Posts tagged ‘articles’

June 7, 2012

The Restoration and the Nature of God

Imitating God is a fundamental concept of both Old and New Testament theology. This is the point of the concept of man in the image of God.[1] Likewise many of Jesus’ disciples are reported to have followed him to violent deaths. James was killed by Herod,[2] and tradition holds that Peter was crucified.[3] Martyrdom wasn’t just limited to the apostles either. Stephen was stoned to death, for example.[4] In this, we see a frighteningly literal application of the commandment to follow Jesus.

Mormonism expands on the idea of man in the image of God, rendering him a “god in embryo”[5] capable of eternal progression. In this sense man is expected to literally follow God’s path of growth and progress, and this imitation of God would be a strong basis for Latter-day Saint morality. The oft-quoted ethical heuristic “What would Jesus do?” has a literal aspect to the Latter-day Saint. Just as the Son does “nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19), we must also follow in God’s footsteps. To emulate God, however, we must know about his nature.

The First Vision

The First Vision was an important revelation about the nature of God, but Joseph Smith didn’t acquire a clear understanding of that revelation until long after the event had transpired. In the canonical account, Joseph Smith[6] tells of having seen “two Personages” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17), and though we teach that these personages were God the Father and Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith did not identify them in the account. He continued referring to the being with whom he conversed as “the Personage.” Smith might have originally been confused about the identity of these personages, since his understanding of God at the time was Trinitarian. The existence of this confusion is supported by the other accounts of the First Vision, which refer to the visitation as being from “The Lord” or from “angels.”

Critics point to these inconsistencies in the retellings of the First Vision as evidence that it didn’t really happen. Taking a believer’s perspective, however, it may do us some good to explore how Joseph’s developing understanding of who God is may have informed his perception of the First Vision. What we shall find is not that Joseph Smith defrauded us, but that learning about God allowed him to better understand his own identity and history. Not yet knowing God, and having a vastly different understanding about Deity than he would later in life, young Joseph naturally would have been confused as to the exact identities of the two figures he saw in the grove.

Joseph Smith’s youth coincided with a wave of religious excitement known as the “Second Great Awakening,” a response to a brief upsurge in Deism that followed the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, which had affected the views of Smith’s paternal grandfather, Asael.[7] Notwithstanding Asael Smith’s views, Joseph’s parents held more traditional beliefs and influenced their children toward protestant Christianity. His family was Presbyterian,[8] and he attended the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra for at least part of his childhood, attending Sabbath School there.[9] During this time he must have been exposed to protestant ideas about the trinity, though that this was a superficial understanding of Trinitarian doctrine is apparent in the fact that much later in life he described it as follows: “Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow—three in one and one in three! It is a curious organization… All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—He would be a giant or a monster.”[10]

That this naïve concept of the trinity as a sort of three-in-one monster was Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of God at the time of the first vision is apparent in the use of Trinitarian language in the first edition of the Book of Mormon, and in such language is retained to this day in the Testimony of Three Witnesses: “And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God.” The doctrine of the Godhead developed gradually in the early restored Church, and in 1835 was being taught as consisting of two distinct personages: The Father, who was understood to be a spirit, and the Son, who had a body. The Holy Ghost was taught to be the “mind” shared between the Father and the Son.[11] Joseph Smith taught the modern Latter-day Saint understanding of the Godhead in 1843, as found in Doctrine and Covenants 130:22: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” This was not too long after the canonical version of the First Vision was originally published in 1842.

The development of Joseph’s understanding of the nature of God culminated in two important sermons shortly preceding his martyrdom. “The Sermon in the Grove,” the latter of the two, was given on June 16, 1844, two weeks before his death. It touches on the necessity of restoration of the priesthood after periods of apostasy, but primarily treats the concept of a plurality of Gods in the context of eternal progression. “I belie
ve those Gods that God reveals as Gods to be sons of God… who exalt themselves to be Gods, even from before the foundation of the world, and are the only Gods I have a reverence for.”[12] The earlier sermon is known as the “King Follett Sermon,” and was given a little more than two months before the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. In this particularly innovative sermon, Joseph discusses the origin of God himself, and compares it to the origin and destiny of man. He taught: “The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.”[13] Although these sermons were never canonized, they have greatly influenced popular understanding among Latter-day Saints about the nature of God and man.

The nature of God, then, was both among the first and the last things taught to Joseph Smith between the First Vision and the martyrdom. He had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, but in the end it was a lifetime of revelation that culminated in the understanding of what he had seen. If in the latter days of his life he understood that it was the Father and the Son that he had seen in vision, he yet referred to them only as “personages,” keeping some aspect of what he had experienced as something very personal to himself. And if the beings did not identify themselves directly as God and Christ, instead allowing Joseph to grow in understanding over a lifetime, we can ascertain that the proper understanding of the Godhead is not so immediately relevant to eternal life or damnation as Trinitarian Christians might claim. We can afford to be more tolerant of them than they are of us. The Mormon perspective allows us to understand that we have an eternity to learn just who God is.

God and His Family

If seeing humans as figuratively children of God, and therefore brothers and sisters, is a sufficient basis for pacifist theology outside of Mormonism, then the Latter-day Saint perspective of literal kinship to God ought to provide a greater impetus towards a Mormon pacifism. Our identity and our relationship to God have implications not only for our eternal destiny, but also for appropriate actions and relationships between each of us and the rest of humanity during our lifetimes. Our relationship to God is so fundamental to the divine plan that Joseph Smith taught: “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”[14] In this sense we see an understanding of the nature of God as vitally important, though not in the traditional sense that eternal salvation or damnation urgently hinges on acceptance of Trinitarian doctrine before death. Knowing the nature of the Godhead is a necessary step in our eternal progress. It teaches us how to relate to each other, how to relate to God, and what are those God-attributes that we should be imitating. One of the major themes of the aforementioned King Follett Sermon and the Sermon in the Grove is that by learning about the progress of God, we can follow in those footsteps for our own progress. Our purpose and destiny is to become like God, and in order to do so we must know what God is like.

Throughout Christianity God is understood to be eternal. Mormonism is unique in that it embraces the concept that man, or at least man’s spirit, is “co-eternal” with God. As taught in the King Follett Sermon, “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven.”[15] Although the speech isn’t entirely clear about the matter, a distinction is usually made between an “intelligence,” which is eternal, and a “spirit,” which consists of an intelligence clothed in a spirit-body.[16] This is a necessary step in harmonizing the eternal nature of man’s intelligence with the principle that all “men and women are literally the sons and daughters of God… Every person who was ever born on earth is our spirit brother or sister.”[17] Two important ethical principles are conflated here. First of all, each individual human is an eternal being ideally destined for godhood, and therefore merits a corresponding degree of respect. We ought to recognize the divine nature in others. The second has to do with our literal family relationship with every other human being. Just as we don’t kill family members under normal circumstances, we ought not be at all eager to kill other human beings. Even when we are ordered by our governments to kill others in warfare, honesty with our Mormonism would require us to treat the situation as if we were being ordered to kill our own brother or sister. This literal family relationship is between man and God as well: When killing another human being, we are killing the child of the deity we claim to worship.

Another important Mormon understanding with regards to spirits is the principle that they are material. Thus Mormonism does not hold, as did some dualist Gnostics, that matter is fundamentally evil, and that progress implies leaving the material for the spiritual. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”[18] In this way the Mormon concept of “spirit” differs from that of the rest of Christianity. When God says that “all things unto me are spiritual,”[19] He is not describing some immaterial state of existence: even what we would call “temporal” is spiritual to Him. As we have seen before, God is a physical being, and the physical is sacred. Elder Talmage wrote: “We affirm that to deny the materiality of God’s person is to deny God; for a thing without parts has no whole, and an immaterial body cannot exist. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims against the incomprehensible God, devoid of ‘body, parts, or passions,’ as a thing impossible of existence, and asserts its belief in and allegiance to the true and living God of scripture an
d revelation.”[20] The union of the material with the non-material, if there is such a thing, took place long before the creation when spirit was united with intelligence. Latter-day Saints, then, have no excuse for spiritualizing any of the laws or commandments given in the scriptures. When God says to take care of the poor, he literally means to provide for their physical well being. There is no scriptural distinction between physical and spiritual nourishment, as much as we might seek to create one.

So, here we are in the beginning, and yet God was active long before the beginning. The Mormon God has a history, an eternal development which we must follow to become like Him. It is sufficient to us, however, to know that at some point he was in a situation much like ours. Our own Gospel Principles manual quotes from the King Follett Sermon on this point: “[God] was once a man like us.”[21] Violence against man, then, is violence against a being in the same state of life that God once found Himself in, and against a being who may someday find himself in a state of godhood as God now is. It is to harm someone who is like God.

The great council in Heaven is another legacy the Restoration has left us. We read in the Pearl of Great Price that “the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was… And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them… And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here I am, send me. And another answered and said: Here I am, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him.”[22] “Our Heavenly Father called a Grand Council to present His plan for our progression,”[23] clarifies the Gospel Principles manual. At this council the creation was planned, according to our reading from Abraham, and there arose a division among the members present. In this there is more clarification from the Gospel Principles manual: “At this council we also learned that because of our weakness, all of us except little children would sin (see D&C 29:46-47). We learned that a Savior would be provided for us so we could overcome our sins and overcome death with resurrection.” The opposition arose as to who would be the Savior: “That Satan… is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here I am, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”[24]

The dispute culminated in what is called a “War in Heaven.” Ironically, the basis of this war was the issue of force. As Talmage writes, “It is plain from the words of Isaiah that Lucifer, already of exalted rank, sought to aggrandize himself without regard to the rights and agency of others.”[25] Force was not to be used in the establishment of the Kingdom of God; it had to come by peaceful persuasion. That God does not approve of authority in the sense of asserting control over another is apparent in Doctrine and Covenants: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”[26] That is the principle of operation of the government of God: The Kingdom is to be established by preaching, not by violence or force of any sort. Indeed, “when we undertake… to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men… Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”[27] Indeed, despite referring to the event as “war,” the only reference to force or physical violence involved is when the Michael and his angels, in the course of the war against Satan, “overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”[28] This occurred long after the Great Council, of course. It is interesting to note that it was the nonviolent party, the victim, that God ultimately declared the victor. The Saints fought not physically, but “by the word of their testimony” and by martyrdom. As already mentioned, the Kingdom is established by preaching, not compulsion. The human governments which function by force operate according to Satan’s pattern of violence, not Christ’s pattern of martyrdom. One Anabaptist apologist wrote that “sinful humanity is simply incapable of exercising impositional power without being corrupted by it.”[29] Mormonism takes this a step further by claiming that not even God exercises impositional power.

It is also interesting to note John’s explanation of why heaven was relieved by the casting out of Satan: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.”[30] In these verses we are given three roughly synonymous terms to describe the dragon. διάβολος (devil), κατήγορος (accuser), and Σατανᾶς (Satan) mean a false witness, a plaintiff, and an accuser, respectively. In general, these words refer to someone who is accusing someone else. War rarely starts just out of a desire for bloodshed; it tends to begin with the satanic practice of raising accusations against another nation.

The Creation and the Fall

Sometime between the outbreak of war in the Grand Council, and the time when Satan “was cast out into the earth,” the earth itself had to be formed. The creation apparently carries some sort of significance in Mormonism, since between Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the Temple we have four different retellings of the story. If you include the shorter creation narratives in John 1, Job 38, Proverbs 8, and 2 Nephi 2, among others, the emphasis on the creation in our religion becomes quite pronounced. Our purpose here is not to consider whether our creation myth is literally true, or allegory. Nor do we wish to discuss whether each day mentioned in the story was a twenty-four hour period, a thousand year period, or some potentially longer undefined period of time. Neither will we touch on whether the given order of steps was followed by God, nor the means which He used in creation, whether direct involvement or simply by setting things in motion through some event such as the Big Bang. Rather, we wish to discuss what meaning the story of creation holds for our relationships and actions. Barbara Sproul of Hunter College wrote the following regarding the effect creation myths have on us.

“Think of the power of the first myth of Genesis (1-2:3) in the Old Testament. While the scientific claims it incorporates, so obviously at odds with modern ones, may be rejected, what about the myth itself? Most Westerners, whether or not they are practicing Jews or Christians, still show themselves to be the heirs of this tradition by holding to the view that people are sacred, the creatures of God. Declared unbelievers often dispense with the frankly religious language of this assertion by renouncing God, yet even they still cherish the consequence of the myth’s claim and affirm that people have inalienable rights (as if they were created by God). And, further, consider the beliefs that human beings are superior to all other creatures and are properly set above the rest of the physical world by intelligence and spirit with the obligation to govern it—these beliefs are still current and very powerful. Even the notion that time is properly organized into seven-day weeks, with one day for rest, remains widely accepted. These attitudes toward reality are all part of the first myth of Genesis.”[31]

Although the idea is prominent in Mormonism that at least many individuals who live or lived on the earth played a role in creation,[32] credit for the entirety of the work is given specifically to God. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,”[33] we are taught. From this alone follow several important principles. The first of these is that God is an actor—that is, He plays a role in the unfolding of history. Admittedly Deism allows for a creator-god who doesn’t play a role in human events, but this concept of God is negated by the Latter-day Saint concept of the creation. Even if we don’t take the details of the myth literally, one of the messages is that of a God intricately involved in the details of the creation of the world, of man, and what happens to man from thereon. God himself personally visits Adam and Eve in the garden, and even where He is not directly involved He is found taking detailed reports and giving specific orders. This is an important point, because it means that God is ultimately in control of humanity’s destiny. We cannot count on our own actions, beyond those that God has commanded us to perform, to effect whatever end we seek. We cannot establish God’s kingdom on our own. Therefore, in our efforts to do good, we have an obligation to limit ourselves to actions that fall within the realm of the moral guidelines already established in the scriptures. We cannot justify prohibited actions, such as killing—or, on a greater scale, war—via an “ends justifies the means” philosophy. We cannot do this specifically because we have no control over the end. As Isaiah stated, “Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God is with us.”[34]

The second principle that follows from crediting the creation to God is that a god’s role is creation, not destruction. Genesis refers to God’s direct involvement in creation, yet the scriptures dealing with God’s decrees of destruction demonstrate fulfillment via third parties who, in most cases, are identified as wicked. “But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.”[35] The exceptions will have to be dealt with later on, but it suffices at the moment to point out that, unlike ancient Israel, no modern nation has received a direct commandment from the Lord to go to war. The point that God’s work is creation rather than destruction is emphasized by the non-violent, non-coercive stance of the Saints and the Lamb in the War in Heaven, as discussed previously. Understanding humanity’s role as gods-in-training and the corresponding obligation to follow or imitate God, our efforts also must be focused on creation rather than destruction—and particularly on non-destructive creativity.

