A Closer Look at Conflict, Violence, and Peace in the Book of Mormon
For this episode of the Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews BYU–Idaho professor David Pulsipher about some of the subtle but consequential lessons regarding conflict, violence, and peace found in the Book of Mormon.
Steeped in a culture of violent films and video games, and surrounded with visual images of muscular Book of Mormon warriors, we can easily miss important patterns of conflict in the scriptural narrative. For example, while the text contains multiple examples of defending faith and family with armies and military strategies, it also contains numerous examples of successful nonviolent strategies that are usually depicted as even more effective than violence.
The Nephites, for example, believed that God would protect them from their enemies in at least two ways—he would either “warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger” (Alma 48:15). If we carefully read the text to find examples of either of these warnings, we may be surprised to discover that God frequently warns them to flee, but there seem to be no examples of warning them to prepare for war before an attack has begun. God does help them after a war has already started, but if he has a chance to weigh in ahead of time, God seems to prefer fleeing to fighting.
Those who choose to fight a justified battle in self-defense are often helped in their efforts (if they are generally righteous, of course) but these divinely aided efforts achieve only temporary success, lasting at best for only a few years before another attack occurs. Most violence, even divinely assisted violence, sows the seeds for future violence. But more unconventional approaches—such as unarmed yet confrontational compassion—usually achieve much more lasting success. The sons of Mosiah, for example, led a loving invasion into the lands of the Lamanites. Years later, the brothers Nephi and Lehi made a weaponless incursion deep into Lamanite territory. In both instances, significant portions of the Lamanite community became permanently reconciled with their former enemies, the Nephites. In the latter case, the once aggressive Lamanites even voluntarily returned the Nephite lands that they had previously seized—a remarkable testimony to the power of confrontational and assertive compassion.
The Book of Mormon also repeatedly depicts how assertive compassion can be remarkably effective in protecting communities during aggressive invasions. The most famous example of this is the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who ultimate stopped a brutal attack with only the weapons of love and prayer (and with fewer deaths than most violent defensive efforts described in the narrative). But there are other examples of this as well, including Limhi’s people pacifying an attacking Lamanite army because they went out to meet them without any weapons. Alma’s people also successfully preserved their lives by going out to meet and reason with yet another invading army.
Ultimately, one of the Book of Mormon’s most profound messages regarding conflict is that assertive love is not simply an effective defensive strategy, it also has the capacity to redeem both victims and aggressors. This not only happens with the enemies of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies but also with the brutal opponents of Nephi and Lehi, and even with many of the Gadianton robbers. Over and over again, the Book of Mormon demonstrates that love really is the most powerful force in the universe, destroying whole armies of enemies by transforming them into friends.
For more on these and other surprising Book of Mormon patterns, including an analysis of Nephi’s decision to slay Laban, listen to the full Latter-day Saint Perspective Podcast.
About Our Guest: J. David Pulsipher is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University–Idaho. Educated as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Utah, he earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. In 2007–2008 he was a visiting professor and Fulbright scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, India. His research focuses on the intersections of LDS history/theology with just war, peace, and nonviolence traditions.
*Cover photo credit Justin Long. Used by permission. Viewable at https://www.deviantart.com/pwesty/art/Todays-Captain-Moroni-210738713.
Transcript: For a transcript of this podcast (once its available from LDS Perspectives), go to http://www.ldsperspectives.com/2019/01/02/myth-of-redemptive-violence-with-david-pulsipher/.
This podcast is cross-posted with permission of LDS Perspectives Podcast.
There are many good and thought-provoking ideas presented here, but also a few that I wonder about. Most telling is the suggestion that Nephi, in his account of killing Laban, was less than forthright in his story. I am compelled by my testimony of the Book of Mormon to believe Nephi when he says that he was constrained by the spirit to do what he did, though of course he had the choice (as we all do) to be disobedient to the divine command. An article in line with this point can be found in the January 2020 Ensign.
Hope maketh an anchor to our souls, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led by God.
I feel that this is the crowning effect of great hope. I love the use of the word, anchor. Our hope can literally become an anchor that prevents us from moving one way or another.
Joseph Smith tells us about this hope that acts as an anchor to the soul, sure and steadfast:
“Now for the secret and grand key. Though they might hear the voice of God and know that Jesus was the Son of God, this would be an anchor to the soul, sure and steadfast. Then knowledge through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the grand key that unlocks the glories and mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. “ (Teachings, pp. 149-151)
Joseph Smith said, “Never cease striving till you have seen God face to face. Strengthen your faith; cast off your doubts, your sins, and all your unbelief, and nothing can prevent you from coming to God.” (Reference not given)
If this is not enough, Spencer W Kimball said, “Why will only a few reach exaltation in the celestial kingdom? Not because it was not available to them, not because they did not know of its availability, not because the testimony was not given to them, but because they would not put forth the effort to pattern their lives like the Savior’s life and establish them so well that there would be no deviation until the end.
There are … many members of the Church who are lax and careless and who continually procrastinate. They live the gospel casually but not devoutly. They have complied with some requirements but are not valiant. They do no major crime but merely fail to do the things required, like paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, having family prayers, fasting, attending meetings, serving and etc.
The Lord will not translate one’s good hopes and desires and intentions into works. Each of us must do that for himself. Only the valiant will be exalted and receive the highest degree of glory, hence “many are called, but few are chosen.” (D&C 121:34)
We must do better, we must draw closer to our Savior, even Jesus Christ, and continue in the faith until we have obtained the faith and hope sufficient unto salvation.
Thanks for listening and sharing your thoughts.
This is a very well thought out and written essay. Pulsipher’s remarks are similar to those that Hugh Nibley set out. Nibley loved to point out that the evil eventually destroy the evil. I think that this bit of proof-texting can be made to apply to individuals and to tribal peoples, and to modern nations. I see the Saints–I now like to stress that word and stress its roots in Greek where it means Holy Ones–as on a journey here below in a world filled with evil–learned important lessons what dark forces battle in the darkness of this world. We are, I believe, merely here on probation. We miss something of importance when we join in the battle. There is language in the Book of Mormon that points powerfully toward pacifism. But that ism is not, I believe, the only message in that sacred text. I don’t believe that there is single little pat answer to the evils in this world. Dark forces lurk even near the Temple. The Devil has more than one arrow in his sling.
Please note that not one word I have written is intended to be a criticism of what Pulsipher has written.