There is a scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” that I believe perfectly summarizes why so many of my friends seem to be talking past each other on the issue of the “We Are a Warlike People” billboard.
To summarize, a group of very well-intentioned, peace-loving people, some of whom are friends of mine, helped finance a billboard on I-15 in Utah that looks like this:
There are other friends of mine, all very well-intentioned as well, who reacted very negatively to this billboard. If you want to understand why, I would encourage you to read the comments on the original post, because every time I try to summarize their arguments I seem to do it very poorly and make them upset (even though my intentions are good — Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood).
In any case, let me describe the scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” and why it applies here.
Remember when Forrest goes to Washington to speak to the peace rally? Remember, Forrest is in his military uniform and has just come back from a heroic trip to Vietnam. He encounters his one love, Jenny, and she is hanging out with this creepy peace activist. The activist slaps Jenny, and Forrest jumps on the guy and punches him out. The peace activist later blames his outburst on President Johnson’s escalating of the war in Vietnam.
I have actually known people, actually very many people, who are exactly like the creepy, woman-beating peace activist. And when you know people like that you realize that they are not one-dimensional people at all. They really do want peace and have good intentions. There is a part of them that is good and Christ-like. But then there is the angry, unforgivable part of them that lashes out. If only the jerk of a guy could get his anger under control, he probably would be an OK guy.
But here is the point: the peace activist was, in my opinion, doing a good thing protesting against the Vietnam war. If ever there was an unnecessary, evil war it was Vietnam, and it was a few million people like this peace activist that finally got us out of the war after so many years.
But this peace activist was so self-righteous, so full of his own superiority, that he responded to the people around him in completely inappropriate ways. He had good intentions but his heart was filled with judgment, not Christ-like love, for the people around him.
Now in contrast, Forrest Gump is filled with Christ-like love for most people (certainly for Jenny and his mama and his close friends like Bubba and Lt. Dan), yet Forrest Gump went to war and presumably killed people who were doing nothing more than trying to expel invaders from their own country. He also beats up the peace activist, and we see it as justified because he was defending a weaker person, Jenny.
So, here we have a Christ-like warrior and a self-righteous, mean peace activist.
What is important to understand here is that God also cares about intentions as well as actions. There have been hundreds of millions of warriors in the history of the world, and God does not see them all as evil killers. Many of them, perhaps even the majority, were forced into fighting by some tyrant or some government. Some just felt like they were doing their duty. Some were protecting their friends (think of Forrest and his friend Bubba). And of course some killed in pure self-defense and in defense of weaker people. And, yes, some of them were evil, cold-blooded killers.
Meanwhile, there have been hundreds of thousands of peace activists, and not all of them are angels of light. Some like Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi and Martin Luther King were truly admirable people (with their own human foibles). Others only cared about politics and claiming to love peace while they plotted for power. Still others could be pretty annoying in their “holier-than-thou” stances.
The problem for members of the Church comes when we start seeing the worst in the people we disagree with rather than assuming the best. So, in my opinion (again, my intentions are good — don’t let me be misunderstood!), my “conservative” Mormon friends sometimes look at the “libertarian, peace-loving friends” and see a self-righteous, mean-spirited creepy peace activist like the guy in Forrest Gump. And, again, in my opinion, some of my “libertarian, peace-loving friends” look at my “conservative” Mormon friends and see warmongering people yearning for death and destruction.
The reality is that neither of these visions is true. The “libertarian, peace-loving” folk just see themselves as wanting to avoid yet another useless war, and, let’s face it, we’ve had way too many of those in the last few decades. And my “conservative” Mormon friends see themselves more like Forrest Gump, ie, defending the right to reluctantly go to war to protect the weak and to fulfill societal duties.
My personal views used to be closer to the “conservative” view, but I have come to believe that many of our recent wars are completely unnecessary, too costly and do not truly promote peace. Even though our intentions may be good, we end up getting caught in a situation where most of our choices are bad, and I personally favor a complete change in foreign policy. But I do NOT assume that the “conservatives” who disagree with me have bad intentions.
I have been re-listening to the General Conference talks the last two days, and if one thing is clear it is that modern-day prophets try to assume the best of the people around them, not the worst. And they encourage us to do the same thing. So, let’s take the advice of modern-day prophets and assume that the people we disagree with are well-intentioned.