Next year, the focus of scripture study in Sunday School and Seminary classes will cycle again to the Book of Mormon. Compared to previous years when the Book of Mormon has been the focus, war will loom larger in the background than it has since at least the 1960s, even including the messy realities of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004. (Let’s acknowledge here that I’m talking about American citizens; the experience of war is dramatically different in other nations.) This year, as our family scripture reading has inched its way through the war chapters of Alma, what had long seemed a tiresome and irrelevant slog – the equivalent of Numbers in modern revelation – suddenly felt vitally important. The Book of Mormon, as it turns out, has a number of pointed messages about war.
The Book of Mormon does not prescribe pacifism. While some of the worst villains in the Book of Alma are those who instigate war against the Nephites, some of the book’s greatest heroes are military commanders and others who rise to defend their country, and the book takes a dim view of those who refuse to do so. What the Book of Mormon teaches is not pacifism but repentance, including the repentance of the people of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, who forswear violence and bury their weapons to repent from their past bloodshed.
While there have been numerous senseless bloody wars during recent decades, including wars instigated by the U.S., and there is much to repent for, the application of military violence in other cases has been the least bad option. I don’t know how convincing the explanations of why God permits evil to exist in the world are, but the question that is put to us is what we are going to do about it. Some people raise food and increase the efficiency of industrial processes to fight famine, some people treat illness or research pharmaceuticals to fight disease, and some people are willing to punch Nazis. At various times, the world needs all of these people (and many more besides). The world is a better place because Kim Jong Un did not inherit rule over an undivided Korean peninsula, and Kuwait did not become an Iraqi province, and the lid was screwed back onto conflicts in the Balkans before they boiled over.
And so it is in Ukraine. What I wrote nearly two years ago, in March 2022, has held up relatively well. The war in Ukraine has been as horrific as I feared, and yet Ukrainians chose it as the least bad option, and the world is much better off for it compared to the alternative.
The authors and editors of the Book of Mormon are certainly aware of the great evil done by war, including wars of elimination marked by atrocity and savagery on each side, and the book regards such wars with horror and disgust. If we look at U.S. history or at conflicts elsewhere in the world, it’s not difficult to find examples (and so we’ll have to revisit the topic later). But the war in Ukraine is not that kind of war. This war is a clear case of resistance against wicked aggression, and pacifism in response to it would be no virtue.
What does the average American church member and their study of a tumultuous stretch of Nephite history have to do with a present-day war on a distant continent? A lot. The Book of Mormon addresses not only the battlefield, but also the question of logistics. Nephite military efforts are repeatedly undermined by dissenters who hinder the provision of supplies to armies in the field and turn the question of common defense into political controversy. Like it or not, providing military aid is the primary role that Americans now play in Ukraine. We are by far the largest and healthiest economy in the democratic world, and we have vast stores of military equipment to draw on. Whether or not to do so has become a matter of political controversy, unfortunately, which makes it impossible for American church members to ignore. We vote or make our voices heard in other ways – or remain silent. What you do – today, right now – matters a great deal. We can’t make the war stop instantly, and we can’t decide its outcome. We can only decide if we will speak up, or if we will look back on this moment with shame and regret.