(RNS) — On February 25, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement so anemic that it wasn’t entirely clear if it was meant to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the day before.
We are sorry and deeply concerned about the current armed conflict. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has members in each of the affected regions and around the world. Our minds and our hearts are turned towards them and towards all our brothers and sisters.
We continue to pray for peace. We know that lasting peace can be found through Jesus Christ. He can calm and comfort our souls even in the midst of terrible conflict. He taught us to love God and our neighbors.
We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly, that the controversies will end peacefully and that peace will reign between nations and in our own hearts. We implore world leaders to seek such resolutions and peace.
The timing of the statement and its note that the LDS Church “has members in each of the affected areas” certainly suggests that it was intended to condemn (softly, weakly, unsteadily) what Russia has done and is doing. But since the nations in question aren’t named anywhere, we’re left to guess.
Earlier in the day, the Church’s Europe Area Presidency also released a statement asking members to fast for peace on Sunday, the Church’s regular monthly fast day. Again, however, he did not name names. Russia and Ukraine are not mentioned.
Now is not the time to be like Switzerland, refusing to take a stand against an unprovoked attack. (Apparently, even Switzerland is of the same opinion, since it announced earlier today that it was setting aside his usual neutrality and imposing economic sanctions due to Russia’s “unprecedented military attack on a sovereign European state”.)
I am all for praying for peace and for churches that make these prayers a regular and focused part of our worship. We Mormons could do more with that, day to day and week to week. It’s not that I disagree with anything in the “Official Church Statement on Armed Conflicts”. What’s there to disagree with, really? It’s more that its all-encompassing, all-encompassing nature negates any real impact it might have had. As historian Ardis Parshall expressed on Twitter, it was vague and lacking in heart.
So why is it so widespread? This is an interesting question, especially considering the deep anti-Soviet sensibilities of the Church in the second half of the 20th century. Vladimir Putin did more than any other leader to bring Russia back to this era of dictatorship. In 2020, for example, he pushed through legislation that will allow him to stay in power until 2036, overturning the two-term limit that had prevailed since the establishment of a fragile democracy in the 1993 constitution. He worked to restrict freedom and promote authoritarianism. Yet the Church said almost nothing in criticism of him or these actions.
I suspect this is due to the self-interest of the Church. In 2018, President Russell M. Nelson announced the creation of The very first Latter-day Saint temple in Russia. The fact that the location of the temple has not been announced suggests that it is still a sensitive subject of negotiation. It seems likely that LDS leaders have no desire to antagonize Putin, regardless of what he has done in Ukraine and at home.
This is a delicate situation for the Church in Russia, full of growing tensions. During Putin’s rule, LDS missionaries were banned from religious proselytizing; they must be called “volunteers” instead of missionaries and are limited to service opportunities. And even with this reservation, two Mormon-volunteer missionaries were arrested in 2019* and detained for three weeks in an immigration center because they allegedly taught English without a license.
If Latter-day Saint leaders need a cautionary tale, they need look no further than what happened with Jehovah’s Witnesses to whom they are often compared. In 2017, Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Putin regime has spent the past few years cracking down on them, raiding their homes and imposing often harsh prison sentences. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute national flags or engage in military service, their history has been characterized by frequent conflicts with totalitarian states, most famously in Nazi Germany.
But here’s what I keep thinking about. The Mormons, to our eternal shame, had a friendlier relationship with the Nazis in the 1930s before war broke out. Like the bookMoroni and the swastikareveals, the Church was very worried at the time about being expelled from Germany as its missionary programs were gaining momentum, so Church members did what they could to help themselves. adapt to Hitler’s policy. For example, members used their genealogical expertise to help Germans prove their Aryan ancestry and even encouraged Mormon missionaries to teach young German men how to play basketball before the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler hoped, the Deseret News reportedfor a “Nordic victory” at the Games, and the missionaries could contribute to this.
It would be wonderful if Mormons could learn something from our own history. Our myopia in 1930s Germany allowed us to look the other way when great evils were being done, as long as our missionaries were allowed to continue evangelizing.
Our priorities were wrong then, and I fear we will make the same mistake again. While I can understand why the Church today may be reluctant to speak out against Putin — that would mean saying goodbye in the short term to a new temple and perhaps placing members of the Russian Church in a precarious position vis-à-vis the state — it is a moral disappointment when the best we can come up with is the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Mormon missionaries were detained in Russia in 2017. This happened in 2019.
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