Friday, March 1, 2024

Parable of the Bad Neighbor: What would you do?


    For the longest time I wish I could locate one of the worst examples I had ever read about pre-emptive war. It turns out I had looked in the right spot, but the website for a long time was defunct. (It’s still a bit funky to be honest.) The parable was vague, and a poorly written attack on me, but it did make me think. And after a brief foreword, I’ll provide my own parable that should be much better.

    As a preamble, I have to point out a few ways this parable is limited regarding international relations. That’s because those that live in a state have a series of criminal and civil remedies. If one neighbor is noisy, nosey, threatening, or violent in any way the other neighbors can do anything from filing a restraining order to calling the police. Even threats of violence, or “making terroristic threats,” can result in arrest so there is no need for preemptive self-help violence.

    The state doesn’t have most of those recourses in international relations. There are some limited remedies ranging from the World Court, Interpol, diplomats, and some international organizations, but it is the military that delivers protection and justice for its people. When the citizens of one nation find themselves threatened by another, the leaders of the state are the ones responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens. Unlike the parable of the neighborhood dispute, there are no police to call or restraining orders to file. I assume my interlocuter chose the example of neighbors because it seemed especially ridiculous to preemptively shoot one.

    Without further ado, let’s assume that this neighborhood doesn’t have legal and civil remedies. This is apocalyptic Australia, there are no police and Mad Max is chasing down a biker gang a continent away.

    A new guy moves into the neighborhood and despite your best efforts your relationship sours. But this isn’t what you see on Judge Judgy about barking dogs or a loud party. The new neighbor, Fred, believes the property line is misaligned, or maybe he thinks he was legitimately wronged in having a valuable fruit tree just over the line. For whatever reason, he is openly antagonistic towards you.

    After some time Fred finally says, “I will kill you.” The aggressive neighbor gives a speech that their problem will soon be solved.[1] You see Amazon truck after Amazon truck drop off giant boxes from the gun store.[2] He tracks you in the sites of his machine gun every time you leave the house. He repeatedly crosses the property line to see how quickly you react.

    Despite your best efforts to diffuse the situation, after some time his friends pull up in pickup trucks and armed with machine guns they surround your house. They step forward with their weapons loaded and racked with a round in the chamber but haven’t fired yet. They take aim, and they fire. Your house is Swiss cheese from all the bullets, but this is still the first attack (D&C 98:23-26). They reload, and attack two more times for a total of three attacks.

    The question becomes, at what point would the good follower of Jesus Christ attack?

    Remarkably, there are some people who would wait until the end of the parable to attack. They mistakenly apply Doctrine and Covenants 98 to assume that it is a guide to foreign policy. They believe that Mormons must patiently bear three trespasses (usually interpreted as attacks) and lift a standard of peace before attacking. This group of people sound strong when they quote the scripture to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (v.16). But their position falls apart with the first bullet as you think about what it truly means to bear three attacks such as the massed fire in the parable, three nuclear strikes, or three sword thrusts. Its completely ridiculous to think that Jesus requires suffering three Pearl Harbors or 9/11 attacks before defending yourself.

    The most likely answer is that you are justified in defending yourself after the first attack. This is a reasonable position to take in response to a clear attack. But there are problems with this position. Returning fire under these circumstances places the defender at a severe disadvantage. Remaining on the pure defensive allows the attacker to choose the time and place of the attack. The attacker could choose to strike when the defender is asleep or gone to the store or before the defender supplied his own guns and reinforcements. Once the attack commenced, the defender would have to return fire in the face of incoming gunfire. Ceding the initiative places you at in a reactionary and weaker position, much like the Nephites after the Lamanite attack in Alma 16. There is a significant chance that your defense at this point will not be enough to save your life. So again, waiting to receive the attack seems as strong as it is simplistic. But it can be a poor and dangerous standard. It’s the equivalent of having a deranged homeless man brandishing a knife on your subway train, but waiting to see what he does with it next (See below).

