Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Horrors of War and the Lack of Divine Intervention: Can You Be So Sure?

The Book of Mormon, from my Latter-day Saint perspective, was written for our day. Ancient prophets who anticipated the challenges of our day edited its contents, selected from the large archives at their disposal, to be of use to us. This may be why so much of the Book of Mormon deals with times of war and conflict, and gives very little attention to the 200 golden years of peace that followed the ministry of the Resurrected Lord in the ancient Americas. Why don't need to know how to cope with peace. Not yet, anyway.

The Book of Mormon also teaches the diversity of human response to the perils and hardships of war. Alma 62:41 tells us of the differing impact of prolonged wars on the Nephite people:
But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.
For some, it draws them closer to God. Others lose their faith and their hope.

My growing testimony of God as a child was partially rooted in the personal experiences of my father in the midst of the horrors of war. He went into the Korean War as a rebellious non-believer, rejecting and ignoring the faith of his LDS farmer parents. Time after time his life was spared when he knew that he should have been killed. Once while eating lunch he had a prompting that he needed to move. He got up and left, and moments later a shell fell where he had been sitting. Terribly, several good men that had been with him were killed. Why was he spared? He did not know, but that prompting was real. He came out of the endless trauma on the front lines with post traumatic stress disorder, and with faith in the God he had previously ignored. He would change his life and go on a mission, and later share his testimony of God and miracles, even in the midst of horror, with me.

I know of good and intelligent people who cannot accept God because of the horrors of war and the alleged lack of divine intervention. If there was a God, why did He not intervene as millions of Jews were being killed in World War II? But are you sure that there was no intervention? Not from God? What about from those seeking to follow God? Did NOBODY intervene? What about the faithful Dutch sisters who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazi? Were they not intervening, and seeking to follow God in so doing? What of the faithful Swedes and others who risked their lives to help Jews escape from the Nazis? Were they not intervening and rescuing many?

Mortality, again, is a messy and terrible place where nature and sin takes its toll. God's work and glory is not in sparing us from sufferings here, but in helping us return to Him. But His tender mercies can be found in many cases, even in the midst of horror, of war, of terminal illness, and the depths of grief. He is there and does not leave us alone, though we may spend months in the darkest abyss. Our response must be to turn closer to Him and listen to His promptings more intently, that we may be able to rescue more and spare them from some of the pains of this difficult life. God's intervention depends, in part, on our willingness to follow.

Update, Jan. 4, 2012: The experiences of Latter-day Saints in war provide an interesting counterpoint to the ancient lessons in the Book of Mormon, where good guys don't always win and the hand of God, however evident, doesn't simply prevent suffering as we would wish. Consider, for example, the gripping personal account of Joseph Banks in one of my favorite books, A Distant Prayer by Joseph Banks and Jerry Borrowman (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2001). Below is a brief passage describing his miraculous survival after his plane was accidentally blown up by a fellow B-17 that dropped its bombs on his plane. He was knocked unconscious for a while after the first bomb struck. Then when he came to,

[I]t took me a few moments to figure out what was going on. . . . I found myself in a tubular section of the fuselage that was open on both ends, spinning in the air as we fell towards the ground four miles below. . . .

I was relieved to feel that my parachute was in place, but I couldn't use it because I was stuck against the wall of the fuselage, held there by the centrifugal force. . . . I couldn't get out. I'd try to get up only to be forced back against the wall. In desperation I looked down and saw one of my crewmates lying next to me. I reached out and touched him, but he didn't move. Apparently the explosion had killed him. I knew that I had to muster every ounce of energy I had or I would go down to my death in that section of the aircraft. I tried several times, but to no avail. I was just too weak to pull free, and so the only thing I could do was pray. I asked the Lord to please help me get out somehow. I said it out loud, the words choking in my throat, but He heard me anyway.

Suddenly, as clear and as clam as if she was standing right next to me in the living room of our home, I heard the voice of my wife Afton say, "Joe, look down at your legs and you'll see that there's cable holding them. Pull the cable!" That's all she said. I looked around, but couldn't see anyone. Even though I was stunned, I looked down and sure enough there was a cable lying across my legs. I reached down and pulled it with all my might. At first nothing happened, but then I was suddenly sucked out of the fuselage and started freefalling. I later learned that the cable was attached to two pins that held an escape hatch door. When I pulled them loose, the door separated from the fuselage. Talk about incredible. It probably took a second or two for me to get over the shock of being hit by the wind, but then I realized that I was falling backwards through space.
His survival was miraculous. The tender mercies of God reached out and helped him, just enough, but enough, and he survived. As a result of this miracle, he would be spared from instant death and instead face, uh, months of hell as prisoner in Nazi Germany. Wouldn't a merciful God have just let him die, or spared him from the final fateful mission in the first place, or kept him and the rest of the world out of war? Sure, we can doubt everything and question all the rules of mortality, but he and many others have found the tender mercies of God even in the deepest suffering.

