Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Eugene England's Theology of Peace

This is a really long abstract of a much longer paper I am working on.

In the first week of August 1964, two U.S. Submarines off the North coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin falsely reported receiving unprovoked gun and torpedo fire from nearby Communist ships. Within hours of the second attack, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliation air strikes on Vietnam and three days later used this and other falsified information to ensure the passage of a resolution authorizing military action in Southeast Asia. Over 50,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives were lost in what became one of the most controversial wars in US history.
Looking back on this event and its surroundings thirty years later, Eugene England pointed to this as being a foundational and life-changing moment in his life which changed his thinking and religious understanding. He says:

In 1964 quite suddenly I experienced a dramatic paradigm shift, a kind of sea change in my soul. . . . I had grown up believing, connected to my belief that the Constitution was divinely inspired, that U.S. Presidents did not lie. When I became convinced that President Johnson had lied, with complicity from his advisors and without significant opposition from Congress, but with such dire results for our country, I crossed some line in my soul. As I thought about it . . . I became convinced that I had crossed to a proper place, to a conviction that the Prince of Peace had to do with peace between nations more than with loyalty to one nation.

Elsewhere, England recounts that he was heartbroken and then angry. While just a few years earlier he had been a volunteer weather officer for an Air Force bomber squadron, he now joined up with anti-war movements and other social causes where he remained a vocal critic of war and an advocate for peace up until his death in 2001.
England's advocacy for peace permeated nearly all of his writings. Whether explicit and pronounced in his sharp criticisms of Vietnam and the popular first war in Iraq or subtly expressed in his personal narratives and recollections, his writings portray a struggle as his ideals of peace confront the violence of the scriptures and an often unquestioning American nationalism in Mormon culture. He sought out answers to the questions of how Latter-day Saints should follow the conflicting commands to “denounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16) while at the same time being “subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (AoF 13) when a nation one resides in is engaged in war; or how Latter-day Saints should make sense of Jesus' proscription of violence and war when the scriptures portray that same Jesus, as God, justifying and commanding acts of violence and war, including the command to slaughter innocent women and children.
Recounting his early days at Stanford in the 1960s, England writes about the cultural confrontations he felt as a believing Mormon in the midsts of the early and foundational fronts of the anti-war and civil rights movements, and the sexual revolution. While his religious ideals of peace, equality, and agency placed him approvingly among peers on campus, those same religious ideals seemed to put him at a variance and with distrust among his fellow saints in the chapel. What sprang forth from this clash of cultures was a theology of peace that synthesized and showed a unity in what had often been perceived as necessarily immiscible and polar – a theology which was an act in itself of reconciliation and peace.
Unlike most Mormon theologies which focus on the ontological status of the world (what the world really is), England's theology of peace focuses on the ethical status of the world (what the world ought to be). Rather than focus on the material, divine, or metaphysical and philosophical of natures and attributes of God and man, England's theology turns to the social and communal relationships of God and man. Even his essays on the “Weeping God of Mormonism” and the perfect and progressing nature of God are exercises in peace and reconciliation and point out that these attributes of God are only truly meaningful in a context of God's relationship to His children and His desire for them to find peace away from their conflicts. England points to Enoch's account in the Book of Moses where he questions how it is possible that God, who created all things, could weep. In reply to Enoch's question, God points to humanity and answers,
“Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge [and] . . . gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.”(Moses 7:32-33)

England smoothly blends strictly religious principles and texts, secular philosophies and writings, as well as personal anecdotes as his essays and narratives elucidate his theology of peace. This theology takes many shapes through his essays and narratives and can be seen as being composed of three separate, but not necessarily distinct, components: forgiveness and trust; non-violence and an affirmation of life; and the equality and agency of humankind. It is by examining these that we can see how England's theology sprouted from the turmoil of the 1960s.
In his essay, “Healing and Making Peace, in the Church and the World,” England points to the cyclical pattern of violence and harm that our desire for retributive justice constantly renews. This is the standard eye-for-an-eye tooth-for-a-tooth justice that we usually feel when someone has wronged us. It is the source of continued contention between individuals, the sustenance of feuds between families and communities, and is a primary cause of unending conflicts between nations. Citing Hugh Nibley, England argues that the endless violence resulting from this retributive justice is an unfortunate lesson in the Book of Mormon. He says:
The Book of Mormon reinforces, as Hugh Nibley has pointed out, the crucial understanding that conflict, including war, occurs only when both sides have sinned. When either side is willing to obey Christ's commands, to lay down their weapons or angry words and stop fighting or competing, even if they thus sacrifice their lives, as Christ did, they stop the violence.