    If you want to have a much better defense, you should fire before they do! This option would preemptively attack between the point when the neighbors gather around your house and when they first fire at you. It might be when they first pull up, or when they aim their guns, but the defending neighbor knows when an attack is happening (or commenced) and he doesn’t have to wait for it to be carried out.

    And this gets to the crux of preemptive war. Preemptive war is the right to attack between the point when the attack is commenced by not carried out. Or as the Book of Mormon implies, when the sword is raised, but hasn’t yet struck (Alma 48:14). The key is the phrase “raise a sword,” which compares to the theoretical standard of preemptively striking a charging assailant with sword in hand.[3]

    But there are arguments that you could launch a just attack even earlier. What if your neighbor wasn’t importing more rifles, but instead was importing tactical nukes? Just the transfer of nuclear weapons to a place where an avowed enemy could quickly strike the continental US was enough to justify the blockade of Cuba. If your neighbor has vowed to strike and has the weapons, then there are other theorists that suggest the attack doesn’t have to be imminent.[4]  For example, if the US waited until the 9/11 strikes were commenced but not carried out, they still would destroy four airplanes filled with innocent Americans. These are variations that don’t change the right to preemptive war, only the application of that right regarding difficult issues like striking terrorists.

    So what does the parable of the Bad Neighbor teach us? Well the parable as originally given is too vague to be of much use except as a strawman perception of preemptive war. The specifics matter. The real-life application of the preemptive right is clearly seen in the New York Subway incident. An aggressive and disturbed person comes on board a train waving around a knife and screaming that he doesn’t care if he goes to jail. No rational person would say to themselves, “This is creepy, but let’s see where it’s going.” “The restored gospel is clearly superior to and excludes preemptive just war theory.” “The gospel says renounce war and proclaim peace.” Or maybe “we should wait until he tries to stab someone because after all, we only believe in defensive war.” Daniel Penny clearly and correctly anticipated an attack, so he subdued the dangerous would-be assailant.

     When these ideas are presented in a specific scenario, like a brandished gun about to be fired, or drawn knife in a closed subway, the Parable of the Bad Neighbor shows that most people intuitively agree with the concept of preemptive war. That strong intuition is a sense of your natural rights. When the neighbor has shown intent (they announce their intent to kill you), means (they have imported a devastating number of weapons), and the attack is imminent (they’ve surrounded your house and march towards it with raised weapons),[5] the sword is raised, and the attack is commenced but not carried out. As a result, the defending neighbor has a God given right to defend themselves preemptively.

    Exactly when that point is reached is often disputed. In fact it’s common in debates around the justified use of preemptive war to manipulate and rearrange details to make an attack seem less or more likely and hence more or less justified. In the parable that would be like an analyst claiming that the aimed weapons of Fred and his friends were really just target practice or warning shots, so the defending neighbor was overreacting. You'll see that both in the original parable below as I’m supposedly cool with randomly killing someone and Mark Henshaw tried to rearrange the details of Kishkumen’s attack as a rebuttal to my use of the story. Preemptive war can also be abused by Putin or Bush, but that doesn’t diminish the right. Again, both the original author of this parable and Mark Henshaw invoke one or the other as stop think boogeymen.

    For kicks and giggles I've included  the original example. You’ll notice its far vaguer than my parable and filled with loaded language (panic, paranoid, snooping). I really hate the phony use of the word friend. It builds a straw man big enough to blaze at Burning Man and is included here as an illustration of the limited thought on the matter. At least it helped me to crystalize the key ideas behind the right to preemptive war:

How would our friend Morgan respond to the following situation? A new guy moves into the neighborhood, and after a few months of snooping and spying you determine that Fred…has an arsenal of weapons. You have a meeting with all your neighbors and decide that he might use them against you. You have no proof of this, yet the neighborhood is in a panic and everyone is paranoid that it might be them first. You collectively decide to use force to apprehend Fred’s arsenal, and when he politely refuses the situation escalates and a fellow neighbor shoots Fred with a 30-06 from 300 yards. Problem solved. No judge, no jury, just an executioner. Everyone is safe right? But was it moral? Did you not kill Fred before he had done anything wrong? Obviously this scenario is absurd, but what is the difference when nations do the same thing in the name of patriotism and nationalism?

