Making Peace: Personal Essays
Eugene England

Chapter 8
“Thou Shalt Not Kill”: An Ethics of Non-violence

[p.157]On April 24, 1898, Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., gave the last in a series of speeches he made against Mormon involvement in the impending Spanish American War. Consistent with the attitude of his father during the Civil War and church leaders generally to that point in Mormon history, he urged the Saints to remain aloof from the nation’s violence: “If I knew of any young men who wanted to go to this war,” he said, “I would call them on a mission to preach the gospel of peace.” The next day Congress declared war, and Elder Young’s half-brother, Willard Young, and his nephew, Richard W. Young, both West Point graduates, called on the First Presidency to object to Elder Young’s remarks and to report they had volunteered for service and intended to recruit other volunteers in Utah.

In response, President Wilford Woodruff departed from the views of his predecessors and announced that “Utah should stand by the government in the present crisis and that our young men should be ready to serve their country when called upon.” Of this crucial juncture in Mormon history, Woodruff’s biographer Thomas G. Alexander writes, “Moving in a direction evident at least since the 1887 Constitutional Convention but nevertheless crossing an immense intellectual Rubicon, Woodruff subordinated the ideal of the kingdom of God to the ideal of loyalty to the United States. In order to prove Latter-day Saint patriotism, he proposed to offer the ultimate sacrifice—the blood of Mormon youth—to the nation.”1

During most of the nineteenth century the church promoted what historian Jan Shipps has called radical restoration, its social, po-[p.158]litical, and moral institutions and attitudes fundamentally at odds with the world, including the United States. The church generated opposition that by 1890 had nearly destroyed it. Then followed a period of conservative accommodation and preservation, including the end of polygamy, theocratic politics, and isolationist economics. This was apparently necessary not only for survival but to enable the building of a strong base in the United States from which the gospel could be taken to all the world in preparation for Christ’s coming. But one of the costs was an accommodation to this world’s violence, especially that of a particular nation, the United States.

Now, more than one hundred years later, we are indeed able to send missionaries virtually throughout the world—including twelve new missions in former Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. I remember praying in the 1950s—and 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, as our leaders constantly exhorted us to, that God would touch the hearts of the leaders of nations to open their doors to the gospel. Like many Mormons, I suppose, I prayed without much faith, mainly in hope for something far in the future. But God did touch hearts and open the nations—aided by the faith of non-violent Christians who, carrying candles instead of guns, marched out of churches into the streets of East Germany; and by Russians who stood before tanks in Moscow, some to be crushed to death. It is time, I believe, to reaffirm our faith in the God of peace and healing. It is time to take to heart the symbolism—and literal miracle—in the young pair of Mormon elders preaching in 1991 in northern England, one the first missionary called from Russia, a former soldier who had served in Afghanistan, the other a former cadet at West Point, where he had been trained to fight Russians.

The scriptures and modern prophets call us to revere life as the most fundamental value, even to sacrifice our own lives to avoid violence as we respond to injustice and evil that threaten us. This is the ethic preached and lived by Christ. Even in the Old Testament the Lord, whom Mormons understand is Christ, commanded, without qualification, “Thou shalt not kill.” In the Doctrine and Covenants the resurrected Lord reaffirmed the command, with an important addi-p.159]tion: “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (59:6, my emphasis). When he was in mortality that same Lord admitted that before then, in Old Testament times, his people had not lived up to—or even fully understood—the absolute ethic. But he called his disciples to practice it as a condition of genuinely following him and God the Father: “You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, … do good to them that hate you … . That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven …. Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:44-5).

