Some Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Mormonism, and the Unfinishable Christian Witness Against War

By Russell Arben Fox

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s preaching of non-violence is widely acknowledged, often praised, and almost never practiced. King himself accepted that fate, or at least came to by the end of his life; in one of his final sermons, he reflected that “one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable,” something that we are “commanded to do,” despite its hopelessness.

Except, of course, none of it—the “beloved community,” the “peaceable kingdom,” the whole Christian vision—is actually hopeless, at least not if one understands “hope” in the way King and those who know his ideas and words best did and still do today. This is a hope that does not ignore practical planning for tomorrow, but is nonetheless mostly eschatological, one that accepts the unknowable and miraculous potential of the future, and acts, with faith, accordingly. It is a hope familiar to socialists of nearly all stripes: the hope for a different world, and the motivating determination to believe in its possibility. Setting aside the historical determinism of Marx, even most secular socialists hold fast to it, whether they realize it or not. As the radical sociologist Erik Olin Wright reminded all those inspired by socialist possibilities: “what is pragmatically possible is not fixed independently of our imaginations, but is itself shaped by our visions.” King’s vision of non-violent change brought him, as he laid out in his famous sermon against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967, to see the witness of peace as something that must be held comprehensively, in regards to foreign policy as well as interpersonal relations. Such a vision might be, in Wright’s words, a “utopian ideal,” but doesn’t mean it can’t also be realistically practiced all the same—assuming one is prepared, as Christianity teaches, to take up the heavy cross it implies.

For my vision, I’m particularly influenced by the work of Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose approach to the visionary message of Jesus is famously radical. In a nutshell, he thinks (and he believes King also thought, or at least came to so think) that accepting the message of Jesus both obliges and invites believers to enter into a relationship with one another and with God that rejects the world of violence entirely. Setting aside the conventional “in the world, but not of the world” gloss on John 17, Hauerwas adopts what has been described as a “neo-Anabaptist” or a “pacifist-communitarian” perspective on those New Testament verses and many others. Christians are, as the title of his most famous book puts it, “resident aliens” in a fallen world, called to collectively live lives and witness truths (in a body he calls “the church,” without reference to any particular denomination) that reflect to our very real and violent world a redeemed reality. The most important aspect of that reality being that, for believers, “war has been abolished”:

[T]he Christian alternative to war does not consist of having a more adequate “ethic” for conducting war…The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war….

Christ has shattered the silence that surrounds those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed, we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed….This is the reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross….[B]ecause King understood nonviolence to be the bearing of Jesus’s cross, King was able to choose the path of vulnerable faithfulness with a full awareness that such a path would be costly. King operated with the conviction that the victory had been won, but also with the realization that the mopping up might take longer than expected (Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity [Baker Academic 2011], 68-69, 92).

This radical reading of the Christian message, as exemplified by Martin Luther King’s life and words, is not especially strong in my own religious tradition of Mormonism. (The Utah legislature actually refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for 17 years after it was first established by the national government in 1983, recognizing what they called “Human Rights Day” instead, tying with South Carolina as the final state to finally endorse MLK Day in 2000.) But the Book of Mormon, the religious text which gave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (our denomination’s official name) its most common designation, actually includes a story that exemplifies this pacifist vision supremely well.

First, some context. The Book of Mormon purports to be an ancient record, one that Joseph Smith was led to by what most of the Mormon faithful accept as angelic visitations, and found buried in a hillside in New York state in 1823. From that point he was blessed with the spiritual power to translate the book, which was eventually published in 1830, then becoming the cornerstone of the Mormon church.

The text of the Book of Mormon itself unfolds as having been assembled, over a period of many years, by the descendants of an ancient Hebrew family that fled Jerusalem before its destruction by the Babylonians over 2500 years ago. This family was led by God across the desert and the ocean, eventually settling somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, where over the centuries they grew in number and divided, all while prophets regularly emerged to remind the people of God’s commandments, most of whom were ignored as the people made war on one another. The patriarch of the original clan that fled Jerusalem was named Lehi, and the son of his who took command of their divided community was called Nephi. Those names echo down through the hundreds of pages of the text, taken up by different descendants of theirs in different contexts, all in the midst of explicit prophecies about the future coming of Jesus Christ, as well as tales of civil conflicts and rivalries and conversions stretching out over many generations and many distant communities, all related by a variety of narrators. In time, the narrative presents readers with a small group of members of a distinct tribe who are converted (or re-converted) to the words of God through the actions of a missionary, and they, rejecting the larger warlike population (called the “Lamanites”) which they were part of, took the name “Anti-Nephi-Lehi” for themselves. And that is where this story, so relevant to our time, is told. As is recounted in the part of the Book of Mormon knowns as the Book of Alma:

And now it came to pass that when…all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth. And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives….

And it came to pass that their brethren, the Lamanites, made preparations for war, and came up to the land of Nephi for the purpose of destroying…the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi out of the land. Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.

And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.

Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword…they did forebear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done. And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.

And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved. (Alma 24: 17-26)

In the formalized Sunday School curriculum of the Mormon church, one that is followed in congregations worldwide, the Book of Mormon is read in its entirety every four years. When it last came around for faithful members, in 2020, there were, of course, vicious conflicts and wars being waged around the world, as there tragically always are. Then, the wars which inflamed the passions and made the option of non-violence seem hopeless were in Afghanistan and Sudan; today, in 2024, the same can be said about Ukraine and Gaza. With all these conflicts very present in minds of us all, the potential of using this story—among whatever audience, Mormon or otherwise, willing to take it seriously--to present a radical, pacifist reading of how Christians are to respond to violence (much less the prospect of endorsing or supporting it) shouldn’t be ignored. (Pairing such a story with the practical ideas of peace activists like George Lakey or the Engler brothers wouldn’t be a bad idea either!)

Hauerwas, reflecting upon King’s call to exercise a “love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution,” argued that “non-violence…seeks not to defeat or humiliate an opponent, but to win a friend….to awaken in the opponent a sense of shame and repentance” (Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, 90). I, at least, can’t think of a more dramatic literary demonstration of both the costliness of non-violence to the practitioner, and the space for redemption and reconciliation which bearing that cost opens up, than the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies.

That space, it must be emphasized, is not uncontested; as it is with Hauerwas’s or any others’ radical readings of Jesus’s message of non-violence, there are, in my tradition, many who reject the pacifist interpretation of these Book of Mormon passages. More importantly however, this space, even if it is embraced, cannot be understood as self-justifying; to stand with faith in a space which renounces war is to stand in a place where the results of one’s non-violence--to say nothing of the justice of such--are unknown. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies obviously couldn’t—and never did, at least insofar as the Book of Mormon’s narrative tells us—know the result of their refusal to defend themselves: they were killed by their enemies in the very moment when they prostrated themselves before them, proclaiming their conviction that, as a people redeemed by God’s grace, they dared not do violence to any other creature. To them it was, simply, an act of loving, utopian faith.

Few of my fellow Mormons are pacifists, much less people who embrace socialist hopes. But this MLK Day, I take some small inspiration from the knowledge that in my own tradition, like in Christianity more broadly, for all its endless faults and compromises with the warlike reality around us, one can find stories of Jesus and others which point toward a utopian, perhaps unfinishable, but still better, more peaceful world. King’s courageous insistence upon justice was grounded in such stories; may ours be a well.

Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, and longtime DSA supporter.

Imagine credit: Minerva Teichert, “Christian Converts” (1949-1951), Brigham Young University Museum of Art