Thursday, January 14, 2021

Yonder is Matter Unorganized

    The genesis of this project occurred during my last project. I systematically analyzed of over 30 classical Chinese texts on warfare. The interactions between the text were intriguing. Some points taken as statement of facts were quite controversial arguments. Sometimes the arguments produced a synthesis or led to subtle variations that lead to additional ideas. This led me to think about Mormon thought a good deal and the many arguments between sides that have their various proof texts. I’ve already tried to go beyond the usual proof texts but I wanted to do the same systematic analysis.

    Last year’s Come Follow Me was the Book of Mormon so I thought it was a good chance to take notes as I kept up with my weekly readings. I still have lots of research to do but I wanted to share few of the major ideas I’m forming.  

Re Creating Late Nephite Thought

    I was surprised to see principles that could be extrapolated from late Nephite thought. I already mentioned that the Nephites could see the oncoming attack, had suffered prior attacks and thus this was their most justified preemptive attack. Comparing Section 98:23-27 with Mormon 3:6-7 as well as Alma 48:14, I couldn’t help but recall that after multiple attacks the defenders could bring their witness to God and be justified in striking back. The problem Mormon had, and what led to his utter refusal to lead them wasn’t the offensive attack itself, but that the Nephites were improperly using God’s just methods with a wicked heart.

    The Nephite offensive is also supported by the concept of reclaiming lost territory. I mentioned possible revanchist elements in justifying the attack and I should have expanded that concept. One of the seminal modern books on just war listed reclaiming lost territory as one of the reasons.[1] Michael Walzer mentioned the territorial loss of the Franco Prussian War of 1870 as a partial reason the French gave for fighting in World War I (1914). The Nephites were pushed out of ancestral lands they held for over 500 years! (From the time they left the land of Nephi around the 3rd century BC to the mid 3rd century AD.)  Of course, they would want it back!

    The rump dynasties in Southern China often spoke of returning to reclaim the homeland and concept was at least promoted in the court when it wasn’t practical to launch attacks. This led to numerous challenges for the government. Not launching an attack to reclaim their sacred homeland could undermine the legitimacy of the government. Being on the wrong side of the debate could lead to being sacked, or in the case of the legend Yue Fei, forced to commit suicide. Soldiers sometimes mutinied which made saying no to an attack incredibly dangerous.[2] This may bring a new appreciation and interpretation of verses that describe a Nephite army that “tremble[s with] anger” against their general, is “without civilization” and “harden their hearts” against Mormon’s commands(Moroni 9:4,11). We might consider these verses as an indication of how strongly they wanted to reclaim their homeland, how furious they were when their desires weren’t granted, and how close they were to violent mutiny. (One of the my favorite scenes, the mutiny in Game of Thrones comes to mind here as well.)   We only get hints of it, but we can see a justification within Nephite thought, and how that justification bases on texts and popular thought could help us understand why Nephite soldiers were angry, wicked and mutinous when they weren’t granted their wishes.

    Finally, the Nephites could argue military necessity in some cases. There are nuances in the definition but Walzer is the most succinct where he says that there are special cases where victory is so important or defeat so frightening that it is morally as well as military necessary to override the rules of war.[3] Or from Francisco De Victoria, “In war everything is lawful which the defense of the commonwealth requires.”[4] In plain language it suggests that the ends justify the means.

    The Nephites clearly faced this kind of defeat. Their entire nation faced eradication and thus they had the strongest argument for setting aside normal moral codes, like feeding widows as much as the army (Moroni 9:16). They faced an existential crisis and imminent catastrophe that required an override of the rules of war. Of course, Mormon disagreed, but as readers we know the Nephites are annihilated, thus they have the most moral defense for diverting food from widows to the army.

    We have three different philosophies that help us recreate what later Nephite leaders were thinking, and how they interacted with Mormon’s thought. Mormon thought that the Nephites were hopeless regardless of their strategy. That makes it sound like this blog is useless. I discuss in point three how strategy still matters. Yet we can’t always see into people’s hearts or have the benefit of hindsight. We also can’t be passive in a world full of danger, so it’s important for us to see what strategies we might pursue in addition to the spiritual principles we follow.