Asked and decisively answered. Thanks for reading. For a more official and in depth version of scriptures, theory, and preemptive war see my article in Square Two, Kishkumen’s Dagger.

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[1] The Communists clearly indicated they wanted to take islands in the Taiwan Strait Crisis which led to preemptive US intervention.

[2] The transfer of nuclear weapons to Cuba was enough for President Kennedy to consider a first strike. He said, “we no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in deployment may well be regarded as a threat to peace.” Mark Totten, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010),71.

[3] Mark Totten, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 129-146.

[4] Totten, First Strike, 136. 

[5] These are the expanded criteria given by Grotius. Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Stephen Neff trans., (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 84.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Identifying the Heart of a Just Warrior


    I’ve written a great deal about the primacy of the heart. While the concept has ample scripture and philosophical support the problem then becomes, how can one know if some action in war is really a heartfelt policy? We have some clues in the movie Witness, where an Amish grandfather tells a young boy who wants to use a gun against bad men that the young child can’t see into people’s hearts. But the child, who witnessed a murder, responds that he recognizes bad men by their actions. While that is a good line, it is insufficient because a just war like World War II can kill as many people in as many ways as unjust wars. When warfare is so gruesome that even its defenders say it is similar to a surgeon that has to saw off a limb, how can we tell if the heart of the person waging war is righteous? Here are several of the ideas I have:

    When President Nelson gave his talk about being a peacemaker, the Facebook groups in which I participated immediately weaponized it. They would immediately cite his talk against the actions of someone they didn’t link. But being a peace maker in your heart has to derive from one’s own self reflection and conviction within their hears. This is dangerous because of the tendency of people to self-justify. So Boyd Packer’s insight remains important. He said that the apostles of Jesus didn’t suggest Judas as the betrayer, but asked, “Lord, is it I?” This is a powerful reminder that we use scriptures to scrutinize and change our behavior, not self-justify. And in this case, towards more peaceful resolutions in our personal lives and foreign policy.

    The next solution is context. As I mentioned, a righteous war and unrighteous war look fairly similar in the sense that the government sends its bombers, ships, and soldiers to shoot at people. But it is important to consider context. Imagine a scenario where a grandmother is crossing the road and the brakes on a bus fail. That bus is certainly about to kill her, so a bystander runs and pushes the grandmother out of the way. That individual just pushed a grandmother and broke her hip, but because of the context he is considered a hero.

    But let us take the same scenario, only this time the grandmother is on the curb, waiting patiently to cross the street. The bus is coming, and the bystander takes the same action. He pushes the grandmother. She breaks her hip and then bus hits her. That is the dastardliest action that one can think of.

    Yet the central action, pushing the grandmother, is exactly the same as the heroic action from the previous version of this scenario. What turns the same action from a crime into a heroic action is the context. In this case, the question is if the person is throwing grandma into or out of the way of the oncoming bus.

    Clearly, killing to defend life is a clear expression of Christlike love, while killing to gain power or freedom is not. Alma 43-45 clearly described the dichotomy between the Christlike defense of home verses seeking for money and power, even though both use almost indistinguishable tactics. It is important for us to gather as much information as we can to put actions into context.

    The next item to consider is related to context, and we should look at outcomes. Fighting for more territory and power is far different than fighting to protect an ethnic minority from extermination. There are very clear goals that can show the nature of the person’s heart. The danger in this is that no country ever proclaims its evil motives. Even Hitler planted some bodies in disputed territory to claim a righteous reason to invade. But thoughtful individuals can see the difference between spin and substance, or as Chinese theorist said, the punishments and prohibitions must accord.[1]

    The ability to detect spin, especially in an age of echo chambers and fake news will likely receive its own post in the future. As an academic with access to large amounts of information and what people tell me is a good head, I might overestimate the ability of most people to see through talking points. And yet making sure you can see the difference in context and desired outcomes remains important. While history is often used and abused, knowing history can bring additional information and examples that lets a person judge.

