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A reply to a Mormon asking whether the Book of Mormon teaches pacifism in every case

by Orson Scott Card
Quote from a letter sent to OSC

I've read your recent Ornery American columns on the war with Iraq, and wanted to bounce a quick Book of Mormon idea off you.

We often use Helaman's stripling warriors as models of faithfulness and see Captain Moroni as a heroic figure, struggling valiantly to defend his people. However, I wonder if we aren't missing another part of the story here.

I wonder if we shouldn't see both the People of Ammon and Captain Moroni as tragic figures...people caught up within and eventually destroyed by a dangerous, warlike Nephite culture.

The People of Ammon sought protection among the Nephites, with the Lord's promise that the people of that generation would be preserved (Alma 27:12). However, after 13 years of living among the Nephites, they were ready to break their covenants. Fortunately, Helaman convinced them not to take up arms, but evidently they had failed to teach their children the importance of non-violence, and their sons rallied behind Helaman to fight for the Nephites.

We celebrate the faithfulness of these young warriors, but don't ask why their parents hadn't taught them the same lessons about violence that the Lord impressed upon them at the time of their conversion. Instead of raising up another generation living (and willing to die) according to this level of obedience, their children ended up with Nephite traditions and justifications for just and holy defensive wars.

14 years after these wars are over, these warriors, now presumably fathers themselves, take leave of the land of Melek and seek their fortunes in the land northward. 23 years later, Nephi returns from these lands, where he was unable to find any righteous people (Helaman 7:1-3). In short, within 41 years of almost breaking their covenant, the descendents of the People of Ammon have all presumably dwindled and perished in unbelief.

Why don't we ever get this message about the effects of militarism?

We like to justify Captain Moroni's involvement in a justifiable and holy defensive war, because we read that he was so great that if everyone was like him, "the very power of hell would [be] shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men." Since we know that Satan will be bound during the earth's 1,000 year terrestrial Millennial age, could it be that Moroni's justifiable war doctrine represents a Terrestrial response to violence and warfare, while the People of Ammon's covenant of non-violence represents the living of a higher law?

I wonder if we Latter-day Saints are too quick in finding justification for modern wars in the Book of Mormon, and that we might best try to use the Book of Mormon to help us "renounce war and proclaim peace." Are we falling into the same trap as the People of Ammon?

Surely there was much to celebrate within Nephite (as there now is within American) culture. But was the military defense of that culture worth the loss of untold generations? Could it be that the People of Ammon eventually lamented their decision get involved with Nephite militarism? And as for Captain Moroni, he died four years after war's end, and four years later the fighting started up again, as the Nephites continued to live and die by the sword. All that bloodshed for only temporary respites from terrestrially justifiable, but celestially inconceivable wars. Maybe it is one thing to lay down your life (for friend, country, etc.), but something else entirely to take another's life for the same cause. One can be motivated by love...but the other?

Just a thought. I know there may be other ways to read these stories, but the more I look at it, the more compelling this telling becomes to me and I wanted to see what you might have to say about it.

Meanwhile, I appreciated your recent tribute to the fallen Challenger crew. That Saturday morning I was out birdwatching north of Austin with Ned Hill (Dean of the BYU Marriot School of Management), and we saw the shuttle break up as it streaked across the sky to the north. At first we thought it must have been a spectacular satellite re-entry, but a phone call a few hours later relayed to us the magnitude of what we had actually witnessed.

Peace, Rob

OSC's response

You're missing the point. The people (Nephite and Ammonite) were being attacked. The Ammonites, bound by their oath, did not lift a hand to defend themselves. But the Nephites, being compassionate, went to war, not because they had a "warlike culture" (that was the Lamanites and rebel Nephites) but because they could not bear to see a righteous people suffering the slaughter of war.

Remember that this account was written by Mormon, the Book of Mormon's primary warrior AND pacifist. When the Nephites of HIS time went unrighteously to war (we can beat ten Lamanites! Let's take back our ancestral lands! What does our treaty matter!) he refused to lead them on such a campaign. Yet when, in defeat and facing destruction, they turned to him, he DID lead them.

So what is the guiding principle? Motive, as always with the Lord, is everything. People who go to war for gain, for pride, boasting in their strength, or to dominate others are condemned. ("The world's only superpower!") But people who go to war to defend themselves, or to defend the helpless, or to uphold the rule of law (as with the war against the King-men), and with an attitude of humility and submission to the will of God, are clearly blessed. The Book of Mormon does not ever say "war is good," but rather the opposite. However, it does also say very clearly that there are times when war is unavoidable, and the righteous then beg the Lord to help sustain them.

Oddly, I find the "pacifists" of today utterly without compassion for the future victims of terrorists supplied and protected by states like Iraq (and Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and others), and utterly without compassion for the victims of Saddam's torture and state-induced famine. The "pacifists" are filled with hate and spout lies about America, Israel, and the British government. While those who are going to war are clearly reluctant to do so, careful to try to shape the war to avoid civilian casualties, and they have offered countless opportunities for Saddam to avoid this war by renouncing weapons that can only be used to slaughter civilians - his own or ours or Israel's. I find that this war (unlike, for instance, the bombing of Serbia) to be a just war, justly undertaken. I believe we grossly missed a just war we should have fought, in Rwanda and in Bosnia, because we were led by men who put our "interests" above compassion for the victims of murderers.

To stand idly by while murderers commit murder, when protecting their victims is within your power, is not "pacifism," it's either cowardice or arrogance. My righteousness is worth more than your life, such "pacifists" say. Jesus didn't say, if someone slaps a child, turn the child's other cheek. He didn't say, if a man demands your coat, give him someone else's cloak, also. We have been given the strength we have as a nation, not so we can be rich and safe on our shores, but with a responsibility to use our wealth and power for righteousness. Surely protecting the world from monsters, as we did in World War II, in Korea, in Grenada, in Panama, and, yes, in Vietnam (till we gave up and cut off all aid and support to our "friends" while our enemies did not cut off North Vietnam or the Khmer Rouge), is a worthy use of our treasure and a noble sacrifice of the lives of some of our people. While behaving as the "pacifist" French and Germans are - letting a nation groan under a tyrant so they can do business with him, and ignoring his development of terrible weapons - seems to me shameful and the opposite of what we are taught in the Book of Mormon.

- Orson Scott Card

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