Christ completely disassociated himself from society’s traditions of violence. Even in his own extreme danger, he rejected Peter’s use of a sword to defend him, instead healing his enemy’s ear and then stating a pragmatic reason for non-violence: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Generally, however, he simply makes a pure ethical demand: “Resist not evil” (Matt. 5:39). His apostle, Paul, adds a positive pragmatic purpose to the ethic: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

The Book of Mormon at times reflects the values of an Hebraic culture of the kind that Christ called his disciples to rise above. At other times the Book of Mormon clearly advocates a higher non-violent ethic which it makes clear is a higher standard. Regarding the Lamanites converted by Ammon who renounced violence, even in self-defense, Mormon writes, “Thus we see that when these Lamanites were brought to know the truth they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin” (Alma 24:19). The sacrifice of these Lamanite pacifists ended violence, while the “just” wars of the Nephites did not and were followed by a decline into apostasy.

When Christ appears in America, he issues the same call to non-violence that he made in the Sermon on the Mount in Galilee, again charging his disciples to rise above the old ethic, even that practiced in God-assisted defensive wars earlier in the Book of Mormon (“It is written, an eye for an eye …. But I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil” [3 Ne. 12:38-39]). This willingness of God to allow one ethic while nursing us toward another has confused many Mormons, but as Hugh Nibley has pointed out, “The contradiction is only apparent, for if one examines [p.160]the passages on both sides throughout the scriptures, they fall clearly into two categories: general principles and special circumstances. The verses forbidding conflict are of a general universal nature, while those which countenance it all refer to exceptional cases.”2

Mormons sometimes cite examples of what seems like approval of violence by God, such as his command to the Israelites to slay every living thing in cities they captured or to Nephi to kill Laban, but these can all be explained, I believe, as exceptional cases which are extremely dangerous if used for precedents. Some such scriptural examples, when distilled to their essence, are examples of humans engaging in wish-fulfillment, imagining that God condones their “just” vengeance. Some show God doing the best he can with rather intractable people. The most serious problem is the Old Testament, which seems to present a vengeful God of violence—if all the passages are taken as literal and of equal authority. Many commentators point out the intellectual and moral inconsistencies in such literal reading of the scriptures or in the failure to see some texts, especially those giving Christ’s perspective, as more authoritative than others.

As we learn to distinguish the highest ethic from what may contradict it, I believe the principle of conformity with what is most Christ-like and fundamental is crucial. We must constantly ask, “What ethic is most consistently taught throughout the scriptures, especially by Christ, both when he was on the earth and as the resurrected being who speaks in the Doctrine and Covenants and to modern prophets? What is most consistent with other principles, especially those we are regularly taught and feel by our own experience and inspiration are most fundamental, having to do with the nature of human beings and of God?”

In answer I believe the most fundamental thing we can say about humans, confirmed throughout the scriptures, is that they are infinitely and equally precious. Each human by their very existence constitutes an absolute claim on every other human to be treated as an end rather than a means, to have their personhood respected as the most basic of all realities and rights. That is why we must do only good to each other and must make the welfare of each other paramount. That is the way God is portrayed as responding to each of us and the way we are told we must respond if we are to be true to our nature as his children.

[p.161]For Mormons this understanding is enriched by the conviction that our most essential selves, what we call “intelligences,” have existed forever, uncreated and  co-eternal with God; that we each have therefore the potential to become genuinely godlike; and that it is God’s declared work and glory to help us all to do that (Moses 1:39). Joseph Smith declared in his King Follett Discourse: “All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement and improvement.”3

Versions of this concept have been developed, of course, by such thinkers as Martin Buber, in I and Thou, and by Immanuel Kant in his “categorical imperative” always to treat others as ends rather than as means. Emmanuel Levinas, the post-modern Jewish philosopher, claims that such understanding of ourselves is pre-conceptual—based on the most fundamental of life experiences, the confrontations that begin with birth, or even at conception, in which we respond to the “other,” to humans and to God. If we reflect, I believe we can sense what Levinas tries to articulate, that each other human constitutes a pre-rational demand on us, a demand to respond to them as ends in themselves and do them good according to their needs and our ability to respond—but at least never to dehumanize them, never to define them (“totalize” them in Levinas’s word) in ways that limit them to a category or a static judgment and thus limit our infinite responsibility to them.

