Latter-day Saint Scholars ‘Proclaim Peace’

Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher discuss their new book, “Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict.”

Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict is a new Maxwell Institute publication by Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher. The authors explain how the book came to be, theorize about the next steps in their theories, and discuss the role of peace in creating a Zion society.

What was the catalyst for Proclaim Peace?

In a world increasingly filled with contention and violence, most Latter-day Saints don’t realize that our Restoration scriptures contain rich resources for transforming conflict and achieving peace. A few great minds and souls, including Hugh Nibley and Eugene England, have written powerfully about Restoration approaches to conflict and peace, but these have generally been limited to isolated essays or articles.

There hasn’t been any comprehensive treatment, so we were naive enough to venture to write one.

More than anything, we hope to initiate a conversation among our fellow Latter-day Saints about principles of peace. But we also believe the Restoration has something important to contribute to a larger conversation that has been going on among other faith traditions, including other Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. We’ve benefited from their remarkable insights, and so we’ve tried to offer unique insights from the Restoration in return.

What do Restoration teachings add to the principles of proclaiming peace?

Too many to enumerate here (thus a book-length treatment was necessary). But one of the greatest contributions of the Restoration to principles of peace is an insight into the nature of enduring power. As Joseph Smith prophetically wrote from Liberty Jail: “No power or influence can…be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).

This is a stunning insight into how God’s power actually functions. Because he loves us with perfect love, persuasion, gentleness, and long-suffering, we know we can love and trust him, and we surrender to his influence “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46).

Fleeting forms of power can be achieved in other ways — through intimidation or deception, for example — but such types of power cannot “be maintained.”

Only power based on love and trust can endure through the eternities. Understanding this is one of the great keys to unlocking patterns of peace in our individual relationships and in our societies.

Why do you say that Nephi’s small plates can be read only as a tragedy in their entirety?

The small plates of Nephi — which include the books of Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni—exhibit a fundamental tension between the power of coercion and the power of persuasion. These distinct approaches to power and influence are symbolized by the two objects Nephi carries into the wilderness — the sword of Laban and the brass plates.

Over the ensuing narrative, Nephi and his successors wrestle with both approaches. Nephi is at times gentle and persuasive. At other times he is harsh and forceful. But as he matures, the initially brash young man clearly gravitates away from the power of the sword and immerses himself almost completely in the power of the word, ending his record with wonderfully rich scriptural interpretations augmented with his own clear vision and testimony of the Word (Jesus Christ).

Nephi’s final words, and his brother Jacob’s additions, thus represent the spiritual apex of the small plates. From there, the power of the word (and the Word) gradually wanes as subsequent writers admit that they and their descendents have increasingly embraced the power of the sword.

Thus, the writings on the small plates begin to increasingly highlight wars, and to decreasingly feature scripture and visions. By the time we get to the writer Abinadom, he confesses that violent conflicts are relatively frequent — ”I saw much war and contention…and I, with my own sword, have taken the lives of many” — but the spiritual spring has run dry — “I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy” (Omni 1:10-11).

So, over the course of the small plates, the power of violence (the sword) gradually overwhelms the power of love and persuasion (the word). That is tragic.

What is the difference between obtaining power and obtaining influence?

This is an interesting question, in part because of how our culture often misperceives power, especially between individuals or within social groups. People often talk about power as being something that can be “seized” — as if it were some object, like a scepter, that can be easily captured or transferred, or a physical force, like electricity, that can be diverted from one person to another.

But the central insight of the Restoration is that in a universe of self-existent beings endowed with agency, the only power that one individual can have “over” other individuals is that which comes through their free consent. As Leo Tolstoy observed, “Power, from the point of view of experience, is only the dependence that exists between the expression of a person’s will and the carrying out of that will by other people.”

When we speak and people obey, we have power— they are consenting to allow us to influence their behavior. By this calculation, power equals influence. They are one and the same. And, as we’ve already noted, the only types of power and influence that can “be maintained” are those forms of consent that are obtained through love and trust.

Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher discuss “Proclaim Peace” on the Maxwell Institute podcast.

Are there any dangers associated with how our society casually portrays violence?

The power to create life and the power to take it away are perhaps the two most sacred powers entrusted to God’s children. Thus, God has placed very strict parameters around both.

As a rule, Latter-day Saints are vigilant about policing inappropriate depictions of sexuality in our media habits. Unfortunately, we are much more cavalier about violence, which saturates our television, films, and (perhaps most damagingly) our video games. To repeatedly watch or reflexively reenact the taking of life (even of “bad guys”) is deeply damaging to our souls.

If we find ourselves cheering violence, even fictional violence, we have lost sight of the fact that the violence is being inflicted (at least theoretically) on a spiritual sibling. Because of this, God never cheers violence, even his own. So when we do, we become numb to the sacredness of life and weaken our sacred connections with each other.

We objectify our brothers and sisters just as much as when we consume pornography.

But the sad fact is that violent entertainment is so normalized in our culture that very few people ever seek a bishop’s help in resisting its lure.

What is the difference between conflict and contention?

In our Latter-day Saint culture, we’ve become somewhat expert at conflict avoidance, thinking that any kind of conflict is negative. But conflict is inevitable in a universe full of free agents. It is baked into creation — light and dark, earth and water, female and male. As Lehi said, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” Indeed, without these fundamental, conflictual oppositions, creation would be for “naught” (2 Ne. 2:11-12).

Our task is therefore not to avoid conflict, but to engage conflict constructively, to channel it toward positive ends.

