Monday, October 28, 2019

Take Up Arms and Destroy or Be Smitten Against the Wall: Preemptive War in the Book of Mormon, Part I


The defensive stance of the Nephites combined with the several verses that seem to forbid offensive war have created a generally accepted position on warfare in the Book of Mormon as one that supports defensive and forbids offensive warfare. In modern discussion of the topic various scholars have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general. Using additional and under studied verses this series examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.

This is the first of a seven part series. See part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.

Helaman chapter 1 starkly illustrates the difficulty of judging the merits of preemptive war. In Helaman 1:7 the Nephites seized Paanchi when he was only “about” to flatter the people in pursuit of the Chief Judgeship. The text doesn’t state exactly how much he had done to warrant arrest and execution, but it does repeat the word “about” and his arrest and execution suggests a serious threat. The attempt of his supporters to save him catalyzed the Gadianton insurgency and the preemptive seizure of Paanchi likely fueled their sense of injustice.[1] This example is one of many that suggest a Nephite tendency to preemptively deal with threats to their power. Given the many invasions and threats they faced, the Nephite decision makers had ample evidence to justify their aggressive preemptive tactics. After all, in the same chapter in which they seized Paanchi, the Nephites lost the capital to an army led by a dissenter, under a king who was the son of a dissenter. The two examples, one a caution and one a justification for preemptive action in Helaman 1 shows readers that the line between possibly unrighteous preventive action to take up arms and destroy and fleeing the capital and being smitten against the wall because of inaction is thinner than many Latter Day Saints believe. Using additional and under studied verses as well as a reassessment of commonly (over)used verses for and against the practice this paper examines the Nephite use of preemptive warfare and finds that the practice was both common and justified, had dubious effectiveness, and doesn’t warrant the strident attacks against advocates of the strategy.

The scriptures on the matter are more plentiful than commonly thought but the terminology is contested and a basic knowledge of the difference will help the discussion here. Preemptive war is defined as the initiation of hostilities to defend against imminent or ongoing attacks. Preventive war in contrast, is seen as an attack against threats that are less imminent and are often seen as a war of choice or even of aggression. The difference between the two, though, is largely dependent on the perceived imminence of the attacks. The less imminent the threat, the more preventive, optional, and unjust the war appears to be. This paper uses the term preemptive war instead of preventive war. I tend to agree with Victor David Hanson’s analysis which states that definition of imminent is often in the eye of the beholder and the difference between the two is contested to the point of becoming moot. (As I’ll discuss below, modern technology and weapons further reduces the difference.) With contested definitions the wars become defined not by clinical accuracy, but by the degree to which the person or nation supported or opposed the war to begin with.[2] Since most of the literature on Book of Mormon warfare discusses preemptive warfare, and the difference between the more justified preemptive war, and the less moral preventive war, is incredibly thin and contested, I will stick with the term preemptive war throughout the paper, though I acknowledge that at least some of the Nephite behavior could better fit the preventive definition.[3]

The Book of Mormon presents these preemptive and possibly preventive wars without editorial comment, and thus it seems like simply another strategy used in defending the Nephite realm. The only editorial comment from Mormon is against the blood lust and spiritual decay of those waging war or describes the ineffectiveness of the strategy in a particular instance, and not against the strategy itself. This is important, as preemptive wars are usually presented as morally necessary, but incredibly rare, and the Bush administration and those who supported that strategy are accused of the less morally permissible preventive war. As Colin Gray and Duance Boyce have noted, there is an almost “demonic hatred” of preventive war, and a “reproach without evidence” style to condemning those who supported the Iraq war, or the use of military force in general.[4] Thus, in addition to studying this practice among the Nephites, this piece acts as an important reexamination of what the book says about preemptive war and suggests the moral outrage against it is misplaced.

[1] Morgan Deane, “Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon”, Provo FAIR Presentation, August 4th, 2016.
[2] See Victor David Hanson, “Epaminondas the Theban and the Doctrine of Preemptive War,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy Victor David Hanson ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 100-103.
[3] Chris Brown said that the distinction between preventive and preemptive war "is difficult to sustain under twenty-first century conditions.” In Chris Brown, “After ‘Caroline’: NSS 2002, practical judgement, and the politics and ethics of preemption,” in The Ethics of Preventive War, Deen K. Chatterjee ed., (Cambridge University Press: 2013), 28.
[4] Duance Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 171-173. Colin Gray, The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: A Reconsideration, (Strategic Studies Institute Online, 2007), 28. : For a representative sample of the most extreme and unacademic versions, see Kendal Anderson, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State, (Create Space, 2014), 21 where “evil power hungry dictators” are the only ones that start preemptive war, and page 42 where he calls the practice an “assault on humanity itself.” For a sample of the voluminous personal attacks on proponents of the practice, Irvin Hill wrote, “A writer proving the Book of Mormon defense of Preemptive war, or just another war mongering propagandist?,” Obedient Anarchy, January 28th, 2015. (Accessed, October 21st, 2019 )