Think of the unique call upon us that the face of another human makes, whether represented by little black dots in a news photo of a grieving mother in Somalia or the glance of a loved one or the sound of a human voice crying in the dark—or the presence of a face in the womb implied by a baby’s kick. If I am right that this notion of what it means to be human makes being treated as human, as a person, the most fundamental right of all humans, then there is no other right, or claim of justice or ethics, that could justify violating that basic right—not even a so-called just war. But before I consider war, let me try to apply the principle I have just discussed to abortion and capital punishment.

The questions abortion raises seem to be tearing our nation apart and could similarly polarize church and family because questions about [p.162]the nature and control of unborn life inevitably lead to questions about the nature of moral agency and the control of women by men. The principle I have tried to articulate about the most fundamental right of individuals seems to me to carry some weight from the moment of conception. The obligation to heed the ethical demand of others, perhaps particularly when the other is produced within one’s own body and lives helpless there, is suggested by Christ’s extended modern commandment, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it.” The fact is that millions of embryos are “terminated” each year, at least some quite brutally—millions more than was the case twenty years ago. A large percent of these terminations are “elective,” that is for reasons other than incest, rape, the mother’s health, or defects in the fetus. This widespread and too often unmourned termination of life violates our natures in ways that I believe maim the soul and darken the future lives of many women—and also of consenting or encouraging fathers.

Abortion is connected with a growing unwillingness to take responsibility for the results of promiscuous sexual desires and actions, which are increasingly presented in the movies and media as uncontrollable. It seems to me to constitute an enormous drain on the moral and spiritual health of our nation and world. It expresses and thus tends to increase a disrespect for life and desertion of our responsibility to other beings that is, in the words of the official LDS church statement in 1991, “devastating.”4

That statement is one important basis for a consistent life ethic for Mormons in the twenty-first century. It clearly reaffirms opposition to “elective abortion” (which seems to mean abortion simply for convenience), but also spells out “rare cases in which abortion may be justified—cases involving pregnancy by incest or rape: when the life of health of the woman is … in serious jeopardy; or when the fetus [has] severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.” Even these are not automatically approved but require a careful decision made together by the parents, with their bishop’s counsel and “divine confirmation.”

However, on the vexing question of what role civil law should play in controlling abortion, of defining when the fetus becomes a “person” which the state must protect against “murder” and for religious people [p.163]is related to the question of when the spirit enters the body, the LDS church is neutral and undogmatic. It “has not favored or opposed specific legislative proposals.” The Church Handbook of Instructions states clearly that abortion is not murder.5 Although the First Presidency in 1909 said that the spirit enters the body “at a certain stage,” leaders have disagreed about what that means. Significantly, the church does not record miscarriages or stillbirths on its records, does not seal them to parents, or suggest they will be resurrected and raised by the parents—which may imply that the spirit has not yet entered the body or that the spirits of all who die before birth are simply sent into other bodies to have their opportunity for mortal life.

The absolutism of much pro-life rhetoric, which calls abortion murder, is rejected both by the LDS church’s position and by common sense. It can also be tragically dangerous, as was clear in the killing on March 10, 1992, of a doctor at an abortion clinic in Florida by a “pro-life” activist. He claimed the Bible justified his killing a “murderer.”

Many who call themselves pro-life seem to be remarkably insensitive to the rights of others in a pluralistic society that profoundly disagrees about when, during pregnancy, abortion becomes an attack on a person and thus a matter for governmental interference. Constitutional experts emphasize that the stability of governments results from the state’s general unwillingness to legislate in matters of personal morals and conscience. When we force people’s compliance in matters that in their view (and the view of a large proportion of the citizenry) do not clearly harm others, they feel personally infringed upon. The difference between passing laws against abortion and those against murder, as George J. Church points out in a remarkably sensible essay in Time (6 Mar. 1995, 108), is that in the case of murder there is overwhelming moral consensus against it and the conduct clearly is a serious threat to public order—whereas neither of these crucial conditions is met for abortion. Some commentators, like Charles Krauthammer, express dismay at the “inconsistency” revealed in poll after poll that reports that a large majority of Americans oppose abortion—and just as high a majority opposes stringent laws against it. But this seems perfectly consistent to me. We value both life and moral agency. We are uneasy about intruding, with the force or law and sanc-[p.164]tions, in such a difficult case where there is no consensus about when something like murder occurs.

