War in Mormon Belief

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War, and the study of war is as old as the sands of time. The Savior Himself exhorted, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6, emphasis added). He further admonished, “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows” (Mark 13:8).

Albert Einstein is attributed with pronouncing his foregone conclusion, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” And, it was former United States President, Jimmy Carter, who stated, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.” Perhaps Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC), an ancient Greek historian, stated it best, “In peace, children inter their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to inter their children.”

The Ideology of War

War according to Mormonism

The ideas and concepts surrounding the making of decisions about engaging in a war vary significantly. Factors such as the history of a culture’s involvement in wars, a person’s personal beliefs about war, and religious ideologies concerning whether war is ever justified, and if involvement in a war contradicts the teachings of that religion, all play a major role in discussions concerning the possible declaration of war against a rival. Sir Winston Churchill gave the stern warning, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

A key responsibility of the civil government is to protect its citizens from attack by wrongdoers. This involves punishing those who break the law. It also involves defending the nation from every external attacker, including nations, other groups of people or dangerous pests and diseases. All these responsibilities are encompassed in the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-8). [1]

Particular note should be taken of the words of the Savior as recorded in Romans 13:8, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” The Master also taught, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

Concerning our enemies, the Savior taught: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also” (Luke 6:29); “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:17-18). He further taught, “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).

The civil government has the power of the sword, to execute justice and to defend the nation. Paul explains that the government does not bless those who do evil, as individuals are required to do. As God’s servant, the civil government is required to use force to defend the nation against evil attackers (See Romans 13). [2]
Countries may define their interests differently and hence make reliance on force more or less salient, with various political and ethical consequences. For example, a group may adopt a radical pacifist position, but its survival then depends on the attitudes of others. Thus, in the Book of Mormon, the survival of the converted Lamanites who vowed never to shed blood was vouchsafed by the Nephites and by their own sons, who were not bound by their oath of pacifism (Alma 27:24; 56:5-9). [3]

What the Bible Teaches About War and Self-Defense

The Bible teaches that a nation has a right to defend itself, however, there are a number of principles that govern the civil government’s exercise of its authority in fulfilling its responsibilities: [4]

1. War is only justified for defense (See Romans 13:1-8). War should never be used to expand a nation’s boundaries, to take control of another nation, or to extract trade advantages. Therefore, a nation should never have to establish military sovereignty in another region or nation. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same” (Romans 13:3).
2. War should never be used as an instrument to win people for the gospel. Hence, the concept of a Christian Holy War has no firm basis in the scriptures. The nation of Israel, for example, conquered and destroyed the Canaanite nations only after they had received a specific and direct command from God to do so. The Lord commanded the nation of Israel: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deuteronomy 7:2). This was done in accordance with God’s plan and purpose to bring about the salvation of Israel.
3. A Christian nation should not have a large “standing army”, nor should the military be given an abundance of political power so as not to use war as a cure-all for solving conflicts. In Deuteronomy 17:16 are recorded these words, “But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, ye shall henceforth return no more that way.”
4. The defense force should act as part-time local militia. A majority of the soldiers will be highly trained civilian volunteers who will anxiously answer the call whenever a defense force is needed. These soldiers will have other interests that occupy their time, thus they will not be afforded the opportunity to become overzealous in wanting to fight unnecessary wars, but are on the ready to go into action to defend their families and friends at a moment’s notice. A full-time professional will be stationed at central command to make sure that the defense of the nation is maintained. Anyone who is faint-hearted or afraid, or at a critical station in their lives (recently married, building a new home, or starting a business) should be excused from military service due to their lack of focus. (See Deuteronomy 20:4-9).
5. A Christian nation will not harbor offensive weapons (See Deuteronomy 17:16). A modern defense force should choose weapons which are best suited for defensive purposes.
6. Only the civil government, in accordance with correct legal processes, has the authority to declare war (See Deuteronomy 20:10-14).
7. “War should always be the last resort. Before declaring war, the civil government should try every means possible to obtain peace (Deuteronomy 20:10). We should never forget the horror of war. It is always costly in terms of human suffering. Christians should never glorify war. While it is an honor for a man to give his life to defend his family and community, war is never an ideal solution. A Christian government should be prepared for war, if it is attacked, but it should also hope that it would never have to fight.” [5]
8. Before declaring war, a Christian nation should seek God’s will. Any nation which enters into war on the presupposition that it thinks it is the right thing to do, is being overconfident (See Deuteronomy 1:41-44). The army is more apt to have success when its efforts are blessed of God.
9. A Christian government should only declare war if it is confident that there is an equitable chance of winning. “What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace” (Luke 14:31-32).
Counting the cost of war, is not just a matter of estimating how many soldiers will be lost. The full cost of the war should be counted. There are generally very few winners in war. The cost for the families of those who die is enormous. For the soldiers who survive the cost can also be high. Many will have injuries that blight their lives. Worse still, war has a desensitizing effect on its participants, and good men can be drawn into doing great evil. They will have to live with their consciences. War is also an enormous waste of economic resources. There are actually very few situations serious enough to justify the enormous costs of war.
God determines the appointed times of the nations and the timing of their rule (See Acts 17:26). No nation has the authority to invade another nation to change its government (even if it is evil). A nation cannot even be invaded to establish democracy. (Democracy must come from the hearts of the people, it cannot be enforced from the outside.) Most attempts by great powers to establish "better" government by force in other nations have failed, because the spiritual forces that control the nation have not been defeated (See Daniel 10:13). [6]

War, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants

The LDS response to the political realities of war is largely conditioned by the concept of the justification of defensive war provided in the Book of Mormon and in modern revelation. The main statements come from accounts of Moroni 1 (a Nephite commander, c. 72-56 B.C.), from the prophet Mormon (final commander of the Nephite armies, c. A.D. 326-385), and from guidance given to the Church in 1833, when persecutions were mounting in Missouri (See Doctrine and Covenants 98). [7]

Captain Moroni raised a banner on which he laid out the principal Nephite war aims: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12). Legitimate warfare is herein described in defensive terms. Captain Moroni organized a forward defense perimeter, constructed protective fortifications for some cities, and deployed his main armies as mobile striking forces to retake captured towns.

And thus he was preparing to support their liberty, their lands, their wives, and their children, and their peace, and that they might live unto the Lord their God, and that they might maintain that which was called by their enemies the cause of Christians (Alma 48:10).
And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them. But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed (Mormon 4:4-5).

He taught the Nephites that they were to defend themselves against their enemies “even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary,” but “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” (Alma 48:14).

And this was their faith, that by so doing God would prosper them in the land, or in other words, if they were faithful in keeping the commandments of God that he would prosper them in the land; yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger” (Alma 48:15).

The Nephites sought the counsel of the prophets prior to going to war (See Alma 16:5; 43:23; 3 Nephi 3:19-20). By so doing, they were ensured that “God would make it known unto them whither they should go to defend themselves against their enemies, and by so doing, the Lord would deliver them,” and “this was the faith of Moroni, and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity” (Alma 48:16).

Four centuries later, the Nephites "began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies" (Mormon 3:9), and Mormon, their leader, withdrew from command. They had failed to remember that the Lord had said, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay” (Mormon 3:15). Mormon's sense of duty caused him again to lead the Nephite armies, but he knew that their turning to aggression and bloodthirsty reprisal betrayed a deeper corruption that ultimately brought about their downfall. As he observed his people drifting into barbaric acts of torture, rape, and enslavement, Mormon lamented: “O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy. Behold, I am but a man, and I have but the strength of a man, and I cannot any longer enforce my commands" (Moroni 9:18).

Even if the sword is taken up in self-defense, it is a fearful choice. It should be undertaken only if God commands (Doctrine and Covenants 98:33) and after "a standard of peace" has been offered three times (Doctrine and Covenants 98:34-38). Great rewards are promised to those who warn their enemies in the name of the Lord, who patiently bear three attacks against themselves or their families, and who repeatedly forgive their enemies (Doctrine and Covenants 98:23-27, 39-43). “Nevertheless, thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified; if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:31). [8]

The Lord continues His instruction to the people:

Behold, this is an ensample unto all people, saith the Lord your God, for justification before me. And again, verily I say unto you, if after thine enemy has come upon thee the first time, he repent and come unto thee praying thy forgiveness, thou shalt forgive him, and shalt hold it no more as a testimony against thine enemy—And so on unto the second and third time; and as oft as thine enemy repenteth of the trespass wherewith he has trespassed against thee, thou shalt forgive him, until seventy times seven. And if he trespass against thee and repent not the first time, nevertheless thou shalt forgive him.
And if he trespass against thee the second time, and repent not, nevertheless thou shalt forgive him. And if he trespass against thee the third time, and repent not, thou shalt also forgive him. But if he trespass against thee the fourth time thou shalt not forgive him, but shalt bring these testimonies before the Lord; and they shall not be blotted out until he repent and reward thee four-fold in all things wherewith he has trespassed against thee. And if he do this, thou shalt forgive him with all thine heart; and if he do not this, I, the Lord, will avenge thee of thine enemy an hundred-fold; and upon his children, and upon his children’s children of all them that hate me, unto the third and fourth generation.
But if the children shall repent, or the children’s children, and turn to the Lord their God, with all their hearts and with all their might, mind, and strength, and restore four-fold for all their trespasses wherewith they have trespassed, or wherewith their fathers have trespassed, or their fathers’ fathers, then thine indignation shall be turned away; and vengeance shall no more come upon them, saith the Lord thy God, and their trespasses shall never be brought any more as a testimony before the Lord against them. Amen (Doctrine and Covenants 98:38-48).

Accordingly, in the Missouri persecutions and in Nauvoo at the time of the 1844 martyrdom of the Prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum, the posture of the Church was strictly defensive; likewise, the 1857 military threat of the Utah expedition was defused without the occurrence of bloodshed. [9]

In the April 2003 General Conference, President Hinckley explicitly took up the issue of war and peace. He stated the long-held position that “those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign,” a position as ancient as the New Testament church. At the same time, he reiterated the Lord’s command to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” He, however, argued that “self-defense” is justified and may transcend responses to a direct attack: “…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” (General Conference Report, April 5-6, 2003, 81-85). [10]