We sometimes think about “conflict” and “contention” as synonyms, but there is an important distinction. When Jesus visited the Lehites after his resurrection, he commanded that “there shall be no disputations among you.” Furthermore, “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” Jesus’s way — his “doctrine” — is not “to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another,” but rather for us to engage conflict in love (3 Ne. 11:28-30).

So, conflict is inevitable, and can even be seen as a divine gift that allows us to engage difference with persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, knowledge, and most of all love (see D&C 121:41-42).

Contention, on the other hand, comes when we engage conflict in anger.

Followers of Jesus do not seek to eliminate diversity, but rather to appreciate the gifts that difference can bring, and to consecrate those gifts toward unity and the greater good (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27).

What role must peace play in our lives for Zion to be realized before the Savior returns?

Quite simply, we will not become a Zion people until we become a people of peace, both individually and collectively. This is amply attested to in Restoration scripture.

One of our favorite definitions of Zion comes from a March 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith, which we have as D&C 45. In it, Zion, or the New Jerusalem, is defined as “a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God.” In a world of turmoil and violence, Zion will be the place that people flee to for safety: “every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety.” Zion is to be a cosmopolitan community of peace, “gathered…out of every nation.” Yes, Zion is “the pure in heart” (D&C 97:21), but it is also “the only people that shall not be at war one with another” (D&C 45:66-69).

Here’s the thing: “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:5). The celestial law is the law of love revealed most fully in the person, teachings, ministry, and atonement of Jesus.

It’s telling that in both the New Testament and Book of Mormon, the disciples who had personally encountered Jesus were so radically transformed by the experience that they in turn revolutionized their entire communities, predicating them on righteousness, love, nonviolence, and economic justice (see Acts 2 & 4; 4 Nephi).

Those texts are much shorter than we wish they were — how do education, economics, and politics really work in Zion? — but they provide enough of a blueprint for us to see what it would take for us to really build a Zion community. A deep commitment to Christian nonviolence is at the heart of that vision.

Why do many Latter-day Saints seem pitted against each other, especially on social media?

Because “the world is too much with us,” to use Wordsworth’s phrase. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to make us a light to the nations. Instead, we have imported too much of Babylon into our wished-for Zion. Social media can be a wonderful tool, but it has also been the vehicle and engine for too much contention, even among those — friends, families, ward members, Christians — who should know and do better.

How can the Savior’s teachings about peace be applied to our social media interactions?

It’s amazing how social media can have a Jekyll and Hyde effect on people. I’ve had friends and ward members who are some of the loveliest, most Christlike people when you’re with them in person, but whose social media postings are shockingly full of bile and venom. There’s something about the psychology of interacting with people anonymously, or behind a screen, that allows us to say things that we would never say in person.

A few years ago President Nelson asked the youth of the church to participate in a social media fast. If you find yourself wrapped up in negative patterns on social media, taking a break may be a good idea, giving you some distance and allowing you to reassess whether your discipleship applies in the digital world as well as it does in the analog world. We appreciate the current Church leadership’s emphasis on civility and moderation as we think about the tone we each take in the public sphere.

Perhaps the first step that a person can take in becoming a more peaceable follower of Christ (Moroni 7:3) is to assess who they are and what they project into the world on social media:

  • Are you sending out light or darkness?
  • Are you fostering unity or division?
  • Are you engaging conflict in love or anger?
  • What would Jesus tweet?

(And to be clear, Patrick’s Twitter account is not always a perfect example of this. We still have lessons to learn too!)

In what ways do our wards function as a microcosm of our desires to build Zion across the entire world? How can we better grasp that reality and act accordingly?

One of the greatest-ever pieces of Latter-day Saint gospel writing is the late Eugene England’s essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” In it, he describes how the Church, and especially the ward, is such a powerful laboratory for Christian discipleship.

Why? Because we don’t choose the people in our ward. It is precisely because of the un-chosenness of those associations that we are given the opportunity to learn to love people who are very different than ourselves. That is a powerful first lesson in becoming a Christian, which is the first step toward building Zion.

In the book we refer to “Just Ward Theory.” This is a word play, of course, on the traditional Christian concept of “just war theory.” What we mean by this is that the organized church, especially but not exclusively the ward/branch, already has the organization and tools necessary to be mobilized for Latter-day Saints to become more powerful instruments for peace in the world.

There are many things that we can do together that simply can’t be accomplished individually. We see this in individual service projects. But we can be more creative, more “anxiously engaged in a good cause” (D&C 58:27).

We tell the story of the president of a BYU stake several years ago, who asked each ward to form a partnership with a social service provider in the county. Under the stake president’s direction, bishops called some of the spiritually strongest women and men in the ward to lead the “Pure Religion Committee,” which coordinated each ward’s work with its selected social service provider. These initiatives weren’t one-off projects, but rather sustained relationship-building endeavors designed to serve vulnerable populations in the local community. Not all of the wards and ward members caught the vision, but for those who did it was transformative — and they did real good.

Our sense is that younger Church members in particular are hungry for the church to be more relevant to the world they live in — a world full of suffering and need. As the Christian theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman wrote, “The masses of [people] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”

With greater vision and creativity, the work of the ward — or Relief Societies, elders quorums, youth groups, or missions — can be channeled more intentionally toward concrete efforts designed to elevate our communities outside the church.

To become a Zion people we must first make our religion speak meaningfully toward the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed — precisely the people that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25. Our hope is that our wards become Matthew 25 wards, and that our Church more fully becomes a Matthew 25 Church.

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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