Violence, Mormonism, and the Sober Lessons of History: Breaking the Cycle of Defensiveness and Escalation

By Joanna Brooks

Joanna Brooks is Associate Vice President of Faculty Affairs at San Diego University and the author or editor of six scholarly books.



My scholarly training is in the cultural histories of race and colonialism in early America. Because I have this larger view of the violence of colonialism in the Americas, I have always found very curious the entirely outsized role the Mountain Meadows Massacre has played in discussions of Mormon history and the Mormon people. While the Mountain Meadows Massacre was an atrocity that reflects poorly on nineteenth-century Mormon leaders and massacre participants, there is nothing exceptional about this event in the incredibly violent context of the colonization of the Americas except that it was white-on-white violence. Large-scale massacres of indigenous people by white colonists and by the U.S. military were not uncommon in the American west. Given the ubiquity of this kind of violence in the context of colonialism, it’s fascinating to me the purchase Mountain Meadows has on Mormon apologetics and on the non-Mormon imagination about the Mormon people.

Given the ubiquity of violence against American Indians in the colonization of the American west, I admire and appreciate the way the Gospel Topics essay on peace and violence acknowledges Mormon violence against indigenous peoples. But it could have been more robust. How many smaller massacres of indigenous peoples were committed by Mormons? And going further, beyond individual instances of Mormons murdering Native people, or participating in massacres, there is also the violence we committed in unsettling entire indigenous civilizations as we “settled” the West. And that uprooting, that displacement, was violent to its ground. It’s important to acknowledge all of these in our history of violence.

But to move beyond these particulars, I’d like to focus on the way violence has been conceived and addressed within Mormon theology and discourse. The Gospel Topics essay is a product of a defensiveness that as much reflects a history of violence against and within Mormon communities as addresses it.

As the reactivity around the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its hold on the Mormon and the American imagination illustrate, violence in our history generates a great deal of defensiveness that leads in turn to apologetics. What would it mean to move from a place where we use Mormon history as a basis for an apologetics—a defensiveness—to a place of ethics, or even toward a prophetic witness?

This move from defensiveness and apologetics towards ethics is what Eugene England did, it’s what the peace studies conference named after him does each year at UVU, it’s what Patrick Mason’s fine work on Mormons and violence and peace does in international policy.

In reflecting on the Gospel Topics essay, I went back to Eugene’s Making Peace, which was carved out during the tension that was going on between intellectuals and the Church in the 1990s—kind of like the tension we’re in now. In his first essay, Eugene uses the theorist Rene Girard to talk about violence. According to Girard, violence is the product of when two groups compete for similar resources and similar outcomes. One group commits an offense against another and it escalates. Gene urged us to see how the sacrifice of Jesus Christ neutralizes this escalation of violence. When Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice, he reveals both the cost of violence and the violence inherent in both parties, giving everyone a reason to reflect on their own capacity for violence and to repent of it, and then to abandon competition for cooperation in an ethic of mercy.

I think there is much value in Girard’s theory and in Gene’s application of it to Mormon history. But I see violence in Mormon communities through a different metaphor: a cycle. An examination of our history shows an interlinking of the violence committed against Mormons, the violence we commit against each other, and the violence we commit against the outside world.

The non-LDS world has a history of perpetuating criticism, caricature, othering, antagonism, and shaming of Mormons. This leads to a reaction on the part of the Latter-day Saints: retrenchment, militancy, withdrawal from civic conversation, and a dynamic I call “undergrounding,” something that happens a lot in our political history where we tell the outside world one story in order to protect our inside story. That dynamic was present during polygamy and during the Church’s involvement with Prop 8 and the ERA. We claimed that we were just “concerned citizens” rather than participants in a specifically orchestrated effort.

This retrenchment in the LDS community leads to in-group micro-violence. This is especially prevalent right now among Mormon women: small acts of aggression are endemic in our daily lives. There is also boundary maintenance, shaming, and excommunication. This in-house micro-violence creates a dissident, stigmatized group of Mormons who appeal to the outside world, which feeds the public’s perception of and antagonism toward Mormonism, completing the cycle of violence.

This cycle offers a different way of thinking about Mormon history and the Mormon present than the theory Gene proposed. This isn’t two rival groups competing for the same outcome and therefore escalating in competition toward some form of offense. This is something much more dialectic, a dynamic of identification and differentiation where there is an othering and a shaming that gets passed around and around.

One of the things missing from progressive Mormonism right now, if we hope to be agents of transformation, is to recognize how this cycle escalates and to develop an ethic of de-escalation.

Escalation is never transformative. Escalation can never transform the dynamics of violence, especially when they are deeply historically embedded. The Gospel Topics essay actually reflects how non-transformative escalation is because it centers on the concerns of traditionally empowered, white-heritage Mormons in the U.S.

