This post is a summary of the article ““In the Cause … of their God”: Clarifying Some Issues Regarding the Book of Mormon and a Gospel View of War” by Duane Boyce in Volume 56 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Boyce counters the perspective that pacifism is always the most effective and righteous option when faced with aggression from neighboring nations, arguing that war is sometimes necessary and at times directly commanded by God. Book of Mormon narratives that seem to unequivocally support non-violence are more nuanced when examined in detail.
In this article, Duane Boyce responds to arguments from David Pulsipher on justifications for war from an LDS perspective. Pulsipher views defense in the face of aggression as “blessed,” but non-violent pacifism as “more blessed.” Using the “Just War” framework outlined in his previous book, Boyce argues that violence is sometimes the best response, presuming that the society itself meets important moral conditions. These include not provoking the conflict, attempting to bring its enemies to Christ, and employing violence only as a last resort, with the benefits of waging war being proportional to its costs. Given that God sometimes commands such a response, it is difficult to frame it as always being inferior to non-violence.
Boyce works to address the arguments in support of the universal superiority of non-violence. He outlines cases (1) where non-violence does not appear to be as universally effective as Pulsipher claims, (2) where instances of non-violent flight can be explained in Just War terms, and (3) where righteous individuals use violence despite having the opportunity and “moral imagination” necessary to see non-violence as an option. These counter arguments reference examples that Pulsipher recruits in support of the effectiveness of non-violence from the Book of Mormon, including:
- The Ammonites, whose pacifism (and slaughter at the hands of the Lamanites) led to the conversion of many of their enemies.
- King Limhi’s pacification of the Lamanite king after successfully defending against an initial attack, and after receiving new information.
- Alma the Elder’s exhortations to prayer which led the Lord to soften the hearts of a Lamanite army.
- The surrender of Noah’s priests when confronted by the Lamanites.
- Nephi and Lehi’s successful missionary work in the book of Helaman, after armed conflict had failed to retake Nephite lands.
- The preaching of the sons of Mosiah, which resulted in the conversion of Lamanites who would’ve otherwise been their enemies.
- Two cases where the Gadianton robbers were converted through preaching.
- The peace established by Christ as recorded in 4 Nephi.
Boyce argues that these cases fail to support Pulsipher’s claims, since (1) they generally align with what Just War theory would direct (e.g., King Limhi, Alma the Elder, and Noah’s priests), and (2) many imply the necessity of armed conflict. The Ammonites, he says, did not actually bring aggression to an end, and did not reject all violence as a matter of principle. Further, the preaching of the sons of Mosiah occurs while the Lamanites continue to aggress against the Nephites, with Ammon himself employing self-defense when required. For the Gadianton Robbers (3 Nephi 5:4–6), their aggression came to an end only after many had been killed in war, and some were taught after having been taken prisoner. Similarly, the peace that followed Christ’s visit in Third Nephi was achieved at least partly because of the Lord’s widespread prior violence. Boyce argues that the two remaining cases—Nephi and Lehi in Helaman 5 and the Gadianton Robbers in Helaman 6:37—are examples of nonviolence succeeding in achieving peace, but that these are exceptions rather than the rule.
Boyce notes that missionary work, though effective in some cases, is not effective everywhere and always—not even the most powerful and miraculous teaching can universally prevent violence or end conflict. Though fleeing might be possible in some of these cases—and God often (but not always) warns his people to do so—it isn’t practicable in all cases.
Lastly, Boyce examines the Sermon on the Mount, which would seem to prohibit defensive violence. Boyce frames Christ’s peaceful injunctions (e.g., turning the other cheek) as reflecting a “state of heart,” characterized by humility, charity, patience, and longsuffering, a state that we’re expected to have even when faced with unprovoked aggression. One must presume that God and several noted prophetic figures were in this state when engaging in justified violence—these leaders acted as disciples of Christ in relation to their enemies even when engaging in self-defense against them.
As Boyce concludes:
“Although any voice that emphasizes peaceful efforts to resolve conflict is always to be happily received — particularly in a world that so often resorts to violence — [Pulsipher’s] approach ultimately does not succeed. It attempts in many ways to support its claim regarding nonviolent response to conflict, but examination shows all of them, ultimately, to fall short. The view does not appear to match what the scriptural record shows us.”
As someone who generally (but not always!) avoids absolutes, I’m naturally sympathetic to Boyce’s position—it makes little sense for one strategy to universally be the right choice in every situation when every situation is so different. Boyce’s framework of guidelines and decision rules appears to be workable in that context for a society trying to both follow God and exist in a world of bad actors (and also trying to avoid slaughter or exile).
One part I might take issue with is the reference to God’s acts of violence when orchestrating Noah’s flood or the disasters of 3 Nephi. As neither of those cases appear, at least on the surface, to defend against overt aggression (i.e., meant to stop an invading army or prevent a war) they may not be directly comparable to the wars of the Book of Mormon. As someone who’s studied revenge, I’m sympathetic to the idea that responding to aggression in kind generally creates more problems than it solves. God might have chosen specific situations where violence would’ve effectively accomplished his purposes, avoiding the risks of fighting fire with fire. It’s also at least conceivable that God would be exempt from potential prohibitions against violence—that his would be the only safe hands with which to trust the use of lethal force. Nevertheless, I see God’s violent acts opening the door to him choosing self-defense if he were in the Nephites’ shoes, and God’s clear and direct commands to engage in self-defense make the point moot. In those cases, war would be more than just “blessed.” Obeying a God who knows the end from the beginning would be the only righteous choice.
God’s acts of violence in destroying the wicked in 3 Nephi can be seen at least partly as being in defense of the righteous who were by then in such a minority that they couldn’t adequately defend themselves. While we don’t have as much detail about Noah’s neighbors, I think it likely that they were severely persecuting Noah and his family as well.
The principle stands: Defensive violence is morally and scripturally justified when no other viable option exists. Offensive violence is never justified.
The slogans “violence is never the answer,” or “violence is never justified,” are not supported scripturally or morally. Or even logically. I’m certainly not going to stand by preaching peace while someone attacks my family.