Should Mormons Be Pacifists?

By Cliff Burton

Should Mormons be pacifists? This isn’t a question that arises too often these days, but does on occasion as a result of Mormons reading the story of the people of Ammon from the Book of Mormon. The people of Ammon (also known as the Ammonites or Anti-Nephi-Lehies), lived in the first century B.C in the Americas. They make a covenant or promise with God to “bury” their “weapons of war” in order to repent and receive forgiveness for the “many murders and sins” they committed before their conversion to Christianity. Before long they are attacked, and rather than defend themselves, they stand by their promise by allowing themselves to be slaughtered. After about a thousand are killed, their refusal to fight has such a profound effect on their attackers that the attackers stop the slaughter and convert to Christianity as well.

Because of this, the few Mormons around with pacifist leanings tend to cite the example of the Ammonites when arguing that Mormons should be pacifists. Recently, Duane Boyce, writing in the “Journal of The Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture” wrote an article entitled “Were the Ammonites Pacifists?,” which contends that the people of Ammon were not in fact pacifists. This journal is published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, and therefore seems to have at least a semi-official status in terms of expressing views acceptable to the Mormon Church leadership.
Boyce writes that “the Ammonites were not examples of pacifism. They were opposed to war only for themselves and for reasons particular to themselves. They were not opposed, in principle to war itself. . . . In response to the question, ‘Were the Ammonites pacifists?’ the record makes it clear that the answer must be no.”

Boyce backs up his assertion by noting that, “the acts of killing that the Ammonites repented of were acts conducted either in aggressive, large-scale attacks against the Nephites, or in smaller-scale but equally aggressive acts of banditry and plunder. . . in every case of conflict to that time the Lamanites [to whom the Ammonites belonged before defecting to the Nephites upon their conversion] were the aggressive instigators.”

Boyce further notes that the Ammonites refused to fight largely because they worried that by doing so they would lose forgiveness for their previous sins (Alma 24:13), and he notes that when war breaks out again, and the Ammonites are faced with attack a second time, the they allow others to defend them, including their own sons. Finally he notes that during the period of this second war, the Ammonites express a desire to participate in defending themselves by violence, but have to be talked out of it by Helaman, who says that he and the Nephite armies will protect them, and that it’s more important that they keep their special promise to God than help in the war effort.

Despite refuting the idea that the Ammonites are pacifists, Boyce does qualify his conclusion by stating, “It does not follow from this, of course, that pacifism is wrong, or that it is not a legitimate – or perhaps, a higher – option for those who face conflict to one degree or another. That’s a different question altogether and requires a separate treatment.”
Boyce’s conclusion about the question of the Ammonites’ pacifism, it seems to me, is correct. But if the point of the story of the Ammonites is not to settle the question of whether Mormons should be pacifists, then what is it? Of course there are many indirect, spiritual lessons that can be drawn, which would also require a separate treatment. But in my view, the story primarily pertains directly to the question of war, and how and when we should participate in it. Focusing on whether the Ammonites were or were not pacifists, causes us to miss the ethical and moral point the story illustrates.

In my view, the point is that the Ammonites committed murder as a result of their participation in wars of aggression against the Nephites. Consequently, they needed to repent. This suggests that while fighting in self-defense is acceptable (as Captain Moroni’s exploits in the Book of Mormon also suggest), fighting against people who do not threaten us, or have never committed aggression against us, is not.

This distinction between defensive and aggressive (or offensive wars, or pre-emptive wars, however you want to call them) is certainly not unique to the Book of Mormon. In fact it is at the foundation of international law and the charter of the United Nations. This distinction in international law was established as the result of the lessons learned from World War II, where the Germans invaded the surrounding countries for reasons other than self-defense. The Nurnberg Tribunal, established to try Nazi war criminals, noted that “To initiate a war of aggression . . . is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” In short, under international law, defensive wars are legal, offensive or pre-emptive wars are not.