    That leads to the final and most important point. The decision to go to war is often overwhelming. It is the numb, crying, can’t concentrate feeling when you watch the twin towers fall, or the video of Israeli’s being harmed. Your heart, the loving heart of just war, feels incredible pain at the injustice you are watching. And that heart knows that there must be a response that seeks justice. While God holds eternal judgement, that justice is in the state’s hands. So you know and support the use of the military to achieve justice. That’s why Thomas Aquinas cited scriptures like Psalms 82:3-4 as the key of just war: “Defend the lowly and fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and needy. Rescue the lowly and poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Your heart knows, decisively, when the blood of the [innocent] shall cry from the ground against them (2 Nephi 28:5-10).

    So these are some important considerations that help modern Latter-Day Saints see if they have the peaceful, loving hearts required to wield the sword. We must have a “Lord is it I” attitude towards peace making, consider context and outcomes, and remember how we felt on 9/11. We intuitively know when we see a massive injustice that needs correction and justice in the form of a nation state declaring war.

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[1] Robin Yates trans., Five Lost Classics, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 57.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Happy 15th Anniversary to Warfare in the Book of Mormon

    Take yourself back to January 2009. The fallout from the housing crisis was ongoing. Barrack Obama was inaugurated. The people loved the movies Taken and Paul Blart Mall Cop. This new singer, Lady Gaga, topped the charts. Personally, I was serving in the Virginia National Guard. In fact, my unit was activated for Obama’s inauguration. That Christmas I got dragged to my in-laws for what was the worst break ever. (The journey from my wife to ex-wife was filled with lows actually.) Most importantly, in January of 2009 I finished my last official semester of grad school. I thought I would soon be attending my PhD program, and full of excitement, I figured I should finally start that Book of Mormon warfare blog I always wanted to when I had the chance.

    Here we are 15 years later and I’m still blogging. When I first started, I had lots of ideas, but I didn’t know it would be enough to talk about over a decade and a half. My steady and lengthy progress remind me of a story from the Chinese philosopher Xunzi. He was a major Confucian thinker often called the Chinese Aristotle. He wrote that not everyone can be a mythical war horse that travels 10,000 miles in a day. But if you measure its pace an old nag can go 10,000 miles.[1] So like any good anniversary I suppose I’ll buy myself some crystal, enjoy how far I’ve come, and then give you some highlights during a retrospective look at my blog:

Early Posts:

    My early posts were rough. I had lots of good ideas, but they were all over the place and unrefined. I saw one spot where I didn’t capitalize the Bible! But there are also many jewels. For example, compare my desire to look at the average soldier in this post, with my journal article about the experience of battle within the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t find it, but early on I discussed the danger that nuclear weapons pose and the need for preemptive war as a result. That line of thought has blossomed into articles like this. One of my very first posts, responded to a website, Mormon Mesoamerica, that no longer exists! (The link is safe; it just doesn’t go to Mormon Mesoamerica.) I guess that means my arguments win by simply outlasting the critical website. Seriously though, in the age of 30 second viral videos and auto erasing texts, I’m proud of having something like this blog that has the extra credibility of being around for 15 years.

Purpose and Place of Blog:

    The best description of my blog past that early stage was this post about being an insurgent. I know it’s strange to call myself an insurgent but the term is neutral. I thought it was an accurate example of using my blog to share ideas that bypass gate keepers like editors. You’ll notice on my author page that I prefer self-publishing. I like to control the pace, pick the picture, set the price, and most importantly, keep the royalties. The added prestige of a publisher would be nice, but in most cases, it doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

    Looking back, I would have also described how my blog is often a feeder for more serious publications. The toughest part of writing for me is going from my mind to paper. And with a blog post I already have the preliminary thoughts written down and some kind of draft to polish pieces for conferences and journal articles. I also put a good deal of work into the footnotes, which saves me time in the final product. The lengthy footnotes work to show that I have a command of a wide range of material. In some cases the extensive sources also combat misinformation.


