The LDS church has recently been the subject of many lawsuits claiming that some church leaders have taken part in the cover up of serious crimes committed by members of their congregations by dealing with serious legal matters exclusively within the church. Some of these lawsuits argue that church leaders and ward members actively discourage victims to prosecute serious crimes “lest they run afoul of church teachings regarding forgiveness” (http://www.journal-news.net/news/local-news/2017/06/lawsuit-against-lds-church-permitted-to-move-forward/). It is my opinion that matters involving crimes committed by members of the church against other members of the church should not be resolved exclusively within church disciplinary councils, but that such persons should be tried in a secular court of law.
Some may believe that pressing charges against another member of the church who has committed a crime may be a sin itself because they assume that legal prosecution and Christ’s teachings of forgiveness are mutually exclusive. This belief is based on scriptures where God commands his followers to forgive all people no matter what they have done (Mosiah 26:31; Matthew 6:14-15; Alma 34:40). These misguided assumptions about forgiveness and the legal system, unfortunately, place the victims of crimes in situations where they are re-victimized in at least four ways (assuming the worst circumstances as outlined in these lawsuits). First, they suffer the pain from the crime itself. Second, they suffer the pain of being taught that it is a sin to have negative feelings against the perpetrator or for desiring justice against the perpetrator. Third, they must sit back and watch while the perpetrator is free to re-victimize, receiving no lasting consequences for their actions. Fourth, victims suffer from the confusion and anger associated with the mixed messages of church leaders being sent to them and to the criminal. They see church leaders preach messages of hope to the criminal, assuring them that they can be forgiven for whatever crimes they commit. The victims, on the other hand, are lectured about how they must forgive the criminal because they can’t be forgiven for their own sins if they do not forgive others first. While these circumstances are rare, the fact that they have occurred even once is unacceptable.
It is my opinion that delivering a criminal to be judged according to the laws of the land is not mutually exclusive to the principles of forgiveness outlined in Christ’s teachings. This is because legal prosecution of crimes is not carried out solely for the victim; it is carried out by government officials based on laws and punishments agreed upon by society. The government, not the victim, is the party who is administering justice and enforcing the laws of the land that have been established.
The government prosecutes crimes and punishes offenders so that society can benefit from deterring future crimes and preventing criminals from committing more crimes. Members of the church who prosecute criminals, therefore, are not seeking personal vengeance and thus negating their capacity to forgive, but are instead fulfilling their responsibility as law-abiding citizens to report crimes to the state so that its citizens can enjoy a more harmonious society. This is separate from principles of forgiveness; a person can see justice administered and yet not forgive the perpetrator, while another person can see the guilty party get away with their crimes and yet forgive them for their actions, recognizing that the justice system is fallible.
If a victim desires, they can also make settlements outside of the law if it is most beneficial for the victim. For example, a victim of theft may find it beneficial to not see the thief thrown into prison if that would mean not receiving restitution payments in a timely manner. I would argue that decisions to prosecute certain crimes are a personal issue for the victim and they have every right to decide whether to press charges. It is my opinion that settlements made outside a court of law, however, should not be based on a false belief that it is contrary to Christ’s teachings to prosecute criminals.
Below are some examples in the Book of Mormon to support these points of view I have described:
- Righteous judges and kings in the Book of Mormon were given authority from the people to punish those who broke the laws given to them by God:
“…there should be no wars or contentions, no stealing, nor plundering, nor murdering, nor any manner of iniquity. And whosoever has committed iniquity, him have I [King Mosiah] punished according to the crime which he has committed, according to the law which has been given to us by our fathers” (Mosiah 29:14-15)
“…choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 29:25)
“And he selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people.” (Alma 4:16)
“Now if a man owed another, and he would not pay that which he did owe, he was complained of to the judge; and the judge executed authority, and sent forth officers that the man should be brought before him; and he judged the man according to the law and the evidences which were brought against him, and thus the man was compelled to pay that which he owed, or be stripped, or be cast out from among the people as a thief and a robber” (Helaman 11:2)
- The law must be enforced because it serves as a deterrent to crime. If there were no punishment for crimes, then people would commit more crimes and society would descend into wickedness. Enforcing the laws creates peace:
“Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief. And they durst not steal, for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death” (Alma 1:17-18; see also Romans 7:7)
“Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder? And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin. And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature” (Alma 42:19-21)
“persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness; nevertheless, the law was put in force upon all those who did transgress it, inasmuch as it was possible. And it came to pass that by thus exercising the law upon them, every man suffering according to that which he had done, they became more still, and durst not commit any wickedness if it were known; therefore, there was much peace among the people of Nephi until the fifth year of the reign of the judges” (Alma 1:32-33)
- It is wicked to try and prevent justice from being administered to those who are guilty. If criminals are not punished for their crimes, then the sufferings of the righteous will cry out for vengeance against the criminals and those who refused to enforce the law. This principle is described when Alma prosecutes Nehor for slaying Gideon while practicing priestcraft:
“And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among this people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance. Therefore thou art condemned to die, according to the law, which has been given us by Mosiah, our last king; and it has been acknowledged by this people; therefore this people must abide by the law” (Alma 1:13-14)
“[the wicked] having usurped the power and authority of the land; laying aside the commandments of God, and not in the least aright before him; doing no justice unto the children of men; condemning the righteous because of their righteousness; letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money” (Helaman 7:4-5)
- The law, justice, and punishment are all part of God’s plan for us here on earth. If there were no consequences for our actions, then there would be no purpose for our creation and God would not exist:
“Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul. Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment? Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given…” (Alma 42:16-17)
“And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.” (2 Nephi 2:13)
“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith #12)