So, by focusing on what the story does not tell us (it does not tell us that the Ammonites were pacifists), Boyce seems to imply that this story at the same time doesn’t tell us anything about war, or when participation in war is justified. As a result, the article serves to neutralize the Book of Mormon as a source for guidance of when violence is justified (though I doubt this was Boyce’s intent). When we throw out the Book of Mormon as a guide on questions of violence and war, then we get what we got with the recent U.S. assault on Iraq, namely overwhelming Mormon support for a war of aggression, because we looked to the government, the media, and the broader culture for guidance about whether it was right or not. Had we attempted to view the war from the perspective of the guidelines for war established in the Book of Mormon, the fact that we were about to invade a country that had never attacked us would have raised serious questions in the minds of Mormons about the morality of starting the war.

These questions were never raised, however, and we all were content to assume that George Bush knows more than us about the threats facing America, or that we just need to trust him and what he says because we are supposed to obey our government leaders. Of course, all of Bush’s reasons for war have turned out to be fabrications. But as Mormons we didn’t need to wait for George Bush to be proven wrong in retrospect to know that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was evil and immoral. We knew it was a war of aggression from the beginning, regardless of the noble values cited by the government to justify it (democracy, human rights, freedom, etc.).

As a result, there are probably very many innocent Iraqis that Mormons have killed while serving in the US military in Iraq. How many is anyone’s guess, though the numbers killed by the US military generally probably exceed a hundred thousand. Mormons have also been involved in developing torture techniques as CIA employees (psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen), torturing innocent Iraqis as army interrogators, and providing legal cover for torture (BYU law graduate Judge Jay Bybee).
In addition to the story of the Ammonites, which strongly suggests to us that we as Mormons should not have participated in or supported the Iraq war because it was a war of aggression, the story of Zeniff in the Book of Mormon provides insight about the attitude we as Mormons might take when facing such a war initiated by our government. Because this story is not well known, I’ll quote it in full:

“I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.

Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them; but he being an austere and a blood-thirsty man commanded that I should be slain; but I was rescued by the shedding of much blood; for father fought against father, and brother against brother, until the greater number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness; and we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children ( Mosiah 9:1,2).”

This story basically describes how Zeniff and others refused the order to participate in destroying the Lamanite armies, after realizing “what was good among” their supposed enemies. Zeniff felt it was right to disobey orders, rather than kill innocent people in an act of aggression. When the Nephite ruler condemned Zeniff to death for this, either he or his supporters started an armed rebellion.

A modern day example of a Mormon refusing to participate in a war of aggression is Alyssa Peterson, who refused to participate in torturing Iraqis as a U.S. Army interrogator. Alyssa joined the U.S. military in 2000, after returning from a Mormon mission in Holland. I imagine that Alyssa saw “what was good among” Iraqis and realized that treating other human beings this way was wrong. Shortly after refusing to continue her so-called duties, Alyssa apparently took her own life.

An example of refusing orders and starting an armed rebellion would be the instances of “fragging” that occurred during the Vietnam war, a war of aggression in which the United States military killed an estimated 3 million Vietnamese. A small number of U.S. soldiers refused to fly bombing missions or go on patrols through the jungle looking for enemy fighters from the Viet Cong. In some cases these soldiers killed their commanders, by throwing a grenade in the officers’ tent, for example, rather than fight people who in fact had done nothing but defend their homeland from U.S. aggression.

In conclusion, the story of Zeniff reinforces the view from the story of the Ammonites, that Mormons need not be pacifists, but both stories make clear that if a Mormon is to use violence (still a big if), it should only be done for the sake of self-defense or to resist a war of aggression. These stories suggest that we should not fight in wars of aggression, just because a Lamanite king, or a Nephite ruler, or an American president tells us to. And if they do, if there is anyone we should fight, it’s those giving the orders to kill, rather than innocent Iraqis, or innocent Vietnamese, or anyone else they tell us to murder.