Sunday, April 13, 2003

Mormonism and War


Caveat: the following post is by a Mormon (namely, me), and speaks of Mormon things (namely, doctrines of war and peace), but isn't necessarily for Mormons alone. For much of the past week, I've been involved in following (and contributing to) a couple of different e-mail discussions between several fellow members of the church about the war in Iraq; I'm going to try to summarize a couple of tentative observations and conclusions that I've drawn out of these debates, for whomever may be interested. If you're not, well, hopefully my posting on more traditional topics will resume tomorrow.


The immediate origin of this past week's discussions was the 173rd Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which is the actual name of the Mormon church). Twice each year the ecclesiastical leaders of the whole church--referred to as "general authorities"--gather in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they present various messages of moral and spiritual counsel and exhortation, as well as lay out new or changing policies or positions in the worldwide church. The most important of all these sermons are those give by the president of the church, whom members believe to be a prophet (a term which can be defined in several different ways, I grant), and therefore capable of speaking authoritatively (again, the meaning of which depends on how one defines the "prophetic authority") about God's will for the church, and indeed the whole of humanity. This past session, on Sunday morning, the current church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, gave a talk titled "War and Peace," with explicit reference to Iraq. Since the church president doesn't often speak on topical matters, and even more rarely on ones which are profoundly divisive with the church as a whole, this was a closely watched--and subsequently much discussed--address.


I won't address his complete sermon here. The majority of it made use of powerful, traditional themes of spiritual consolation which, I would hope, resonate with the longings of any Christian. "Even when the armaments of war ring out in deathly serenade and darkness and hatred reign in the hearts of some," Hinckley said at the conclusion of his sermon, "there stands immovable, reassuring, comforting, and with great outreaching love the quiet figure of the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. We can proclaim with Paul: 'For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8:38–39)." As that is one of my favorite lines of scripture, I took particular comfort from hearing the man I accept as a prophet of God to end his counsel to a world at war with it. But most of the debate which I mentioned above hasn't dealt with Hinckley's use of such themes; rather, it has focused on his statements on Iraq in particular, and what Mormons should or may think of a war such as this one. I want to focus on two passages from his sermon which are especially relevant to topics I have written a great deal about here; namely, the idea of intervening--that is, making war--on behalf of liberal ideals, while at the same time doing so anti-imperialistically. But first, a little background.


Mormonism has never been a clearly pacifist movement, though there are threads of Christian pacifism which can discerned throughout our scriptures (particularly in certain passages of the Book of Mormon, such as right here) and history. When the church began in the 1830s in New York and Ohio it fairly quickly encountered a good deal of sectarian hostility and violence, culminating in the murder of the first leader of the church, Joseph Smith, in 1844. Even after departing to the Utah Territory the church continued to suffer abuse and harassment, this time mostly at the hands of federal authorities committed to stamping out the Mormon practice of polygamy (and, more broadly, to challenge the church's theocratic authority over a large tract of mostly empty land, which in itself arguably led in at least a few tragic cases to a fair amount of internal violence). There are, of course, numerous possible explanations for this opposition, many of which place a significant portion of the fault at the feet of the church itself. Regardless of how one feels about the Mormon church, its past (and now mostly repudiated) practice of polygamy, or the relationship of its various teachings to traditional Christianity, it cannot be denied that all this conflict left a mark on the church (and the country: a few authors have argued that anti-Mormonism is an essential, as-yet mostly unconsidered, element in any good history of 19th-century American society or constitutional jurisprudence). So, rather than pacifist, what you find throughout early Mormon documents is a fair amount of antinomian thought: a waiting for the end of the world, in which the wicked oppressors would (of course) receive their just reward at the hands of God. Until that day, members of the church were to defend themselves against their enemies, but according to God's laws, not civil ones (for both theological and practical reasons, the church for many years looked askance at availing itself of the secular, civil order). And so, for instance, one can find in the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations to Joseph Smith, a passage which apparently binds the church to renouncing war and bearing patiently any violence against ourselves or our families, at least up until the third offense; after that, if one's enemy has been properly warned and comes yet once more against you, then "thine enemy is in thine hands." This passage, and other similar to it, have been used to argue for the existence of a kind of revelatory "just war" doctrine in the Mormon tradition; one which conditions going to war on God's explicit command, on having made peace overtures, and having already suffered violence without making a response, so as to make certain that we are not the aggressors (aggressive war is even more emphatically denounced throughout Mormon scriptures). At least one Mormon organization (Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, a group which espouses many ideals I agree with) has made this argument explicitly, denouncing the war in Iraq as unjust and "grossly immoral" exactly because it fails to meet this scriptural standard.