The third principle is God’s ownership of His creation. This has some uncomfortable—and therefore generally ignored—implications for our concept of property. The point important to our purpose here is that it renders territorial disputes illegitimate. The only legitimate sovereign is God; the only nation that can legitimately claim territory on earth would be the Kingdom of God. The United States of America is no more that kingdom than was the Soviet Union. A dispute over territory, then, is not an appropriate excuse to go to war, and less of one for involvement in a war between third-party nations. Although we do speak of “inheritances,” the Lord has never authorized us to withhold those inheritances from others. Moses provided ancient Israel’s immigration laws which, rather than instituting a border patrol, welcomed foreigners and treated them as if they were citizens.[36]
They were to be given the full protection of the law.[37] Whether this was actually the case in the real world is another issue, but at least God had commanded respect for and fair treatment of foreigners. Likewise the gentiles were welcomed to participate in Lehi’s inheritance, as Jacob taught: “But behold, this land, said God, shall be a land of thine inheritance, and the Gentiles shall be blessed upon the land… Wherefore, I will consecrate this land unto thy seed [Lehi’s descendants], and them who shall be numbered among thy seed [the gentiles who are peaceful toward Lehi’s descendants], forever, for the land of their inheritance.”[38]Not only was inheritance never limited by literal descent, it is also offered in the future tense; permission to live on the land is given here and now, and depending on the residents’ actions, they (Lehi, the gentiles, or anyone else) may someday be permitted to say, “it’s mine.” Those who get ahead of themselves and say “mine” in the present have excluded themselves from the blessing given by Jesus: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”[39] Assertion of one’s ownership of God’s creation puts one in some category other than “meek.”

Every step of creation is pronounced “good,” that is, not good for man to destroy. The creation is not finished, however, until human beings are made: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”[40] The importance of this statement—man (and woman) in the image of God—cannot be overstated. It forms the basis of divine law regarding man’s interactions with his fellow human beings. After the flood, when man is first given permission to eat meat—but not without consequence of course—the image of God in man is given as the reason for the prohibition against killing other human beings. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”[41] Since man is in the image of God, killing is a form of sacrilege: Violence against man is a simulation of violence against God. For similar reasons, humane treatment of convicts was required even in the lesser law given to Israel, “lest… thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”[42]

In God’s ideal little world in the garden, fruits and vegetables are the fare. “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”[43] “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.”[44] Life is sacred, and explicit permission to eat meat is not given until after the flood.[45] One particular piece of fruit is forbidden, which represents knowledge of good and evil. Since, according to Mormonism, man’s eternal destiny is godhood, the Mormon interpretation of Adam and Eve’s guilt is not that they sought to become like God, but rather that they sought a shortcut like Satan did before them. Instead of following God and waiting for His instructions, they followed Satan’s advice, which would presumably provide them with a much quicker apotheosis. “[Y]e shall be as gods,” the serpent promised, “knowing good and evil.”[46] This event is referred to as “the fall,” since Adam and Eve figuratively “fell” from paradise into the lone and dreary world. By this transgression death was brought into the world, as Elder Talmage taught: “The Immediate Result of the Fall was the substitution of mortality, with all its attendant frailties, for the vigor of the primeval deathless state.”[47] The apocryphal Book of Adam and Eve sees man’s use of animals as a symbol foreshadowing man’s own death: “Then Adam said unto Eve, ‘O Eve, this is the skin of beasts with which we shall be covered. But when we have put it on, behold, a token of death shall have come upon us, inasmuch as the owners of these skins have died, and have wasted away. So also shall we die, and pass away.’”[48]

The particular fruit that was eaten is of interest. It isn’t the seeking of knowledge in general that constituted transgression; the fruit was a specific type of knowledge. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it,”[49] says the Lord. We have no indication that upon eating the fruit, Adam and Eve were suddenly endowed with the intricate knowledge of some elaborate ethical system. Rather, this fruit represents knowledge of the concept of good and evil. Satan sought to convince them to eat this fruit, since the concepts of good and evil were the necessary prerequisites to teach them his trade of accusing others. This knowledge—or at least the abuse of it—has provided the theological underpinnings—the motivation, if you will—of all the great atrocities of human history, much like money has provided the practical means to carry them out. It is the concept that someone else is “evil,” and therefore must be punished—the ability to accuse—that enables us to justify our actions that are harmful to others and to call them “justice.” In this light it is obvious why Satan wanted Adam to eat the fruit and why God indicated that it wasn’t yet appropriate. Considering that the temple drama is presented less as a history of man’s origin and more as a metaphor for our own lives (we all consider ourselves as “Adam” and “Eve” respectively), it becomes clear that our own personal “falls” consist in learning to accuse others. The remedy, then, becomes obvious: The coming of Jesus with his message of forgiveness.

Worth mentioning is the reference to the fall in the second Article of Faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” If we take this seriously, then death cannot be considered a “punishment” for the fall, since to this day men suffer from mortality, and we are taught that we aren’t punished for the fall. God, then, didn’t kill Adam for what he did in the garden. Death, rather than a punishment, is a natural consequence of the fall—or, abstracting away from the myth for a moment, a natural part of the universe. Nibley compares this to “the well-known second law of thermodynamics: everything runs down.”[50] God’s work is to counteract this law which requires death: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”[51] And the atonement apparently plays a central role in this: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”[52] It is not death, then, that God works, but resurrection.

Cain and Abel

It is telling that the first sin recorded after the fall of Adam is murder. Mormonism has some unique details in its account of the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain’s failed sacrifice, the Lord visits with Cain and tries to reason with him: “If thou doest well, thou shalt be accepted. And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”[53] Cain’s bitterness is not quelled however, and we are told that he “was wroth, and listened not any more to the voice of the Lord, neither to Abel, his brother, who walked in holiness before the Lord.”[54] Instead, he turned to Satan and made a pact with him. In this, we find the true motivation behind Cain’s murder. “And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain.”[55] So Cain, bitter with God and His rules, was enticed by money, and after he had killed his brother, he “gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.”[56] Nibley refers to Cain’s decision to kill his brother for money as the “Mahan principle,” and discusses how it is followed to greater or lesser degrees in today’s business world:

The “Mahan principle” is a frank recognition that the world’s economy is based on the exchange of life for property. This is most apparent, of course, in time of war—a Catch-22. Today the biggest business in the world is the selling of deadly weapons by all to all, with the advantage going to the most efficient killing machines. Not long ago it was drugs, but it is all the same in a descending scale of accountability, where none is free from guilt: the hit man, soldier of fortune, weapons dealer, manufacturer, plundering whole species for raw materials, destroying life in both processing them and getting them (by pollution, dangerous work conditions, and so on), and by distributing them (additives, preservatives). The fearful processes of industry shorten and impoverish life at every level, from forced labor to poisonous air and water. This is the world’s economy, for Satan is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; D&C 127:11; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4).[57]

One can’t be a moral actor, however, without having to face the consequences of his actions. The Lord once again visits with Cain and discusses the effects that naturally flow from the deed he had done. One portion of the conversation is of particular interest here. Cain said, “Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the Lord, and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that he that findeth me will slay me, because of mine iniquities, for these things are hid from the Lord. And I the Lord said unto him: Whosoever slayeth thee, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And I the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.”[58] The original proscription on killing, then, went so far as to include the death penalty. Human beings were not entitled to enact their version of “justice” by killing a murderer—or any other type of sinner, for that matter. Taking the life of a murderer doesn’t restore the life he has taken; justice can only be put into effect by resurrection, something far beyond the capacity of man.

Cain, then, was a moral teacher of sorts—from him we get our first post-fall lessons on right and wrong. The first wrong we learn about is murder, but this lesson is much more detailed than a simple commandment of “thou shalt not kill.” There is here a study of motivations: anger, jealousy, greed. In a loss of self control, Cain succumbs to these emotions and becomes the prototype murderer. Once the deed is done, further motivations are then dismissed, also being inappropriate to justify killing. This is done in the context of those who would kill Cain for what he has done. God has prohibited the use of the death penalty among mankind; they should be imitating the author of life who resurrects rather than kills. Neither desire for revenge nor seeking for so-called “justice” is a sufficient excuse for a violation of God’s prohibition on killing. Cain is the perfect prototype for a violator of this commandment: The avenger, the vigilante, the hit-man, the executioner, the judge, the soldier, the arms dealer, and the war-declaring politician are all described in the story of Cain.

Noah, Abraham, et al.

The picture of God painted by the Old Testament has been troubling peace-minded people (and not just pacifists) since the early years of the Christian church. This gave rise to the Marcionite heresy in the second century which posited that the Hebrew God was a lesser deity than the true, omnibenevolent God preached by Jesus in the New Testament.[59] Nevertheless, here we have, through the stories of the creation and the fall, presented an image of God consistent with that in the New Testament (to which we shall turn our attention shortly). The difficulties presented by certain events in the Old Testament will require us to develop at least a superficial exegetical method for dealing with Old Testament texts.

Two issues affect our reading of the scriptures in general, and the Old Testament in particular. The first is common to all of Christendom, and it has to do with getting at what the original writer meant. This requires us to take into context the writer’s culture, beliefs, and the political climate at the time he was writing. Brigham Young tells us, “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households.”[60] When we import our own worldview into the writings, it becomes easy to miss the point the author was trying to make.

The second exegetical issue we face, one unique to Mormonism, is our belief in the fallibility of the canon. Joseph Smith mentioned this in the Wentworth letter, from which our belief in an imperfect canon was canonized as the eighth Article of Faith. Brigham Young also spoke on this point, saying, “I have heard ministers of the Gospel declare that they believed every word in the Bible was the word of God. I have said to them, ‘You believe more than I do.’ I believe the words of God are there; I believe the words of the Devil are there; I believe that the words of men and the words of angels are there; and that is not all,—I believe that the words of a dumb brute are there. I recollect one of the prophets riding, and prophesying against Israel, and the animal he rode rebuked his madness.”[61] In this instance, Brigham Young specifically made fun of the presence of such absurd ideas in the Bible as animals talking. Beyond the patently absurd, I believe we can consider as suspect anything that appears to contradict the consistent picture of the nature of God we have found in the story of the creation and that we will collaborate with the life and teaching of Christ. Such suspicious statements will have to be carefully reread with the goal of discerning the author’s intentions and motivations. Context should be brought in. After doing all of this we can pass judgment, whether it be a fresh interpretation of scripture, a rejection of a false idea, or the realization that we were taking a metaphor too literally. The ultimate decision, as with all things in Mormonism, ends up left to the judgment of the individual.

In the context of natural disasters and wars in Old Testament writings, a particular piece of context we need to keep in mind is the author’s desire to present his God as powerful. The Hebrew scriptures present the story of a particular nation and its origin, and were written and maintained by patriotic members of that nation. As a religious text, one of its primary goals was to present the superiority of the Hebrew God above all other gods, and in the writers’ eyes that meant presenting Him as a powerful being—the omnipotent God who stands by His people. In Yoder’s words, “When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the [Old Testament] story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf.”[62]

With this frame of reference in mind, we can proceed to discuss some important events in the Old Testament, beginning with Noah’s flood. Prior to the flood was a period of general apostasy, described by the author of Genesis as follows: “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”[63] The emphasis here is on two repeated words: “corruption” and “violence.” The inhabitants of the earth have become engaged in persistent violence and will be destroyed. This is interpreted by the writer as God cleaning the slate and starting fresh. Peter the apostle indicated that Noah preached to the people of the earth before the flood,[64] suggesting that mankind was warned beforehand, Genesis narrative notwithstanding. In this sense, we can view the flood as an impending natural disaster that God tried to warn about to anyone who would listen. That God saw the aforementioned violence among humanity, and “it grieved him at his heart”[65] speaks more to God’s character than a natural disaster He tried to warn humanity about.

The nature of the flood is an additional point of interest in this narrative. Bruce R. McConkie taught that in “the days of Noah the Lord sent a universal flood which completely immersed the whole earth and destroyed all flesh except that preserved on the ark… There is no question but what many of the so-called geological changes in the earth’s surface, which according to geological theories took place over ages of time, in reality occurred in a matter of a few short weeks incident to the universal deluge.”[66] This is by no means the universal view of the Church, however. John A. Widtsoe took a more rational view of the flood, describing it in the following language:

The suggestion has been made that the flood filled every hollow and valley until the earth was a great sphere of water covering the highest mountain peaks twenty-six feet deep, Mount Ararat, seventeen thousand feet high, “upon the mountains” of which the ark rested, would according to this view have been completely under water. It is doubtful whether the water in the sky and all the oceans would suffice to cover the earth so completely.

Another suggestion is that the earth at that time was so flat that a depth of water of twenty-six feet would cover the highest hill. There is no existing evidence of this supposition; and Mount Ararat did exist then according to the record.

 

It has also been suggested that a blanket of water twenty-six feet thick lay up and down the sides of every hill, mountain, and valley. This would seem to be in defiance of the law of gravity, though under a long-continued, furious rainfall such a layer, not too thick, might roll down every slope.

 

The fact remains that the exact nature of the flood is not known. We set up assumptions, based upon our best knowledge, but can go no further. We should remember that when inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.

The details in the story of the flood are undoubtedly drawn from the experiences of the writer. Under a downpour of rain, likened to the opening of the heavens, a destructive torrent twenty-six feet deep or deeper would easily be formed. The writer of Genesis made a faithful report of the facts known to him concerning the flood. In other localities the depth of the water might have been more or less. In fact, the details of the flood are not known to us.[67]

He continued with the admission that although perhaps the entire surface of the earth was covered with water, it would not likely have been universally at such a great depth as described by the writer of the Genesis story:

Though the whole of the earth was covered with water, the depth was immaterial. When a person is baptized, it does not matter how far under the water he is brought, nor whether every part of him is at the same depth. The essential part of the symbolism is that he should be completely immersed.

So with the story of the flood. All parts of the earth were under water at the same time. In some places the layer of water might have been twenty-six feet deep or more; in others, as on sloping hillsides, it might have been only a fraction of an inch in depth. That the whole earth, however, was under water at the same time was easily possible under a terrific, long-continued downpour, such as is described in Genesis. The depth of the layer of water is of no consequence.[68]

We are lucky to be provided with Widtsoe’s explanation of the flood, as its existence excuses us from having to believe McConkie’s more fundamentalist reading. Without an apostolic consensus, Latter-day Saints are under no particular obligation to choose one narrative over another, and can decide upon the account that seems most reasonable to them. What this means for us is that we don’t have to believe in a universal deluge that completely destroyed the earth and the entirety of its living creatures; we can take a stance less contradictory to modern developments in the physical sciences, and more importantly, less contradictory to our understanding of the non-violent nature of God and His methods. This provides much needed relief to the Mormon pacifist.

