The LDS topic of Blood Atonement is a controversial one. It is usually addressed only by anti-Mormons who use it to attack the church, and LDS apologists, trying to defend the church in the face of it’s embarrassing implications. However, I’d like to suggest a broader understanding of Blood Atonement that seeks to transcend the polarized agendas of apologists and anti-Mormons.
Consequences of Sin: Spiritual and Physical
In order to understand universal blood atonement within this broader context, we must understand that every sin has two consequences: a spiritual consequence, and a physical consequence. The spiritual consequence of sin is spiritual death and separation from God. Christ’s atonement can free us from the spiritual consequence of sin and brings us back into communion with God, if we repent of the sin.
But whether or not Christ forgives our sin, the physical consequences of sin are still in force, and are suffered by the victim of the sin. For example, if you steal from someone, the physical consequence is suffered by the person you robbed. And in a way, the victim’s suffering atones for the physical consequence of that sin. Thus the victim can become a kind of Savior for the perpetrator. While the affects of this kind of atonement may not be quantifiable from a legal perspective, it does have a powerful, almost poetic significance.
The Sins of the Fathers
Every time we sin against another, there is a physical consequence. This is easiest to perceive within families. The fruits of sin are often passed from father to child, sometimes over many generations. The abused go on to be abusers. We find ourselves inadvertently making the same mistakes our parents made. The Bible says “I will curse them to the 7th generation.” This is not to say that these consequences are always inevitable. Christ can take the sword from our hand, and heal us, before we live out the curses we may have inherited. But nevertheless, if Christ does not heal the abuse in us, we may have to live out the consequences of the abuse others have inflicted upon us.
The Ax at the Root of the Evil Tree
Sinning can be understood as sowing an evil seed. Sometimes that sin grows and ripens in the heart of the person we have sinned against. Collectively, societies sometimes sow large amounts of these seeds which ripen over generations into great forests of evil. John the Baptist says, “the ax is laid at the foot of every tree, and every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” The people and cultures who reap the terrible fruits of these sins did not sow the seeds, yet they still suffer destruction for them. This destruction is a kind of blood atonement. After the destruction of the evil tree, the physical consequences of the sin have been paid, and the people involved can hit the reset button.
WWII as a type of Blood Atonement
Psychologist Victor Frankel recounted his ordeal as a Holocaust survivor in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In his analysis of the experience, he suggests that all suffering has meaning, even seemingly pointless suffering in Nazi concentration camps. While he was in the camps, he encouraged his fellow inmates to see their suffering as a kind of monument that will stand eternally in the river of time, to be forever referenced by the universe as something real, heroic, and of great value.
But what value can the suffering really have had? I would like to suggest that actually, there is something profoundly significant about it, that affected and altered the history of humanity. Consider the world before and after WWII.
Before WWII: A world ravished by imperial and nationalistic attitudes. These imperial and tribal cultures had engaged in non-stop warfare for thousands of years. Democracy was still rare, and relatively new. It was a world in a state of tyranny, slavery, very little freedom, impenetrable class divisions, profound racial hatred, and violently nationalistic attitudes.
After WWII: Imperialism dies. There is a mass exodus of the major powers from imperial and dictatorial rule to democratic rule. Super-powers exhibit rational displays of restraint during the cold-war, and Communism dies a quiet death. Peace and prosperity reign all across the developed world. There are wars, but only in the undeveloped world, among countries that were not heavily involved in World War II. Both Germany and Japan become economic powerhouses and icons of peaceful global neighbors. I would suggest that the peace and prosperity the developed world enjoy in the 21st century has only been possible because of the violent atonement of WWII.
The World Without WWII?
Could the developed world be as peaceful and prosperous as it is today, without WWII? (please note I am only considering the developed world, those 1st world nations principally involved in WWII, which today enjoy the greatest period of peace and prosperity in the history of mankind. Wars still exist today, but only in less civilized nations. Developed nations get involved in these third world conflicts only for containment and democratization purposes, not imperialistic ones as in former days.) Consider these three scenarios:
- If Hitler had not invaded Russia: Millions of lives would have been saved, but Hitler might have ruled Europe all the way through the 1980s or longer, and Imperial wars similar to those of the 19th Century, might still be going on today.
- If Hitler had not killed the Jews: Most likely, there would be no state of Israel today. The fallout of the holocaust that created powerful international impetus propelled the Jewish people into their new home in Palestine. Without the atonement of the holocaust, the Jews in Europe might still be treated in 19th century ways, as “a hiss and a byword” all around the developed world. Racism might be much more prevalent.
- If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, or behaved more rationally with regard to China? We would have had no reason to go to war with Japan, and thus it might still be a fascist, militarily aggressive country today, with territory still spanning much of Asia, full of slavery, periodic genocides, and irrational displays of Kamikaze suicide.
I acknowledge that this view is bound to be controversial, and may even seem blasphemous to some. Others will argue that the developed world could have stabilized without WWII, and that it was an unnecessary aberration, a complete and total waste of human life and capital. And still others will argue that it is morally reprehensible to “see a silver lining” in something so atrocious. Nevertheless, I do believe today’s peace and prosperity in the developed world, is thanks, in large part, to the violent atonement of WWII. Germany had centuries of sin on its head, centuries of ruthless imperial and monarchical rule, centuries of brutal treatment of the Jews. But in a period of less than 15 years, Germany was transformed from a state of sinful and racist nationalism, into a state of pacifistic humility. This became possible, in part, because of the atonement of the Jews, and the deaths of millions of others.
I believe if you examine all the wars and killings in the world, you might be able to see how some of it paved the way for our modern state of peace and prosperity. I sometimes remember this when I step outside into the sun each morning. Each step I take in this blessed land was paid for by the blood of millions before me. If they had not paid the price for the sins of humanity, I would still be paying for it myself, living the life of a slave or soldier. I live and breath, free, prosperous, with unlimited opportunity, not because God simply gave it to me free. Humanity gave it to me, and they gave it to me with their blood. There is no free lunch.