President Hinckley did not mention any of the aforementioned scriptures in his sermon. Some members of the church have taken that to be plain evidence that he did not intend to expound doctrine, but rather was only giving his personal opinion. I won't even attempt to go into that debate, for the hermeneutical and procedural question(s) of exactly when a Mormon prophet is speaking prophetically, and thus should be understood as making statements which are binding upon the faithful, is at least as complicated as the long Roman Catholic tradition which guides attempts at distinguishing ex cathedra statements from other papal declarations, if not more so. What I can say is that, opinion or otherwise, Hinckley presented clear, if qualified, support for the war in Iraq, recognizing at the same time that there are and will continue to be broad disagreements, both within and between the various national bodies which members worldwide reside in, over the war; this is to be expected, since as he put it, "as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders." (This, of course, may well be the reason that Hinckley found little guidance from the 19th-century revelations cited above; they clearly address the Mormon church as a more or less sovereign people, which to a certain degree was certainly Joseph Smith's--and his successor Brigham Young's--intention: like the ancient tribe of Israel, the church was to be a polity as well as an ecclesiastical body. Since, for good or ill, that hasn't been even metaphorically true for over a century, perhaps it is reasonable that those statements should be ignored, though again there could be a long and fruitful debate about that.) Furthermore, Hinckley was especially careful to emphasize that those members of the church who support the war do not (and must not) assume that the policies presently being pursued by the coalition forces endorse a general war against Islam or any particular Muslim people; also, he clearly stated that dissent was both a right and a privilege in democratic societies and should be exercised (though he drew the line at "legal" dissent, however one chooses to interpret that). The crucial political passage, however, was when he spoke of an "overriding responsibility" we have, as a "freedom-loving people" (referring presumably to members of the church, though it would be duplicitous to deny that Hinckley obviously had his own life experience as an American in mind here) to "fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression." The scriptures he cited at this point are notorious ones in the church (or at least notorious for those of us who dislike the often mindlessly patriotic spin put on them by the mostly conservative American church membership): passages from the Book of Mormon which speak of rallying to the cause of the "title of liberty," and of God lending His blessing to those who go to war "inspired by a better cause" rather than simply fighting on behalf of "power." If this sounds like something not unlike the humble, Gladstonian, liberal interventionist position I have been describing....well, good, it sounds like that to me as well. Not that Hinckley ever described such wars as "good" causes--only that "there are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight." (The existence of an obligation, it should go without saying, does not in itself transform an act into something good.) The fact that he spoke of this moral cause as necessarily qualified by "times and circumstances" allows a tremendous amount of debate into this "doctrine," if it is such. Indeed, this is not, by any means, a complete Mormon just war theory, for the matter of "cause" may be easily and often subject to abuse--especially given that "liberty" need not and should not always mean the same thing to all people, thus requiring any such announced "cause" itself, and not merely the circumstances of making war on its behalf, be subject to consideration and critique. But nonetheless, President Hinckley's (arguably) prophetic statements last Sunday do give us Mormons, I think, an entrance to productive thinking about just war principles, something which, as the church spreads, I believe we will increasingly have to engage in.


One last point. President Hinckley, in a fascinating passage near the beginning of his sermon, after describing war as one of Satan's tools, mourned the way we "are prone to glorify the great empires of the past," including "the vast British empire." That rhetorical choice didn't seem to make sense to me at first: if he wanted to talk about the evils of war, he could have easily talked about how we glorify armies, soldiers, weapons; how we make a big deal out of military heroism and get our blood up when we see scenes of war. But he didn't; instead, he spoke of how imperial ambitions lead to "brutal conquest," "subjugation," "repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure." (That "life and treasure" bit in particular has an almost 19th-century, anti-imperialist ring to it.) So clearly he didn't simply want to condemn warfare; instead, he wanted to rebuke certain causes to which warfare is put. I don't know how well-read a man President Hinckley is, but there's no way any halfway informed American citizen (and by this I mean someone who reads Time magazine) can still by this point be unaware of the vaguely imperial language which has surrounded much of the planning and execution of this war: the neoconservative "democratic imperialism" which I have written about, and so forth. I can't help but feel that President Hinckley included this passage in his sermon because he wanted to underscore the care which must attend any attempt to tease out a Mormon position on war on the simple basis of "cause." That he believes we sometimes "obliged" to do so is apparent; that it is also a dangerous thing to do, a thing which invites triumphalism, is equally apparent. I don't know what Hinckley imagines should or must happen in Iraq, but I come away from nearly a week's worth of constant thought and discussion about his sermon with two convictions. First, that it is justifiable, sometimes, with full consciousness of the sin invariably involved, to fight even a faraway war for a good (i.e., liberal, freedom-loving, rights-defending) cause. And second, that those who let the cause go to their heads, who flirt even distantly with the idea of using power to remake the world, have in fact left the cause behind: they have become advocates of empire, and the prophet of the Mormon church has little sympathy, historical or otherwise, with them. I am grateful that in my writings on the war I have always made it clear that I don't think being willing to fight on behalf of liberal causes need be the same thing as defending a kind of "liberal imperialism"; still, I feel the sting of Hinckley's reproach. What the prophet has to say to all Mormons, I think, is that we're playing with fire here--indeed, we're all in the fire, all us mortals--and just because we may not see our way clear to transcending it doesn't mean we are free from watching carefully how we use it, or how it may be used (or abused) in a good cause's name.