We are still left with several concerns, of course. Does God control the weather and other natural events? If so, why does He allow these disasters to happen, with the great toll they take on human lives? Punishing the wicked is not a sufficient explanation for a couple of reasons. First, despite the assurances that the author of Genesis gives us that the entire world had become wicked, there most certainly were children among them, which Mormon doctrine holds as innocent. Second, it is hard for us to believe that everyone affected by recent events such as Hurricane Katrina, or the Chilean earthquake, or the Haiti earthquake, or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, were all wicked without exception. The present work, however, is concerned with ethics and doesn’t purport to be a theodicy, so despite our concerns, I’ll leave this issue for further discussion at some future time.[69]

For our present purposes, we can briefly mention that some of the metaphysical effects of the fall, as taught by Latter-day Saint leaders. President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that, “From the words of Lehi we learn that Adam could have lived forever and all things on the face of the earth likewise, had he not partaken of that fruit… We are also taught that, not being subject to death, Adam had no blood in his veins before the fall. Blood is the life of the mortal body.”[70] From this view of the story of the fall, death did not exist at all in the world until Adam ate the fruit. If we are willing to take such a large metaphysical leap, why not include natural disasters? We can suggest that Adam’s transgression introduced imperfections into God’s perfect creation—the “second law” we quoted from Nibley—causing it to be in the process of falling apart. We do not need to take literally these concepts, as Talmage wrote that the First Presidency distanced itself from the idea that there was no death among animals—or even pre-Adamite humanoids—before the fall: “The decision reached by the First Presidency, and announced to this morning’s assembly, was in answer to a specific question that obviously the doctrine of the existence of races of human beings upon the earth prior to the fall of Adam was not a doctrine of the Church; and, further, that the conception embodied in the belief of many to the effect that there were no such Preadamite races, and that there was no death upon the earth prior to Adam’s fall is likewise declared to be no doctrine of the Church. I think the decision of the First Presidency is a wise one in the premises. This is one of the many things upon which we cannot preach with assurance and dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good.”[71] Nevertheless, even taking a metaphorical view of the fall allows us to attribute death and the natural disasters that often cause it to some force of nature or universal law other than and outside of God. This is sufficient for our present needs in identifying the nature of God as nonviolent.

As we continue on through Genesis, we basically repeat Noah’s story with the account of Lot in Sodom. Once again we are dealing with a writer who, in his eagerness to display his God as mighty, credits Jehovah with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Aspects of the story are troubling enough that even Joseph Smith rewrote the narrative about Lot prostituting his daughters in his translation of the Bible.[72] The mention that Lot’s wife “became a pillar of salt”[73] is just bizarre. It is my opinion that the writer had probably seen, or at least heard of, one of the geological formations by the Dead Sea which was considered to be like a woman in appearance. Taking this as Lot’s wife—it is admittedly speculation, but perhaps in the original story Lot’s wife didn’t make it out alive, or returned to Sodom and was killed in the disaster—he added this little embellishment to the story. It sure was a nice way to make God look mysterious and powerful, which was an obvious goal of the author. In fact, the geological formations in the area may have been the source of similar legends long before the author recorded his people’s traditions.

Nevertheless, as in the case of Noah, God sent messengers to warn the people of impending natural disaster, and found a willing ear in Lot’s home. The rest of the people of Sodom refused to hear the message, and thus were judged by the natural forces of the universe for their inhospitality. Indeed, they were likely engaged in the same sin of violence as the people in Noah’s day, as Nibley writes: “We are wont to think of Sodom as the original sexpot, but according to all accounts ‘this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom’: that great wealth made her people cruel and self-righteous.”[74] In any case, their refusal to hear the prophetic warning left them to be destroyed in the city as part of the natural laws of cause and effect; the event isn’t necessarily read as an example of the active violence of God.[75]

Moses and Israel

The story of Moses creates some unique problems and introduces somewhat contradictory ideas about God. The concept of a God that kills the firstborn of every living being from an entire nation may not have troubled early Israel,[76] which may have even seen God as applying retributive justice for Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew children,[77] but by New Testament times a child-killing ruler was deeply disconcerting.[78] Maier mentions that “the massacre has been drenched with doubt by historians, biblical commentators, and biographers of Herod the Great,”[79] though he ultimately concludes that the event was historical.[80] If, however, Matthew wrote a somewhat fictionalized narrative here in order to link Jesus with Moses and the Exodus narrative, what does that mean about Matthew’s conception about the literal historicity of the Passover? Mythology, perhaps, had, in this particular New Testament author’s eyes, some truth value independent of the actual facts that seem to be presented therein. And if biblical commentators don’t feel the need to consider the Massacre of the Innocents as historically true, despite the human actor with a known violent nature, much less is the need to think of the much older Passover event as historically true, especially when credited to a supernatural being that embodies the concept of “good.”

It is more likely that Israel, in need of a good founding myth, repeated the tale of the Exodus as an oral tradition for many years before it was written down. Naturally the embellishments and exaggerations increased with each repetition of the story of the nation, and miraculous events were created to the nation’s God in order to display His might—never mind concerns about their implications for God’s other attributes, as this would only effect unknown future readers with a much more literal and analytical way of looking at mythology. Ron Madson writes: “I can also see how if Israel can spin, like Hamas, their narratives in just days after acts of aggression then how easy it would be for Israel over centuries of oral traditions (before reducing to writing) to come up with the ultimate taking the Lord’s name in vain after the Exodus: “God told us to invade Palestine and kill all men, women and children”— right. No wonder the Father had to send the Son to clear up the national self deceit that continues today in full glory because when the prophets told them how wrong they were they could not kill them fast enough.”[81]

The question then becomes, what do we learn from the story of Passover? Do we learn that God avenges His people by indiscriminate killing that necessarily includes people who had no influence over Pharaoh’s actions? Such might be America’s god as easily as Israel’s, but definitely not Christ’s God. Rather than extract information about God’s character that implicates Him in horrific acts of violence, we should read the Exodus tale as the story of Israel’s escape from oppression without having to act in a violent manner for itself. Whatever the cause of the deaths throughout Egypt, it wasn’t Israel doing the killing. Whatever caused the waters of the Red Sea to part long enough to lure Pharaoh’s troops to a watery doom, it wasn’t Israel’s own actions that made it happen.

Israel’s story, unfortunately, did originate out of a violent act: Moses killing an Egyptian.[82]Just as the Nephites weren’t ever able to escape their own founding act of violence,[83] Israel never fully overcame theirs, and ultimately found itself caught between tendencies to violence and concern for the oppressed. These competing values are made strikingly apparent in the Law of Moses.

The Law of Moses has both ceremonial and social aspects. Though the former are regularly discussed, the latter are more particularly relevant to our thesis. Both mercy and punishment are enshrined in the Law in a sort of merging of the divine and the human. A passage from Doctrine and Covenants clarifies the Mormon perspective on this: “Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also; And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel; Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.”[84] The Law of Moses, then, is considered by Latter-day Saints to be a “carnal” law, a compromise between the divine and the human. God continues His non-coercive stance, allowing human society to have its death penalty and violent government, while trying to introduce the divine law of love into any cracks in the system.

A particularly interesting aspect of the Law of Moses is its limitations on war. Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy provides the exposition of certain laws given to Israel regarding the recruitment of soldiers and going to war. We are particularly interested in the limitations placed on the Israelite war establishment under the understanding that we’re under obligation to not only observe such restrictions, but to “go the extra mile” in our own personal and national lives. Particularly noteworthy are the requirements to excuse certain people who chose not to fight. We would have to broaden our leniency beyond strict definitions of “conscientious objector” in order to live up to the law given to Israel. Anyone who has recently built a house, planted a vineyard, or gotten married is allowed to be excused from battle.[85] Furthermore, anyone may be excused from service just by virtue of being scared to go to battle.[86] Although rabbinic interpretations make a distinction between voluntary wars and wars of national defense,[87] abrogating the exemptions for the latter, this distinction is not made in the Law itself. It appears to fit the natural pattern of interpreting the scriptures to selectively apply the rules in a manner which suits oneself for which Jesus harshly criticized the Scribes and Pharisees. In fact, the introduction to these particular laws of war instructs the people not to be afraid when their enemies outnumber and out-equip them,[88] a situation unlikely in a voluntary war for the expansion of national territory. The self-appointed teachers of Ancient Israel were not permitted to make the smallest change to the scriptures, but it was standard fare for them to write commentaries obscuring their meaning and granting exceptions.

Women, children, and animals aren’t part of the battle, so they must be spared.[89] In modern times many men are non-combatants as well, so we would have to be even more selective about who we kill. This is a particularly difficult principle for us, since modern warfare tends to result in more civilian than military deaths.[90] Additionally, fruit-bearing trees should not be cut down.[91]

Since Israel was being given a lesser law, God didn’t force them to abandon war entirely, but He at least asked them to place severe limitations on its practice. These limitations would make actually going to war impractical; we definitely wouldn’t be able to prosecute our modern wars under such guidelines. Moreover, if the carnal law—effectively a “just war” philosophy—all but eliminates war, one is inclined to assume that the higher law must prohibit it entirely.

Jesus the Pacifist

One of the fundamental principles of modern Christianity is not to take anything Jesus said seriously. Gandhi is reputed to have said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”[92] Regardless of the accuracy of the quote, its truth is evident with a little observation. Christianity has conquered the world, and it has not done this through sharing Christ’s message in a friendly manner. Rather, we have the so-called Christian nations to thank for the development of destructive technologies so horrendous as to be unimaginable to previous centuries. This stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ message of “love your neighbor” and “turn the other cheek.”

The contradictions between the practice of Christians and the instructions of their God have not gone entirely unnoticed. The Anabaptist movement itself was a call to a return to Jesus’ teachings, and in particular his teaching on nonviolence. The great novelist Tolstoy independently came to similar conclusions as the Anabaptists, and in turn became an important influence to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Tolstoy cited the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s “Declaration of Sentiments adopted by the Peace Convention,” which noted: “We regard as unchristian and unlawful not only all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification we regard as unchristian and unlawful; the existence of any kind of standing army, all military chieftains, all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honour of military exploits, all appropriations for defense by arms; we regard as unchristian and unlawful every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.”[93] We might also point out more recent authors supporting the conclusion that the true Christian must necessarily be nonviolent, including John Howard Yoder, Laurence M. Vance, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others. There is no shortage, then, of voices pointing out that war is contrary to Jesus’ message.

These anti-war Christians have arisen over the centuries despite the most strenuous efforts on the part of the churches and their theologians to reconcile Christianity with war. Assertions that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, prooftexting, citing Paul’s use of military metaphors as “proof” that the apostle was pro-military, claiming that Jesus using a whip to move animals somehow justifies killing human beings, stating that Jesus’ message was “spiritual” rather than literal, and Just War theory are examples of the efforts put forth to make Jesus’ message the opposite of what he said it was. Nevertheless, pacifists continue to show up, simply because nonviolence is the obvious interpretation of Jesus’ message.

In “The Politics of Jesus,” Yoder takes on the spiritualization of Jesus’ message—or, in his words, the conception that the gospel is “apolitical.” This is particularly relevant to Mormonism, since we so often hear, in our meetings, the counsel to help the poor interpreted as a missionary message: It is said to mean we should help the “spiritually poor” nonmembers find the rich blessings of membership in our church. On the other hand, the warrior metaphors take on a very literal tone when we reverence “the troops” in our talks, prayers, and testimonies. Yoder points out the ultimate meaning of this refusal to take Jesus at his word: “What becomes of the meaning of incarnation if Jesus is not normatively human? If he is human but not normative, is this not the ancient ebionitic heresy? If he be somehow authoritative but not in his humanness, is this not a new gnosticism?”[94]

The obvious argument that Jesus’ message was indeed political—that he wasn’t talking about “spiritual” actions in a “spiritual” world, but actual nonviolent action—is that the establishment was threatened by His message to a great enough degree to have him crucified. Yoder points out that his message was indeed very down-to-earth and very political; he begins his ministry with radical politics in fact: An announcement of jubilee.[95] All the way until his death he was very much a political figure, and his politics were those of nonviolence: “This is another of those points where the spiritualistic-apologetic exegesis has always emphasized that the Jews, or the Romans, or the Zealot-minded disciples, had Jesus all wrong; he never really meant to bother the established order. Then the illegality of the proceedings and the impropriety of the accusation must be demonstrated… Still the events in the temple court and the language Jesus used were not calculated to avoid any impression of insurrectionary vision. Both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat. That the threat was not one of armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to irregular procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonorable men.”[96]

The importance of believing in a pacifist Christ is found in the implication a non-pacifist Messiah has for our understanding of the Atonement. Tolstoy argued: “People who believe in a wicked and senseless God—who has cursed the human race and devoted his own Son to sacrifice, and a part of mankind to eternal torment—cannot believe in the God of love. The man who believes in a God—in a Christ coming again in glory to judge and to punish the living and the dead, cannot believe in the Christ who told us to turn the left cheek, do not judge, forgive those that wrong us, and love our enemies. The man who believes in the inspiration of the Old Testament and the sacred character of David, who commanded on his deathbed the murder of an old man who had cursed him, and whom he could not kill himself because he was bound by an oath to him, and the similar atrocities of which the Old Testament is full, cannot believe in the holy love of Christ. The man who believes in the Church’s doctrine of the compatibility of warfare and capital punishment with Christianity cannot believe in the brotherhood of all men.”[97]

Christ’s sacrifice, then, must have been a willing act of pacifism—a refusal to resist evil with evil, in accordance with his own commandment to us, rather than the work of a god who murders his own son because somebody has to be punished if some people are going to be permitted into heaven. The concept of the Atonement as penal substitution—that is, Christ paying the penalty for us, because God won’t forgive our sins otherwise—is incompatible with a loving God. Rather, we must recall the passage from Revelation we cited earlier, dealing with the war in heaven: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”[98] The war in heaven was won on the cross: God declared as victor the party which refused to use violence in the fight. He brought Jesus back to life. This is the meaning of the Atonement, that the nature of the universe is not as perverse as it appears at present. Violence may be integral to success at this moment, in this mortal existence, but it’s nonviolence that ultimately wins in the eternal sphere. Violence can only result in death; it takes nonviolence to create eternal life.

Christ wasn’t sacrificed because somebody had to be punished; He allowed himself to be killed to show us that nonviolence is the only way to truly imitate our God.


[1] Yoder writes: “This status of ‘image of God’ is not questioned. The Old Testament neither preaches nor teaches it, but simply presupposes it universally. The founding of the sabbath law in the reminder of God’s resting after creation (Exod. 20) or through reference to how ‘humane’ God was to free Israel from slavery (Deut. 5) is meaningful only if we presuppose some sort of correspondence between God and the creature.” John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 114.

