How “War and Peace in our Time” Saved my Sunday School Teacher

Title: War and Peace in our Time: Mormon Perspectives
Editors: Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher, Richard L. Bushman
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Religious Studies
Year: 2012
Pages: 278
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 9781589580992
Price: $29.95

Last Sunday we had the “Stripling Warriors” Sunday school lesson, and, being a pacifist, I was looking for (figurative) ammunition against the pro-war stance I knew I would hear. Luckily, I had a copy of “War and Peace in our Time: Mormon Perspectives,” a collection of essays which were presented at a conference by the same name at Claremont Graduate University in March 2011. Reading these pieces did give me the reinforcement I was looking for, but also a bombshell or two I wasn’t expecting.

As Patrick Mason noted in the introduction, the essays were intentionally weighted toward pacifism. This was done to provide a counterbalance to prevailing LDS opinions supporting war policies. Since many Mormons are dubious regarding the efficacy of nonviolent alternatives in international conflict, the preponderance of essays came from the perspectives of pacifism, conscientious objection, robust internationalism, or at least “just war” theory. But the collection remained interesting because there was a range of informed perspectives on the issue.

Four sections grouped the essays together thematically, but, to my surprise, there was no effort to separate the “pro-war” and the “pro-peace” standpoints. This made for a more spirited exchange of ideas in the following categories: Scriptural and Doctrinal Interpretations, Historical and Cultural Perspectives, Notable and Prophetic Voices, and Personal and Professional Observations. I read several of the essays aloud to friends and family, and found that they did indeed encourage deep thought and animated dialogue. In this review, I will focus on two essays which fired my imagination. I hope that the comments to this post will generate further discussion on these two pieces in particular.

Scriptural & Doctrinal Interpretations
J. David Pulsipher: The Ammonite Conundrum

This essay related specifically to the aforementioned Sunday school lesson, beginning with the problems of pacifist interpretations of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, or as Pulsipher calls them, the Ammonites. These are the people who stir the hearts of peace-nics such as myself with their brave anti-war decision to bury their weapons and never take them up again. But this essay warned that subsequent events cloud the waters of a pacifist reading of their story. The Ammonites not only accepted Nephite military protection, but they helped to fund it, later offering to break their vows. Pacifist convictions were not transferred to their sons, the famous stripling warriors, whose tale of valor on the military field is one of the most inspiring in LDS lore. Pulsipher stated that an absolute pacifist position tends to set up a dichotomy which most Mormons find insensible and unscriptural. (Don’t worry; he also cited the problems of a just war theory which, he said, more militant Latter-day Saints fail to fully comprehend.) Pulsipher described what he feels is a more productive way to view resistance strategies: as “more divine” or “less divine.” The latter may be necessary and foundational for a society that is not fully evolved enough to utilize the former. The “more divine” strategy of the Ammonites is not captured with the term “pacifism,” Pulsipher insists. It is not simply nonaggression, but a truth-force that is strong, moral and effective.

…the Latter-day Saint community should permanently retire the Ammonite Conundrum, casting it into a philosophical pit with other sharp yet defunct dichotomies such as heaven and hell. Only then can we approach our responses to violence and evil with greater deliberation, carefully weighing the relative morality and effectiveness of various strategies, as well as our individual and collective capacity to implement them.

I can’t say that I was entirely dissuaded from my absolute pacifist stance by Pulsipher’s essay. But it did give me enough to think about that I refrained from skirmishing with the Sunday school teacher.

Other essays in this section were powerful as well. Joshua Madsen’s take on a non-violent reading of the Book of Mormon focused on foundational narratives, bringing to the table another new way to look at Nephite versus Lamanite traditions. Morgan Deane legitimized the use of preemptive force, a stance which articulated the majority position in the Church in defense of the Bush Doctrine.  Robert Rees channeled John Lennon in “imagin[ing] all the people” of the Nephites “living life in peace” for 200 years after the visit of the Savior. Rick Duran wrote on how the collective teachings of the Book of Mormon endorse a holy peace, portraying moral peoples and actions as divinely approved, and immoral ones as inferior and unsanctioned.

Historical & Cultural Perspectives
Jennifer Lindell: Fall From Grace: Mormon Millennialism, Native Americas, and Violence

In this paper, the author chronicled the transformation of Native Americans from honored remnant of Israel to degraded and dangerous rival of early Mormon settlers. The Indians, who Joseph Smith taught held a unique and chosen place in history, were a practical concern as pioneers settled in the valleys of the West. Violence and aggression against Native tribes soon became a dominant practice. Clashes with local tribes over the use of resources resulted in violence, exploitation, and desecration on the part of the Mormons, and theft and retaliation on the part of the Indians. Religious sentiment gave way to practical concerns. Public discourse and even church policy reinforced biases and stereotypes; and these escalated into confrontations which settlers felt were justified.

