Sunday, May 25, 2014

Our Other Prophet On War

In April 2003, shortly after the United States' unconstitutional invasion of Iraq, the late great Gordon B. Hinckley gave an address in General Conference, titled "War and Peace."

As opposed to Thomas Monson's interview with the Deseret News in 1991 (see my post on that here, a prequel of sorts to this one), Hinckley spoke these words in an official forum, making his remarks more of an indictment of the modern LDS Church as a whole rather than the misguided beliefs of a zealous and ├╝berpatriotic veteran. Similar to Monson's remarks, however, this talk painting Mormons as the warmongering, military-worshiping people we've been warned we shouldn't become, is merely an opinion. The opinion of a man in a very influential leadership position, a man esteemed by millions, but an opinion nonetheless.

Hinckley approached the issue carefully and in genuine humility, and I applaud him for that. He also testified of earnestly going to the Lord in prayer over the matter, something I'm not here to argue. But at the end of the day, the talk he gave on that Sunday morning was not indicative of the will, the thoughts, or the mind of the Lord. It was not a revelation. And it was not doctrinally correct.

How do I know? Because I've read the scriptures.

And when it comes to war, it's something they have been awfully clear and emphatic about, particularly in the latter-days.

We're often told in the typical Sunday School class that the best way to get our prayers answered is by turning to the previous revelations God has given us; often we will find that a sincere reading of such words will enlighten our understandings and become a springboard for personal revelation.

I'm afraid Brother Gordon didn't follow that advice on this occasion. If he had, he would have come across many things contrary to the message he ended up giving at Conference--a watered-down hedge that renounced war (as is commanded in the scriptures) only to the extent that it was acknowledged as bad but, ultimately, necessary, making the decade-long excursion in Iraq just the next American war in line to be given the green light by the brethren.

Before I comment on some of President Hinckley's remarks, I'd like to add that I too supported the Iraq War at the time (I was a senior in high school) and the Afghan invasion a year and a half prior. This was before I was even a member of the Church. I was a staunch Republican, however, and voted for George W. Bush and defended most of the things he did in office, those wars being at the top of the list.

In the past year or so, I've changed my mind. Not for any partisan or political reason, but simply because I've come to realize the truth in the context of my spiritual belief system. It's been a humbling experience. I look at war from a new light these days, and I've come to the conclusion that it is not the noble and heroic thing most in our culture (Mormon, American, Human, you name it) have made it out to be. The Lord clearly doesn't approve of it when undertaken in someone else's homeland, and preemption and vengeance don't count as exceptions to that rule. The War on Terror, which has made these two principles its chief cornerstones, certainly hasn't made me any more free. So while I can relate to Bush's and Hinckley's mindsets, and would have done and said similar things had I been in their positions (at the time), that doesn't make it right. I embrace the "flip-flop" I've done because it is founded in a sincere desire to seek truth and follow the pure teachings of Jesus Christ, abandoning the false gospel of Ayn Rand many of my fellow conservatives have embraced. So yeah, I've changed. But I figure it's not called the Gospel of Change for nothing.

Moving on to Hinckley's address, he begins by telling the story of James Cawley, a Mormon killed in the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, calling his life story symbolic of the "contradictions of the peace of the gospel and the tides of war." Contradictions indeed. Cawley served a mission "spreading the gospel of peace to the people of Japan" just 40 years after we were done spreading fire and radiation from atomic bombs on two of their most populated cities. He joined the Marines "without hesitation" even though it is taught that such life-altering decisions should be made in thoughtful, humble prayer. Ultimately, Sgt. Cawley was killed, prematurely stripping his family of a husband and father even though he was a member of a church that stressed the utmost importance of the family. What a needless, heartbreaking loss his death was.