[2] Acts 12:2.

[3] This tradition is probably based on John 21:18-19, which is read as a prediction of Peter’s death by crucifixion. Tertullian wrote that Peter suffered martyrdom under Nero, and Origen wrote that he was crucified upside-down (as told in Eusebius, Church History).

[4] Acts 7:59-60.

[5] Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “Man is a god in embryo and has in him the seeds of godhood, and he can, if he will, rise to great heights.” Edward L. Kimball, ed., Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 28.

[6] Lest there be any confusion, “Joseph Smith” will be used here to refer to Joseph Smith, Jr. rather than his father.

[7] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 25.

[8] Joseph Smith—History 1:7. Joseph’s mother, on the other hand, indicates an acquaintance with various churches and an aloofness from all in the years preceding the birth of Joseph Smith. She writes, “I found a minister who was willing to baptize me and leave me free from membership in any church, a course I continued until my oldest son attained his twenty-second year.” Lucy Mack Smith, Preston Nibley, ed., The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 36. Alvin Smith turned 22 on February 11, 1820, leaving open the possibility that the family united with the local Presbyterian Church just before the first vision.

[9] John Matzko, “The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40:3 (2007), 70. Matzko writes, “How often Joseph Smith attended Palmyra’s Western Presbyterian Church is unknown; but late in life, a childhood acquaintance, Lorenzo Sanders, recalled that the first time he ever attended Sabbath School he went with ‘young Joe Smith at the old Presbyterian Church.’”

[10] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 476.

[11]Lectures on Faith (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2000), 57-58. Though the authorship of the Lectures on Faith is unknown, Joseph Smith at least did not disapprove of their content, having been a part of the committee that elected to publish them in the 1835 edition of Doctrine and Covenants.

[12] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 478.

[13] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 312.

[14] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 303.

[15] B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 311. Bracketed word included in original.

[16] Victor Ludlow summarizes Joseph Smith’s teachings on spirits and intelligences thus: “At some point in the past, God brought eternal intelligence and other spirit elements together in the form of a spirit body.” See Victor L. Ludlow, Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 142.

[17]Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 9.

[18] Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8.

[19] Doctrine and Covenants 29:34.

[20] James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 44.

[21]Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 279.

[22] Abraham 3:22,24-25,27-28.

[23]Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 11.

[24] Moses 4:1-2.

[25] James E. Talmage, Jesus The Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 7.

[26] Doctrine and Covenants 121:41.

[27] Doctrine and Covenants 121:37. One might point out the qualifier here: “in any degree of unrighteousness,” but every action mentioned is in itself unrighteous, whether covering up sins, gratifying pride, or exercising dominion or compulsion (taking away agency). The qualifier just makes it clear that even a little bit is unacceptable, no matter whether one might try to justify it as being for a good cause.

[28] Revelation 12:11.

[29] Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 40.

[30] Revelation 12:9-10.

[31] Barbara C. Sproul, Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 1. Author’s emphasis.

[32] McConkie writes, “Elohim, Jehovah, Michael, a host of the noble and great ones—all these played their parts.” See Bruce R. McConkie, Sermons and Writings Of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 182.

[33] Genesis 1:1.

[34] Isaiah 8:9-10.

[35] Mormon 4:5.

[36] Leviticus 19:33-34.

[37] Deuteronomy 24:17.

[38] 2 Nephi 10:10,19.

[39] Matthew 5:5.

[40] Genesis 1:27.


[41] Genesis 9:6. Note that God was not implementing the death penalty here; rather He was making a statement about the cycle of violence that can only be ended through atonement—through a refusal to take revenge. Jesus repeated the same principle to Peter when he said, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).

[42] Deuteronomy 25:3.

[43] Genesis 1:29.

[44] Genesis 2:16.

[45] See Genesis 9:3-5.

[46] Moses 4:11.

[47] James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 61.

[48] The First Book of Adam and Eve 52:2 in Rutherford H. Platt, trans., The Forgotten Books of Eden (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1927).

[49] Genesis 2:17.

[50] Hugh W. Nibley, Temple and Cosmos (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 2.

[51] Moses 1:39.

[52] 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[53] Moses 5:23.

[54] Moses 5:26.

[55] Moses 5:31.

[56] Moses 5:33.

[57] Hugh W. Nibley, Don E. Norton, ed., Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 436-437.

[58] Moses 5:39-40.

[59] John Peter Anderson, “Marcionites” in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1913). http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Marcionites.

[60] John A. Widtsoe, ed., Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 128.

[61] John A. Widtsoe, ed., Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 125.

[62] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 76.

[63] Genesis 6:11-13.

[64] 2 Peter 2:5.

[65] Genesis 6:6.

[66] “Flood of Noah” in Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 289.

[67] John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and
Reconciliations
(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 126-127.

[68] John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 128.

[69] This is not to imply that I have a good answer to these concerns. They are, and always have been, tough questions. Admittedly they do have a certain impact on our thesis, since they seem to contradict the non-violent nature of the God we have presented. Nevertheless, since it’s contrary to the God we see presented in both the creation story and the story of Jesus, we do not need to accept it as a definitive statement on the nature of God.

[70] Joseph Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 362-363.

[71] James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. As cited by The FAIR Wiki: http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_science/Death_before_the_Fall.

[72] JST Genesis 19:9-15.

[73] Genesis 19:26.

[74] Hugh W. Nibley, Don E. Norton, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 55.

[75] This argument admittedly leaves a lot to be desired, and serves as more of a possible way to read the scriptures than anything else. I think that’s appropriate here, since this isn’t intended to be an apologetic work that seeks to prove a certain viewpoint to potentially hostile “outsiders,” but more of a reflective dogmatic piece that seeks to find an understanding of the scriptures in harmony with the premise of a nonviolent God.

[76] Exodus 12:29-30.

[77] Exodus 1:22.

[78] Matthew 2:16.

[79] Paul L. Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, ed. Ray Summers and Jerry Vardaman (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), 169-170.

[80] Maier writes, “One of the most doubted episodes in the New Testament has stronger historical credibility than it has thus far been accorded in critical scholarship.” Paul L. Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, ed. Ray Summers and Jerry Vardaman (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), 189.

[81] Ron Madson, “’What Would You Do’ If you were the Israeli PM?” The Mormon Worker, January 6, 2009, http://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/what-would-you-do-if-you-were-the-israeli-pm/.

[82] Exodus 2:12.

[83] Joshua Madson notes that “Nephite civilization was founded upon a violent act: the slaying of Laban. This founding murder marked Nephi and his family as a separate and distinct people by differentiating them as a group from the people in Jerusalem and differentiating Nephi individually from his brothers as their king. The significance of this foundational act cannot be overstated. Not only did this act create a new and separate society, it served as the theological and historical foundation for Nephite ideology and traditions about one’s enemies. This tradition held that violence could be redemptive at bringing about righteous ends.” Joshua Madson, “A Nonviolent Reading of the Book of Mormon” (paper presented at the Claremont Mormon Studies Conference, March 18-19, 2011). Likewise we see throughout biblical history a regular return to violence as a liberating tool for Israel.

[84] Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-27.

[85] Deuteronomy 20:5-7.

[86] Deuteronomy 20:8.

[87] “The Talmud delimits two categories of permissible war: 1) Obligatory; and 2) Authorized… many of the restrictions placed by Jewish law on the type of conduct prohibited by war is frequently limited to Authorized rather than Obligatory wars.” Michael J. Broyde, “Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition,” Jewish Law, accessed May 23, 2012, http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/war2.html.

[88] Deuteronomy 20:1.

[89] Deuteronomy 20:14.

[90] “It is worth noting that almost all wars since 1900 have featured larger civilian, than military, casualties.” Brian Orend, “War,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 28, 2005, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/.

[91] Deuteronomy 20:19

[92] This is a popular misquote of Gandhi; there is no evidence that he actually said this.

[93] Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, Vol. 1 (London: William Heineman, 1894), 6. http://archive.org/details/kingdomgodiswit00tolsgoog.

[94] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 10.

[95] With regards to Luke 4:18, Yoder informs us that this quote from Isaiah was understood by rabbinic Judaism as a reference to jubilee. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 29.

[96] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 49.

[97] Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, Vol. 1 (London: William Heineman, 1894), 107.

[98] Revelation 12:11.

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April 11, 2012

Just War and the Apostasy

Since a universal apostasy of the original church established by Jesus Christ is a fundamental doctrine of Mormonism, it will be of some use to the Latter-day Saint pacifist show that the early Christians tended toward pacifism, which was later superseded by the concept of just war as the church slid into apostasy.

Jesus taught pacifism

Nonresistance to evil was one of Jesus’ central teachings during his lifetime. A few quotes will suffice to make this point clear.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, 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” (Matthew 5:43-44).

“And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:54-56).

“Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

“My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from hence” (John 18:36).

But some argue that Jesus did not teach pacifism at all. The cleansing of the temple is cited as an example that Jesus in fact engaged in violence himself: Jesus “found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.”

Suffice it to say, though, that the act of using a whip to drive animals out of the temple does not justify us in killing people.

Others cite Jesus’ words, “he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one” (Luke 22:36) as evidence that Jesus was not a pacifist. The fact that his listeners didn’t understand Jesus to have been speaking metaphorically (Luke 22:38) is cited as proof that he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. However, the fact that his disciples interpreted his words literally doesn’t mean that he meant them that way; indeed we see Peter rebuked shortly thereafter for using one of the aforementioned swords (Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10-11). If Jesus had really meant that his disciples were supposed to bring their swords to the event at the mount of Olives, it is odd that they were then told not to use them. One might accuse us of “cafeteria Christianity” – picking and choosing what’s metaphor and what’s not – but using one statement of Jesus to justify violence in contradiction to the rest of the entire corpus of his teachings fits the idea of “cafeteria Christianity” much better than our attempt to harmonize a statement that would be completely out of character if taken literally.

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) is also frequently used to justify warmongering by Christians. The sword is assumed to be a symbol for war, but if one insists on taking this verse as a justification for violence, he would be obligated by the following verses to kill his own family at the outset of that violence, for Jesus continued as follows: “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36). Those who use this particular statement by Jesus in order to justify a hawkish stance seem to have no problem ignoring the context around it. Luckily, there is no justification for killing our families or anyone else implied in these verses, as Jesus indicates that he was teaching metaphorically that a true follower of Christ may have to live with rejection by his family, if he is unwilling to give up his discipleship: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Still others cite other New Testament authors, especially Paul, who frequently used military metaphors, in justification of their anti-pacifist positions. We do not need to touch on the details of these arguments; it suffices us to say that even taking these critics at their word, they are ultimately placing the servant’s teachings above the master’s. Indeed we find many apostolic writings that wholeheartedly support Jesus’ message of peace, including: Be ye “Not rendering evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:9), “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), and “See that none render evil for evil unto any man” (1 Thessalonians 5:15), among others.

A final argument is that these commandments apply only to individuals, not to nations. This argument, though, places human law above God’s law in that it implies an exception for individuals acting under the auspices of government authority. Taking this argument seriously leads to some absurd results, such as the justification of adultery under jus primae noctis laws that some speculate existed in medieval times. The apostles rejected the argument of the supremacy of government over God’s law, stating, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Latter-day Saints might repeat a version of the previous argument, citing the 12th Article of Faith: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Beyond a repetition of the previous response, we would add that Joseph Smith was probably referring to “the law” in a much more limited sense than we do, specifically those laws which protect citizen’s rights.1  William Lloyd Garrison also provided an excellent example of how we can (paradoxically) “obey, honor, and sustain the law” while refusing to comply with its unrighteous requirements: “We shall submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake; obey all the requirements of government, except such as we deem contrary to the commands of the Gospel; and in no wise resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience.”2

The early Christians practiced pacifism

The Christian version of the concept of “Just War” has its origins in the 5th century writings of Augustine of Hippo, which were later given a systematic treatment by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Such a change in doctrine was necessitated by Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire, since before that time Christianity had tended to a more pacific stance. Indeed, the attraction of power
and influence beyond just the small flock of early Christians provided an apparently irresistible temptation to the clergy of the day, inspiring them to tweak the teachings of Christianity just a little bit in order to become more acceptable to Rome. “War is intrinsically evil” became “war is evil, except in a few limited and specific circumstances.” Of course, those circumstances can ultimately be argued to apply to just about any war, since belligerents tend to appeal to some altruistic or righteous motive to rationalize their actions.

That the early Christians were opposed to war is apparent in their efforts to clarify the pacific stance of Christianity to those who would misuse the war imagery in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as well as in their efforts to harmonize the wars of the Old Testament with the nonviolent stance of the young religion.3  In the second century Clement of Alexandria clarified the proper use of war imagery, stating: “The loud-sounding trumpet calls together the soldiers, and denounces war. Shall not Christ, then, breathing forth a peaceful strain to the very extremities of the earth, collect his peaceful army? O man, by his blood and his word, he has collected a bloodless army, and entrusted the kingdom of heaven to its care.”4  Tertullian, in the beginning of the 3rd century, also argued against misusing military metaphors, writing: “Now the Apostle John, in the Apocalypse, describes a sword which proceeded from the mouth of God as ‘a doubly sharp, two-edged one.’ This may be understood to be the Divine Word, who is doubly edged with the two testaments of the law and the gospel—sharpened with wisdom, hostile to the devil, arming us against the spiritual enemies of all wickedness and concupiscence, and cutting us off from the dearest objects for the sake of God’s holy name. If, however, you will not acknowledge John, you have our common master Paul, who ‘girds our loins about with truth, and puts on us the breastplate of righteousness, and shoes us with the preparation of the gospel of peace, not of war; who bids us take the shield of faith, wherewith we may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the devil, and the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which (he says) is the word of God.’ This sword the Lord Himself came to send on earth, and not peace. If he is your Christ, then even he is a warrior. If he is not a warrior, and the sword he brandishes is an allegorical one, then the Creator’s Christ in the psalm too may have been girded with the figurative sword of the Word, without any martial gear… Acknowledge, then, that His spoils are figurative, since you have learned that His arms are allegorical. Since, therefore, both the Lord speaks and His apostle writes such things in a figurative style, we are not rash in using His interpretations, the records of which even our adversaries admit; and thus in so far will it be Isaiah’s Christ who has come, in as far as He was not a warrior, because it is not of such a character that He is described by Isaiah.”5

Even with a pacifist stance, the early Christians may not have had the same problems with the Old Testament wars that we face. Yoder writes, “Rather than reading with the modern question in mind, whether it confirms certain moral generalizations or not, the Israelite read it as his or her own story, as the account of his or her own past throwing light on who or she was… One of the traits of the Old Testament story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves his people without their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our moral pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf.”6