I was interested to read the perspective that Lindell took in her analysis of this issue. She began by casting the violence against Native Americans as “representative of a larger national pattern.” Although I am sure this is an accurate depiction, I regret that early Latter-day Saints were unable to utilize their unique doctrine to take the lead in the social issue of racial discrimination. Instead, the picture she painted was grim. Though Lindell gave examples of inflammatory rhetoric from official Church sources, she seemed to exonerate them, stating, “Several factors caused Mormons to disregard teachings from both their scriptural canon and their church leadership during Utah settlement.” I could not tell from this short piece whether Lindell was taking the tack that many Mountain Meadows massacre writers do in absolving leaders and placing the blame for unwarranted violence on outlying LDS individuals. But she did seem to follow this pattern in places in the essay.

The early settlers’ view of Native Americans as “other” led to some interesting Mormon social policies and attitudes. One of these was Mormon support of federal relocation of Indian tribes. The Saints encouraged these efforts as abetting the gathering of Israel. Another was the attitude of superiority, necessitating “rescue” of Native Americans from their barbaric ways. Brigham Young advocated marrying Indian women to lift their descendants out of degradation, adopting Indian children to improve their upbringing, or teaching the arts of “civilized” life such as farming and settling into permanent residences. Some of these approaches were continued even into the modern era.

This section of the book included two other essays with cultural perspectives on war and peace. Ethan Yorgason wrote on the effect of the Korean War on LDS growth in that country. Jesse Samantha Fulcher discussed Gandhi’s principles of satyagraha (active nonviolence) and ahimsa (refusal to do harm). She related these to Mormonism and the wider community using specific examples.

Notable & Prophetic Voices

In this section there were four essays. I’d love to review each one on its own! I think readers will really enjoy these. Robert H. Hellebrand considered messages about the morality and purpose of war from General Conference. D. Michael Quinn wrote about J. Reuben Clark, Jr., his heritage of conscientious objection, and his legacy of pacifism. Boyd Jay Peterson’s essay considered Hugh Nibley’s military background and later perspective on war. Loyd Ericson described Eugene England’s theology of active love and “just war” under certain stringent conditions, and his responses to the statements of Church leaders over several decades.

Personal & Professional Observations

Four final essays gave observations on war and peace from several different perspectives.  Eric A. Eliason, an LDS chaplain, spoke from his experiences in Afghanistan and compared them to readings from the Book of Mormon. Gordon Conrad Thomasson gave historical context and modern application of D&C 98. Ron Madson used the same section in the Doctrine and Covenants to provide a pattern for responding to personal conflicts. A group of five LDS national security practitioners described unique aspects of Mormon theology, and provided an understanding of how war is understood from the perspective of deterrence and security strategies.

Finally, a concluding essay by Richard Bushman spoke of the difficulties in addressing this topic and his hope that a wider discourse might begin to take place. “What I worry about,” he confesses, “is that as soon as the point of violence is reached, our thinking stops.”

When I say that I am an absolute pacifist, I do not mean that I come to conflict with a meek and mild mentality. I believe that there are many strategies to be employed to approach pacifism from a position of strength. This book made an impression on me because this approach was considered in many of the essays. These ranged from from the principle of conscientious objection covered in two of the talks to the discussion of resistance strategy in David Pulsipher’s writing, to the concept of active, non-violent opposition by Jesse Fulcher. Though these writings were the ones I really related to, I was provided with food for thought from essays advocating defensive measures when justified. I can’t think of any books I have read dealing with these issues from a Latter-day Saint pacifist stance, and I am encouraged to see the publication of this collection.


How “War and Peace in our Time” Saved my Sunday School Teacher — 2 Comments

  1. Although like any sane person I despise war in all its forms, I’m not sure I would label myself a pacifist. Thanks for the review, Cheryl. This one is definitely going on my to-read list.

  2. Cheryl, great review. I personally label myself a pacifist and its a shame that many people think pacifism means being passive which is simply not the case. Pacifism like the truth-force David speaks of means literally to make peace or peacemakers. It requires an active engagement with the world using non-violent means. It means standing up for truth even if it means you might have to take up your cross. For me, it means being willing to do what many Christian peace making teams attempt to do and bring oneness and reconciliation to where there was once to two different stories or two competing narratives. For me the spirit of the Lord or the paracletes (literally defense attorney) means we speak up and defend the those without a voice and stand for truth. Some quick suggestions for those interested in reading about this christian peace tradition: Works by John Howard Yoder, Tolstoy, Walter Wink’s writings, Stanley Hauerwas, Rene Girard, Anthony Bartlett, Jacques Ellul, and as I would argue the scriptures themselves including the Book of Mormon. There are other muslim, jewish, and non abrahamic traditions out there worth reading as well.