“Judaism affirms the permissibility of war as a response to life-threatening aggression, current or anticipated.” – 2003 Resolution on Conflict with Iraq, The Rabbinical Assembly
“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.”—Alma 43:46 (Book of Mormon)
The drumbeat of war in the Middle East grows louder with each passing day as senior Israeli leaders hint that they may attack Iran in the near future. Yesterday President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Prize recipient widely viewed as pragmatic and even dovish on peace issues, told a television station that “there is not much time left” to try non-military options. There is ample justification in Jewish law for a preemptive attack on people who have announced their intention to kill you. However, many of my readers may not know as much about LDS teachings on the subject. While modern LDS scriptures certainly support defending one’s family and nation from aggression, it is up to individual members to decide whether they can be used to justify a preemptive attack on a genocidal wannabe nuclear state.
Of course, there is also ample support in our theology for forgiving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek, as Jesus taught in the New Testament. In addition, one of our modern books of scripture urges us to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:16; interestingly enough, the next verse tells us to seek to turn “the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets, and the prophets unto the Jews”). That said, Mormons can and do serve in armies, since we believe in being subject to secular rulers and in obeying the law of the land (12th Article of Faith).
The two most instructive passages of scripture for me deal with the concept of a defensive war. In a book of scripture called the Doctrine of Covenants, God tells the persecuted Mormons in Missouri not to seek revenge on their enemies (section 98). Moreover, He reveals “the law I gave unto … Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets.” According to these verses, if any nation proclaimed war against them, they should “lift a standard of peace” to that country. If it rejected the peace offering three times, then they were to “bring these testimonies before the Lord,” who would give the commandment to go to battle against the warmongers.
In the same chapter, the Mormons in Missouri were counseled to forgive the first three attacks against them and their families and not seek revenge. However, after the fourth attack they were justified in “reward[ing] him according to his works … if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him.”
I believe that the example of the persecuted Missouri Mormons is entirely inapplicable to situations when a nation is threatened by a nuclear or massive terrorist attack. There was certainly good reason for God to warn the group not to be quick to attack their enemies: They were hopelessly outnumbered in Missouri, and could have been annihilated if they had taken revenge at the slightest provocation. On the other hand, can anyone imagine a Mormon president refusing to attack Osama and Co. after 9/11 because he felt that we should forgive them—and giving them two more freebie attacks as well? [We had suffered several unrequited attacks by al-Qaeda before 9/11, but I digress]. What worked for Abraham clearly will not always work in the age of terrorism.
The other passage of scripture is found in the Book of Mormon, in the Book of Alma (chapter 43). Around 74 BCE, the wicked Lamanites invade the land of the more righteous Nephites in order to enslave them. The Nephites want 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 their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.” The Nephite general rallies his people to defend themselves on the battlefield in order to “preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church,” and they prevail. If there is an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, I believe that it will be motivated by these same desires.
Modern LDS scriptures, like the Bible, are silent on the direct question of preemptive strikes. The Nephites in the Book of Mormon were commanded not to be the aggressors, but to defend themselves from aggression. But what if their enemies had been working feverishly to develop a weapon that could destroy every man, woman and child in the Nephite cities with the push of a button – and had repeatedly threatened to do so? My guess is that the Book of Mormon would contain accounts of Nephite preemptive attacks on their foes in order to preserve their lives and their nation.
If Israel attacks Iran, it’s important to remember that Israel will not have been guilty of the first, second, or third offense. Iran has bombed the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center in Argentina, it has armed the terrorist groups Hizbollah and Hamas and encouraged them to attack Israel, and it has threatened to wipe Israel off the map, inter alia. The country is ruled by a satanic regime, one that uses a false interpretation of Shiite Islam to stir up anti-Semitism and to oppress, torture, and kill its own people. Every time I learn in an LDS temple that Satan uses false religious leaders and tyrants to shed blood and visit horrors upon the earth’s peoples, my mind is drawn to the mad mullahs in Tehran.
Given that Iran and its proxies have been the aggressors against Israel on countless occasions, that Israel is only seeking to preserve its nation and its people, and that many diplomatic approaches and sanctions regimes have failed to dissuade Iran from attempting to build nuclear weapons, I see nothing in LDS teachings that would require Israel to take a wait-and-see approach to a nuclear Iran. Israel is not a small group of Mormons surrounded by persecutors, and it’s not a tribe preparing for battle more than 2,000 years ago against an enemy tribe armed with swords, bows and arrows, and slingshots.
Israel was roundly criticized for bombing Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, but its action saved the region from a nuclear Saddam. Its bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor four years ago saved the region from a nuclear Assad. Israel simply cannot allow Iran to go nuclear unless it wants to commit national suicide. I believe very strongly that Latter-day Saints have an obligation to identify and resist evil in this world. Any Mormon who understands this will be behind Israel if it does try to take out Iran’s nuclear reactors. The attack could fail, and it could lead to wars with Iran and/or its proxies. I am not writing these words because I think that an attack on Iran’s reactors would be a wonderful thing to do or because I love war. I am writing to say that I, as a faithful Mormon, think that it would be justified by God.