An Introduction to a Non-Violent Reading of The Book of Mormon

By Joshua Madson

On March 18-19, Claremont University will be hosting a conference entitled War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives Conference sponsored by the Latter-day Saint Council on Mormon Studies and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. This looks to be a great opportunity for discussion and analysis of Mormon perspectives on war and peace. In anticipation of the conference I would like to present a brief summary of the remarks and arguments that I will make in my presentation entitled, A Nonviolent Reading of the Book of Mormon.

Within Mormon culture it has become common to justify war and conflict by an appeal to the Book of Mormon. Many have used The Book of Mormon to dismiss Jesus’ words, teachings, and life as a statement on how we should approach violence and war. Despite historical and scriptural evidence that early Christian communities refused to engage in warfare and violence, the Book of Mormon has seemingly allowed members to ignore the New Testament and Christian traditions of non-violence, and move these traditions to the margins.

I believe this is a mistake and a failure to critically engage The Book of Mormon. René Girard, the French historian, literary critic, and philosopher, has argued that “the gospel simply shows us two options, which is exactly what ideologies never provide. Either we imitate Christ, or we run the risk of self-destruction.” Applying Girardian analysis as well as theological insights from a variety of non-violent ethicists, the Book of Mormon presents a different reading than many have assumed. When read in such a manner, the Book of Mormon presents a strong critique of violence as a solution to conflict.

The Book of Mormon, in part, addresses the question: how should we respond to our enemies? It presents us with the same two options noted by Girard: we can either imitate Christ in loving our enemies and seeking at-one-ment with them, or we can resort to violence. In other words, will we sacrifice fellow humans for our own benefit, or are we willing to sacrifice self for others? Will we follow the sacrificial economy of Satan, or will we imitate Christ in his voluntary self-giving for others? In the case of the Book of Mormon, both options are presented and the consequences of choosing violence are shown in Nephite self-destruction. Mormon and Girard both conclude, that “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished,” and that we must “lay down our weapons of war.” Or as Girard states it, “Jesus doesn’t need to finish off all the bad guys. They finish each other off.”

This message is highly relevant to those of us located at the heart of the American Empire. If this truly is a blessed land, even a promised land, and if God truly wants us to be a city on the hill as some claim, then all the more urgent the message of the Book of Mormon. Will we follow the example of the Nephites and Lamanites in refusing to give up our narratives about our enemies and engaging in violence? Or will we love our enemies and seek at-one-ment with them? As Dennis Potter explains in his paper on liberation theology and the Book of Mormon:

Liberation, in the Book of Mormon, is in the hands of the most powerful, just as atonement is in the hand of the almighty Son of God. And just as the almighty Son must give up that power and, in a very real sense, empty himself of his divinity, the liberation of the poor is in the hands of the prideful and wealthy. But instead of being a story of salvation in which the ideal of liberation is fulfilled, the Book of Mormon is a story of damnation in which the people of God are condemned and destroyed by the “wicked”. It is a warning to the “righteous” in today’s promised land. Those who believe that God is on their side, that they are more than the dust of the earth, and that the poor of the world deserve their destitute state, will find themselves condemned to a similar fate, unless they yield their wills to God, and like his Son, empty themselves of their pride, power, and wealth.

The Book of Mormon deals largely with a rivalry between brothers which escalates into a national/tribal conflict with little respite and which ends with the destruction of the Nephite people. I contend that, when looked at broadly or on a macro level, The Book of Mormon shows how the inability of the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations to give up their founding narratives and myths about each other led to self-destruction. It demonstrates how violence only reinforced these narratives and stories while failing to address the underlying causes of conflict. In almost all cases Nephite and Lamanite violence led to more violence. The Book of Mormon is a critique of this violence, a plea to be wiser. It is call to lay down our weapons of war and instead imitate Christ in seeking at-one-ment or peace, which Paul described as a breaking down of barriers between groups, even histories or narratives. John Howard Yoder elaborates on Paul:

“The barrier is the historical fact of separate stories…. It is not a barrier of guilt, but of culture and communication. It is not a barrier between each person and God but between one group and another… It is not the case that inner or personal peace comes first, with the hope that once the inward condition is set right then the restored person will do some social good. In this text it is the other way around. Two estranged histories are made into one. Two hostile communities are reconciled.”

