These chapters in Alma start the section on wars. Either you love this part of the Book of Mormon or you avoid it like some people avoid Isaiah. Whether you like the section on wars or not, there are some very valuable lessons to be learned. This section spends a lot of energy focusing on our attitude on war. In the last days we will have to engage in conflict. We won’t have any choice in the matter. The question is, how will we face the coming conflicts? What will be our attitude on war?
Reading Assignment: Alma 43-52.
When is war right?
President Charles W. Penrose, a former member of the First Presidency, is quoted in the lesson as stating that there is such a thing as righteous warfare. This is not a comfortable topic, nor is it a comfortable political stance. It is, however, based on scripture.
“It is not right for us to engage in the shedding of human blood, for vengeance or retaliation. But when the Lord commands or inspires his servants to counsel the sons and daughters of Israel to lend their aid in the work of righteous warfare, that is different. … We are to arise in our might and in our strength and go forth to victory; not with a desire to shed blood, not with the desire to destroy our fellow creatures, but in self defense and because we do want to maintain and hand down to our posterity those sacred principles of liberty that have been revealed from on high” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1917, 21).
Here is another quote from the lesson:
Elder David O. McKay said: “There are … two conditions which may justify a truly Christian man to enter—mind you, I say enter, not begin—a war: (1) An attempt to dominate and to deprive another of his free agency, and, (2) Loyalty to his country. Possibly there is a third, [namely], Defense of a weak nation that is being unjustly crushed by a strong, ruthless one” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1942, 72).
In Alma 43:9-10 Moroni gives us the rationale behind the Nephites going to war. Mind you, this is not how they felt about their enemies. These are just the reasons that justified their entering into the conflict the Lamanites thrust upon them.
9 And now the design of the Nephites was to support their lands, and their houses, and their wives, and their children, that they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies; and also that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.
10 For they knew that if they should fall into the hands of the Lamanites, that whosoever should worship God in spirit and in truth, the true and the living God, the Lamanites would destroy.
Alma 43:46-47 gives us the Lord’s direct instructions on when war is not just permissible, but sanctioned by Him. We are expected to protect our families, even if it requires bloodshed to do so.
46 And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.
47 And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion.
A righteous attitude
I’ve always wondered how the prophets were able to engage in close combat, and still keep the Spirit of the Lord in their lives. Imagine, if you will, waking up on Tuesday morning and finding that your neighbors in the next county over had rebelled against the government and were coming to kill your family. No matter what your relationship with them used to be, you know by whom they have allied themselves that their intent can be nothing short of annihilating all that you hold dear. They intend on destroying your church, your family, and your whole way of life.
There are no guns, so you will have to use arrows, stones, and blades to kill your enemy. That means walking up to someone who is intent on killing you and both of you have to try to hack the other one to death before getting killed yourself. Let’s say you survive the day and get to return home to your family, which is more than can be said for those you have butchered today. How do you attend the temple after that? How do you partake of the sacrament with reverence and in a spirit of repentance on Sunday? How do you not become hardened and emotionally cold?
I don’t have cut and dried answers to these questions. These are questions I have asked myself when reading these chapters on war. I take comfort in the attitude expressed by people like Captain Moroni, and the prophet Mormon. We are told in the narrative that those who led the Nephite army did not delight in bloodshed. They killed only when it was necessary.
If the enemy could be cowed enough to put down their weapons of war then all bloodletting stopped, and those who were willing to make an oath of peace were allowed to go home. The Nephite commanders understood, and had compassion on the regular soldiers. They understood that most of them were not there by choice. They showed mercy to their enemies as often as they could.
The righteous attitude in practice
Captain Moroni knew he couldn’t go on the offensive to start this war. He didn’t want to anyway. But since the Lamanites forced this conflict on him, he felt it was no sin on his part to do whatever was necessary to protect his people and to drive the enemy away. Here are some verses that demonstrates how he kept his humanity in the midst of a brutal physical war. Their watch cry was always defend, defend, defend.