As the mother of Mormon-Jewish children, I found myself weeping (which I don’t usually do in such circumstances) during the hostage crisis in the Paris kosher grocery store in January 2015, not only because of Islamic anti-Semitism, not only because of the violence of European imperialism that has contributed to extremist movements in the Middle East and the despair of young people around the world, but because everything about the escalation of violence empowers the least progressive, least discerning, most violent voices on both sides of the conversation. Escalation is deeply conservative. Escalation does not transform, and if we hope to be a progressive influence on Mormonism, we need to opt out of this cycle. We need to refuse shaming, to avoid excessive language, to recognize the micro-violence in our own communities—including in progressive Mormon communities.

What if we were to refuse to participate in the Mormon cycle of violence? What if we were to refuse to be shocked when Elder Oaks says the same thing he has been saying for five years, carving out a religious freedom defense as the default refuge position after the failure of the Prop 8 campaign? What if we didn’t escalate the cycle further or hurl shame and hostility toward one another? What if we recognized antagonism from the outside, retrenchment and in-group micro-violence on the inside, and dissident appeals to the outside as an old, historically rooted part of our culture, one that we can neutralize?

Sara Burlingame has told me about a well-intentioned LDS bishop in Wyoming who said that if he heard that a family kicked a child out of their home for being gay, he would excommunicate them. She asked if there is a way we can address that family’s violence without escalating it through excommunication. What if excommunication stopped being a part of the Mormon lexicon as an acceptable redress for differentiation?

A transformative approach to the cycle of violence would be to draw from our historical experience as Mormons, acknowledge our capacity for violence, and draw out a new set of specifically Mormon values toward the eradication of violence in our communities. To transform this cycle, we need to broaden and re-center our analytic frames for what counts as violence worth addressing.

As an example, I’ll share some writing from Lani Wendt Young, a Mormon feminist in Samoa. She wrote this essay, which is included in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (Oxford), in response to the incredibly micro-violent treatment of Ordain Women activists. And she beautifully reframes the entire issue.

Samoans are proud to tell you we are a Christian nation founded on God. Almost 40 percent of the country is lds, and yet ours is a country rife with abuse. One study estimates that over 50 percent of women in Samoa have experienced some form of violence in their family. A disturbing survey showed that 60 percent of women believe that a woman deserved to be hit by her partner or his family for a number of reasons including serving burnt food for dinner.

Almost every Samoan I know has a story to tell of childhood abuse, often related amidst much laughter, about beatings from older cousins, parents, even teachers and pastors, using brooms, metal pipes, pieces of lumber, belts, and frying pans. These are only the barest hints of a widespread and deeply ingrained attitude that sanctions and normalizes violence, particularly against women and children.

Many of our LDS families are no exception to this attitude. Yes, the gospel teaches us that such behavior is wrong. Yes, lesson manuals instruct us on how a man who holds the priesthood should behave. But as long as men continue to hold all the leadership positions at church, as long as women are told in the temple to covenant to the Lord through their husbands, as long as only men sit in judgment on a disciplinary council making decisions about a woman’s worthiness, as long as these things are the way they are in our church, then both men and women will continue to use these structures as excuses and rationalizations for abuse.

Specific to Pasifika LDS women in New Zealand and Samoa, I ask, instead of official letters issued from Church headquarters and read in our wards about how marriage equality is a threat to “the family,” where are the letters condemning violence in the home, calling on men and women to stop beating each other and their children? When the chairman for the National Council of Churches in Samoa tells women they need to make sure they bite and scratch their rapists because otherwise we will know “she wanted it,” where are the voices of local LDS church leaders speaking out against such harmful council from a spiritual leader?

Samoa is in dire need of trained counselors and treatment programs; the LDS Church could take the lead in this area. What if we acknowledge that our families have some serious problems and prioritize church funds to establish an agency similar to LDS Family Services here? Instead of paying to train missionaries to go convert people, let’s put some of those funds into training our bishops, Relief Society presidents, and other ward leaders how to better respond to and help those in their congregations who are living in abusive families.

You see how she reframes the problem of violence? She moves us beyond the cycle. When she thinks about violence, she doesn’t center on past grievances and defenses. She moves beyond apologetics to ethics. She uses our ethics as a people, our teachings that make up our faith tradition, to address violence in Mormon communities today in a re-centering and broadly impactful way.

As Frances Menlove writes, “Have no doubt, in 40 or 100 years, our descendants will wince and marvel at the assumptions we now live by. Neither the Church nor any one of us is exempt from the sober lessons of history. Even Jesus had to remember this.”1

What kind of Gospel Topics essays will we need to write in another hundred years? How would the current selection of topics essays be different if Lani Young or another Mormon woman of color were writing about violence in the Mormon community? Would we still focus on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or would we focus on domestic violence or on the murder of Darian Hunt, an African-American man who was killed by police in Saratoga Springs, Utah. He was carrying a toy sword, and he was shot. He was one of ours.



  1. Frances Lee Menlove, “A Forty-Year View: Dialogue and the Sober Lessons of History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no. 3, 88–97.