Even in the midst of Satan's ragings on the field of war, one can, if one will, find the occasional but real hand of God, whether it is in the courage of a Dutch woman hiding Jews, or in the miraculous whisper the helped Brother Banks pull the cable that saved his life (the first of many rescuings), or in the voice that told a friend of mine to "Run!" at just the right moment after months of seemingly hopeless prayer when suffering as a prisoner of war, or in the miraculous jamming of a helicopter gun as an LDS serviceman tried to shoot down a fleeing enemy soldier that turned out to be a North Vietnamese woman running with her baby. Is there truly no divine intervention in war?

In yet other scenes of despair, the tender mercies of the Lord can still be found when we are willing to listen to Him and be His instruments, as evidenced by the ministry of Mother Teresa. The more we listen, the more we love, the more we seek to follow Him, the more frequently we will encounter or participate in His tender mercies, though it be in captivity, in the midst of a terminal illness, or surrounded by sorrow unrelieved. We have a work to do now with many souls whose lives and happiness may yet depend on our service and preparation. For what is ahead, we need more faith than ever in that God who gives us life and just enough light to find Him, even in the midst of pain, if we will exercise a particle of faith and offer a touch of gratitude for the blessings we have already received. Ah, yes, gratitude - that is one of the secrets to seeing the hand of God. A topic for another post.

12 comments:

CuriousSmith said...

Jeff,
Great post. The Church produced a wonderful DVD a few years ago specifically for members serving in the military. It is called "Let Not Your Heart be Troubled." If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend it (http://lds.org/ensign/2006/01/news-of-the-church/new-dvd-reaches-out-to-members-in-the-military?lang=eng&query=let+your+hearts+troubled+dvd). One of the many takeaways is that even in the midst of the horrors of war, God's purposes are quietly and miraculously being accomplished in ways we don't always understand. Having now deployed three times to the middle East and Afghanistan, I have a conviction that this is indeed the case. Again, thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

The Book of Mormon also teaches the DIVERSITY of human response to the perils and hardships of war.... For some, it draws them closer to God. Others lose their faith and their hope.

C'mon, Jeff. That's not "diversity." It's a dichotomy. The passage (and your analysis of it) reduces the myriad impacts of war to the single question of its effects on people's religious faith, and then reduces the range of those effects to either their strengthening or their weakening of faith. If Joseph Smith had the ability to write about real people and about the complex realities of human experience, he might have given us a glimpse of how war often leads to feelings that are mixed in complex ways. But as usual Smith gives us a portrait of two-dimensional characters living in a two-dimensional world.

If the topic is "the diversity of human response to the perils and hardships of war," there's plenty of brilliant, wise, and deeply moving secular literature that will tell you much, much more than the Book of Mormon, which on this topic is even shallower and more simplistic than usual.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how a self-identified troll can expect to be taken seriously...

Openminded said...

Anon,
he's a critic, not a troll.

there will always be a disagreement, but he brings up well thought-out responses to issues Mormons will overlook because they're too busy agreeing with jeff's well thought-out posts.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Dichotomy is a good word to capture the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which intentionally emphasizes the ancient doctrine of the two paths. But don't mistake it's plain doctrine for superficial writing. There is abundant diversity and nuanced depiction in the Book of Mormon when it comes to war. Far from being a simple good guys vs. bad guys war story, we find Nephites and Lamanites in complex roles where sometimes one group is more righteous than the other and all are in need of repentance. Consider the stories of war and conflict from King Noah and the city of Nephi, the Machiavellian machinations of Amalickiah, the people of Ammon versus their brethren, the sons of Helaman in the midst of the Nephites, Mormon and Moroni as righteous leaders of the more wicked of two great armies, the Lamainte and Nephites combined against the Gadianton robbers, the eras of civil war, and the many intricacies of war and supply chains and communications throughout the text. It is far from a simple, superficial text, though its editors congeal complex stories into simple lessons that we must learn.