30 And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take.
He used stratagem to hide parts of his army around the landscape so as to trap the invaders and increase their own survival rate. He also encouraged his men to exercise their faith in God. They believed that they were keeping the commandments of God. That being the case, they had every right to call on His help when things were difficult. By exercising their faith in God they were able to keep their focus on the Lord and His purposes, and not let the behavior and attitudes of their enemies define how they felt in battle.
48 And it came to pass that when the men of Moroni saw the fierceness and the anger of the Lamanites, they were about to shrink and flee from them. And Moroni, perceiving their intent, sent forth and inspired their hearts with these thoughts—yea, the thoughts of their lands, their liberty, yea, their freedom from bondage.
49 And it came to pass that they turned upon the Lamanites, and they cried with one voice unto the Lord their God, for their liberty and their freedom from bondage.
50 And they began to stand against the Lamanites with power; and in that selfsame hour that they cried unto the Lord for their freedom, the Lamanites began to flee before them; and they fled even to the waters of Sidon.
The first few verses of chapter 44 speak volumes about the Nephite army. No army on earth will attribute their good fortune in battle to anyone but themselves, unless they are fighting for an ideology that is greater than themselves. These men were fighting in the belief that by doing so God would protect their families and their way of life. This was the promise he gave to all the prophets. The Lord had constantly repeated Himself that if they would obey Him they would prosper in the land and that he would protect them.
This is what Captain Moroni tells Zerahemnah when they have gained the upper hand in battle. He was not embarrassed to admit that he believed in a supreme being. He was not ashamed of the gospel. Instead, he proclaimed it.
1 And it came to pass that they did stop and withdrew a pace from them. And Moroni said unto Zerahemnah: Behold, Zerahemnah, that we do not desire to be men of blood. Ye know that ye are in our hands, yet we do not desire to slay you.
2 Behold, we have not come out to battle against you that we might shed your blood for power; neither do we desire to bring any one to the yoke of bondage. But this is the very cause for which ye have come against us; yea, and ye are angry with us because of our religion.
3 But now, ye behold that the Lord is with us; and ye behold that he has delivered you into our hands. And now I would that ye should understand that this is done unto us because of our religion and our faith in Christ. And now ye see that ye cannot destroy this our faith.
4 Now ye see that this is the true faith of God; yea, ye see that God will support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him, and unto our faith, and our religion; and never will the Lord suffer that we shall be destroyed except we should fall into transgression and deny our faith.
Of course, Zerahemnah didn’t believe in the god of the Nephites. He just assumed that they were winning because of their obvious advantages of having superior armor. The idea that the Nephites were given the idea for that armor by inspiration from the Almighty wouldn’t have occurred to him.
Do you see the two ideologies at play here? The world’s belief system is being played out by Zerahemnah and the Lamanites. The Lord’s way of life for his Saints is being played out by Captain Moroni in the courage to act and speak as one sent from the Lord to obey His will and deliver His message. This is powerful stuff.
The lessons to be learned
After the first couple of chapters in this lesson, you see the basic principles demonstrated over and over again by the leaders of the Nephites. They go to the prophet to find out where the Lamanites are going to strike next. How many modern-day armies go to the prophet so they know where they should be when their enemy strikes next? Modern warfare is godless. He is left out of the equation. Modern warfare is all about strength, strategy, and brutality.
These warriors were on the battlefield only because they couldn’t be home with their families. They were there to put an end to the threat, and nothing more. They kept their focus on being obedient to the commandments of the Lord. They prayed and relied on His strength and the surety of God’s promises to them. It was all about exercising faith in God at a time when the overwhelming odds were against them. They had no desire to be mean or cruel, even to those they had to slice and cut to kill. They only wanted to be at peace.
This, in part, answers the questions I asked at the beginning. How could they worship after having engaged in such brutal business? The answer is because they never let the brutality of war become who they were. They were children of God from beginning to end. They never let themselves forget their covenants and the promises of the Lord. Above all, they had a spirit of worship about them that carried them through all the trials and difficulties they had to face. They relied on their righteous leaders, which included the prophets among them. And they prayed with faith then acted on or exercised that faith.