England points out that the only way to truly end conflict is not with force, but with forgiveness and trust. Eluding to LDS president Spencer W. Kimball's 1976 bicentennial address in which Kimball argues that we need “to carry the Gospel to our enemies, that they will no longer be our enemies,” England adds that this should not be interpreted as simply sending the missionaries over to proselyte our enemies, but rather it should be interpreted as showing our enemies the Gospel. “We are to take the gospel to our enemies by acting like Christians, by working for and showing consistent mercy.” This is because “extending mercy is the only hope we have for moving our enemies to give us mercy rather than responding to our violence with retribution until we have continuing and escalating war.”
Reacting with violence is easy because it keeps us in control, reacting with mercy is difficult because it leaves us vulnerable to the other – just as Christ's unwillingness to react to his captors with violence made him vulnerable. Though difficult, England says this is what we need to do to end the pattern of violence and conflict. This forgiveness and trust “is to be extended not because they deserve it but because they need it, because they can become trustworthy (or loving) by being nurtured in a community of trust and love. We need to extend trust, even if doing so makes us vulnerable to pain and great cost, in order to save our souls.”
This act of undeserved forgiveness, mercy, and trust is exemplified by the Anti-Nephi-Lehites of the Book of Mormon who refused to violently confront the Lamanites who came to attack them. Rather than take the normal recourse of violence that continued a feud between brothers into a 500 year old war between nations, they instead chose to act non-violently and affirm the life of their enemies. England points out that though many had lost their lives, the “sacrifice of these Lamanite pacifists ended violence, while the 'just' wars of the Nephites did not and were followed by a decline into apostasy.”
The mandate to affirm life and act non-violently is further complicated when it is viewed in conjunction with our need to treat all equally and affirm agency. How much agency should we allow when elective abortions too often seem to deny an affirmation of life? How equally should we treat a convicted violent murderer? Should we stand back and watch as innocent people are denied their agency by dictators or slaughtered through genocide? How can we see an enemy nation as equal and alike? For England non-violent affirmations of life and the mandates of equality and agency are not incompatible. In fact, it is when we presume that we are limited to polar alternatives that conflict and violence arises. It is by mediating these, often with forgiveness and trust, that a level of peace can be achieved and violence is averted.
It is from here then that we can go back and see how England's theology of peace fits within and comes out of the radical surroundings, movements, and events of the 1960s.


  1. Loyd,

    I think the reason most countries are unwilling to take Jesus' path is because it frequently ends in death. Jesus died. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies would have died but for the violent intervention of the Nephites.

    I've often wondered if Jesus' ethics work much better on a personal level than on a national level.

    However, supporting your thesis, you'd probably enjoy an essay by Neil Postman called "Safe-Fail" in his book Conscientious Objections.

  2. Good essay, but the problem I have with this theory is that the violence did not stop when the ANL's laid down their weapons of war, or when Jesus allowed him self to be crucified, or when Joseph Smith allowed himself to be martyred. The violence continued beyond their noble, merciful acts. Their enemies clearly did not stop merely because of their desires to not fight back.
    I believe that we should defend ourselves, our families and our liberties. Having said that, I also believe that we (humans, Americans, Mormons) are too quick to seek "justice" and retribution. We would do much better to show mercy to our enemies, while still defending our lives and liberties. Much like stephen said, I don't see Jesus' example as one for a national government, but more for our personal lives. And his crucifiction was less an example of what we should do, and more a part of a greater plan, the atonement, which was required of him in order to pay the price for our sins.

  3. stephen and cody,

    first i have to point out that the purpose of this paper (and it will be 3-4 times as long as it is presently) is not to argue for or defend eugene england's theology, but to elucidate his theology and then place it within the context of arising out of the vietnam anti-war movement. (though i won't deny that my subconscious may be doing more than that).

    with that said, my guess is that england would reply that the sacrifice of forgiving is that we do so with the realization that it may not be accepted and that it may be betrayed. it obviously is not a guarantee of ending the cycle of violence, however violence does a far worse job at ending the cycle of violence as it is a participant of the cycle.

    the ANL did end some violence however, the BofM records that over 1,000 lamanites joined up with the ANL in response to the ANL's act of forgiveness and love. i am sure you agree that those lamanites would have been turned away from violence if the ANL responded with more violence.

    furthermore you can't argue the ANL's method of forgiveness and non-violence did not completely end the cycle of violence because after the first attempt (which had success), the nephites stepped in and promoted violent action instead.

    and furthermore, we need to stop seeing christ's mission and atonement as merely a sacrifice for personal salvations. jesus's actions were very much also in a context of political and social revolutions.


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