Review by Meg Stout
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren’t famous for avoiding conflict. Anyone reading up through page 10 of the Book of Mormon reads about how Nephi decapitates Laban. I myself work for the Department of Defense (formerly referred to as the Department of War). My Bishop in my teens was a four-star general.
But Bishop Amos Jordan wished a life of diplomacy for me. He yearned for my talents to go toward creating peace in this world.
So I was intrigued to read Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict. Authors Patrick Q. Mason and J. David Pulsipher demonstrate “that pursuing peace is godly, foundational, muscular, and not for the faint of heart.”
This book arose out of the authors’ participation in a March 2011 conference on Latter-day Saint perspectives on war and peace, held at Claremont Graduate University. In the ten years since that conference at Claremont, the authors have assembled a delightful demonstration that the gospel of the Restoration and scriptural canon revered by Latter-day Saints provide rich bases for living a just peace that goes well beyond the mere absence of conflict.
As someone who grew up within the faith, I am always delighted when scholars help me see even more clearly the power of the restored gospel to effect loving peace, both in the individual soul and in societies on a grander scale.
The Introduction helps Saints and those unfamiliar with restoration doctrine understand that we see all humans as eternal and uncreated, free agents who chose God and supported God’s designation of Christ as Savior. We are promised that we will see the scriptures of the restoration to “feature rich veins of peace and non-violent theology” to inspire both Saints and the wider world. And we are reminded that violence can be not only direct (e.g., hitting someone), but structural (e.g., legal denial of access to housing or education) and cultural (e.g., teaching that some people are inferior or innately deserving of ill treatment).
Power and Influence cannot be maintained by violence or coercion, “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned, by kindness…, without hypocrisy…, without guile—” This chapter explores the fallacy of using violence to achieve any end, as we remain free to choose, even when we are not given freedom.
Chapter 2 deals with This Perfect Atonement, opening our eyes to the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom. Christ was not meek because He was weak, but taught and lived in a way that (though perfect) severely angered the powers of the day. Here I adored an insight the authors share from Walter Wink about the injunction to “turn the other cheek.” The left hand was the unclean hand, so if someone in the days of Christ were to strike you on the right cheek, they would be slapping you with the back of their right hand. This is the way one would slap an inferior, the way a master would strike a slave.
To turn the other cheek is not just giving the assailant the chance to hit you again. It is to force the assailant to see you as an equal. If they strike your other cheek, the very manner in which they must strike you declares you their equal.
In a similar fashion, Christ was living a life that demanded respect and honor, even as He trod a path that ultimately led to his death by an unusually cruel form of crucifixion. As we become like Christ and unite with the Savior in His ways, we demand equality and we give equality to all. Of note, the authors in their epilogue wonder if they, as white heterosexual males, have done enough to create equity and justice for those who are not similarly situated.
In The Word and the Sword, the authors examine the story of Nephi and find it to be tragic. It is clear the older Nephi regretted the sins of his past. I wonder if Nephi’s awareness of his sins was accentuated by the vision of his descendants being destroyed. The authors certainly lay out the opportunities Nephi had to reach out to his older brothers in love and reconciliation, rather than “righteous” anger. The cover of Proclaim Peace is clearly inspired by this dichotomy, between the precious Word of God Nephi retrieved and the deadly sword by which Nephi and his descendants lived so much of their lives.
A Theology of Conflict explores the potential for conflict to be either life destroying or life affirming. By exploring the conflicts in the Book of Mormon, we see the traditional destruction of the Nephite-Lamanite conflicts, the loving “conflict” by which Ammon was able to convert Lamoni and so many others, and the non-violent “conflict” by which the men of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies suffered death but won over their attackers and obtained a peace that lasted years.
The Power of Assertive Love delves deeper into the heroic non-violence embodied by the self-sacrificing Anti-Nephi-Lehies as well as stories from others who refused to react with anger and hate. Most who listen to General Conference will recall the October 1992 talk by Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, recounting a time when he was mugged and chose to give the young assailant fatherly advice rather than return violence for violence. This chapter rebuts the oft-held conviction that assertive violence is the most effective response to evil. Assertive love, though not always successful, is more often successful than violence and undoubtedly creates better outcomes. This elevates love from something sissies do to instead a difficult skill which we must master if we hope to succeed.
Is Violence Ever Justified? The authors admit that there are times when violence can be justified. But they argue that violence is never the route to sanctification and may mire our children and their children in violence for generations to come. The authors provide us principles for understanding our violence, helping us understand the ramifications of our choices and when even justified violence must be ended. Ultimately, the authors plead with us to accept God’s challenge to choose the higher standard of aggressive love rather than permissible violence.
But there is always The Conundrum of Divine Violence. God is love, yet the Christ of the Book of Mormon as well as the Jehovah of the Old Testament at times claim credit for having destroyed the wicked. Here I wish the authors had returned more powerfully to the Restoration understanding that we are uncreated, undestroyable individuals with free will. God, who knows all, can ask us to exit mortality on His schedule when He knows it is an appropriate time for such a departure. Still, the authors provide us ways to understand what scripture is actually saying (exegesis) and ways to interpret the meaning of those scriptures for our lives (hermeneutics). But the short answer they challenge us to accept is embracing the loving example of the living Christ, rather than attempting to twist any other scripture to justify our violence.
Joseph Smith taught that true friendship “is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism…. [with power] “to revolutionize [and] civilize the world” as it “pour[s] forth love.” Accordingly, the authors present us with A Political Theology of Friendship, replete with how the restoration gospel has matured in its approach to the worldly power of “kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates.” Ultimately, the authors challenge us to follow Christ, to “renounce the violence of Caesar and proclaim The Positive Peace of Zion.” The authors lay out for us what the Restoration gospel says about Zion, where the peoples in such Zions “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” In these Zions, the societies strove to put an end to all forms of violence, elevating the personal commitment to non-violent love to a societal level.
Proclaim Peace ends with a theory for how the Saints can build peace, what the authors refer to as the Just Ward Theory. We don’t need to wait for the prophet to establish a world-wide program for building peace. The means already exist in the congregational organization of wards, which are delineated on a geographical basis. Here I wish the authors could have referenced the world-class social mobility of Utah, which economists attribute to the unique way in which the HQ-directed ward structure of the Church breaks down social stratification and ghettos present in so much of the world. But beyond the nearly invisible way wards can fight injustice by their very cross-strata formation, the authors provide guidance for making our individual corners of this world filled with vibrant love, focused on concrete actions that fight against the many different forms of violence.
Proclaim Peace is thought provoking in ways I believe can help us find the higher road, the revolutionary peace of Christ, and the true friendship with all of which Joseph Smith spoke.
Proclaim Peace is available at Deseret Book and all other major book retailers.