Nevertheless, not all the early Christians were Israelites, and that they were concerned about the war passages in the Old Testament is evident in their efforts to explain how they harmonize their peaceful stance with those passages. With regards to Isaiah 2:3-4, Tertullian asks, “Therefore, who else is understood but we, who having been taught the new law, observe it (the old law, having been destroyed, the very practice of it demonstrated its future abolition)? For the old law defended by means of vengeance with the sword, and plucked out an eye for an eye, and repaid injury with revenge, but the new law orders compassion, and turns the former aggressiveness of the sword and the lance into stillness, and reshapes the former execution of war upon rivals and enemies into peaceful acts of plowing and cultivating of the earth.”7  That’s not how things work anymore, Tertullian tells us, though Origen was even more explicit about the appropriate way for a Christian to read the Old Testament: “Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciple of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches.”8

To further support our stance that the early Christians tended toward pacifism, we’ll look at their attitudes toward military service. Though we know that a certain number of early Christians served in the military, these were few in number for the first two centuries and mainly consisted of soldiers who were baptized rather than Christians who joined the military.9  This in itself is not surprising, since being Christian was regarded as a crime from the reign of Nero up until the time of Constantine, and the military, as the enforcement arm of the Empire, had the charge of trying and executing Christians. But there was more to Christian refusal to participate in military service than the practical matter of avoiding self-destructive behavior (indeed, the refusal to serve in the military probably contributed to the ongoing persecution of Christians in some cases). Several prominent early Christians taught against military service as a matter of principle, among these Lactantius, who taught: “When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men. A just man may not be a soldier, since his warfare is justice itself, nor may he put anyone on a capital charge: whether you kill a man with a sword or a speech makes no difference, since killing itself is banned.”10

Among the stories of Christians who suffered martyrdom rather than engage in military service the story of Maximilianus stands out, recounted by Cadoux as follows: “In 295 A.D. occurred the famous and oft-told martyrdom of Maximilianus, to which allusion has just been made. He was a young Numidian Christian, just over twenty-one years old, and was brought before Dion the proconsul of Africa, as fit for military service. He refused to serve, or to accept the soldier’s badge, saying repeatedly that he could not do so, because he was a Christian and served Christ. Dion tried again and again to overcome his objections, but without success. It is fairly clear from the martyr’s own words that his objection was largely, if not solely, to the business of fighting. The question of sacrificing to idols or to the Emperor is not mentioned by either party. ‘I cannot serve as a soldier,’ said Maximilianus; ‘I cannot do evil; I am a Christian.’ Dion told him: ‘In the sacred retinue of our lords Diocletianus and Maximianus, Constantius and Maximus, there are Christian soldiers, and they serve.’ Maximilianus replied: ‘They know what is fitting for them: but I am a Christian, and I cannot do evil.’ ‘What evil do they do who serve?&rs
quo; asked the proconsul. ‘Thou knowest what they do,’ was the reply. Nothing more could be done, and Maximilianus was sentenced to and suffered the death-penalty. His body, as has been stated, was taken to Carthago and buried near the tomb of Cyprianus; his father returned home thanking God that he had sent forward such a gift to the Lord; the story of his trial and death were speedily committed to writing; and he was ultimately received among the saints of the Church.”11

One could easily surmise from the available sources that military service was indeed rare among the first Christians, and though it became more common over the centuries, a plurality of pre-Constantine Christians continued to refuse military service on moral grounds.

From outcasts to institutionally recognized

As the established authorities took began to take a more tolerant view of the Christian Church, its leaders were naturally enticed by the lure of worldly power and, perhaps sometimes not noticing their actions, began to effect a subtle doctrinal shift in favor of the establishment. Among the casualties of this theological evolution, the pacifism of early Christianity gave way to the concept of “Just War.”

Augustine is regularly credited with bringing the philosophy of a just war to Christianity, but we might easily see the seeds being planted by Eusebius decades earlier. Frederick Russell, in the introduction to his work on the history of just war in medieval times, tells us, “The gradual evolution in attitude [from the original anti-war stance of Christianity] was signaled by Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s bishop and advisor, who identified the Roman Empire with the divine peace-keeping mission. After all, since Augustus and Christ had been contemporaries, one Empire and the religion of one God were congruent divine institutions.”12  Though military service for Christians was now being rendered acceptable, the bishop conveniently excused himself: “Eusebius distinguished two levels of Christian vocation. The laity was to shoulder the burdens of citizenship and wage just wars, while on a higher level the clergy was to remain aloof from society in total dedication to God.”13  This set up a system of classes in Christianity, distinguishing the lay member, who now became a tool for government to use and dispose of in war, from the member of the clergy who enjoyed both religious power and political influence without the accompanying risks that the laity took in his place.

It would be difficult to overestimate Augustine’s influence in Christianity. Although the framework had already been laid down for an unholy union of Church and State, it is largely to Augustine that we can credit the maturation of the just war concept among Christians. Perhaps he was trying to address the problem of evil in his writings by attributing everything to God’s will and even that which seems awful to the service of some greater good in the long term. Regardless of his motives, Augustine ultimately presents us with an “ends justifies the means” ethic: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”14  That the ultimate end of these efforts to justify war is the praise of that government whose power was beginning to become aligned with the Church becomes apparent as Augustine states, “Wherefore, when the kingdoms of the East had been illustrious for a long time, it pleased God that there should also arise a Western empire, which, though later in time, should be more illustrious in extent and greatness.”15  In this sense, Augustine elaborated and perfected the ideas that Eusebius had proposed.

We have only briefly surveyed some of the available evidence for early Christian attitudes toward war, but in doing so we have noted a progression of ideas from a strongly pacific stance to a well developed theology of war. Since the concept of a universal apostasy is central in Mormonism, it would seem natural to point out the change in doctrine on warfare as a sign of this apostasy. Presently this isn’t a common occurrence, though we might hope that the future will bring changes. For now we have focused on showing the changes in Christian belief from a more or less pacifist standpoint to strong support of government and military power, which would presumably fit well in any timeline outlining the onset of the apostasy.

 


 

1.        For a good discussion of this, see Alan Waterman, “What Is The Law Of The Land?” Pure Mormonism, March 20, 2012, http://puremormonism.blogspot.com/2012/03/what-is-law-of-land.html.

2.        William Lloyd Garrison, “Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention, Held in Boston, September 18-20, 1838”, Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/DeclarationOfSentiments.

3.        A handful of related quotes from prominent early Christians are cited here to illustrate the argument. For a fuller survey of early Christian writings on war, see C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (London: Headly Bros, 1919).

4.        John Kaye, Some Account of the Writings and Opinions of Clement of Alexandria (London: Gilbert & Rivington, 1835), 23.

5.        Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Vol VII. Tertullianus against Marcion (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 147-148.

6.        John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 76.

7.        Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos, chapter III, author’s translation.

8.        Barbara J. Bruce, trans., Cynthia White, ed., Origen: Homilies on Joshua (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 138.

9.        Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, 97.

10.    Lactantius, Anthony Bowen, trans., Peter Garnsey, trans., Divine Institutes (Glasgow: Liverpool University Press, 2003), 375.

11.    Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, 149-150.

12.    Frederick H. Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 12.

13.    Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages, 12.

14.   Cited in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II-II (Project Gutenberg, 2006), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18755.

 15.   Augustine, Marcus Dods, trans., The City of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 146.

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December 24, 2011

The God That Failed

“Ozymandias,” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is my favorite poem. The inscription on the ruined statue lying in the empty wasteland reads: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:  Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” In the long run, empire and all the power in the world meant nothing. The great king was long forgotten, his empire turned out to be an illusion, and the only remaining memory of either was the crumbled remains of a statue said to exist by a mysterious traveler.

Likewise, among my favorite popular songs are those about failure, such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.” The latter tells the story of a king suddenly fallen from nearly almighty power who now has to hide out in order to survive. The revolutionaries who’ve taken over aren’t interested in keeping around a relic of the previous government. “Hallelujah” touches on David and Sampson falling from grace, failures in love, and crises of faith, ultimately concluding: “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

Macbeth enjoyed a brief and bloody reign as a tyrant, confident of the security of his station by the witches’ prophecy that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”  His hubris, as well as he himself, are short-lived, though, as Macduff – “from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d” – gets his revenge for his wife and household who were slain by Macbeth. One might, however, have more sympathy for Hamlet, haunted by the past but reluctant to do his bloody duty. On the other hand, this Shakespearean hero, though fallen in his efforts, is ultimately a success story.

King Priam was compelled to beg Achilles, killer of his son Hector, for the return of the latter’s mutilated body, and this shortly before the fall of his great kingdom. This story, told in the Iliad, is yet another great king brought down to the dust in humility.

Failure is a central theme of the great literature both of the present and of past ages. It is appropriate then, that the story of Jesus is one of failure. Jesus was the God that failed. As the promised Messiah that came to redeem Israel, he ended up killed by his own people. But more than this, as the greatest philosopher of all time, he died an obscure teacher in some barbaric corner of history’s greatest (and in the end, failed) empire.

The story of Jesus is the greatest tragedy I’ve ever been privileged to read. He taught peace, and sought to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to mankind by teaching them nonresistance. Men would give to the poor and refuse to seek revenge for the wrongs committed against them. This was the gospel of love. Unlike other fallen heroes, Jesus both taught a good philosophy and lived it. In fact, living his own philosophy was his fall: His refusal to fight back against his enemies left him easy prey, and they arranged for him to be tortured and killed in one of the cruelest manners imaginable.

His death however, was mere metaphor for the greater failure. The true tragedy has been the perversion of his teachings since his death. A modern Christian would consider ridiculous the idea of taking seriously and literally the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Modern Christianity embodies fanatical soldier worship (the very profession whose practitioners nailed Jesus to the cross), the seeking of wealth, and derision and abuse of the poor. In short, the very things Jesus spent his life preaching against. The horrific irony is that those who call themselves followers of the pacific moral teacher often titled the “prince of peace” sought (and continue to seek) violent revenge for a horrible attack that took place back in 2001 – revenge that involves killing hundreds of innocent civilians for each death in the original attack, and does so in various nations beyond the one accused of being instrumental in the attack.

Despite what Christ taught, Christianity is characterized by a thirst for blood.

Politically, Christians tend to fight against laws limiting the ownership of guns – they love their tools of murder – and against laws protecting the poor. This from the self-proclaimed disciples of one who taught peace and charity. Worship of state and wealth is substituted for worship of God. The gospel of love is now the gospel of guns and money.

This, more than his death in relative obscurity, is what makes Jesus the God that failed.

Yet his philosophy touches the hearts of those who truly understand it, and they can’t help but acknowledge its goodness, even if following it condemns them to failure as well. Two thousand years haven’t been sufficient to change the world into a humane place. How can a philosophy doomed to failure ring so true to the soul?

The only hope lies in the rest of the stories of failure. If the mighty always fall, who but the meek will be left to inherit the earth in the end? If that which starts with success always ends in failure, the failed but persistent philosophy of egalitarian peace must emerge triumphant in the end. Tolstoy taught that this was the natural and inevitable progression of the human race. Indeed, though still not a humane place, much of the world is much more humane than it once was, and this despite the protestations of Christians.

One cannot count on the inevitable fall of the American Empire – whenever that will occur – to bring the long hoped-for peace and end of poverty to the world. In fact, it is likely that it will be replaced by something far worse than what it is now. Nonetheless, humanity marches on, and we hope that despite any stumbling we’re still on the path toward the destination we seek. In the meantime I’ll continue worshipping the God that failed. To follow in his footsteps, to learn to love, to strive for peace and equality among humanity, and to fail alongside him would be a great honor.

One must continue to strive, even without the vision of success that we pretend to foresee.

But I still hope Tolstoy was right.

October 29, 2011

A Mormon Theology of Pacifism

The young Mormon who, for the first time, undertakes a serious study of the life and teachings of Christ in the New Testament, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, may find it disconcerting. The message of peace strikes a very dissonant chord against the zealous patriotism and near-worship of the military in modern Mormonism. Assuming a commitment to Christ’s example and teachings, I propose here a Mormon theology of peace as an alternative to the predominant militant Mormonism.
 
Man in the Image of God
 
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”1 Thus reads the story of the creation of man, which forms the basis for divine law regarding his interactions with his fellow beings. Our relationship to God is so fundamental to the divine plan that Joseph Smith taught: “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”2
 
Building on the concept of man in the image of God, Mormonism teaches that a human being is made up of two principle parts: the tangible, physical body, and the intangible, spirit body. The spirit body, could it be seen, would appear in the same form as the physical body. This spirit body is the literal offspring of God, and has its origin in heaven, long before the birth of the physical body.3 “And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth”.4
 
President George Albert Smith taught: “It is regrettable that in the world today in many cases men do not appreciate that this temple of the body is sacred and should be so held, that this body of ours was given to us as a tabernacle for the spirit while we are here in mortality, but that the spirit that is in this tabernacle came from God. He is the Father of it. If men realized that, how much more careful they would be to protect this tabernacle and keep it wholesome and delightful.”5 Thus the relationship of man to God is the basis for his duty to respect his body. By the same reasoning, the bodies of others receive equal respect, since they are also in the image of God and house other children of His.
 
Thou Shalt Not Kill
 
The divine law against killing is so important that murder is the first sin mentioned after the scene for humanity is set by the Adam’s fall. “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him…. And [the Lord] said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”6 Yet if killing out of jealousy was wrong, so was killing for the sake of so-called justice. The Lord responded to the first murder by saying of the perpetrator, “whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”7 The law given in Adam’s day, then, was not only against murder, but also against revenge killings or the death penalty. The death penalty appeared after the world had proven wicked enough to warrant its destruction by flood,8 and was only given to Israel as part of the “law of carnal commandments”9 given in “wrath” (or as a punishment) and oriented toward a wicked people. Despite the existence of a death penalty, one of the central points of even the lesser law was: “Thou shalt not kill.”10
 
The aforementioned postdiluvian proscription of bloodshed is a particularly important variant of the commandment not to kill, since it links it back to man’s relationship to God. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”11 Since man is in the image of God, killing is a form of sacrilege: It is a simulation of violence against God. For similar reasons, humane treatment of convicts was required even in the lesser law given to Israel, “lest… thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”12 Additionally, as man is a child of God, murder of a child is particularly offensive to his parent. Mormons in particular have a point of view that allows us to look upon humanity as members of a single family, a perspective which leaves little room for justifying violence.
 