This distinction about when law may appropriately try to proscribe action is crucial. We came to earth to learn moral agency—as Brigham Young said, to learn “to be righteous in the dark.”6 Christ tells us in the Doctrine and Covenants that the central principle of our Constitution, to be “maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh,” is to foster that agency, so “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (101:78). That is, law should protect people from each other but not try to force individual morality. Abortion is a gray area, where the distinction between harming others and making a personal moral choice is difficult and where we must tread carefully between two crucial values, life and freedom.

To contribute to a moral and peaceful society, it seems to me that Mormons can feel free to work passionately but peacefully and nonjudgmentally for whatever legal restrictions they feel best express their own beliefs about when that point of legally protected personhood begins, from nearly total restrictions to very little. But Mormons must also be willing to accept compromise arrived at in our political process without condemning gentiles who disagree as murderers or branding their brothers and sisters who disagree as heretics in areas where the church has not given official direction.

There is much violence in our culture against women and children, violence that in turn produces the violence of abortion, and pro-life rhetoric often fails to address this. Traditionally men have exercised a great deal of control over women, and the struggle about abortion is in part a struggle to end that control—which many believe is itself a main cause for abortion.

On the other hand, much pro-choice rhetoric exalts romantic individualism over social responsibility and trivializes the serious life-and-death questions of abortion. Use of such phrases as “elective abortion” and flippant slogans like “Abortion on demand and without apology” or “Choosy mothers choose choice” reveal an appalling insensitivity to what is going on in abortion clinics and to the feelings of those oppose it. Even if some pro-choice arguments make po-[165]litical and moral sense, the coarseness of language and general unwillingness even to mourn the millions of deaths seem part of a general decline in respect for life that is transferred to other areas as well, such as euthanasia.

More seriously perhaps, much pro-choice rhetoric reveals a personal unwillingness to honor the demands of life and of the “other,” to deal with the hard moral issues involved in increasing the autonomy of women without destroying life. Pro-choice activists generally give too little attention to the continuing sorrow and guilt felt by women who abort—and also by fathers—or to the tide of irresponsible sexuality and the general depreciation of respect for life, including women’s lives, that the wholesale aborting inevitably brings.

I believe Mormons should disassociate themselves from both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels and movements. Both movements sometimes employ activities and rhetoric that are inconsistent with the gospel of Christ. Both have proven, in the main, ineffective at either improving the status of women or reducing abortions. I suggest instead that Mormons unite under some such banner as “Mormons for life and choice” and work through a variety of means to reduce the forces, including male domination, that produce unchosen pregnancies, to improve choice through education, and to reduce poverty, bad health care, and other social conditions that discourage women from wanting to bear children.

I believe that moral persuasion (along with the social improvements of the kind I have mentioned) as opposed to reliance on legal sanctions is the morally superior and more effective means to attack the evil of abortion. We can work together to formulate laws that could protect the unborn without victimizing mothers—for instance, family leave laws and laws that combat unsafe and exploitive abortion clinics. We can work—with laws, financial benefits, and information—to increase the attractiveness of parenthood as an option. We can teach equal male-female parenting responsibilities and combat the pernicious and debasing idea that women need abortion rights so they can compete equally with men in our economy. We can reveal and condemn sexist assumptions that pregnancy is a kind of handicap or cosmetic blemish that should be cured by surgery. We can teach the value of re-[p.166]stricting sexuality to marriage and greater sensitivity to the meaning of genuine consent in marriage. We can help young people value their sexuality in relation to life. Such an approach, aimed at building a national consensus that abortion is an evil except in rare cases and always a tragedy, and finding pragmatic rather than coercive ways to make it rare, is outlined by George McKenna in “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position” in the September 1995 Atlantic Monthly.

