When Is Violence Justified?

“Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). The sixth of the Ten Commandments which the Lord gave to Moses on Mount Sinai is clear and uncontroversial.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expanded the commandment: Not only is it wrong to kill. It’s wrong to be angry. It’s wrong to call people names. These small acts and even feelings of aggression do not cause the other person physical injury, but they are violations of the core principle behind the sixth commandment: Don’t hurt other people (Matthew 5:21-223 Nephi 12:21-22).

But what if the other person is hurting you? It doesn’t matter, says Jesus. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, let them slap you on the left cheek as well. If they unfairly take your shirt, let them have your jacket too. If they force you to walk a mile, walk another one without being compelled (Matthew 5:39-41, 3 Nephi 12:39-41).

How does this play out in real life? Are we ever justified in defending ourselves and other people?

The Book of Mormon provides multiple case studies which help to clarify this point. Let’s look at two of them:

“They buried the weapons of war”

After being converted to the gospel by Ammon and his brothers, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies chose to explicitly renounce violence by burying their swords and promising never to raise a weapon against another person again (Alma 24:7-18). When they were attacked, they lay face down, prayed, and willingly died rather than fight their enemies, which resulted in many more converts (Alma 24:21-26).

Ammon admired this principled pacifism, but he was also a realist. As their enemies became more hardened, Ammon recognized that they were in danger of being completely destroyed. He convinced them to travel to the land of the Nephites, where they could be protected from their enemies. (Alma 27:4-30).

“Ye shall defend your families”

Captain Moroni took a different view. When he saw the freedom and happiness of his people being threatened, he rallied the people to fight. He based his actions on two statements from God:

  1. “Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.”
  2. “Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed” (Alma 43:46-47).

Mormon tells us that Captain Moroni and his armies not only felt that they were justified in fighting back, they considered it to be their duty.

Still, Mormon consistently described Moroni as a person who “did not delight in bloodshed” (Alma 48:11, Alma 55:19). He was a reluctant warrior, whose objective was to protect his people, not to inflict harm on others. When he had the opportunity to kill large numbers of enemy soldiers, he chose to take them prisoners instead (Alma 55:18-24). On another occasion, he ended a battle and let the enemy go free after they covenanted never to attack Moroni’s people again (Alma 44:19-20).


I see the following principles in these two case studies:

  1. There is not a single answer to the question of when it’s okay to defend yourself. It varies based on the situation and based on the individuals involved.
  2. Even if you choose not to fight, there is a point at which you ought to seek protection. You don’t want to throw your life away for no good reason.
  3. If you do fight to defend yourself and your family, you must carefully manage your motives. Your goal must never be to inflict unnecessary harm, but to stop the violence.

Today, I will be grateful for the varied examples in the Book of Mormon which show me how to apply the commandments of God. I will strive, like the Anti-Nephi-Lehies to cause no harm to other people, even if their goal is to harm me. When I need to defend myself or others, I will strive to do so without making my opponent an enemy. I will defend but not attack. I will never make it my goal to harm other people.

3 thoughts on “When Is Violence Justified?

Add yours

  1. So basically we need to be meek at all times… seeking divine guidance in each situation on if we should run, hide or fight. What did Bednar say, meek is strong? It’s not being weak but instead having the ability to control great power and only exercise it consistent with principles. So how does this teaching apply to winning at chess or sports where often we view taking the initiative as playing offense (and not defense)?


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