    Even casual readers should notice that this isn’t a fluff blog. I have good ideas, and I’ve put in years of study and lots of thought going 10,000 miles in my career. I’ve encountered lots of people, mainly libertarians for some reason, who haven’t put in that thought. For example, one author literally said that he skipped school (because its “establishment pap”) and put in just a few months writing his (lousy) book.

    I learned two important lessons from these engagements. The first lesson can be compared to an experience from General Grant. During his first engagement he unexpectedly bumped into an opposing officer leading his men into battle. When Grant saw the look of fear in that commander’s eyes, he realized that the enemy wasn’t monolithic and all powerful. In fact, they are just like him, but since Grant came prepared and trusted his leadership skills and strategic acumen, he had no reason to fear. In short, I’m not intimidated by someone that has lots of degrees and titles and smugly assumes they are the smartest person in every room. I am well read, academically trained, and thoughtful, so I often find people like Patrick Mason, who are big name scholars that haven’t read critical texts and make poor arguments.

    The other lesson I learn from rebutting random trolls is how even the saddest internet poser still apes the language and methods of academia. They’ll begin by talking about the danger of academics or with insults. But then they offer their own thesis statements, (or mislabel my thesis statements), provide very short bibliographies filled with specious texts, and somehow talk about research. Yet their posts aren’t really scholarship because they mostly rely on dogma, catch phrases, cliches, and shallow thought. Without rigorous thought, sound methods, and a spirit of free inquiry, they deny themselves the power of scholarship and only have the appearance of it. In short, they hate academics, still have an intuitive need to look like one, but fail because they misunderstand the underlying methods that makes a real scholar.


    I like the comments I made on this post more than a decade ago. As I’ve studied just war, the primacy of the heart has been solidified for me. It resolves the tension between how a Christian can have a peaceful heart and wield the sword. Ten years before I did that research in the comments of that blog, I already noticed how love can be manipulated. So I simply continued that thinking: If its loving to not fight, how can it be loving to not fight and then accept the consequences of a Nazi victory. Even before my official study I had an instinctive knowledge of that fact.

    Beyond my comments, the post itself is quite ironic in more ways. I’m clearly better read than Geoff B. He claims to have read the authors I cited, but if he did, he would have addressed them instead of repeating shallow isolationist cliches. (They’ll say “war is a racket”, but haven’t even read the Smedley Butler piece from which the phrase derives.)

    Years later Geoff has run the conservative Millennial Star into the ground. He purged most of the perma-bloggers for being insufficiently orthodox. As he bullied those that disagreed with him, he bragged about how many unique visitors the site used to get but now I think my solo blog outproduces and gets more unique visitors than him.

    The second irony comes from the “diplomat” that invited the post. I audibly guffaw every time I hear that term, because my only memory of Scott was him sending a series of flaming emails in the middle of my divorce. I was only going through the worst event of my life, and he claimed to be my friend (and again, a diplomat), but somehow, he thought it was a good time to vomit outrage and unfair insults over an alleged faux pas of mine. He’s so bad at diplomacy he reminded me of that scene from Office Space where the guy yells, “I’m good at dealing with people…what the hell is wrong with you!!!”

    Sadly, his behavior is fairly typical of my experience with people from By Common Consent and the Mormon blogging world in general. If you are liberal or critical of the church, they love you and they all need rotator cuff surgery from patting themselves on the back over how amazing, smart, and nuanced they are. As I found during my time with Wheat and Tares, if you are conservative and orthodox you are met with disdain and condescension. But the best revenge against the super sophisticates of the bloggernacle is to continue my great career. After every success I’ll admit I indulge in a little chuckle at the haters. Reading 15 years’ worth of insults, I know I’ve earned it.


    If this were a tv special at this point the music would swell, and the highlight clips would flow a little faster but I’m not that cool. I can say that I don’t see anything that would end my blogging. My divorce and brief homelessness didn’t even stop my blogging. I still have ideas. My latest book on just warfare in the Book of Mormon has essentially been published. There is always another idea, another conference, another paper. Publishing one post a month, in the first week, if possible, is a steady groove and easily achievable. Maybe someday I’ll look at my creations, feel proud, and then rest. But I can’t say when that is coming.