The church has set an example here with its morally empowering official position, with talks like that of Elder Russell M. Nelson in April 1985 general conference entitled “Reverence for Life” and with its series of public service advertisements which, without identifying church sponsorship, simply present vignettes of the great variety of human lives and the message, “Life, what a beautiful choice.” Elder Nelson’s is the kind of powerful voice of persuasion that we could all energetically emulate throughout our society:

For years I have labored with other doctors here and abroad, struggling to prolong life. It is impossible to describe the grief a physician feels when the life of a patient is lost. Can anyone imagine how we feel when life is destroyed at its roots, as though it were a thing of naught? If one is to be deprived of life because of potential for developing physical problems, consistency would dictate that those who already have such deficiencies should likewise be terminated; continuing, then, those who are either infirm, incompetent, or inconvenient should be eliminated by those in power. Such irreverence for life is unthinkable.7

A number of other Mormon voices are now speaking with this kind of intelligent and charitable moral power. Though I dislike the labels they have assumed and  disagree with them about the degree of legal control, I recommend their work as beginning points for conversations about a consistent Mormon life ethic. Some  “pro-choice feminists” in BYU’s Student Review and in Network, a Utah women’s journal, have explored ways to increase women’s autonomy so there  will be no unchosen pregnancies and thus no abortion. Camille Williams and Anne Eberhardt Clark, “pro-life feminists,” in the Mormon Women’s Fo-[p.167]rum and Network, make strong cases that the emphasis on abortion rights, besides increasing violence and insensitivity to violence in our society, has undermined the cause of women. Here is a sample from Clark, from the Deseret News in July 1992, approving in part a recent Supreme Court decision about requiring informed consent:

[The court] has taken a small step toward empowering women to make better-informed abortion decisions—a victory for the unborn …. with more complete and accurate information about the child growing within her body, if the woman then chooses not to abort, everyone should be happy—those who are pro-life because she did not destroy her child, and those who are pro-choice because her decision was freely made.

One reason I admire Anne Clark is that she is consistent in her defense of life, which I find not always true of Mormons. Two weeks after she published the editorial quoted above she joined a group of us in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City in a protest against the execution of William Andrews, who had participated in the infamous Ogden “hi-fi” robbery and tortures but not the killing. Announcing that she was the Utah chair for Feminists for Life in America, she called on Mormons to be consistent and apply their pro-life ethic to Andrews.

A Mormon theology of life seems to me to require that kind of consistency, a full recognition of the ethical demand for mercy placed on us by every human being. Capital punishment is, in every case, a denial of mercy, which LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley has called “the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” the best “expression of the reality of our discipleship under Him.”8 Lowell Bennion, speaking at the rally in July 1992, pointed out that, especially in the case of Andrews, who had not taken a life and had become a model prisoner, capital punishment could only be intended as revenge, for which there is no place in the gospel of Christ.

The majority of countries in western Europe and North and South America have abandoned capital punishment. Its application has been grossly unfair, heavily weighted by race, sex, and income, even by [p.168]where the trial occurs. In this century alone nearly 400 people have been convicted of capital crimes and later proven innocent, but not before about thirty were executed. There is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment deters crime—possibly because many such crimes are committed under great emotional stress or the influence of drugs or alcohol. Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist who lived under a regime that relied on executions, wrote, “Savagery only begets savagery.” Far from being a deterent to others, highly publicized executions are known to be followed by an increase in violent crime, and to deter the confessed murderer from killing again, life imprisonment without parole is a more humane option.

