Thursday, October 15, 2015

Does The LDS Church Have Anything To Say About War?

As I write this post, the United Nations estimates that up to 300,000 people have died in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Around 12 million people have been forced to flee Syria as refugees, making it one of the worst such crises of our generation, although not remotely the only one. Also right now there's a U.S.-backed war in Yemen going on, and ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, all conflicts in which the United States has played a direct role.

Syrian Refugees

Last week, Mormons around the world gathered to hear their leaders speak the putative word of the Lord at the church's semiannual General Conference. On Sunday morning, as I half-watched one of the speakers while skimming various faithful and snarky #ldsconf tweets on Twitter, I scrolled past a headline about a few dozen deaths in Syria. Maybe it was ISIS, maybe Assad, maybe America or Russia, but it was nothing particularly unusual. But it struck me, because I realized that nobody at conference seemed particularly interested in discussing Syria. Or Libya. Or Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, or any other part of the world facing widespread violence and repression right now. From an LDS perspective, those conflicts might as well not exist except as destinations for humanitarian relief.

In response I tweeted this:

Well, the "not criticizing" part wasn't quite true, but I was working through an idea, not trying to pick a fight. And it's something I've thought about a lot since. Because given our church's own scriptures and history, and our privileged position within the strongest military superpower in the world, I think it's worthwhile to ask why we don't seem to have any particular ideology or doctrine of war today--at least, nothing deemed worth of teaching at our most important church gathering.

Blood and Horror

In the LDS temple liturgy, there's a clear link between Satan and what's become the modern military industrial complex. Whether you view Satan as a literal being or a symbolic representation of evil, it's a powerful idea that Lucifer, in response to God's plan to save mankind, claims sole ownership of armies, navies, and tyrants, and then proceeds to brag about how he intends to use them.

But today, we don't seem to care. I can barely remember a single conference talk about war since I've been old enough to really pay attention. The closest might be Hinckley's tentatively pro-war remarks at the outset of the Iraq invasion. By contrast, I can easily name and locate dozens of recent talks on Sabbath day observance, tithing, missionary work, scripture study, the dangers of pornography, any any of a hundred other topics. Most recently, religious liberty has been our crusade. Our own religious liberty, that is. We don't seem overly concerned with how the threat of imminent death and displacement affects the liberty of those (generally not of our faith) who face it daily.

To the extent war does get discussed, it's typically in terms of eschatology; war as a sign of Christ's return, although that approach has declined as we've gotten out of the End Times business. Even then, personal morality tends feature more than wars and rumors of wars in contemporary eschatology. A few Mormon thinkers, notably Hugh Nibley, have grappled seriously with faith and war, but there's been little to nothing from church leadership in my life.

...Yesterday, Today, and Forever

If this silence reflects a change in the nature of divine revelation, it represents a major departure from ancient patterns. Old Testament prophets were positively obsessed with the personal, spiritual, and temporal consequences of war, which you'd expect given Israel's precarious geopolitics and frequent encounters with expansionist empires. The New Testament, written in the shadow of the Roman Empire, leans towards an apocalyptic perspective, but Christians learned to interpret it in light of the wars of their day, especially when Christ failed to return and the empire co-opted their religion.

The Book of Mormon is, if anything, even more direct: its entire narrative revolves around the existential threat of annihilation faced by the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites. Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is not unambiguous or univocal: from Captain Moroni's religious propagandizing; to the pacifist Anti-Lehi-Nephis; to Mormon's final, regretful reflections on his people's complete destruction; the book is filled with material that could be developed into a robust and complex doctrine of conflict.

Combine all that with our own history of violence and persecution and there's plenty of impetus to explore the intersection of war and Mormonism--much more, I think, than there is for worrying about who's marrying whom. This could be something that defines what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. And yet, the church seems actively uninterested in pursuing any of it. Our humanitarian projects do real good, but we approach them in terms of ameliorating suffering on a strictly temporal basis, without any critique of underlying causes. War has become just another kind of unthinking natural disaster, without any agency behind it.

With That Enmity...

I don't know if I have a theory that explains what I'm critiquing. Possibly it's that modern Mormonism is such an atomized religion. Say what you like about the cosmological implications of our sealing and proxy work, everyday LDS teaching is solely about the individual and the nuclear family. We simply have no doctrinal framework for discussing systemic evil (or good, outside of a few latent notions about Zion that bubble to the surface occasionally). Sometimes we talk about "The World," but that's a nebulous abstraction that means little beyond whatever a particular speaker imagines it to be.

Or the issue could be Mormonism's thorough Americanness. In spite of our international growth, church leadership and culture are overwhelmingly American, shaped by nearly a century of the church actively identifying American hard work, individualism, and benevolent imperialism. And as much as we prefer to see ourselves in ancient Israel, the church grew and thrived under the care of Babylon. Still, church leadership can't be ignorant of how war has affected its members across the world, and they are definitely aware of American involvement in all sorts of conflicts. Whatever their views, they ought to have something useful to say.

If you take Mormonism seriously, you accept that the one we call the Father of Lies has a goal of increasing military power and domination. Why? To spread blood and horror on the earth, he says. So who is building his armies and navies today? What does it mean for church members who live in a nation that proudly maintains and freely uses the most powerful military in human history? Or those who live in the shadow of that nation's hegemony? What about a church that has enjoyed remarkable growth and financial success by embracing and advertising its Americanness? What do we make of Satan's boast today? And what does our silence say about us?