Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Bloodshed and the Gospel

This has been on my mind for months now, but I could not begin to articulate it until now. I heard another in the stream of heart-breaking stories about soldiers who died in Iraq yesterday afternoon on NPR. I am developing an increasingly pacifist (though not absolute) world view. I say this as a student, occupied essentially with the "life of the mind" and the gospel, and coming from a family with no real military involvement or commitment. But as I have thought about bloodshed recently, especially in war, imperialism, and genocide, the abomination of taking life has become more clear. This might sound extreme, but I feel that the only time it was surely requisite for human life to be taken was in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. When murder takes place because of passion, politics, prejudice or other reasons, I am beginning to see this act as a serious abomination--as if these lesser interests rise to the same level of importance as universal salvation, and therefore justify similar bloodshed. It seems that taking life in this way lacks what Paul Woodruff defines as reverence: the quality that keeps humans from acting as if they are gods.

I hope that I have made myself clear, and since this is a blog post and not a personal conversation I will insert the caveats and limitations I have thought of here: (1) religious law has called and perhaps should call for bloodshed in the light of some crimes--that is God's authority and I do not question it or argue against it, (2) this isn't an Iraq thing particularly, or else I would have tried to make a direct application, (3) "just war" (in the strict "divinely approved" sense that phrase should be used) doesn't fall under my topic either; I refer moreso to taking life along the lines of Cain, who said "Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain" (Moses 5:31).


At 9/28/2004 05:46:00 PM,


I feel like your qualifications almost limit the content of your post to a null set. I think there are very few people who do not condemn the Master Mahan rubric of murder.

What I feel is the more interesting question is that of comparing the killing practices (or lack thereof) of different divinely sanctioned people, and asking if there is something equivalent to a "Law of Moses" type standard for warfare vs. a "Law of the Gospel" standard. One could argue that many of the Nephite wars constitute a Law of Moses war ethic, whereas the stance of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (extreme passivism) is a Law of Christ ethic.

At the real base of all of these questions, I think is the fact that killing anybody shortens their probationary period, and thus cuts short the time in mortality in which they might have repented and embraced Christ and his gospel. However, as the Lord knows the hearts of his children, doesn't he also know whether they would have accepted the gospel anyway, in which case, in light of the doctrine of redemption of the dead, the murdered man will eventually attain salvation regardless of the crime committed against him?

Not that I'm saying "what's the big deal with murder?" God has told us it is a grievous sin. It is grievous. I just raise this point to spark discussion towards understanding the sin from an eternal perspective (both that of the sinner and the sinned against).

At 9/28/2004 07:08:00 PM,

JD, I had to include to caveats to try make sure I am not misunderstood in my pacifism--instead it looks like I was misunderstood in my tolerance of bloodshed. The principle I think in the Cain Approach to taking life in our day rules almost absolutely. I wanted to point out my exceptions (which are, essentially, that God can justify the taking of life), but I see them still as exceptions.

And the probation question makes me hesitate. I don't think that really accounts for it. We know that a just and complete opportunity will be given to all the receive the gospel (the purpose of our probation), and that we shall be judged by a perfect, merciful, all-knowing Savior. Rather the severity seems to me to be closer to what Clint Eastwood says in the classic _Unforgiven_, "It's a hell a thing to take a man's life. You take away all he had and all he's ever gonna have." That's humanistic, and doesn't account for post-mortal life, but it underscores the point that shedding blood is playing god in an abominable way.

At 9/29/2004 10:38:00 AM,

I've been dealing with this same problem, but in the guise of a different issue. Lately, I've been wondering about the need for capital punishment. I recently read that 89% of LDS members support the death penalty (compared to 71% among catholics and similar lower figures among other religious groups). Why is this so overwhelmingly popular among Mormons? I realize there are some scriptural precedents, but little is found in "modern revelation" that applies directly to us.

So maybe it costs a little more to imprison these people for life, but to exchange even a murder for tax dollars seems a bit too utilitarian to me. Besides, if this life is a time to repent, and one can repent of murder, shouldn't we allow people time to take care of that? Can someone give me a good reason for capital punishment?

At 9/29/2004 03:33:00 PM,

Chris -- Members of the church whom I've polled on the issue refer most often to Alma 34:12 and D&C 42:19. My dad and I once argued over the normative value of the 19th century usage of "shall" but I admit it hardly adds anything to this debate.

J.D. -- I've often framed my musings on abortion in the same vein. If everybody is promised a "just and complete opportunity" (as Jason says) to hear the gospel, how does denying access to a body in 1992 or 2004 thwart the eternal plan? I've often heard of mothers (mine included) who miscarried a child early in their lives, only to claim upon their next pregnancy that they "felt" that the same spirit was given another chance. Personally, this is a little too much "Saturday's Warrior" for me, but does it say anything to us?

Even more uncomfortable is the implication of your statement:

"...as the Lord knows the hearts of his children, doesn't he also know whether they would have accepted the gospel anyway..."

I think he DOES know our hearts. I remember once asking a seminary teacher why God didn't just read off the results of who "would have" accepted the gospel and who "would've failed the earth test." I got some answer along the lines of "time on earth was required so WE could learn whether or not we chose to follow God." I never quite understood how he failed to notice that in my question WE did find out, it just didn't take as long.

If God's knowledge of whether or not we would have accepted the gospel is sufficient to save the murdered man, why not all of us?

At 10/01/2004 09:59:00 AM,

D&C 42:29 is an incredibly tenuous scripture as far a supporting the death penalty goes. I can't imagine that's the only reason that LDS members so overwhelmingly support it. Do you suppose it goes back to the whole strange idea of blood atonement that may have creeped into our cultural outlook even though it's nowhere near doctrinal? I'm almost offended at the fact the so many of us overwhelmingly and perhaps unthinkingly support it.  

Posted by Chris

At 10/01/2004 02:46:00 PM,


I agree with you that the (modern?) scriptural basis for capital punishment is weak at best. I don't know what to think about the blood atonement doctrine's affect on people's positions. Maybe for some it was growing up in a nation (or even state) that supports the death penalty, maybe others just "feel in my gut that it's right." I'd be curious to see what church leaders have said over the years.

I know that there are sociological studies that recommend it, and economic principles which justify it, but I still oppose the policy.

I'm not offended by those who cite scripture as their source for defending capital punishment (each is entitled to his or her own interpretation in my opinion). But I do take issue with those who - as you said it - "unthinkably support it." Actually, my obloquy extends to anybody who unthinkably supports any policy (although I can't say that I've thoughtfully processed all of the implications for every policy which I champion).

Alas, I've strayed from the topic. But only because I have no explanation for your aforementioned statistics. 

Posted by Doug Spencer




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