In the Andrews case, his accomplice Dale Selby, who committed the murders, had already been executed. The original jury was presented with the options of death or life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for both Selby and Andrews. The board of pardons and the governor refused a retrial which would have made life without parole an option. One of the Lafferty brothers and Mark Hofmann, all white Mormons who committed multiple and brutal murders, received life sentences with possible parole, while Selby, a black, was executed for similar killings and Andrews, a black, was executed without having killed at all.

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd contains one of the most anguishing scenes in literature. A young seamen, innocent and naive, is accused of a crime by a minor officer who hates his very goodness. Desperate to try to defend himself and somewhat tongue-tied, Billy strikes out at the lying officer and kills him with one blow. The remarkable Captain Vere immediately perceives both the lad’s innocence and his own duty to hang Billy in order to uphold civilized law in a time of threatened mutiny in the English Navy. At the execution scene no one, none of the crew or officers or Billy—or the readers, wants the ritual of execution to proceed, but it does, inexorably, as if law had some force of its own superior to the people administering it.

When Andrews was executed, many of us had the same feeling of helpless horror. Everyone in authority expressed regret, but the trial had been reviewed and found proper. There were petitions from vari-[p.169]ous groups, including ours, plus a letter from the Pope, but the governor felt he could not override the board of pardons. The state proceeded with the execution immediately after midnight on the appointed day in order to forestall further appeals. Outside was a prayer vigil, while others with signs yelled slogans celebrating Andrews’s death. A reporter appointed to witness the execution-by-lethal-injection wept as he tried to describe the experience.

I believe that execution by the state sends a message that problems can be solved with violence, that the state itself, our highest civil authority, in fact approves of such methods—or at least is in the grip of impersonal forces that deny individual mercy. As Anne Clark said at the rally, “Capital punishment encourages the upward spiral of brutality in an already brutal society.” I am aware that capital punishment has been defended on the grounds that it satisfies victims’ families’ need for closure, for some sense of justice and satisfaction that can help end their grief—and that society itself needs such a strong witness that crime has been punished and justice satisfied. I share that grief and concern for confidence in a just society, but I believe that the desire for punishment, however understandable, is itself unethical and cannot be satisfied in ways that do not further undermine personal and social morality—especially if we are willing to execute even one innocent person to meet that desire.

The church issued a statement of neutrality concerning Andrews’s execution, saying, “We regard the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided by the prescribed processes of criminal law.” I believe Mormons, consistent with our understanding of the value of each life and the tendency of violence to encourage further violence, should work to encourage legal alternatives to capital punishment, such as life imprisonment without parole, and encourage all judges and governors to exercise all the merciful and healing options that our modern legal system provides.

Melville, in Billy Budd, faults the Mutiny Act, which allowed Captain Vere no option for mercy, but he also raises one of my main objections to the thing from which that Act derives: war.  Vere tells his offi-[p.170]cers, in the summary court martial, that they are not free to act as their hearts or consciences dictate concerning Billy—because they all “wear the buttons of the King.” That is, when anyone puts on a military uniform, their conscience is placed in hostage to an impersonal force. They no longer act, and are not acted upon, in terms of that most basic ethical principle I have described—individual response to the other in terms of their need and right to be treated as a person.

