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Fifty-six years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Mormon community in Missouri was viciously attacked by a mob consisting of their disgruntled neighbors. Speaking of this event, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote:
July, which once dawned upon the virtue and independence of the United States, now dawned upon the savage barbarity and mobocracy of Missouri. (History of the Church, 1:372)
Having lost their homes, their loved ones, and their possessions, the remaining Latter-day Saints understandably felt a desire for retaliation and revenge. After all, this latest bout of persecution was not a unique occurrence; time and time again, the Saints were subjected to similar oppression to some degree. In the midst of such intense feelings and contentious circumstances, the Lord gave a revelation in response.
Despite a strong desire to strike back, God’s instructions were to “renounce war and proclaim peace”. This pursuit of peace was intended by the Lord to be a persistent effort, for the Saints were told to thrice “lift a standard of peace” to whomever tried to do them harm. Then, and only then, would the Lord justify their retaliatory attack. And what’s more, He would fight their battles for them, ensuring them victory. Lest we think that this protocol is not relevant to our own day, the revelation explains that this requirement for justified warfare applies to all people.
In a world of constant conflict, how well are God’s chosen people renouncing the status quo of destruction and death and proclaiming peace? Do the followers of the Prince of Peace carry His standard in the face of war, or do they gladly parade around with the flags and insignia of their respective Caesars?
It would seem that in recent years, the Saints have rallied around the standard of the sword, as evidenced by the stinging assessment of President Kimball:
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45.)
We forget that if we are righteous the Lord will either not suffer our enemies to come upon us—and this is the special promise to the inhabitants of the land of the Americas (see 2 Ne. 1:7)—or he will fight our battles for us (Exod. 14:14; D&C 98:37, to name only two references of many). This he is able to do… (Spencer W. Kimball, via Quoty)
Our efforts to proactively proclaim peace undoubtedly pale in comparison to the vast amount of blood and treasure expended on war and all its related industries. Bleating like sheep for security, we dedicate unconscionable amounts of money to anything and everything that can be used to wage war and kill others. Lacking immediate threats of attack on our soil, we now go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
The latest in a long string of wars has, sadly, enjoyed a healthy amount of fervent support among American Latter-day Saints. Prophetic pleas for peace are evidently cast aside as partisan politics and their attending talking points rise to the surface and become adopted as each person’s own. And, most regrettably, the voices calling for peace are pushed to the fringe by warmongering hawks, labeling such individuals with the pejorative “pacifists”—as if the preference of peace over war is a social evil.
President and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself said that he hated war “as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity,” once commented on the cost of war in terms of peaceful, productive enterprise:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. . . .
This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?
To a people taught from a young age to love their enemies and live the golden rule, the commandment to renounce unjust war and proclaim peace would seem natural. And yet, a casual assessment of the average Latter-day Saint’s understanding of the application and practicality of this commandment as it applies to conventional geopolitical conflict seems to betray this assumption. Indeed, the degree to which so many American members of the LDS Church adhere to the arguments made by political pundits and mainstream media demonstrates a firm reliance upon the fleshy arm of military might.
President David O. McKay once said that “war is incompatible with Christ’s teachings,” and that “it is vain to attempt to reconcile war with true Christianity.” These declarations have their qualifiers, but fundamentally support the claim that war should be a last resort in all circumstances, and that any glorification of war, military strength, or political dominance should be rejected.
Until we start honoring those who dedicate their lives to the promotion of peace as much or more than those who lose their lives in war, we will fail to come anywhere close to God’s commandment. Understandably, the mandate to favor peace over war is a difficult one to achieve in a world of political turmoil, threats of terrorism, and fortified standing armies. But that’s the point—despite the ease with which we can escalate conflict and use force to spread democracy, dethrone a dictator, or repel an invasion, we are commanded to choose the higher road and pursue peace at all costs.
How well are we doing?