Joseph Smith taught that: “A murderer, … one that sheds innocent blood, cannot have forgiveness.”13 Joseph Smith’s definition of a murderer as someone who sheds innocent blood will indeed come as an uncomfortable one in a military-oriented religion, considering that, especially in modern warfare, innocent blood is frequently shed on the battlefield in the form of collateral damage. The commandment against bloodshed was the basis of the First Presidency’s statement on December 14, 1945, against universal compulsory military training, in which they stated, “We shall give opportunity to teach our sons not only the way to kill but also, in too many cases, the desire to kill, thereby increasing lawlessness and disorder to the consequent upsetting of the stability of our national society. God said at Sinai, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”14 The fact that this statement was given in connection with the topic of the military indicates that war is not always an exception to the commandment not to kill.
 
Note that in Mormonism the commandment against killing is extended even to animal life as part of God’s creation. After the flood, the Lord instructed Noah that “blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.”15 The same permission to eat meat, with the restriction that it be done sparingly and only as necessary to preserve life, was repeated to the Saints through Joseph Smith.16
 
Jesus on Rhetoric
 
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”17 The second great commandment flows naturally from the first in the context of man being in the image and family of God.
 
This love for our fellow human beings is the basis of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus taught us to “resist not evil”,18 “Love your enemies”,19 and “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”20 This discourse is likely the basis for the reader’s interest in pacifism. The principles taught flow naturally from the creation story and additional theological structure built around it in Mormonism. If man is in God’s image, man must be respected so as not to offend God. Furthermore, since man is a spirit who lived as the offspring of God before the world’s creation, and came down to be housed in a body of flesh in the appearance of his Eternal Father, he is to be loved not only as one who appears like God, but also as one’s literal brother. One who loves his brother does not kill him, no matter what evil he may have committed, and one definitely does not kill the child of the deity one worships.
 
The commandments of Jesus, then, go beyond physical actions against others and into control of our thoughts and passions. We are not only prohibited from killing our enemies, we are to love them. Our inward sins of hatred or contempt for others is betrayed by our speech: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that whic
h is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”21 Evil speech necessarily corrupts a person, according to Jesus: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.”22 Even the rhetoric put out in support of wars, which necessarily dehumanizes the enemy and engenders hatred toward our fellow man, is considered evil and defiling. One must recall that our enemy is also in the image of God, and of his household, and therefore evil speech toward him would naturally be an offense against God.
 
Speech, then, according to Jesus, does more than simply “describe reality … it participates in reality independent of human intentionality.”23 Because of this, “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement.”24 Mormonism gives some credence to this understanding of speech, and thus the saints are counseled to avoid “excess of laughter”25 and “evil speaking”.26 In the school of the elders it was taught that: “It is by words, instead of exerting his physical powers, with which every being works when he works by faith.”27
 
Joseph Smith taught the same principle against violent rhetoric: “When you find a spirit that wants bloodshed,—murder, the same is not of God, but is of the devil. Out of the abundance of the heart of man the mouth speaketh.”28 Indeed, to the degree that reality is created by words, much of the evil in this world origins in rhetoric, especially the rhetoric in favor of war.
 
Idolatry
 
The first commandment prohibits idolatry: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”29 This naturally follows from the first great commandment cited to love God with all our hearts; we are not to divide our love between Him and other gods. Mormonism has an expansive definition of idolatry: “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.”30
 
President Kimball specifically expanded this line of thinking to include war: “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”.31
 
This form of idolatry demonstrates a lack of faith in the God we are supposed to love with all our hearts: “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 (Ex. 14:14; D&C 98:37, to name only two references of many).”32
 
Pacifist Christology
 
Much has already been written on Christ as the prototypical pacifist, but a brief summary is in order. We have already mentioned that Jesus taught a pacifist philosophy of loving one’s enemies—“Blessed are the peacemakers”33—in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout His life. Noting that creative exegesis has been used to turn Jesus’ message into the opposite of its apparent meaning, and therefore justify war and other forms of violence, it is of great benefit to us that he put his pacific teachings in practice so clearly at the end of his life that we are left with no excuse for such misunderstandings.
 
After Jesus’ intense suffering in Gethsemane, Judas arrived with armed men to arrest his master. Elder Talmage told the story thus: “When the officers approached and seized Jesus, some of the apostles, ready to fight and die for their beloved Master, asked, ‘Lord, shall we smite with the sword?’ Peter, waiting not for a reply, drew his sword and delivered a poorly aimed stroke at the head of one of the nearest of the crowd, whose ear was severed by the blade. The man thus wounded was Malchus, a servant of the high priest. Jesus, asking liberty of His captors by the simple request, ‘Suffer ye thus far,’ stepped forward and healed the injured man by a touch.”34 Jesus at this point chastised Peter for his violence, saying: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”35 It is noteworthy that He not only refused to engage in violence in defense of this “illegal night seizure”36 which would ultimately result in His execution, but He additionally healed the wounded ear of one of His kidnappers.
 
Jesus, while being crucified, pleaded for the soldiers engaged in this act of murder to be forgiven.37 Rather than to commit violence against another human being, or even call down the powers of heaven to do so, He willingly gave up His life and so effected the atonement, amidst an exemplary display of the pacifism He had spent the previous years teaching. Christ thus broke the chain of evil that plagued the earth since the fall of man (and particularly the murder committed by Cain), allowing us a way out if we follow Him. Symbolically, Jesus’ sacrifice ended the requirement for the ritual shedding of blood,38 thus indicating that although death had been brought into the world through the fall, life was to be the new rule.
 
Conclusion
 
We’ve started, appropriately enough, in the beginning. The creation of man and his relationship to God, and therefore to his fellow man, is the basis for loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This love of God, in turn, is the basis for the prohibition of idolatry, not to mention obedience of all the commandments. At every step of the way, we see the impropriety of killing our fellow man, whether because he’s in the image of our deity, because he’s literally a family member, or because it would be antithetical to love.
 
It is interesting to note that although the fall of Adam ostensibly brought death into the world, the first physical death recorded is the result of the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. God warned about continuing the cycle of violence in his instruction that Cain was not to be executed for the murder of his brother. Revenge, whether we term it “justice” or refer to it by any other name, continues the work of evil, staining the world with blood. This cycle of evil could only be broken by a Savior who refused to return evil for evil and instead willingly gave up His life in the ultimate pacifist act. We’ve been instructed to flee from Babylon,39 but we’ll only escape when we begin to follow His example.


1. Genesis 1:27
2. Roberts, B.H., ed. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. VI (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980) 303.
3. Hinckley, Gordon B. What of the Mormons? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1947) 21-22.
4. Moses 3:5
5. Smith, George Albert. Teachings of George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1996) 13.
6. Genesis 4:8,10.
7. Genesis 4:15.
8. Genesis 9:6.
9. D&C 84:27.
10. Exodus 20:13.
11. Genesis 9:6.
12. Deuteronomy 25
:3.
13. Roberts, History of the Church, Vol. VI 253.
14. Clark, James R., ed. Messages of the First Presidency, Vol. 6 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975) 240.
15. JST Genesis 9:11.
16. D&C 49:18,21; D&C 89:12-13.
17. Matthew 22:37-40.
18. Matthew 5:39.
19. Matthew 5:44.
20. Matthew 7:1.
21. Luke 6:45.
22. Matthew 15:18.
23. Brant, Jo-Ann A. “Jesus’ Prohibition Against Swearing and his Philosophy of Language”, GC publications on the Web, 1997.
24. Matthew 12:36.
25. D&C 88:69.
26. D&C 20:54.
27. Lectures on Faith 7:3.
28. Roberts, History of the Church, Vol. VI 315.
29. Exodus 20:3.
30. Kimball, Spencer W. “The False Gods We Worship”, Ensign June 1976: 3-6.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Matthew 5:9.
34. Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1915) 571.
35. Matthew 26:52.
36. Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ 571.
37. Luke 23:34.
38. See 3 Nephi 9:19.
39. See D&C 133:5,7,14.

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August 19, 2011

Where is the Logos?

Where can one turn for truth? The modern truth-seeker is in a tough predicament. Information flows more freely than ever in the Internet age, yet accuracy and honesty are unlikely to be found even in the oldest and most respected institutions. How can we find truth, whatever it is, if we can’t find a trustworthy source of information? And where do we find the ultimate truth about a purpose, or lack thereof, of existence?

News agencies have always been known to be wildly inaccurate in their publications and broadcasts. The news which pertains to the federal government is particularly tainted, since the government itself tends to be the primary source for many of those stories. It’s interesting that those who disbelieve the government’s account of a particular event are widely derided as conspiracy theorists, though its plainly obvious that any account coming from the White House has always been heavily politicized. Additionally, those reports dealing with military action tend to be informed by people whose job is to lie. Intelligence isn’t just the collection of information; information hiding plays an important role.

Ultimately, a government spokesman is either a politician or someone working for a politician. Though society expects one to believe the official government story, ultimately it comes down to being credulous enough to trust a politician. The epithet of conspiracy theorist is best left to those who believe the most improbable tales of government coverups, such as reptile-men and secret deals with humanoid aliens. Otherwise conspiracy theorist simply becomes another way of saying not gullible.

Well, if one can’t be certain of what’s going on in human society around him, he can at least turn to science, can’t he? Unfortunately, Thomson Reuters compiled data showing that the number of retractions in scientific journals has skyrocketed in the last decade. Most of the retractions were for simple errors, but astonishingly over a quarter of them were for fraud. Science is becoming heavily politicized, and additionally a “publish or perish” mentality in academia has exacerbated the problem of sloppy research.

Mistakes and fraud aren’t the only problems facing science, however. Science doesn’t seek for ultimate truth: It only searches for a useful model. By the time we survey the field of science and get to the most fundamental of sciences, physics, we find that even a complete model might be beyond the capability of science to create. Originally such a model was thought to be had with Newtonian mechanics. It was later superseded by Einstein’s general theory relativity, which was found to be incompatible with another important emerging model: quantum mechanics. Since then the holy grail of physics has been the unification of the two models.

Things got pretty weird with general relativity and quantum mechanics in the first place. Between time dilation and wave-particle duality, it became clear that, at least according to physics, reality wasn’t very realistic. It appears that it will only get worse with a unifying theory. The best bet at present is string theory, which so far can’t be tested empirically, and requires inclusion of the existence of unobservable dimensions beyond the normal spacetime in which we seem to live and act.

Well, if the model has any relation to reality beyond the ability to make accurate predictions, the universe is even weirder than was thought before. Worse yet, even if string theory holds, there’s no guarantee that it is the be-all and the end-all of science. It is just as likely to turn out to be the 21st century’s Newtonian mechanics in a few hundred years. Truth is incredibly elusive.

Empiricism is problematic anyway. Philosophers have long noted that the senses can be fooled. The existence of hallucinations indicates that experience can’t be completely trusted. Furthermore, the empirical sciences are based on the testimony of witnesses. Nobody can reproduce every scientific experiment to verify that the researchers weren’t lying; one merely plays the odds that if the research was reproduced by others, it is less likely that all the parties are lying. Less likely doesn’t mean impossible.

“Math is truth” reads the graffiti in the math building at UCSD. Logical reasoning based on a set of accepted axioms seems promising at first. One quickly runs into problems, however, when it becomes clear that mathematics cannot solve everything. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show that there exist facts which can’t be proven, particularly that even algebra can’t be proven to be consistent. Additionally, even assuming consistency as a given, why accept the axioms in the first place? One usually, in the end, accepts them because they’re as good as any other starting point.

Some form or degree of mysticism may be the only hope to finding an ultimate truth. A direct experience of whatever ultimate reality or god that may exist would be the path, since human powers alone are apparently far from capable of acquiring truth. In Mormonism — the author’s preferred religion — the Holy Ghost performs this role, providing a direct knowledge of truth in a manner that provides a complete certainty that cannot be had through reasoning or the senses.

It’s an individual path, but it begins with the myths. Myth can be an uncomfortable word with which to describe one’s beliefs, but it need not be a bad word. It is correctly understood as referring to a story that explains something about the nature of existence. No implication of fact or fiction is made. The Big Bang can be one’s preferred myth, as can the Assyrian’s story of the council of the gods Anu, Enlil, Shamash, and Ea discussing with the Anunnaki the progress of creation.

In the arche was the logos — the organizing principle of the universe was part of the -archy, or government. Thus begins a particularly interesting myth found in the New Testament. It continues: The logos — the creative force — was with God, and God was the creative force…. And this creative force became flesh.

God became human. The message of Christianity is much more beautiful and profound than the shallow ramblings of the evangelicals.

God became one of us. We complain and curse heaven for our suffering, we say that God cannot be good if he allows so much evil in the world. God didn’t wave a magic wand and make all evil disappear, but He did come down Himself and suffer it along with us. He suffered even more than the rest of us. He didn’t make it go away, but He showed us by teaching and by example how to deal with it, how to react to it. The rest is up to us: We choose to send out armies into the world, to destroy and plunder, to engage in all manner of evil, and still we blame God when bad things happen. Yet He suffered too…

There’s a myth the author can get along with. The world is a cruel place, and the creative force behind the universe can sympathize with our situation. One might hate and fear a cruel god, but one can relate to and love the suffering God — the One who did not make us go through what He wasn’t willing to go through Himself. The One who became like us and shared our pain, and promises that it is only temporary: The Church Militant becomes the Church Triumphant.

What is truth? If truth is the knowledge of things as they really are, where does one find it? The author has pursued it in politics, science, philosophy, history and other fields of study and has come up short. Science only wants a model, government wants control, and academics have their own agendas, so how much can one really expect? Religion offers some hope, but the author’s religion is also brutall
y honest: “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” says Paul, telling him that he must wait for the afterlife to be able to obtain truth in its complete form. If even mysticism — the last recourse — has failed to completely satisfy us, only the hope of an afterlife remains.

What is the truth? Only time — and specifically the end of time — will tell. “Seek and ye shall find” is the promise, but a timeline is not given. At least we’ve found what to look for: Is there life after death? Why does life seem to be filled with suffering? Did God become human and suffer, and did that unlock the promise of a brighter future? These questions dig deeper towards the answer of the existential Who am I?

The myth gives us direction. It takes one farther than mathematics, science, or politics is willing or able to go. When neither government nor technology has been able to make us happy, when Prozac and Zoloft can’t solve the problem either, when consumerism has failed us, where do we turn? The wonderful power of writing has existed among humanity for the last six thousand years, and we can turn to the writings of our predecessors for the wisdom they left behind. They may not answer all our questions, but they can give us hints about where to look.

We ask: Where is truth? They respond: In the beginning…
July 3, 2011

The Circle of Life

I am a pacifist in philosophy and a hypocrite in practice. Anyone who is not a hypocrite has a worthless philosophy of life, since it doesn’t give him anything to reach for. I cannot judge another for the difference between me and a murderer is only a matter of degree; like everyone else I survive by the consumption of life. We were taught, “Thou shalt not kill,” (Exodus 20:13) yet our own lives are sustained by death. The consumption of life is the nature of fallen man’s existence.

When Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden, God made them clothing out of animal skins (Genesis 3:21). I was told on Facebook, “That was the first sacrifice for man’s sin.” Thus is the traditional origin of a manner of life that is sustained by death.

An early Christian exegesis of Genesis 3:21 is given in the apocryphal Book of Adam and Eve 52:2: “Then Adam said unto Eve, “O Eve, this is the skin of beasts with which we shall be covered. But when we have put it on, behold, a token of death shall have come upon us, inasmuch as the owners of these skins have died, and have wasted away. So also shall we die, and pass away.”” Just as we live by virtue of death, so shall we die, our death providing life to the worms that consume our corpses as we become part of the same cycle.

There is an ultimate harmony and balance in the universe. We enjoy the peak of the sine wave, that eternal representation of the circle, consuming life for the maintenance of our own lives, but we must ultimately enter the valley where our own life is consumed to sustain the life of the worms that eat our flesh. There is much eastern influence in Christianity, although a western upbringing may hide it from our eyes.

The ultimate symbol of life by virtue of death, or the consumption of life, is Christ on the cross. Christian doctrine tells us that through his death we enjoy true life.

Jesus, in his teachings, taught the maintenance of the universal balance by minimizing the consumption of life. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” Jesus taught, among other statements against riches. I cannot seek wealth, because that involves consuming more life than is necessary to sustain mine. Seeking balance in life and a harmony with the universe is the ultimate goal that can be attained through living in accordance with Jesus’ teachings.

“Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) precludes me from becoming a soldier or even a police officer, because killing or being willing to kill another is an expression antithetical to love. “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1) precludes me from despising the soldier or police officer because I am still a killer; though I don’t kill people I sustain my life through the death of other forms of life. Likewise it precludes me from serving on juries or as a judge, since being evil myself I cannot do justice by violence toward another who is evil.

We are told that sacrifice by the shedding of blood ended with the death of Christ who provided the ultimate and final sacrifice, but blood sacrifice continues daily. Look at your dinner plate. Both cow and carrot were sacrificed to sustain your life, just as Christ was sacrificed to give you true life. Done in the correct spirit, the daily meal ritual is a memorial that life is given through death, and we are thus encouraged to avoid excess.

Plant life is the visible representation of live freely given to sustain life, the origin that sacrifices itself to sustain life rather than consume life. This is the ultimate symbol of pacifism. It is appropriate that the tree is the representation of Asherah, the traditional wife of God. The warlike Israelites were prohibited from worshipping Asherah (Jeremiah 7:18). Such a pacifist god cannot appropriately be worshipped actively in any case. Were one inclined to worship Asherah, it would have to be done passively by obedience to the commandments of Christ — that is, by not using violent means to resist evil.

What of the resurrection? Draw a circle and mark the bottom as “nirvana.” This is the beginning and the end of the circle. Nirvana means that one neither acts nor is acted upon, and is free from passions. It could be considered as nonexistence, or as a passive state. The sine wave, however, traverses the circle throughout eternity, alternating between active and passive states. “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” (Genesis 2:2)

Death — entrance into nirvana — provides our escape from the earthly cycles of life consuming life, but the universal cycles continue. Rest is a counterpoint to work, and for either to be satisfying there must be a balance between the two. Just as the sign wave represents the eternal round, the universal cycles continue on forever to maintain harmony between light and dark, work and rest. Death marks the beginning of new life. The body decomposes and becomes a part of the natural world in which it had its origin, and continues the cycle of life and death.

Life after death is a powerful symbol for those who hope to keep their identity in the great beyond. We are frightened by ghosts, yet ghost stories give us hope. Ghosts, near death experiences, and visions provide witnesses for those who desire to believe in a continuation of identity.

The resurrection is the symbol by which we hope to escape culpability for living via death. We may kill, but life continues on. We are commanded not to take this to excess: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24) The concept of judgement means that we must answer for our actions. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7) is the principle here. We must be merciful both in judgement of others, and in sparing God’s creatures when we do not need them. The cycle — life after death — can excuse us from the consumption of life to sustain our own lives, if done with proper gratitude for the sacrifice, but not from upsetting the balance of the cycle through our own excesses.

This is the hypocrisy of the pacifist: that life is sustained by death. Hypocrisy in this case can be a good thing. It forces us to hope for mercy which would be beneficial both to the pacifist and the soldier. It encourages humility, strengthening both our effort not to consume more than we need, as well our resolve to avoid non-peaceful activity, such as service as a soldier, police officer, judge, or jury member. The resultant humility also allows us to hold in equal esteem the soldier and the pacifist by causing us to be nonjudgmental. Each individual’s spiritual path is unique.

Coming to terms with the horrific realization that others die in order that we may live allows us to properly appreciate the sacrifice of Christ. We are motivated to seek balance in our lives and harmony with the universe. In this way we learn to worship God in the proper manner.
June 10, 2011

Against Christensen

Modern Mormonism insists on reading the Book of Mormon as a literal history as much as scripture, betting the religion on the actual existence of each of the characters inside the book. Kevin Christensen writes in favor of this view in “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique,”1 saying that Book of Mormon historicity should be important to Latter-day Saints, “given the implications one way or the other.” This seems to be a common view of both members and leaders of the Church. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “The historicity—historical authenticity—of the Book of Mormon is an issue so fundamental that it rests first upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and even went so far as to compare Mormons who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon to “those who even deny the existence or the knowability of God.”2 President Ezra Taft Benson wrote, “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”3

This point of view rejects the intrinsic value of the book, and lays out a trap for so-called “weaker” Latter-day Saints, who, having been indoctrinated with the primacy of Book of Mormon historicity, leave their faith upon exposure to contradictory evidence. The intrinsic value of the book and its teachings should rather take first place, leaving historical literalism to the side as an interesting intellectual exercise at best. Though fewer members and leaders have taken this approach, it finds support in some, like President Spencer W. Kimball, who indicated that the historical aspects were secondary to “its principal message… that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world.”4 Using this point of view, the religion can still “stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon,” but falling is less likely for either the individual member or the Church when attacks come from academia.

Despite assertions to the contrary, focusing on the book’s message rather than its historicity does not weaken the Mormons’ position. The historicity of Jesus’ parables are not thought of as relevant to their message, and neither do the Hindus concern themselves with whether Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna actually engaged in a literal conversation on the battlefield. The message is rather strengthened and taken more seriously when its students are not distracted by pointless insistence on literal historicity. Instead of being forced to exercise a superhuman faith in secondary principles, they are allowed to focus their attention on and recognize the fundamental teachings of the works.

Christensen, however, follows the “literalism first” school of thought, which ultimately binds intellectual honesty into subjection to faith. It is odd that despite his insistence on our defense of the historicity of the Book of Mormon he quotes favorably from Hugh Nibley, saying, “it is sad to think how many of those telling points that turned some of our best students away from the gospel have turned out to be dead wrong!” Such a sad event wouldn’t have occurred in the first place if so much emphasis were not put on historical literalism rather than the philosophical, moral, and religious teachings of the book. Also odd is in contrast to his initial insistence on “the implications one way or another” of Book of Mormon historicity, he concludes in an “I’m bearing my testimony!” manner, saying quite the opposite: that the historicity of the Book of Mormon wasn’t integral to his faith, at least before 1982.

Christensen asserts that enough academic integrity to admit “bad news” creates a risk of falling into “spiritual masochism.” This assertion is presumably either a character attack against William D. Russell, whose paper is the subject of Christensen’s paper, or a warning to would-be Latter-day Saint scholars against publishing uncomfortable conclusions, or it could be both. It makes an interesting ad hominem, conveniently allowing us to ignore academic papers based simply on the author’s inadequate spirituality.

“I presume Russell would agree that honest scholars should welcome new information that might require revision of their own earlier findings, including those offered in his 1982 paper,” writes Christensen. “New” and “old” in his world apparently have little relevance to time, but rather refer to how favorable the thesis is to Mormonism, as he follows up that statement by liberally citing research published before 1982. A partial list of citations from Russell’s article provide great insight into Christensen’s approach to scholarship. These papers are presumed to be unreliable because they were written by members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some of them particularly so because a traditional Latter-day Saint scholar wrote a paper with contrary conclusions.

Particularly baffling is Christensen’s apparent assertion that Joseph Smith based his understanding of the Book of Mormon on all the latest twentieth and twenty-first century research, including satellite imagery. He states, “Notice that Coe has a consciously fraudulent Joseph Smith composing his text with a hemispheric setting in mind, and not even imagining a limited setting until the Nauvoo period, when he encounters the Stephens and Catherwood volume. Here we can test the claim.” How is the claim tested? By citing Lawrence Paulson, who has the particular distinction of having written a website in which he describes that after studying about the river Sidon in the Book of Mormon, he “performed a computer search of a 3-D satellite map of the entire Western Hemisphere to find candidates that matched the description.” Whether or not Christensen really intended to claim that Joseph Smith based his opinion on satellite imagery, it is exceedingly bizarre that he uses it as evidence that Russell is wrong in his statements about Joseph Smith’s opinion.

According to Christensen, archaeologists whose conclusions support the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon are better trained and more disciplined than those who are not. He tells us, “Tellingly, Coe makes much of the disappointments of Thomas Ferguson relative to the Book of Mormon, but he does not seem to have grasped the implications of the very different approach taken by better trained, more disciplined Latter-day Saint archaeologists.” He may very well be correct that whichever archaeologists he has in mind are better than Coe, but he neglects to tell us why we should believe it.

Christensen tells us that we should massage definitions to fit with the most favorable interpretation to Mormonism. The words “church” and “synagogue” should not be taken as an anachronism, but be understood in their most abstract definitions of “gathering” and “meeting place.” Presumably we’ll take the liberty of re-accepting the stricter definitions as proof of Book of Mormon authenticity if the scholarship ever leads toward the strict definitions being plausible. In fact, he mentions that an “essay by William Adams Jr. highlights recent research indicating that synagogues existed in Jerusalem before the exile.” Apparently we can have it both ways. Likewise, statements about skin color that are uncomfortable to members of modern society are to be taken as metaphorical. Massaging definition and taking statements metaphorically can easily be done in the context of a religious text, but when we’re engaging in academic inquiry as to the historicity of a text it becomes problematic.

We are also told that changes in an organization’s name are relevant to scholarship taken pla
ce before that name change. “From the perspective of this writing, nearly three decades after Russell’s article, what lessons can we take from the subsequent events affecting the RLDS and LDS communities? Much has changed. The most drastic social changes have come in the transformation of RLDS community life to the point of changing the organization’s name to the Community of Christ,” says Christensen.

All scholars ought to be apologists, according to Christensen. The problem is, however, that an apologist is not a scholar in the true sense of the word. The apologist does not seek for truth, but insists that he already has it, and so sacrifices academic integrity and intellectual honesty in order to defend his faith by any means possible. By ignoring evidence contrary to Mormon interests and seeking out favorable evidence regardless of date or credibility, Christensen seeks to turn us into persuasive writers rather than scholars. Rhetoric is the preferred weapon to be wielded in defense of the faith. It is amazing that despite its self-contradictions and anti-intellectual stance, Christensen’s article got past whatever editorial review is placed on articles printed in FARMS Review. The existence of Christensen’s paper is a striking example of the problem with insisting on Book of Mormon historicity as a fundamental principle of faith.

We do not need to reject the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, but by putting it in its proper place as secondary to the message we enjoy the dual benefit of the proper priority of putting the message of Jesus Christ first, as well as being strengthened against any attack that may come along which, if possible, “shall deceive the very elect.” We further enjoy the additional benefit of retaining our integrity and honesty in academic settings, perhaps allowing Mormons to finally be recognized as legitimate scholars by someone other than themselves.

1. Christensen, Kevin, “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique”. FARMS Review: Volume 22, Issue 2, Pages: 155-194. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2010. <http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=2&id=810>.

2. Oaks, Dallin H., “Historicity of the Book of Mormon”. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies Annual Dinner Provo, Utah, October 29, 1993. <http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=30>.

3. Benson, Ezra Taft, “The Keystone of Our Religion”. Ensign, January 1992. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992.

4. Kimball, Spencer W., “How Rare a Possession—the Scriptures!”. Ensign, September 1976. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1976.
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June 8, 2011

Meditations on the War in Heaven

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”(Revelation 11:7-9)

War in Heaven is a troublesome concept to the pacifist. John used vivid imagery to describe what he saw in his vision, but did violence actually occur, and was the dragon forcefully cast out? I cannot venture to say, because no commentary on Revelation is worth the paper it is printed on. Until one sees the same thing John saw, he cannot presume to know better than John what John said. I can venture some thoughts on the war in Heaven, however, leaving the final interpretation up to the individual.

Verse ten indicates that some relief is felt in heaven at Satan’s departure: “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.”

Between verse nine and ten we are given three roughly synonymous terms to describe the dragon. διάβολος (devil), κατήγορος (accuser), and Σατανᾶς (Satan) mean a false witness, a plaintiff, and an accuser, respectively. In general, someone who is accusing someone else. That sheds some light on why Paul instructed Christians not to sue each other: “Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7) It should also serve as a strong indication of whose work prosecuting attorneys are doing.

Clearly the inhabitants of heaven did not approve of the dragon’s actions. Verse 11 of Revelation 12 throws another piece of the puzzle at us, informing us that “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.” Interpretation here is particularly risky, but as a pacifist I would speculate that we see here that the war is not won by the infliction of violence on others, but the willingness of the Lamb to suffer as the recipient of violence. We also have a continuation of courtroom language, the inhabitants of heaven combating against the plaintiff (Satan) by giving their μαρτυρία (testimony).

Who wants to stick around in a discussion where everyone disagrees with you? Who enjoys being on the losing end of a debate? Whether he was violently forced from his place, or willingly departed due to the environment unfavorable to his designs, the dragon being “cast out into the earth” is appropriate and descriptive imagery.

Satan the accuser is cast out of heaven into the earth to become the great capitalist, the plutocrat. Treasures are associated with the god of the underworld since they have their origin in the ground, and appropriately so as the world’s treasures finance the world’s wars, completing the circle. Satan has gone from the dragon, the accuser instigating the war in heaven, to the plutocrat, amassing the world’s treasures, to return again as warlord, financing mass killings with his acquired wealth. Likewise, the gospels set up μαμμωνᾶς (mammon), the god of wealth, in opposition to God, associating the former with Satan (or, in some traditions, he serves alongside Satan as one of the seven princes of Hell).

Satan again, as the great capitalist, would have found Heaven to be too stifling for his dreams if we assume that the early Christians were mimicking the heavenly order when they “were of one heart and one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32) All the nations of the world, then, have rejected the heavenly order and followed Satan’s plan of government — even the communists, who in reality are the most brutal form of capitalist, seeking by force to control a nation’s capital.

