overcome with remorse and horror at the consequences of their own violent actions that many were persuaded to repent in anguish and embrace the faith of their victims. In this instance, their pacifism quelled the blood lust of their enemies and provided a brief respite from aggressive attack.
Eventually, Lamanite hatred of Nephite traditions was rekindled and armies were organized to again attack the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. In a desparate plea, the king of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies turned to their former enemies, the Nephites in Zarahemla, for refuge and protection. Without hesitation the Nephites embraced their former enemies and provided them with a new homeland amongst the Nephites. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies fled to the protection of the Nephites they then became known as the people of Ammon and, the Nephites, knowing of the vow the people of Ammon had taken to never again take up arms in violence, vowed to protect and preserve the people of Ammon.
The story of the people of Ammon is important in several respects. First, it demonstrates the possibility that once-violent natures can become peaceful when persuaded by goodness, in this case the loving disposition required of all faithful Christians. Second, it shows that pacifism can be a viable option in efforts to uphold conceptions of Christian virtue — although it is made clear that pacifism is certainly not an absolute mandate. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates the incredible power of forgiveness as the Nephites not only embraced their former enemies but also, honored their commitment to non-violence and vowed to protect the people of Ammon from Lamanite aggression.
The conflict between Moroni and Amalikiah primarily demonstrates the power of underlying motives and how those motives influence both the manner in which war is waged, and the necessity of clear moral authority when violence becomes the option of last resort. In Alma 48:14 we read:
14 Now the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary; yea, and they were also taught never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives.
This verse sets the overarching standard for just war and when the Nephites embraced the goodness of Christianity this principle of defensive-only war informed all Nephite military action. All efforts were made to avoid violent conflict and to find peaceful means to resolve conflict. On several occasions in the Book of Mormon we read of the Nephites and Lamanites “opening up a correspondence” with one another and, at times, this dialogue proved useful in averting bloodshed. When bloodshed and violence became inevitable, however, the Nephites used all means necessary to secure victory — always with an eye towards eventual peace.
Many times Captain Moroni overcame his enemies and was in a position to pursue “the work of death” unabated. In each case he offered his enemies an opportunity for peaceful resolution. Moroni and his armies were motivated by a sense of moral authority, knowing that they fought for their religious and political liberty and not for the spoils of war.
Conversely, Amalikiah was motivated solely by an obsession for power and self-aggrandizement. He demonstrates none of the virtuous qualities of Moroni and, as a result, some of his own people came to doubt the justice of their actions and abandoned the cause. Amalikiah and his armies lacked moral authority — an underlying sense of justice. They sought war and violence as a means for personal gain, and not for the collective good or for a cause greater than themselves. As such, they lacked courage and conviction. (See Alma 46)
Many years later in the narrative the Nephites commanded by Mormon fell into similar trappings by being driven by a hatred of the Lamanites and an unwarranted and unrealistic conception of their own strength. Not surprisingly, this led to a cycle of violence between these two groups which ultimately led to the complete annihilation of the Nephite nation. (See Mormon 4)
As mentioned above, these stories are simplistic and somewhat formulaic. So what, if anything, can readers of the Book of Mormon take away from the narratives in relation to the ethics of war and peace? First and foremost, these narratives illustrate the importance of holding moral authority when waging war. Of course, it may be argued that both sides of a conflict believe they are taking the high ground; that their position is the moral, just, and virtuous cause. I do not doubt that such self-perception exists and is certainly perpetuated by political and military forces on opposing sides of a conflict. However, true moral authority comes from what is just and good in itself. I reject post-modern moral relativism and am troubled by the ubiquity of utilitarian calculus and have argued elsewhere (in another ethical context) that existent objects, especially human beings, have value in themselves; a value which is self-evident. To rob a human being of this value through war, torture, or other forms of degradation in pursuit of one’s own self-interest is the height of immorality. Yet, because human beings have an inherent value they also have, in most circumstances, the duty to protect their lives and the lives of any who are being likewise threatened. As such, unprovoked and violent aggression are always morally wrong — regardless of the self-perception of the perpetrators of such violence.
Moral authority, therefore, is absolute and not relative. Aggressive unprovoked military action taken in the name of the “greater good” is a lie; a lie supported by empty rhetoric and thus incapable of being the foundation for true morality. Conversely, defense of the innocent in support of recognizing and preserving inherent human value is the height of morality and in the case of war, the source of absolute moral authority.
Moral authority imbues a nation, army, or people with confidence and certainty. It allows them to enter conflict with a clear and unambiguous purpose: the preservation of human life, value, and dignity. Conversely, a lack of moral authority breeds uncertainty as without the existence of a genuinely moral end (as opposed to the fantasies portrayed as moral ends invented by politicians, military leaders, and zealots of all kinds) armies and nations are more likely to lose faith in their cause or become disillusioned when the cause is ultimately realized.
These narratives also demonstrate the tremendous value of forgiveness. The Nephites embraced their former enemies; enemies who had murdered and killed their brethren. Not only did they forgive, they also sacrificed both land and blood in order to protect and preserve the people of Ammon. Forgiveness ended a cycle of violence and hatred as enemies became brothers. The duty to forgive trumped any feelings of resentment, anger, and hurt. It allowed for a fresh start. In today’s world we see nations who are now close friends and allies who at one time were vowed enemies. We also see conflicts which seem never-ending because neither side is willing to forgive and embrace peace. Their resentment has overtaken them and the result is continued violence, bloodshed, sorrow. A more stark contrast could not be presented.
The Book of Mormon also teaches us the value of preparation and of maintaining a willingness to engage an aggressor. The saying “good fences make good neighbors” is a succinct statement of this principle. Military strength — if maintained for purposes of defense — is essential. Yet, some nations are more capable of maintaining this strength than others and therefore, strong nations have an obligation to defend those incapable or unable of defending themselves. Just as the Nephites defended the people of Ammon. Similarly, military strength must be accompanied by genuine humility. The combination of military strength and pride, more often than not, leads to fruitless and tragic pursuits. Military triumph should not be celebrated, therefore, as a sign of national strength or prominence. Rather, triumph should be celebrated as a victory for the preservation of human life, value, and dignity.
Paradoxically then, war and violence must only be utilized in the pursuit of future peace. Peace should be maintained through both the pursuit of genuine moral authority and with the knowledge that at some point, war will eventually come.
These are Book of Mormon stories that my teacher(s) certainly taught to me but ones which I am just now coming to appreciate and understand.
Note: In preparing this post I made exclusive use of The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Grant Hardy. Hardy’s editing and formatting make the text of the Book of Mormon come alive in a way I had never before experienced. This version of the Book of Mormon any student of the Book of Mormon, or Mormonism generally, should have readily available on their bookshelf.