All quote excerpts that follow are from Hinckley's talk, unless otherwise noted.
We sometimes are prone to glorify the great empires of the past, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and in more recent times, the vast British Empire. But there is a darker side to every one of them. There is a grim and tragic overlay of brutal conquest, of subjugation, of repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure.
I agree with the sentiment. Now, if only he could have taken the next step to include the American Empire in his list of examples. While I'm not of the extremist anarchy wing of the anti-war movement and am not a conspiracy buff--in fact, I'm willing to concede that the United States has at times been a force of relative good in the world--I'm also painfully aware of its "darker side" which Hinckley doesn't mention. It's clear the Church doesn't want to bite the hand of the state that feeds it.
The great English essayist Thomas Carlyle once ironically shared the observation, "God must needs laugh outright, could such a thing be, to see his wondrous mannikins here below." I think our Father in Heaven must have wept as He has looked down upon His children through the centuries as they have squandered their divine birthright in ruthlessly destroying one another.
But somehow couldn't communicate to his Prophet Here On Earth that people should stop doing such things.
In the course of history tyrants have arisen from time to time who have oppressed their own people and threatened the world. Such is adjudged to be the case presently, and consequently great and terrifying forces with sophisticated and fearsome armaments have been engaged in battle.
Adjudged by whom? You will begin to see Hinckley's not-so-subtle references to the state knowing best, and here, rather than providing us with the Lord's words on the matter, he defers to the politicians who wrongfully deemed the tyrant Saddam Hussein (and indeed he was a tyrant) to be a threat to the world. And that the incursion to oust him was merely "an outgrowth and continuation" of the War on Terror.
In a touching letter I received just this week, a mother wrote of her Marine son who is serving for the second time in a Middle Eastern war. She says that at the time of his first deployment, "he came home on leave and asked me to go for a walk. … He had his arm around me and he told me about going to war. He … said, 'Mom, I have to go so you and the family can be free, free to worship as you please. … And if it costs me my life … then giving my life is worth it.'" He is now there again and has written to his family recently, saying, "'I am proud to be here serving my nation and our way of life. … I feel a lot safer knowing our Heavenly Father is with me.'"
This letter exemplifies just how deep the "fighting for freedom" platitude has permeated our culture. Sending armed troops into third world countries does nothing to protect our liberty. This Mormon marine was so proud to die for "our way of life," but the only attribute I see as a constant about that "way" is retribution through superior firepower. It is the opposite of Christ-like discipleship.
There are other mothers, innocent civilians, who cling to their children with fear and look heavenward with desperate pleadings as the earth shakes beneath their feet and deadly rockets scream through the dark sky.
Any guesses on whose "deadly rockets" those are?
There have been casualties in this terrible conflict, and there likely will be more. Public protests will likely continue. Leaders of other nations have, in no uncertain terms, condemned the coalition strategy.
I'd be willing to bet many of those leaders have actually read the U.S. Constitution!
The question arises, “Where does the Church stand in all of this?”
That question seems to arise a lot these days. "Minds darkened" anyone?
First, let it be understood that we have no quarrel with the Muslim people or with those of any other faith. We recognize and teach that all the people of the earth are of the family of God. And as He is our Father, so are we brothers and sisters with family obligations one to another.
Yet we reserve the right to ignore the repeated warnings Scripture gives us about war, invade their countries, and destroy their homes to smithereens if we suspect their leaders might have even the slightest links to terrorism or happen to possess weapons of their own.
But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally. Those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military service, they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.
One of our Articles of Faith, which represent an expression of our doctrine, states, 'We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.'
Harkening the 12th Article of Faith has become a standard Mormon response these days to anyone questioning the validity of following one's government in lockstep. I dedicated an entire piece on this faulty idea last year. Simply put, Hinckley's interpretation is incorrect, when we zoom out on the broad scope of canon Joseph Smith provided. But it doesn't take The Mouthpiece Of The Lord to tell you that blindly following government orders because "that's what the law says" is probably a bad idea.
But modern revelation states that we are to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16). In a democracy we can renounce war and proclaim peace. There is opportunity for dissent. Many have been speaking out and doing so emphatically. That is their privilege. That is their right, so long as they do so legally.
OK, here we go, ol' Gordon's gonna turn it around! I mean, his scriptures tell him to renounce war, his "democracy" (using the term loosely) allows for him to renounce war--the field is ripe for us to hear him renounce war! Gordon:
However, we all must also be mindful of another overriding responsibility, which I may add, governs my personal feelings and dictates my personal loyalties in the present situation.
Wait, what?! "Another overriding responsibility?" The direct Word of the Lord can be overridden? What else could "govern" and "dictate" (interesting choice of words) his personal feelings and loyalties here? And why do we even care what his personal feelings are when we already have the Lord's say in the matter? If this isn't a case of following after the arm of the flesh, I don't know what would be.

He goes on to use the war stories in the Book of Mormon to prove his points. He tries to draw a parallel between our current situation and that of the Nephites. After all, they too were doing the "duty which they owed to their God" (Alma 43:45-46) and defending their "families unto bloodshed" (Alma 43:47). Surely this is the same thing.

Except it isn't. Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants explicitly states, "Behold, this is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers, Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles. And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them" (D&C 98:32-33, emphasis mine).

The critical word here is out. We are not to "go out unto battle." The Lord allows us to defend our homelands (with a few admonitions to bear a standard of peace first) from our enemies. Once we take the battle to their homeland, however, we are straying from the Word. Without a commandment from God to enter foreign lands (this talk is certainly bereft of one) we are to stay home. It's a doctrine eloquently and tragically outlined in narrative form in the Book of Mormon, as we see the Nephites go from bravely fighting in defense of "their God, their religion, their freedom, their peace, their wives, and their children" (pp Alma 46:12) to an all-out offensive on the Lamanites which leads to the complete abandonment of their God and the utter destruction of their civilization. You would think we'd have learned the lesson after having this book for 175 years now, but the message seems lost, particularly upon those...most...among us.