But money and capital are asides; they serve as a tool for warfare. In the end it comes down to war, which, whether in Heaven or on Earth, is instigated by Satan. Seen in this light, the war in Heaven is no longer as troublesome to the pacifist as it once was. The blood of the Lamb, which was instrumental in casting the dragon out of Heaven, was a willing act of self sacrifice. To die rather than to kill is the ultimate pacifist stance, and the means by which life wins over death.

May 9, 2011

Meditations on Tolstoy and the Church

I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” Although taken as a whole his teachings are opposed to the Church (whether by that word one refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Catholic Church, or one of the various Protestant churches), his main thesis of pacifism is quite compelling. Ironically, a notable portion of mainstream Christianity has adopted the anti-church portion of his philosophy while rejecting the aforementioned main thesis of his work. Indeed we should freely take what is true from anyone’s teachings while discarding the false (and holding no malice toward anyone for simply being mistaken), but I find the rejection of an organized church — while appealing to the antiauthoritarian mind — to be untenable, while some degree of nonviolence was an obvious part of Christ’s teachings. Nonviolence combined with the other aspects of charity taught in the Sermon on the Mount are so important, in fact, that were followers of the anti-church philosophies to accept and live according to them, I would be inclined to believe that they were more likely candidates of salvation than the member of the Church who rejected said teachings (though it is my fervent hope that God will somehow be able to provide salvation for most, if not all, of humanity).

That a church, in the sense of there being at least some recognized authorities, was left behind by Christ seems clear both historically and scripturally. Christ’s statement to Peter about the rock may not alone be sufficient to prove that the Church as we know it was divinely established, but the fact that apostolic epistles containing both doctrinal instructions and specific commandments were sent out to various congregations of believers seems to imply a general recognition of certain authorities within the faith. Tolstoy seems to reject the equivalency of Acts and the epistles to the gospels — as well he should: are not the words of God Himself greater than those even of his spokesmen the prophets and apostles? — but at the very least they give us a clue into the understanding of those who were closest to the Savior, including his witnesses and those who knew those witnesses personally. Without an additional revelation from heaven these men are our best sources for knowledge of what Christ taught, for surely not every act of His is recorded in the gospels. We know from the first chapter of Acts that from the beginning they called new men to the apostleship. We know from Paul’s writings to Timothy that there were bishops, and from his writings to the Corinthians that there were a variety of vocations, presumably in some sort of hierarchy.

We cannot get much further from reason alone. One may come to a knowledge of Christ and believe in his heart the teachings of the Son of God, but when he looks around there is a myriad of organizations professing to be Christ’s. He may see that the Roman Catholic Church appears to be the oldest, and decide that it must be the one telling the truth. He may sympathize with the protestants that the Catholic Church fell away from the true principles, or with the Latter-day Saints that if the Catholic Church fell, we are not permitted to rebuild ourselves without a revelation from God. Even were I convinced that my reasoning thus far were entirely accurate, I must be obliged to admit that reasoning alone could carry me no further. Perhaps God chose not to provide proofs to demonstrate which Church, if any, is the true one, because now that reason has taught us about faith, we should no longer rely on reason alone. It is therefore up to the conscience of the individual seeker of truth to learn what he can, and then turn to God in hopes of receiving an answer from Him.

However, assuming we have rejected the anti-church stance, and perhaps other Tolstoyan doctrines such as complete non-participation in government, must we completely reject his philosophy? The answer is a resounding no: As I previously stated, we should welcome all that is good from any source it may come. Which of his teachings and to what degree one accepts them is up to individual conscience. I will speak from my point of view, since I am not qualified to speak for anyone else’s, which will be a discussion of nonviolence from a Latter-day Saint perspective. Writers from other Christian faiths may, or may have already, expressed similar ideas from a perspective corresponding to their own Church’s teachings.

Terms like “Zion” and “the United Order” clearly don’t refer to any of the present governments in the world, yet Latter-day Saints are instructed to participate in government. Government belongs to God, yet because we have rejected God’s government, in His mercy He has allowed us to establish our own less than perfect governments so that we would not suffer complete lawlessness. See John Taylor’s “Government of God” for a more thorough treatment of this. In this sense we owe our allegiance to worldly government in a similar sense that the children of Israel owed obedience to the Law of Moses: as a second best to us who are unworthy of all God has to offer. However, our allegiance is owed only to the degree that government doesn’t require us to break our obligations to God’s law, as was demonstrated by the story of Daniel. In this sense we agree with Tolstoy that human government is not God’s ultimate will, but we diverge from his doctrine in admitting that we the wicked must first obey the schoolmaster before the Kingdom of God can be established in its political as well as spiritual entirety. Hence the teachings that we are to thoughtfully and prayerfully participate in elections and general civic involvement. I personally vote as long as there’s someone worth voting for, but I entirely refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” as that dichotomy leaves us choosing evil in some form or another.

Government and civic involvement is a side issue, however. If we are to talk of government, we must attend to the aspect most closely related to Tolstoy’s main thesis: military service. The history of the one time state military service was explicity requested of the saints provides an interesting case study. Five hundred men at Brigham Young’s request took part in the Mormon Battalion. This service was considered a practical necessity for the church, but the key in this case was that upon being asked to serve they were promised “that their only fighting would be with wild beasts.” It is interesting that when the saints were asked to perform military service, they were promised that they would not have to engage in violence.

The Church is necessarily vague on its teachings of nonviolence with respect to the military. It’s not necessary to speak out in a detailed message, because the teachings of Christ as recorded in the gospels are clear. Indeed, it is better to be welcoming to all, even those in the military, that salvation might be provided to all. It is better that they accept as much of Christ’s law as they can in their current condition, and build on it “precept upon precept; line upon line” than not accept any of it at all. Additionally, the Church has repeatedly expressed, as in a First Presidency Statement in 1942, that those who take the lives of others in combat under the direction of those in command will not be subject to the penalty God has disposed for those who kill. However, we must remember that not being subject to a penalty is not the same as receiving the blessing corresponding to keeping a commandment. There are, and always have been, degrees of expectations corresponding to particular abilities, such as the Law of Moses versus the higher expectations in the Sermon on the Mount. Likewise we are blessed for keeping the law of tithing, but we don’t expect the same blessings as we would receive if we kept the law of consecration in its fullness. That to kill for the military may be justifiable in some cases doesn’t mean that it’s not better not to kill at all. Indeed, the same First Presidency Statement cited Doctrine and Covenants 98:16 — “Therefore, renounce war and
proclaim peace” — saying:

“Thus the Church is and must be against war. The Church itself cannot wage war, unless and until the Lord shall issue new commands. It cannot regard war as a righteous means of settling international disputes; these should and could be settled — the nations agreeing — by peaceful negotiation and adjustment.”

In a 1945 statement against universal military service, the First Presidency stated many potential ill effects of military service, including: “We shall give opportunity to teach our sons not only the way to kill but also, in too many cases, the desire to kill, thereby increasing lawlessness and disorder to the consequent upsetting of the stability of our national society. God said at Sinai, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” The same message protested strongly against the creation of a large standing military as a threat to our liberties, a temptation to wage war, an obstacle to peace, and a heavy tax burden on the people. I would venture to say that we have seen this come true in its entirety with our present military establishment. The message concluded saying, “Should it be urged that our complete armament is necessary for our safety, it may be confidently replied that a proper foreign policy, implemented by an effective diplomacy, can avert the dangers that are feared. What this country needs and what the world needs, is a will for peace, not war. God will help our efforts to bring this about.”

The Book of Mormon also spends a lot of discussion on the topic of war. The Nephites, contrary to Tolstoy’s teachings, believed that war in self defense is justified. They did not, however, believe in revenge or “pre-emptive war.” Indeed, they only defended themselves from Lamanite attackers on their own lands, and when those attackers withdrew or surrendered, they were allowed to leave without any sort of penalty or show trials for war crimes. At the point when they finally engaged in “preventive war” in chapter three of Mormon — “the Nephites … began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies. And … that they would go up to battle against their enemies and would cut them off from the face of the land.” — the Lord withdrew from them and by the following generation they had been completely destroyed. Hopefully our reaction to the events of September 2001 are not an accurate parallel.

Interestingly, the group of pacifists mentioned in the Book of Mormon — the “Ammonites” — are thought of as being especially righteous. When converted to the gospel, they lived an even higher law than the Nephites, preferring to be killed rather than engage in violence. Even they were not Tolstoyan in their beliefs, however, being willing to pay taxes for the support of a defensive military that would protect them.

Yes, Tolstoy’s doctrine conflicts with the Church. This does not, however, mean that it should be rejected wholesale. Those aspects of it not in direct conflict with the Church merit further examination, and upon detailed study show themselves to reflect a higher law whose application has not often been expected of the general body of self-proclaimed Christians, but which has always been followed by a more faithful minority. There are indeed degrees of righteousness: The rich young man that asked Jesus what he lacked had kept all of the commandments, but still fell short of Christ’s ideal of perfection. “All men cannot receive this saying,” said Jesus, reminding us that humanity naturally falls short of his commandments. For this reason we need to forgive others. The truly charitable Christian will apply the commandments to himself as strictly as they are written (and, of course, be willing to explain his behavior so that others may learn as well), but be willing to accept, without condemning, a much broader range of behaviors from his neighbors.

March 24, 2011

On Christianity

ABSTRACT: Many self-professed Christians define the term “Christian” as someone who accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, a sensible definition based on mainstream Christian beliefs, while others (especially those outside the mainstream) prefer the more inclusive definition of one who believes Jesus is the Son of God who came to Earth as the promised Messiah to save humanity from their sins. Such definitions require one to believe in Christian metaphysics while disregarding axiology, despite the fact that the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament focus almost exclusively on the latter. I propose a definition of “Christian” based on acceptance of the values taught in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 as more in keeping with the true message of Christ.

The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, if New Testament accounts of his life are to be believed, are primarily ethical in nature. After his death, his followers and their converts created a more complete philosophy and eventually hijacked the term to refer to followers of their own particular metaphysical interpretation of Christianity. In fact, this is taken so far that in Latin America the term “cristiano” is used by evangelicals to explicitly exclude Catholics, members of the oldest surviving Christian faith1. This fervent animosity is ironic from a faith centered around one who taught men to “Love [their] enemies”2. The sad result is that the term “Christian” can be, and frequently is, applied to those who believe in the godhood of Jesus while at the same time rejecting his teachings.

A definition of “Christianity” that would bring more respect to the term would be centered primarily in the teachings of Jesus and only secondarily in the teachings about him. This would ironically have the potential to include some atheists and agnostics under the umbrella of Christianity while excluding most self-proclaimed Christians. Irony notwithstanding, the definition would be appropriate considering it centers particularly in the teachings of the one whose given surname it utilizes. I would particularly propose that “Christian” be defined to refer to someone who accepts the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as expounded in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, arguably a thorough summary of his philosophy and the most transcendental ethical teachings of all time, and “Christianity” should be defined as the whole of those who accept those ethical teachings.

Admittedly this definition will be controversial, since it doesn’t require belief in the central doctrine of mainstream contemporary Christianity: that one must accept Christ in order to be saved. Yet that doctrine was not taught by Jesus, but his followers3. Jesus, on the other hand, taught that “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”4. Likewise those that don’t forgive won’t be forgiven. No exception is made for the one who vocally accepted Christ as his personal savior. Where popular exegesis of apostolic works contradicts the plain teachings of Christ, I, for one, would consider it wise to allow the words of the latter to take precedence, seeing as the former originates with mere followers of our eponymous leader. Furthermore: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” indicate that the zealous believer who puts Paul’s teachings above those of Jesus may be in for an unpleasant surprise at judgment day while another kind soul who didn’t believe the former’s insistence that there would be a judgement may find himself in much better fortunes.

The practical result of this redefinition would be that we accept as our Christian brethren any who put forth a good faith effort to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, regardless of their belief or lack of belief in other, secondary aspects of Christianity such as the divinity of Christ or his role as savior of mankind. We may regard those secondary aspects as a source of our faith, but we are forced acknowledge that the fundamental principles of Christianity must be those taught by Jesus himself. This additionally means that we must reject the efforts of modern day scribes and pharisees to limit the term “Christian” to believers in the secondary aspects, particularly in light of the fact that the vast majority of them do not deserve to bear the title in the first place5.

This definition also draws attention to the fact that our first priority must be to follow the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. This would quickly propel Christianity into a much more respectable light, as it leaves no room for animosity towards Muslims, atheists, or any other group. Indeed contemporary self-professed Christians give no shortage of lip service to the term agape6, but are loath to confess that its practical application is precisely the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.

The appropriate meaning of “Christian” then is one who follows Christ. And to follow Christ we must first base our lives around his teachings, including (I would say particularly) the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. We can believe whatever else we want about Christ, but it is only secondary to the heart of the matter. It may be extremely unpleasant to have to loosen slightly our grasp on the doctrine of the atonement, the trinity or godhead, or any other of our pet beliefs, but if we are to believe the man who actually went up on the cross, it’s not a necessary prerequisite to inheriting the kingdom of heaven. As for me, I don’t believe Jesus was a liar, and so from now on I will use the term “Christian” in the context it should have had all along.

Footnotes

1. See “Percepciones de Católicos y Evangélicos” in Masferrer Kan, Elio, ed. “Sectas o Iglesias: Viejas o nuevas religiones” Plaza y Valdés Editores, 2000, p.219 for a description of the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals in Mexico. A quick Google search for “Cristianos y Católicos” will bring up many examples of the former term being used explicitly to exclude the latter, including at the time of this writing “Diferencia entre Cristianos y Católicos? – Yahoo! Respuestas” <http://espanol.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100718060838AAbciG1> and “¿Son Cristianos Los Catolicos?” <http://www.chick.com/es/reading/tracts/0506/0506_01.asp>.

2. Matthew 5:44. Citations from the King James version of the Holy Bible.

3. Romans 10:9 is probably the most oft-repeated exposition of this doctrine, published in countless tracts spread around at countless events and non-events. The point, however, is that the Epistle to the Romans was written by Paul, not by Jesus. Whether or not Paul was inspired by God in his writings, it still makes sense to hold the teachings that purportedly came directly out of Jesus’ mouth as the fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and accept Paul’s teachings at best as an exposition of secondary aspects of Christian faith.

4. Matthew 6:14.

5. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5 through 7, are incredibly strict, thus excluding the vast majority of professed “Christians” from the title if we use them as a definition.

6. I find it particularly comical that the domain name agape.com at the time of this writing quotes from the New Testament, yet focuses entirely on making money, much of it through arguably dishonest means (such as multi-level marketing). In their own words, “our mission is to honor God, develop people, pursue excellence and generate profits.” Never mind “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” and “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:19 and 6:24 respectively).

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