A Time of War, a Time of Peace

A Time of War, a Time of Peace April 29, 2013

This past weekend I was in Washington, DC, attending the third decennial symposium (entitled “A Time of War, a Time of Peace”) of the LDS National Security Professionals Society.  This is a small but serious group of Latter-day Saints who work in various sectors of the sprawling U.S. national security apparatus; participants included people from the military, State Department, Defense Department, CIA, National Defense University, Congressional Research Office, “clandestine services,” and so forth.  To their credit, they also went out of their way to invite people outside their immediate professional and ideological circles, including a mostly pacifist professor such as myself, a couple of people who espouse radical (even anarchist) politics, and other LDS peace activists and filmmakers.

I knew of the work of some of these people from the proceedings of the previous two conferences, and a few of them contributed to the volume that I recently co-edited on Mormon perspectives on war and peace.  I came away even more impressed with the thoughtfulness with which they approach the matters of life and death that they deal with on a daily basis while I comfortably opine from my perch in the ivory tower.

Let me offer a brief synopsis of what I thought were some of the salient points made during the course of the conference by some (not all) of the speakers.

Mark Henshaw argued, recapitulating a paper he delivered at the previous symposium, that LDS scripture puts even stricter limits on the proper use of force than does the traditional Christian just war criteria.  The LDS principle, which counters what he calls the “Mahan principle” (killing others to get gain), is that a nation can never justifiably use force for its own self-interested material gain.  Mormonism insists that in addition to a very strict “just war” standard that severely limits when it is appropriate to go to war, the nation should also develop and apply a robust set of “just diplomacy” and “just economics” policies to preempt and prevent war.

Josh Madson applied a Girardian reading to both the New Testament and, more interestly, the Book of Mormon.  He pointed out how Nephi (or rather, the Spirit speaking to Nephi) invoked the same logic that Caiaphas used in supporting the death of Jesus – namely, that it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed.  This “myth of redemptive violence” is pervasive throughout the world, both historically and today.  Nephi’s violence against Laban led to the Nephite civilization’s myth of redemptive violence, with the sword of Laban (rather than God) as their primary protector.  The only thing that allowed them to escape the cycle of violence came through missions to the Lamanites.  At several points in the Book of Mormon Lamanites convert to the Nephite religion but reject the Nephite myth of redemptive violence.  Lamanite converts offer a proper sacrifice to the Lord—not blood (either theirs or their enemies’) but rather their hearts, which in the most dramatic case prepares them for the baptism of fire and eventually the visit of Jesus Christ and the establishment of Zion.  Those who believe they can limit violence through just war are naïve.  (Like those at the foot of the cross, they do not know what they do.)  As Christians we are called to stand outside of and against the state.  We are to be a scandal and an affront to the state, rather than a prop to it.

(Not surprisingly, Josh’s paper sparked probably the most spirited conversation at the conference.)

Valerie Hudson reviewed some of the main arguments in her recent book Sex and World Peace.  She presented a ton of information that I can’t possibly cover here, but the main argument is that if we want to promote national security and human security, then we need to focus on women’s security.  The statistics Hudson and her co-authors have compiled are extremely distressing and depressing, but they represent one of the most important constellations of issues that we face in our world today.

Steve Hildreth spoke about the commandment in D&C 98 to “renounce war and proclaim peace” as unambiguous in its meaning and application.  He said that the threefold mission of the church up through the 1940s was based on D&C 98:16-18 – namely, to renounce war and proclaim peace, to save the living and the dead, and to convert the Jews.  The modern LDS Church has more or less scuttled the first and third, and focused just on the second.

Ron Madson also based his remarks on D&C 98.  He prophesied that the time will come when humans will look back upon the religions that supported violence in the service of the state as being just as barbaric as were those religions that supported child sacrifice.  Mormons have “traded down to a pathetic allegiance to our host nation.”  Mormons should heed the explicit commandment in D&C 98 and become conscientious objectors.  That way they can be Christian pacifists while also adhering to the 12th Article of Faith and being subject to constitutional law (which allows for religiously based CO status).

I spoke on the nonviolent ethics of the cross.  I argued that the distinctive LDS teaching of recent decades which places the primary work of the atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane opens up the question of why Jesus chose to die on the cross.  Whereas the eternal work of individual salvation for the children of God was finished in the garden, the cross became the site not where Jesus redeemed independent human souls, but rather where he also redeemed our collective human society by instantiating the nonviolent political ethic of the kingdom of God.  Declaring Christ’s sacrifice to be the last sacrifice, we testify that there should be no more victims of violence, including (or perhaps especially) those whose suffering comes at the hands of the state.  The crucified Christ affirms that we can be subordinate to the telestial nation-state without becoming subject to it.

Mark Mattox asserted that the words of modern prophets, seers, and revelators are “completely reliable” and take precedence over all previous prophets and even the canonized standard works.  Difficulties notwithstanding, Latter-day Saints should not shy away from direct and long-term engagement with national security.  The opportunity to be co-opted by evil is ubiquitous in the world, not just in relation to national security.  The possibility of being corrupted does not give us an excuse to withdraw from national security any more than we withdraw from market capitalism or academia.  We have to continually recalibrate to make sure we are doing the right thing.  It is impossible to argue from the scriptures that military service is not an honorable profession.

Eric Jensen argued that scriptural precedents suggest that God’s people have always sought an asymmetric technological or strategic edge over their enemies, and are justified in doing so.  The same principles apply to the United States in seeking advanced weapons technologies.

Marshall Thompson asserted that the LDS approach to jus in bello is simply charity.  He recounted the tragic story of Alyssa Peterson, the LDS returned missionary who became an interrogator in Iraq and who eventually committed suicide because she could not reconcile the principles of the gospel with the “enhanced interrogation” techniques she was ordered to perform on Iraqi prisoners.  Mormons helped develop the nation’s program of enhanced interrogation and helped provide legal justification and political cover for it.  Even if torture was not illegal (which it is), it was immoral.  Matthew 25 applies – would we do this to Jesus?  It’s time to affirm that Alyssa Peterson was right (in her critique of torture) and that the techniques she was ordered to use were categorically wrong.

Stan Taylor received a lifetime service award for his work as a longtime professor of international relations and politics at BYU.  He has been deeply influenced by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book To Heal a Fractured World.  We are God’s ambassadors.  How we live affects how others see the concept of God.  We should bring God’s presence into the world by making others aware that God sanctifies all life.

I had to leave the symposium a bit early to catch my plane, so I missed a presentation on LDS Church security around the world, and a final wrap-up session on “hot topics.”  The symposium offered rich conversations on issues of crucial importance, and I spent the whole weekend in deep reflection.  I’m grateful to the organizers of the conference, and for the presenters and attendees who represent one segment of Latter-day Saints’ increased efforts to engage with the world in serious, thoughtful, and faithful ways.  There was a strong sense that Latter-day Saints who work in the nation’s security apparatus act as a kind of “leaven in the loaf,” and it’s hard for me to argue against that.

While my commitment to a vigorous ethic of Christian nonviolence remains unchanged, I cannot help but be deeply impressed by these men and women’s commitment and their sense of service.  I remain critical of the nation-state in general, and many of my own nation-state’s policies in particular, but I can honestly say that if the people at this conference were the ones making the big decisions, I would sleep a whole lot better at night – not because the nation or world is necessarily a safer place, but because it is a more moral place.

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