Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, knows that Mormons are not pacifists, but he thinks we should be. Writing at Rational Faiths, he contends that “resort to violence” is incompatible with “worship of the Prince of Peace.” Most interestingly, he claims that the Book of Mormon—full of warriors heroes like Mormon and Captain Moroni—is actually a pacifist text hiding underneath a thin veneer of failed militarism. Is it? Does the Book of Mormon teach that pacifism is always superior to defensive war?

Mason realizes that, given the stature of Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon and in Mormon culture, arguing for pacifism will be an uphill battle. But he rightly observes that the Book of Mormon is far from simplistic on the topic of violence and war. The same book that contains the stories of Captain Moroni’s heroic exploits also describes the incredible depiction of pacifism with the Anti-Nephi-Lehies:

Now there was not one soul among all the people who had been converted unto the Lord that would take up arms against their brethren; nay, they would not even make any preparations for war; yea, and also their king commanded them that they should not. (Alma 24:6)

The willingness of these people to view their enemies as “brethren,” to refuse to participate in violence, and to willingly lay down their lives in love and peace is a powerful counterpoint to the more exciting story of the Title of Liberty. It establishes that pacifism is not off the table in all situations and, I think, gives us good reason to consider Mason’s argument with an open mind.

Mason’s central argument is that the apparent approval of defensive war in the Book of Mormon contradicts Christ’s teachings. Mason stipulates that—if we are careful in our reading and analysis—we will see that the Book of Mormon text itself undermines its own superficial sanction of violence. After all, writes, Mason, “it’s difficult to conceive of a text more poignantly testifying to the utter futility and folly of violence” than the Book of Mormon. He goes on to state:

In our ethics, as in all things, we look not to Captain Moroni or Teancum or Nephi as our north star. While we can admire other godly women and men and model our lives after their pattern of discipleship, it is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Nonviolent One, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When the way of Augustine departs from the way of Jesus, there should be no debate in our minds whom we should follow.

Mason is clearly correct in establishing Christ as the one and only perfect exemplar, but there’s a danger in too glibly discounting Mormon’s praise of Captian Moroni as being such a great man that “if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:17) If the clearly stated assessment of the Book of Mormon’s chief editor is flagrantly contradictory to Christ’s teachings while the books’ actual narrative runs requires a professional scholar to elucidate, then it is hard to understand how the Book of Mormon’s claim to restore “plain and precious things” can be taken seriously. The issue is not textual inerrancy (which the Book of Mormon itself denies), but the limits of revisionism and the creeping menace of elitism.

The problem of violence cannot be resolved simply by affirming Christ’s supreme status. The history and teachings of the Book of Mormon are not so clear-cut. While it is true, for example, that Captain Moroni’s wars never brought lasting peace, Ammon’s willingness to kill and dismember played a major role in establishing spiritual peace among his converts. After all, the story of the pacifist Anti-Nephi-Lehies (also called the Ammonites in honor of Ammon’s influence) begins with extreme violence:

But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him. But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm. (Alma 17:36-37)

The role of violence in the origin story of the Book of Mormon’s greatest pacifists complicates the thesis that violence can never be used as a tool in the service of peace. In addition to the complex role violence plays in the historical narrative of the Book of Mormon, the text also includes explicit teachings on war and violence that contradict a universally pacifist reading. For example, Alma 43:45-47 reads:

Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church. (46) And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies. (47) And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion. [emphasis added]

The text clearly invokes the Lord as the source of a divine injunction to use defensive war, especially in verse 47. We are now in the difficult territory in which violence is commended (even required) in some cases and pacifism in others. To attempt to rectify this apparent contradiction by simply omitting one category of evidence or the other is to run the risk of “wrest[ing] the scriptures” (e.g. Alma 41:1 or D&C 10:63). It is one thing to try to place the words and actions of fallible prophets in their appropriate historical, political, personal, and cultural context. It is another to subjugate scripture to personal beliefs by simply excluding problematic divine injunctions from consideration.

Mason also encounters significant problems when he broadens his theory to go far beyond a critique of Just War Theory. Violence, as Mason notes, is far more general than warfare. And so he points out that another example of violence is “the tax or census performed under threat of force” that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. This is a stark reminder that, consonant with Max Weber’s definition of a state as any institution with a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force,” violence is an integral component of all forms of human government. Certainly the Roman Empire lacked the political legitimacy that modern democratic governments enjoy, and just as certainly Roman law employed violence to a greater degree than modern democratic governments tend to use. But we ought not to confuse our issues: if violence is intrinsically problematic (which seems to be Mason’s point), then issues of governmental legitimacy or degree of violence don’t alter the fundamentals. Law is ultimately backed by threat of force (hence the term “enforced”). For Mason, therefore, pacifism seems to entail anarchy. The only alternative is to concede that violence is permissible, even useful in some cases after all, and at times absolutely necessary.