Any action intended to hurt or kill, including abortion and capital punishment, is such a serious violation of our nature, and our given ethical relationship to each other, that, to numb our consciences and enable us to do it at all, we mentally dehumanize our victims (calling embryos mere tissue, “like fingernails,” or turning state executions into a cloaked, depersonalized rituals)—but that of course is itself a violation of our nature and given ethical relationship. War in particular requires that we immediately totalize a whole group or nation. What had recently been individuals, ends in themselves, each with a unique and infinite claim on our response to them as humans, suddenly become mere means to our supposedly higher and more just ends, even obstacles to be destroyed in pursuit of those ends. Enemy soldiers, by putting on a uniform, lose all individual claim on us, or to such moral imperatives as the ten commandments, and become mere targets to deceive, maim, and kill. In modern warfare this is extended beyond those in uniform to include the civilian population—all of whom also become dehumanized targets or at least acceptable victims of “collateral damage.” This is perhaps most horribly apparent in the mass bombings of civilian populations in World War II, as at Coventry and London, or Dresden and Hiroshima, and our willingness to do so again expressed in the targeting of missiles at Moscow and Beijing and Baghdad.  Just because a nation’s leader, an Adolf Hitler or a Saddam Hussein, has declared war does not mean the people of that nation give up that most basic, truly inalienable right I have discussed, the right to be treated as persons. Indeed they cannot give up that right, and we cannot be excused from our responsibility to treat them as persons, ends in themselves, which is also infinite, inalienable.

In this connection, let me suggest another ethical principle, introduced by Christ, that ought to enter seriously into our conversations [p.171]about violence. In Matthew 5:27, 28, Christ defines what might be called “thought sin”: “You have heard it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” This could be paraphrased, “You have heard it was said, `You shall not commit murder’; but I say to you, that every one who looks on a person to murder him has committed murder already in his heart.”

This concept of sin through intent suggests that, though absolute non-violence may not be clearly required by the scriptures, opposition to nuclear deterrence may well be. The ethical demands by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount imply that planning and organizing to kill millions with nuclear missiles may be the same as actually doing it. It may be the ultimate dehumanization, targeting for destruction whole cities of people whom we will never face, and our silence on this issue may well qualify as “thought sin.”

How does this principle apply to abortion and capital punishment? Do the ethical demands of Christ suggest that, even if one is morally anti-abortion, consenting to laws that allow millions of abortions to be performed may also be a kind of “thought sin”? Perhaps not, since our government, though it represents us, is only allowing a choice for abortion, not making it for us—though this principle might suggest we oppose all funding of abortion and work for laws that help provide alternatives, regulate unsafe clinics, etc. But with capital punishment, our government is doing the killing—in a sense for us—and in a certain number of cases killing innocent people, and assenting to that I believe is a form of thought sin.

We are confronted, in scripture and experience, with a God who is completely without violence precisely because he treats all humans as infinitely precious, as persons, ends in themselves. The God revealed in Jesus is able to feel the mere touch of a woman in the press of the crowd. He sends rain and sunshine on the just and unjust alike and therefore, as Luke testifies, commands us: “Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil” (Luke 6:23). In this passage Christ [p.172]goes on to state the ultimate pragmatic, as opposed to the fundamental, purely ethical, reason, for pacifism: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again” (v. 38).

A Christian ethic of non-violence in its pragmatic aspect is complete faith in that law of return, the law of the harvest: “Whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap.” We benefit directly from energetic, even sacrifical, but non-violent efforts to help others, to right their wrongs and bring them justice as well as give them mercy. Consider the stunning success of Gandhi’s nonviolent liberation of India, the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, Anwar Sadat’s creation of peace with Israel, and Martin Luther King’s peaceful civil rights revolution. Only peaceful ways bring lasting peace. The only way effectively to do away with enemies is not by dehumanizing and killing them but by converting them into friends.

Pragmatic Christian non-violence is also, of course, based on an understanding of the negative law of the harvest. That law is made clear in Christ’s rebuke to Peter’s violent effort to protect him—surely as justified a violence as we could imagine, protecting the purely guiltless son of God. The First Presidency of the LDS church, after citing that example, put the case this way, in 1942 as WWII began: “There is an eternal law that rules war and those who engage in it …. The Savior laid down a universal principle [“all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”] upon which He placed no limitations as to time, place, cause, or people involved [whether righteous or wicked] … [T]his is a universal law, for force always begets force.”