    Thanks for reading. I joke that I only have about ten readers. But I appreciate every one of you. Thanks for being with me for any part of the last 15 years, and I look forward to linking to this blog post in my 30th anniversary post.

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[1] Eric Hutton trans., Xunzi: The Complete Text, (Princeton University Press, 2014,) 13.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Straightening the Warped Wood: A Confucian Reading of 2 Nephi 2:25

The following is my application to the Mormon Theology Seminar. They asked for a creative and close reading of 2 Nephi 2:25. 

Lehi begins his blessing by telling his son Jacob that he was born in the wilderness and “suffered afflictions and much sorrow.” V.1 But, Lehi promised, those afflictions would be “consecrated for his gain.’ V2 because he was redeemed by his Savior. V.3 This blessing and explanation of Jesus’ role culminates in the famous couplet: Adam fell that man might be and men are that they might have joy.

The joy of mankind’s purpose immediately contrasts with Biblical verses who emphasize the conditions of the lone and dreary world that would be cursed. Adam would eat by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:17) and women would bring forth children in sorrow (Gen. 3:16).

But when viewed through Confucian teachings, that sorrow is what leads to joy. This Confucian lens bridges the gap between the Biblical account of the fall that emphasizes tribulation, and Lehi’s version, which quickly pivots from tribulation to joy and omits the tribulation all together in his famous couplet.

One of the leading Confucian thinkers Xunzi, often called the Chinese Aristotle for his command of a wide range of topics over a similar time period as the Greek thinker, discussed fallen human nature and its relation to self-improvement and joy.

In contrast to other Confucian thinkers like Mencius (whom Xunzi names in his rebuttal), Xunzi believed that human nature was fallen. Sounding much King Benjamin about the carnal, sensual and devilish “natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), Xunzi wrote: People’s nature is bad…goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. They are born with feelings of hate and dislike in them. If they follow along with these, then cruelty and villainy will arise.[1] (Xunzi also believed that a sage ruler would supplant a mere hegemon by recognizing his people’s nature, teaching them what is right, and guiding them on the way, again sounding like King Benjamin’s role in Mosiah chapters 1-3.)

This sounds negative at first glance, but his message is positive because this fallen or sinful nature can lead to great joy. Xunzi explained that recognizing man’s fallen nature is like a craftsman that sees a crooked piece of word, potter adding water to raw clay, or a smith that sees unrefined metal.[2] “Crooked wood must await streaming and straightening…only then does it become straight. Blunt metal must await honing and grinding, and only then does it become sharp.”[3] The people, honed by Confucian rituals and behavior, find themselves living in a blessed and happy state as gentlemen, being able to overcome the vicissitudes of life.

The most applicable part of being a gentleman is maintaining composure during toil, such as those experienced by Jacob, Adam, and everyone living in a fallen world. Xunzi thought that even people “on the streets” or in the lowliest gutter of fallen life could apply these principles.[4]  Once perfected, the Confucian gentlemen retains peace and happiness no matter the situation. “Even if living in poverty, the gentlemen’s intentions are still grand. Even if wealthy and honored, his demeanor is reverent. Even if living at easy, his blood and qi are not lazy. Even if weary from toil, his countenance is not disagreeable. When angry he is not excessively harsh, and when happy he is not excessively indulgent.”[5]

The Confucian lens thus makes an explicit connection between man’s fallen nature, and their capacity for joy. It not only shows some congruency with Lehi’s teachings, but adds much more, filling in the blanks of what specific actions within life leads to joy, as simply as a crooked piece of wood being straightened by a craftsman. The fall leads to trial, which in turn leads to joy because of the perfecting actions prescribed by rituals and proper conduct.

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[1] Eric Hutton, trans., Xunzi: The Complete Text, (Princeton University Press, 2014,) 248.

[2] Ibid., 65, 201, 204, 209, 210, 250.

[3] Ibid., 248.

[4] Ibid., 254.

[5] Ibid., 15.