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Enos and the Trickster God: Mormon Theology Seminar 2020

Huehecoyotl from Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Enos knew that “God could not lie” (Enos 1:6) and therefore his guilt over his sins was swept away. Bearing testimony of a God that doesn’t lie suggests the possibility of gods that did lie. Assuming the possibility of trickster gods that Enos encountered in society at large, or maybe believed in during a rebellious phase, and which would make him want a remission of his sins when he came back, brings additional insights the life of Enos, his encounter with God, and provides insights in Nephite and Lamanite societies as well.

Because trickster gods are common throughout different cultures in different times it possible that Nephite culture responded to and interacted with these belief systems. Enos’ initial impulse was seeking forgiveness for his sins. Understanding the trickster gods might help us understand what sins bothered him. The Aztec god Huehuec├│yotl for example was often a symbol for indulgence and male sexuality which suggests the sins of Enos could have been sexual in nature. It’s possible that Enos indulged in his youth in sexual proclivities much like Corianton from later in Nephite history (Alma 39).[1]

In another text, much like the Greek gods Huehuecoyotl fomented wars between humans to relieve his boredom.[2] This is rather insightful because as the faith of Enos increased, or “began to be unshaken” (Enos 1:11), the God who couldn’t lie explained his just reasons for blessing the Nephites with protection, and God then explained the reasons they would forfeit that right. Both reasons are based on the people adhering to covenants in contrast to the capriciousness of a trickster God. Perhaps during his sojourn among other gods or disbelief in God Enos started to think, like the fictional character Romeo, that they were simple fools of fortune or a trickster god (Romeo and Juliet III.1). The desire for God’s promised protection of the Nephites suggests the possibly precarious state of Nephite affairs in this period and the seeds for their eventual exit from the land of Nephi.

The Navajo Coyoteway ceremony is particularly insightful as well. In the ceremony the ritual singer acts as a mediator between the trickster God and the people who offended him.[3] During his prayer Enos acted as a mediator for his people, praying for their welfare (1:9) and the perseveration of their records (1:16) from the hatred of the Lamanites. The Nephites had a knowledge of Moses, and presumably his intercession for the children of Israel which could mean that Enos was applying one or both of several traditions to his specific circumstances. 

The Lamanite behavior also has some possible relation to the trickster god. In the usual ethno centric description given by the Nephites of a wild people dwelling in tents and eating the flesh of wild beasts, Enos mentions that they were a short “skin girdle” (Enos 1:20). While not explicitly mentioned, the visual image of wearing the skins of creatures could recall the priests of trickster gods that often wore animal pelts that represented their gods and who were both feared and revered among ancient people.  

The Ekeko character from South Ande tribes and Kokopeilli from  North American South West tribes both represented trickster gods from afar that came bearing important messages. The importance of this trait could be that Enos used the concept of messages from the trickster gods, as something that was familiar to him and would make an easier transition back to praying to the God who couldn’t lie.[4] Kokopelli is often depicted with a prominent phallus which again connects to the possible sexual sin of Enos which would have created strong motivation and desire for the remission of his sins. Kokopelli’s petroglyphs as a hunchback flute player remains in many caves today which provide vivid physical reminders of locations where ancients would tell stories or perhaps pray all night around a camp fire.

Examining the Book of Enos and the God who couldn’t lie as a response to trickster gods seen throughout ancient societies gives us tantalizing hints into the sins of Enos, the way God interacts with his people through righteous judgement, possible Nephite politics and Lamanite material culture, and the way trickster beliefs like intercession and messages from afar may have influenced Nephite religious leaders. 

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[3] Karl W. Luckert and Johnny C. Cooke, Navajo Interpreter, COYOTEWAY: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremonial, University of Arizona Press, 1979.
[4] Young, John V. Kokopelli: Casanova of the Cliff Dwellers: The Hunchbacked Flute Player. Palmer Lake, Colorado: Filter Press 1990.