Anonymous said...

Right, Jeff. Read all those examples, and then read the Iliad, or the Bible's David story, or Ambrose Bierce's Civil War stories, or All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Things They Carried, or even (heaven forbid) that great vegetarian pacifist Christian's masterpiece War and Peace, and put any of them side by side with the Book of Mormon's depictions of war, and you'll see that the latter isn't even in the same league. You're giving the BoM credit for being something it just isn't. It is what it is, and abundantly nuanced and diverse in its depictions of war it ain't.

Read All Quiet on the Western Front (or even just watch either of the film versions) and then tell me that it doesn't do a far better job than the BoM of teaching us about the "human response to the perils and hardships of war."

You concede an awful lot when you write that the BoM's "editors congeal complex stories into simple lessons that we must learn." After all, this is what people do when they produce texts with titles like Favorite Bible Stories for Children. That's fine for children, but grownups should read the real stuff.

Instead of taking everything as an opportunity to extol the fabulous virtues of the Mormon scriptures, you might consider reading some of the "inspired" writings of the secular canon, and then let us know what, as a believing Mormon, you learn from them.

Just a suggestion, of course. It's your blog.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how a self-identified troll can expect to be taken seriously...

I'm surprised you feel that way. Think about it. Jeff and many others keep saying that what we humans, with our limited knowledge, think is bad is actually good because it's God giving us an opportunity to prove our mettle during our mortal probation here on earth. If this idea can be applied to things like war, can't it also be applied to my blog comments? Isn't it possible that God in his infinite wisdom has sent me here to test you and Jeff and all the rest?

Isn't it possible that your salvation depends on how you respond to me? And if that's so, then shouldn't you take me seriously?

On the other hand, if you don't like the way I'm now using the old doctrine that Sometimes God chasteneth whom he loveth, then maybe your problem is not with me but with the doctrine itself.

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

Since your stated objective in commenting on this blog is harassment and intimidation, why should anything you say be taken seriously?

mkprr said...

2 Nephi 2:11 :)

Jon said...

It should be noted how the BoM tells us to state out of the current wars we are in. Mormon warned us to lay down our weapons of war. Christ warned us to not lift up ourselves over other nations and tell and force them to do what we think they should do. The scriptures tell us that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars. It is time to look at Mormons example and leave the military when they are on the offensive (all current wars). It is time to take Kimballs warnings of the false god of steal.

Paul said...

Jeff,

I enjoy your posts, they get me thinking, then I have to comment, then I blow a whole evening haha.

Eveningsun, I agree with your comments and I was about to mention All Quiet on the Western front as well! Also, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. These are all masterpieces touching on the subject of war and there are so many more.

War, by its very nature, is amoral, inflicting unbounded personal torment on its participants often for abstract or otherwise unreal ends. How do you find two paths, a way of 'light' or 'darkness' in war? Look at WWI, with its brutality and tremendous ambiguity. As I think it was, Henry James who said that WWI had 'used up words,' and also led Hemingway to completely discard rhetoric or ideals or abstractions (such as a path of light or dark), seeing in them illusions that mask the real mess of what life can be.

Remarque (in Western Front) continually comments on how the other side is *just like them,* young men sent to suffer and die for the inscrutable machinations of old men. He had great compassion for the other side, because they were himself. The scene I remember most vividly from that book is when one of the mothers is informed of her son's death and she 'collapses into a heap of flesh and salt and tears.' There is nothing like the level of emotion surrounding war in the Book of Mormon like in these books.

I am respectful toward the Book of Mormon, because it means so much to many people who mean a great deal to me, although my own path led me away from it. As a missionary with a penchant for literature, it was actually the (lack of) literary quality/depth (and the copied Isaiah and Matthew) that started me on the road out of the Church long ago. I secretly thought that a prophet of God, writing God's words to mankind, should be able to write at least as well as a Dostoevsky or Hugo or Hemingway, and that a divine book should surpass the emotional depth of the works they've written. For that matter, though it's not war related, I've never read ANYTHING that matches the emotional depth of the Brothers Karamazov.

Paul said...

Oops, I think I may have posted this under the wrong post, perhaps it should have gone under the Book of Mormon two paths post.

Jeff, I appreciate your story about your father's faith coming to him in the midst of the Korean War.