Independent of what Nephi, Captain Moroni, or others individually thought of war, The Book of Mormon, as whole, demonstrates clearly that violence only begets more violence, as illustrated by the extinction of the Nephite civilization. And lest we think the Lamanites fared better, Moroni informs us that “the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.”

In support of this conclusion, my presentation on the Book of Mormon will present the following positions:

1) Nephite civilization was founded upon a violent act: the slaying of Laban. This foundational act helped define and form Nephite ideology and traditions about enemies. It held that violence can be redemptive and bring about righteous ends. It held that it is better to kill your enemies than lose your culture and civilization. This was memorialized into Nephite thought with the use of Laban’s sword as an emblem of their nation and power. This same sword was used as a facsimile by Nephi to create more weapons of war and was carried by subsequent Nephite rulers into conflict. To a large degree, the foundational act of killing Laban trapped Nephite culture into a narrative that was repeated again and again in future wars and conflicts resulting in the destruction of an entire people.

This belief was exacerbated with Nephite narratives of the Lamanites as a wild, hardened, and ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them. In effect, any threat to Nephite society could easily be recast into the framework provided by the slaying of Laban, which justified violence against those labeled as enemies. It should be noted that appeals to foundational events in justifying violence are not unique to the Nephites. One familiar example is using the ideas of liberty and freedom, appealing to the foundational logic of the American Revolution, to justify conflict in the United States.

2) Lamanite Civilization also had founding beliefs and narratives that informed their worldview and how they interacted with Nephites. Lamanites believed that Nephi, the father of the Nephite civilization, had robbed their ancestors of the plates of Brass and of the right to the government. Lamanite hatred of the Nephites was ingrained into their national identity. According to their narrative, Nephites were liars, deceivers, and thieves who had wronged their ancestors multiple times.

3) Contrary to the belief that Lamanites were always the instigators of war, a large factor in Nephite/Lamanite conflicts is Nephite wickedness. Nearly all of the major wars can be traced back to a prior act of violence and/or Nephite infiltration and manipulation of Lamanites’ hatred toward Nephites, which in turn beget more violence . The wars were as much a Nephite problem as any. In modern political terms, we would call this blowback.

4) No matter how justified, wars between Lamanites and Nephites never end in a lasting peace. In nearly every case, peace does not last more than a short period of time. The Book of Mormon shows how violence only reinforces these narratives and stories about the wickedness of one’s enemies, while failing to address the underlying causes of conflict. In almost all cases, Nephite and Lamanite violence only begets more violence. Instead of resolving conflict, violence reinforced Nephite and Lamanite traditions and narratives about each other, leading to generation upon generation of hatred, distrust, and warfare. As Richard Bushman argued, fighting wars maintains the fundamental values of the society that are rooted in mythic accounts of national beginnings and essential to national identity.

5) The only thing that leads to lasting peace in The Book of Mormon is missionary work or dialogue involving a conversion to Christ, laying down weapons of war, giving up of hatred, and a change of narrative. While violence reinforced hatred and narratives, missionary work or dialogue challenged both Nephite and Lamanite narratives about the other, breaking down barriers of distrust and allowing at-one-ment and peace to occur. This is demonstrated by Nephite missionaries who reject their culture’s narratives and hatred of Lamanites, as well as by numerous examples of Lamanites giving up war entirely. This includes voluntarily handing over land to the Nephites that the Lamanites had stolen, and which the Nephites had been unable to retake from the Lamanites through violence.

6) The decisive event in demonstrating how lasting peace can be established is found in 4 Nephi. Both narrators, Nephi and Mormon, point to Jesus as the revelation of God’s nature and his desires for humanity. In 3 Nephi 9, Jesus denounces all sacrificial violence, including war, and references Lamanite conversion to a belief in Christ and abandonment of war as the quintessential Christian act. Jesus also preaches the same Torah intensification as he did in the New Testament (an “eye for an eye” changes “to love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”). Peace is in turn established for 200 years through following Jesus’ teachings and rejecting tribal narratives (-ites) and ideology about the other. Violence breaks out again following divisions based upon class, religion, and a return to national and tribal identities. This leads to an outbreak of mimetic rivalry along these divisions, escalating into one eternal round of violence and ending in the destruction of one civilization and Mormon’s conclusion that we should lay down our weapons of war.