The topic for today is war; specifically, where should the teachings and doctrine of Mormonism lead us when trying to understand the current situation in Iraq. And how can they inform a response to the call for action some on the right (such as Vice-President Cheney) are advocating towards Iran.
What does Mormonism teach about war? The book Mormon Doctrine, ironically, is not actually an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint, despite having been written by Bruce R. McConkie, later called to be in Quorum of Twelve Apostles for the church (the twelve apostles is the second highest governing body in the church. The first edition of the book was published in 1958; Elder McConkie was called to his office in 1972.) Nonetheless it does provide a good summary of Mormon thought on a wide variety of subjects. So it makes sense to start an investigation of war with the words of this esteemed church leader (the italics are mine):
War is probably the most satanic and evil state of affairs that can or does exist on earth. It is organized and systematic murder, with rapine, robbery, sex immorality and every other evil as a natural attendant. War is of the devil; it is born of lust. (James 4:1)…
…Words are incapable of expressing the human depravity that has accompanied war in every age, but the era of time known as the last days [i.e. the current era] is the one in which the most extensive and wicked of all wars have been and will be fought…
…all wars are in their nature evil…
…Self-defense is as justifiable where war is concerned as where one man seeks to take the life of another… Righteous men are entitled, expected, and obligated to defend themselves; they must engage in battle when there is no other way to preserve their rights and freedoms and to protect their families, homes, [and] land…
It is evident from the above quotation that war is a great evil, one that can only be justified in the most extreme of circumstances. As Elder McConkie puts it “…when there is no other way to preserve their rights and freedoms and to protect their families, homes, [and] land…” If we are going to justify entering into “…the most satanic and evil state of affairs that can exist…” we should only do so with the utmost of caution, and skepticism; and only after thoughtful debate and deliberation to ensure that appropriate objective criteria are met.
It has been suggested by some that we turn to the Book of Mormon for guidance on what these appropriate criteria are. After all, many chapters of the Book of Mormon are about war. What does it have to say about when a war may be justifiable? The first evidence is negative evidence; never in the whole of the Book of Mormon can there be found a single instance of any group, who is identified as righteous, launching a war or invading enemy territory even when they had clear and compelling evidence that they where about to be attacked. For example, Alma 47 and 48: in these chapters servants of the enemy defect, bringing word of a political change; the old king has been murdered and has been replaced by a man who has promised to use his power to wage war. Even in these circumstances, no pre-emptive strike is launched; no sorties are sent into enemy lands. The country is mobilized and defenses are prepared but no attack is launched upon the enemy until an actual invasion is underway. And at no time does the battle ever shift to the point that enemy lands are attacked, let alone invaded or conquered.
According to the Book of Mormon there are several conditions, all of which must be met, to justify war:
1- Life and land and rights must be threatened by an enemy that wishes to take them away by forcible subjection (Alma 43:9-10, 43:46-47.)
2- The enemy must actually have the power to follow through on their threat to deprive the conquered of their rights, land, and life. (Alma 43:14, Alma 48:4)
3- War should be in defense against invaders. In a part of The Book of Mormon, later than that discussed above, the people are under threat, not from another nation, but from a secret band of robbers, very analogues to the situation that the United Stated finds itself in with the terrorists. The people were demanding that they go out into the wilderness and take the fight to the enemy. The response is instructive: “The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands.” (3 Nephi 3:21 see also vs. 20 italics mine)
David O. McKay, head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1951-1970, in his 1967 book entitled Secrets of a Happy Life, discussed conditions that could be used to justify war. He said the following (italics mine):
[A condition for war] is not a real or fancied insult given by one nation to another. When this occurs proper reparation may be made by mutual understanding, apology, or by arbitration.
Neither is there justifiable cause found in a desire or even a need for territorial expansion. The taking of territory implies the subjugation of the weak by the strong.
Nor is war justified in an attempt to enforce a new order of government, or even to impel others to a particular form of worship, however better the government or eternally true the principles of the enforced religion may be.
In short, Mormon theology teaches that war should never be waged, except as an extreme last resort, after all other possible remedies have been thoroughly exhausted, and only then against an enemy in the act of invasion. War may be thrust upon us, but we should never seek it out, never make the fist attack, never consider it as a tool by which to achieve policy objectives, and never enter into it hastily or when motivated by fear, anger, or a desire for revenge. The Iraq war was preemptive, launched in fear, backed by inadequate intelligence and based on a flawed ideology, clearly not justifiable. But that is a topic for another day.