Hinckley also goes on to quote Jesus--you know, that warrior God who overthrew the Romans and freed the Jews from captivity:
When all is said and done, we of this Church are people of peace. We are followers of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the Prince of Peace. But even He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
I'm no expert on language of the Bible, but I think it's pretty safe to assume that Jesus wasn't talking about a literal sword here. We read elsewhere about the "sword of truth." Taking this Jesus character in context, I do not believe he was referring to violence in any form, yet Hinckley manages to cherry pick the lone quote of the entire gospels that paints Jesus to be a warmonger.
This places us in the position of those who long for peace, who teach peace, who work for peace, but who also are citizens of nations and are subject to the laws of our governments. Furthermore, we are a freedom-loving people, committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy. I believe that God will not hold men and women in uniform responsible as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do. It may even be that He will hold us responsible if we try to impede or hedge up the way of those who are involved in a contest with forces of evil and repression.
President Hinckley, again speaking for himself, contradicts the words of a previous First Presidency statement from 1941, which said, "The divine law on the taking of human life...embraces war." Perhaps they weren't speaking for the Lord either, but it seems painfully clear from the actual scripture and plain common sense that we as humans are just as accountable for our actions in wartime as we are in peacetime, Hinckley's beliefs notwithstanding. And for an alleged freedom-loving people, we sure seem to be keen on voting for and supporting those who would take liberty away from us.
Now, there is much that we can and must do in these perilous times. We can give our opinions on the merits of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties.
This is one of Hinckley's better points of the talk. No matter which side we're on when it comes to any issue, those who respond with acrimony and hatred toward the other side are just as guilty of breaking Christ's great commandment as those who are guilty of holding opinions that are believed contrary to his teachings. This is one reason why I'm not so gung-ho about the whole gay marriage thing--so many of its supporters have gone overboard attacking its opponents as bigoted homophobes that it's really turned me off to the message. Civil discourse is hard to come by in that arena; I hope this issue will not be similarly hijacked by angry hearts.
Let us pray for those who are called upon to bear arms by their respective governments and plead for the protection of heaven upon them that they may return to their loved ones in safety.
It's not my prerogative to tell anyone whom to pray for, so I don't necessarily disagree with the sentiment here. Of course anyone in harm's way anywhere could use a prayer. But to think that all who will bear arms in such deadly, haphazard conflicts will receive the protection of a God who's likely tired of telling both sides to knock it off is probably a tad naive.
To our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, we say that we pray for you. We pray that the Lord will watch over you and preserve you from injury and that you may return home and pick up your lives again. We know that you are not in that land of blowing sand and brutal heat because you enjoy the games of war. The strength of your commitment is measured by your willingness to give your very lives for that in which you believe.
I think we as Mormons and/or Americans really need to think about what exactly it is that we believe before engaging in such consequential games of war. If armed conflict that will ultimately affect innocent people in catastrophic ways can be avoided in any way to stand up for what we believe, I plead with all my fellow Latter-day Saints and countrymen, pursue that path every time.

After invoking a few different passages about the nature of God and different scriptural situations of people handling war and peace, Hinckley says:
We can cultivate in our own hearts, and proclaim to the world, the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through His atoning sacrifice we are certain life will continue beyond the veil of death. We can teach that gospel which will lead to the exaltation of the obedient.
We cannot teach the gospel by killing, maiming, and torturing. And the gospel cannot exalt the obedient if we choose to be obedient to the precepts of men rather than the loving words of God.
This life is but a chapter in the eternal plan of our Father. It is full of conflict and seeming incongruities. Some die young. Some live to old age. We cannot explain it. But we accept it with the certain knowledge that through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord we shall all go on living, and this with the comforting assurance of His immeasurable love.
Yes, this life is but a flash of a greater eternity. Some die young and some die old. There will be conflict and turmoil in this world. But we as Latter-day Saints know too much to actively engage in creating more of it, or to passively resist in speaking out against it. May we truly learn something from the experiences of those who came before us--that whether through literal events or through allegory there is a message consistent throughout the New Testament, throughout the Book of Mormon, throughout the words of Joseph Smith, throughout the words of mankind since time immemorial--the path to peace cannot be achieved through offensive war. The gospel cannot be spread via torpedoes and cruise missiles. The love of God cannot be fully manifested into the hearts of mankind until we learn to love one another the way He loves us.

I'm sure somewhere out there, in some greater plane of consciousness, Brother Gordon, a beloved son of God, is learning this very lesson. May more of us come to this understanding in the here and now. I'm sure God is eager to teach us the deeper doctrines of reality, as it's taken us thousands of years and counting to get "Thou shalt not kill" right.

1 comment:

  1. I was unaware of this quote by GBH until I read your post. This is so disheartening to me.

    "To our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, we say that we pray for you. We pray that the Lord will watch over you and preserve you from injury and that you may return home and pick up your lives again. We know that you are not in that land of blowing sand and brutal heat because you enjoy the games of war. The strength of your commitment is measured by your willingness to give your very lives for that in which you believe."

    Is he not the prophet of the entire world? not just for the LDS church?

    "Our brothers and sisters". "We know that you are not in that land of blowing sand and brutal heat because you enjoy the games of war."

    Who are these people oppressed by the U.S. military, if not our brothers and sisters?

    His message is loud and clear.

    What used to be a 'Utah church', is now merely an 'American church', let the rest of the world (be damned) take care of themselves.

    How truly sad to have stewardship for the entire earth, and be so shortsighted.