My favorite Christmas TV special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The best part, which invariably reduces me to tears, is when Linus steps out on stage, the spotlight fixes on him, the children hush, and he narrates the familiar passages from Luke 2:
And the angel said unto them [the shepherds], Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. . . .
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Millions of Mormons and a billion-plus Christians around the world will read or hear or act out these verses in the coming days. They have done so for millennia, and will continue to do so as long as there are believers in Jesus.
Then, for the other 364 days of the year, we will do our utmost to prove that the angels were wrong. This past month alone has provided plenty of evidence that the birth of Jesus did not bring peace on earth. Arguments that religion is responsible for most of the world’s violence are fallacious, but it is undeniably true that Christians have failed to solve the problem, and often contributed to it. Many, including a few members of the LDS Church who played a role in authorizing the torture of foreign detainees, apparently fail to even see a disjuncture between their resort to violence and their worship of the Prince of Peace.
It’s pretty obvious that most Mormons are not pacifists. But if we are in fact going to worship Jesus, and not just make a dumb idol out of the Babe of Bethlehem, then we should think long and hard about it.
Mormons have by and large accepted the dominant Christian notion of “just war,” first articulated not in the New Testament nor by the earliest Christians (many of whom went to the lion’s den rather than serve in the military), but rather by the fourth- and fifth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo. It’s only natural to believe that if someone hits you, you should hit them back. Or that violence is effective in defeating our enemies. Or that peace can come through war. The trouble is, Jesus taught none of these things—in fact, he taught just the opposite. This Christmas season, perhaps we can take a few moments to revisit the Gospels and then ponder on whether we really believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about when it came to peace and violence, or if he was just a starry-eyed idealist. Personally, I believe Jesus was and is God, and that God is worth listening to. Even more than Augustine. Even—and here I know I’m treading on thin ice—more than Captain Moroni.
On the face of it, no book of scripture more readily articulates a just war ethic than does the Book of Mormon. After all, most of the heroes, including the three main prophet-compilers (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) wield the sword in defense of their people. Nephites repeatedly preserve their families, their faith, and their nation through violent self-defense against the Lamanites. Mormon even writes that if all people were like Captain Moroni, the very gates of hell would be shaken. No one has ever said that about me.
But to read the Book of Mormon as an endorsement of war is to fundamentally miss the meaning of the text. It is to confuse the descriptive (the way things were or are) with the prescriptive (the way things should be, or what Saints should do). The Book of Mormon is not a battlefield guide, nor a call to Christian militarism, although it has often been misread as such.
The Book of Mormon is a tragedy. From the earliest chapters to the last, it contrasts the violent world with the peaceful kingdom of God. Lehi’s family is driven from Jerusalem by violence, and the Nephites are annihilated through violence. This is not a happy story. In the long run, violence works for no one. Captain Moroni and General Mormon won some battles, and lost some battles. A vast multitude died in the slaughter—for what apparent purpose? So they could fight again the next year, or at best a few years later. The obvious fact is so often missed: Nephite warfare does not bring peace to the land. Over and over again the Book of Mormon narrators show us that war never accomplishes peace, and violence never begets righteousness. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of a text more poignantly testifying to the utter futility and folly of violence.
The only thing that brings peace, healing, and reconciliation to individuals and groups in the Book of Mormon is for them to follow Jesus Christ. That sounds like every Sunday School lesson you’ve ever had, but while the Book of Mormon does encourage personal morality, it doesn’t stop there. The Book of Mormon cares about politics, economics, international relations, the ethics of war and peace. The only thing that resolves the conflict between Nephites and Lamanites is when they stop calling each other enemies and start considering each other brothers and sisters, fellow children of God. The sons of Ammon, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, Samuel the Lamanite, and then most dramatically the people inhabiting the Lehite Zion described in 4 Nephi all share and act on the theology that spiritual kinship is more potent than tribe, and human dignity rooted in a theology of the infinite worth of souls is far more salient than nationalism. Violence of any kind—and war especially—is a rejection of the worth of souls. It is a betrayal of our core theology and our core identity.
Indeed, Christians refuse to recognize the category of “enemy.” God does not have enemies—he has children. (“The natural man is an enemy to God” is a commentary on sinful humanity’s enmity toward God, not the other way around.) The fundamental ethic of the Sermon on the Mount—as well as the Book of Mormon’s Sermon at the Temple—reads: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45; 3 Nephi 12:44-45). The fact that Latter-day Saints have the sermon twice in our scriptures suggests that perhaps we should take it twice as seriously.
One Latter-day Saint who did seem to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus twice as seriously (at least) was Spencer W. Kimball. In the summer of 1976, in the issue of the Ensign otherwise dedicated to triumphalist celebrations of the United States’ bicentennial, President Kimball offered a jeremiad against the Saints, whom he rebuked as being “on the whole, an idolatrous people.” The Saints’ materialism was of particular concern to him, as was their reliance on “the arm of flesh.” His prophetic statement is worth quoting at length:
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 antienemy 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 [in the Sermon on the Mount]. . . .
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.
No one has ever said it any better. We “defeat” our enemies not by annihilating them but by making them our friends, ideally through the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to President Kimball, our proclamation of that gospel has to include our renunciation of the idolatry of militarism. It will probably lead us to reexamine the assumptions that contribute to our just war ethic as well.
In our ethics, as in all things, we look not to Captain Moroni or Teancum or Nephi as our north star. While we can admire other godly women and men and model our lives after their pattern of discipleship, it is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Nonviolent One, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When the way of Augustine departs from the way of Jesus, there should be no debate in our minds whom we should follow.
Coming back to the Christmas story, while our modern retellings of it focus on the cute and cuddly aspects, upon closer inspection we see the story is shot through with violence or the threat of it: Joseph’s option to have Mary stoned to death for fornication; the tax or census performed under threat of force and ultimately done to support a violent Roman occupation; a colonized citizenry cowed into submission but expecting a Messiah to overthrow their oppressors, by any means necessary; the forced migration of the Holy Family, who wandered first as internally displaced persons and then political refugees; and the murderous infanticide of Herod. When we add the Book of Mormon account we find unbelievers prepared to slaughter all the believers in Jesus if the sign of his birth did not come that very night. Little if any of that will probably find its way into your children’s Christmas Eve pageantry. But we should keep in mind that the Holy Family’s first Christmases were characterized as much by fear, displacement, and terror as by love, joy, and peace.
The birth of Jesus, with herald angels announcing a new reign of peace and good will, changed the character of the universe. On that night the King of Kings was born. But as he would tell Herod some 33 years later, his kingdom was not of this world. In saying so he was not just pointing to a pie-in-the-sky kingdom, though no doubt he is King of Heaven as well as earth. His kingdom is not of this world because it operates by fundamentally different rules, where weakness is power, selfless service is strength, and nonviolence is the norm. The advent of the Prince of Peace sounded a grand amen (an end, not agreement) to the authority of all the empires of the earth whose reign is predicated on control, dominion, and compulsion—which is to say all of them.
When the angels heralded a new reign of peace and goodwill, they announced it to the shepherds, whose visitation to the manger made them the first Christians. “Peace on earth, good will toward men” is thus a prescriptive statement of the task of Christians in the world. Because we worship a different kind of king and live in a different kind of kingdom, we will reject all the trappings of earthly empires. We will denounce state-sponsored execution, torture, targeted killings, imperialism, and war as the way of Caesar. We will welcome the immigrant and give shelter to the refugee. We will “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16).
We will do all this in the name of Jesus and for his sake. We are the shepherds in the field, the wise men following the star, and we are called to bow, this Christmas and always, before the Newborn King.