Despite that unequivocal statement of the consequences of any violence, even that engaged in by people who are “righteous,” the First Presidency, in the same statement, lent grudging support to World War II as just, even extending to combatants on both sides assurance that if they were forced by their leaders to participate the leaders and not they would be culpable. This position, which I agree with, makes clear the inevitably tragic nature of a Mormon theology of life: It cannot dictate an absolutely non-violent national policy or even a personal one, but it does dictate an absolute ethic which stands in judgment over all [p.173]compromises we make with it. That ethic thus should act as a brake and reminder even after we have temporarily, in extremity, chosen violence.

Yes, there are circumstances—such as when my wife or children are threatened—when I might use violence. But the highest ethic would call me to do everything possible, long before the attack, to avert the threat of attack (including building a less violent and sexist society where attacks on my wife and children would be less likely), to use an absolute minimum of violence, and to follow up with doing good to the victimizer as well as the intended victim.

I agree with the First Presidency that, in World Ward II, when everything else we seemed capable of doing could not bring peace, a force so irrational and powerful as to threaten destruction of the Judeo-Christian civilization, of wiping out some of the main sources of the very ethic I have been describing, had to be stopped, even with violence.  But the ethic I have outlined would force me to recognize such decisions as tragic, as being forced into a dilemma where all courses available bring evil. The highest ethic would also serve as a constant reminder that I must try constantly not to dehumanize my enemy, to draw back as soon as possible, and to mourn rather than rejoice at my necessity.

Such a view of the tragic consequences of compromising with the fundamental ethic, even when constrained by tragic choices, would help us be unified in mourning the violence: Even if women continue to abort their babies, through ignorance, in response to a violent and still sexist society, or simply in the absence of legal constraint, we should mourn the loss, including that to the women themselves. If sincere people continue to believe that capital punishment prevents murder and governments continue to execute, we should mourn that compromise with fundamental respect for life, mourn the death of innocents, the ritualized waste—but never rejoice in revenge. If a war is judged necessary, after our best efforts at peacemaking, we should mourn—even in victory—rather than brag or celebrate, as many did after the Gulf War. Remember what the angel in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, approvingly reminded us about how most people responded at [p.174]the end of World War II: “On VE day they wept and prayed. On VJ day they wept and prayed.”

A Mormon theology of life then is based, I believe, on an absolute ethic, grounded in the right and need of all humans to treat and be treated as humans. War, violence of any kind, including torture, physical punishment, abortion for convenience, and capital punishment, violate that right and consequently dehumanize the objects, the perpetrators, and the society that condones that violence. Even when we are pushed to the ultimate dilemma of seemingly having to violate that ethic in order to keep others from violating it or to choose between conflicting values, the ethic stands as witness to the inevitable costs of our tragic choice, a constant reminder to minimize the violence and dehumanization and to return quickly to our full humanity and its obligation to do only good to others.

This ethic may bring us to fearful choices, even the losing of our own and loved ones’ lives. But Christ’s clear call is clear, and one we as Latter-day Saints now, perhaps for the first time in 100 years, can have the security to obey fully—to come out of Babylon, which includes the United States, and approach Zion, which is wherever in the world we create it. In the book of Revelation Christ commands, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (18:4). In the Doctrine and Covenants he invites us to “renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their [parents], and the hearts of the [parents] to their children” (98:16). Then a time will come, Christ promises, when “there shall be gathered to Zion out of every nation” those who are not “at war one with another” (45:69). After a century of difficult choices and detours, it is time for Mormons to think about returning to that goal.



1. Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth:  The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 321.

[p.175]2. Hugh Nibley, “If There Must Needs Be Offense,” Ensign 1 (July 1971): 54.

3. “The King Follett Sermon: A Newly Amalgamated Version,” ed. Stan Larson, Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 204.

4. LDS Church News Release, 11 Jan. 1991, copy in my possession.

5. In Russell A. Nelson, “Reverence for Life,” Ensign 15 (May 1985): 65-66.

6. Brigham Young Office Journal, 28 Jan. 1857, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

7. Nelson, 65-66.

8. Ensign 20 (May 1990): 69.