Mason’s categorical pacifism also raises a number of practical questions. How are we to enact a safe and secure society if we bar the “threat of force” to compel citizens to comply with laws? Are Mormons barred not only from combat, but also from law enforcement? What about participation as lawyers and judges in a system that rests, fundamentally, on the “threat of force” and where armed bailiffs are present during the proceedings? Are we barred from civil service and elected office as well? Must we seek to repeal not only the death penalty, but the existence of all prisons? Must we refrain from using all public goods provided by taxation that was ultimately collected by force? Is there any alternative but to withdraw entirely from a socio-political order from which violence is utterly inextricable?

Perhaps one could argue that in theory the violent compulsion that undergirds all forms of government is evil, but that it is a necessary evil we must accommodate, at least temporarily, for the sake of social order, stability, and safety. After all, free and democratic societies use the threat of force to minimize violence between citizens and to guarantee liberties like free speech and religious freedom that make it possible to spread the Gospel. In this, too, we see that violence can indeed aid the spread of peace in both a short- and long-term sense. The danger Mason’s position faces is that once one acknowledges that warfare and civil society exist on the same continuum of applied violence, the same basic rationale that permits participation (however reluctant) in violence-backed civil society may admit participation (however reluctant) in defensive war.

Of course it is not necessarily the case that one must accept or reject pacifism and anarchism as a package deal. However, some kind of limiting principle must be embraced to save advocacy of universal pacifism from devolution into the stateless, chaotic violence. Mason is presently working on a book “articulating a Mormon theology and ethic of peace and nonviolence,” and we may find such limiting principles therein. (I am certainly looking forward to reading the book and finding out.)

I also hope that in the longer treatment Mason will be able to interact with opposing viewpoints more seriously. In his Rational Faiths post, Mason’s argument is hobbled by a misapprehension of the purpose of warfare. Mason suggests as support for just war theory such erroneous beliefs as:

It’s only natural to believe that if someone hits you, you should hit them back. Or that violence is effective in defeating our enemies. Or that peace can come through war.

If by peace we mean more than merely the temporary absence of overt violence, then of course it is true that peace can never come through war alone. I agree with Mason that the Book of Mormon testifies of this fact vividly and tragically, both in the Alma chapters and in the final extinction of the Nephites. But to act as though peace is the immediate and primary aim of warfare is to completely misapprehend serious rationales for defensive war. (Citing a base instinct for retribution doesn’t do opposing views justice, either.)

What can achieve through war—and sometimes only through war—is survival. Mason describes the “utter futility and folly of violence,” but it seems the same logic of futility could be applied to all of modern medicine. Yes, it’s true that all the Nephites die in the end, but so does everyone. It’s not at all clear to me that preserving someone’s life today (with medicine or with violence) is rendered futile by the fact that they may die tomorrow. Nor does it follow that because the Nephite culture was eventually extinguished around 400 AD that Captain Moroni’s preservation of the people five centuries earlier was utterly futile. It enabled, among other things, the existence of the Book of Mormon, upon which Mason’s criticisms are founded. Captain Moroni’s leadership in war also helped ensure that there were people alive who, through the ministry of Nephi and his brother Lehi, could be prepared to receive the Savior at the temple after His resurrection. The fundamental benefit in either case is time, a truly precious resource in our mortal probation.

However – as I said at the outset – I consider Mason’s voice an important one. That is because we (Americans, in particular) are engaged in warfare that is asymmetrical, informal, ideological, and vicious. This places us all in grave moral danger. No sane and good person should be able to consider the sectarian bloodshed that swept Iraq during the bungled US occupation, the children killed by drone strikes, or the methods of interrogating and detaining suspected enemies without feeling deep and sincere misgiving, at a minimum.

I fault Mason’s argument for being too unqualified in its rejection of violence, but this is perhaps forgivable in that he is responding to a society that is too unqualified in its acceptance of violence.  It is one thing to understand that violence is sometimes tragically necessary. It is entirely another thing to become complacent and desensitized to that violence, to place our trust in the arm of flesh, to glorify vengeance, to render ourselves callous to the suffering of the innocent, and to use defensive war theories as a pretext for violence that is convenient but neither necessary nor defensive. How much of America’s hero-worship of the military is to paper over the guilt of affluent Americans sending poorer, braver Americans to die on foreign soil to assuage national pride and placate fear? To what extent is it possible to turn a blind eye to the increasing militarization of domestic police forces because affluent Americans know that those weapons and tactics will be deployed against poor Americans in poor neighborhoods? The danger Mason draws our attention towards is real: How close are we back home—as Americans and as Mormons in America—to the line that separates righteous defense of our homes from prideful anger? And which side of the line are we on?