Lamanite Just War

    I’ve been mocked for considering Lamanite attitudes and positions. One clown chortled and sarcastically asked if my next book was the Book of Amalickiah. Amalickiah convinced many Nephites and Lamanites to follow him, leading to many deaths and a great war so we should figure out the arguments he made. We need to understand different perspectives of the Book of Mormon and we can do that by taking our good guy googles off and seeing the Nephite propaganda for what it is. We have a biased, ethno centric account of Nephites that called their enemies blood thirsty (Mosiah 10:12), but plenty of evidence that they weren’t. The text itself states at several points that the Lamanites are more righteous. Jacob says they respect their wives (Jacob 2:35), in Helaman they are often more righteous (Helaman 6:2-8), and we have the teachings of Samuel the Lamanite. At one point, Alma 47, they didn’t want to attack, and considering ancient societies the average Lamanite had little choice in going to war and could be considered just combatants.  Remember that it was the dissenters and not Lamanites that were their leaders because of their hardened attitudes (Alma 43:6).  It is reasonable to consider both sides.

    The Lamanites were expelled from the wilderness to provide a better defensive line for the Nephites. Just like lost land (see point number 1) territorial integrity is a violation of the collective people’s rights and should be defended. Hugo Grotius wrote that this kind of “injury received” is a reason for just war.[5]  As I wrote, the arguments from the towers Amalickiah made to stir of the people were probably far more persuasive when the expelled refugees came pouring into Lamanite lands as they now had a justified reason for attack. This is a good example of unintended side effects where Moroni tries to strengthen defenses by providing justifications for attacks.

    The possible stealing of the sacred artifacts would represent an injustice that needs to be rectified (Omni 12-13).[6] The Nephite record keepers often stressed the danger of their records falling into Lamanite hands. The Lamanites that attacked Limhi had a reasonable belief that the former broke their oaths by which the king Limhi ruled. Grotius listed violation of clause inserted in grant of power. Limhi and his people being blamed for the kidnapping of Lamanite women would make the Lamanite war just(Mosiah 20). (Though it was based on bad information which shows how dangerous and think even “just” wars can be.) The resulting war might be why Limhi was so scrupulous in quoting the treaty.[7]

Heart Problems

    One of my rebuttals to those that site supposed prohibitions against preemptive war is that the real sin of the Nephites was a heart problem not strategy. That is amplified throughout the text. The central promise of the Book of Mormon is that keeping the commandments will lead to prosperity.  In Mosiah the people of Lihmi were in bondage due to iniquity not strategy (Mosiah 23:12) In the multiple descriptions of Captain Moroni, not delighting in bloodshed was more important than strategy (Mormon 7:4). We might compare that attitude with the how the Lamanites are recorded as “rejoicing over the blood of the Nephites” (Alma 48:25). This could also be another ethno centric account of “barbarous cruelty” of the other side (Alma 48:24).  

    None of the above has to do with strategy. It gives me the impression that when we are exclusively debating strategy, we are missing the point. We should be examining our collective hearts. Yet we can’t ignore strategy either.  We can’t see inside other people, and we are too quick to judge and accuse other people based on strategies. (I’m looking at those for whom warmonger is their favorite lazy insult. I’m struck by the irony of their aggressive posts while believing in non-aggression.) We aren’t asked to sit passively on our thrones, but to resist whatever evil with swords that we couldn’t with words (Alma 60:21; 61:14) This connects to an entire blog post where I showed the many instances of trying to change hearts, but then relying on the sword.

    The provides an interesting corollary to James Falconers argument in his theological introduction that Benjamin’s answer to unity was repentance and keeping covenants more than a form of government. It isn’t a question of what government is correct, but that the people participating in the government and making strategy are doing so correctly. This reinforces the likely reason for Mormon’s rejection of what appeared to be a textbook example of a just war according to section 98 and the law of war given to Nephi (D&C 98:32). It wasn’t that the Nephites didn’t have proper cause on paper, it is that they were so hopelessly wicked that they still couldn’t justly pursue it.

Gideon or Helaman

    A king that failed or “alienate[d] his people” is also a reason for insurrection by Grotius.[8] This is interesting as theory that can be abused. Grotius included that justification, but then included much longer qualifications and warnings about doing so. He said that there should be limits on usurpations as they lead to “dangerous and bloody conflicts,” factions, and outside intervention.”[9]  
A righteous uprising is extremely difficult to determine and could lead to greater chaos. “Individuals ought not take it upon themselves to decide a question which involves interests of the whole people.”
This leads to two examples in the Book of Mormon. We see this as Gideon was an example of a righteous cause, but those in Helaman 1 were not. But both led to additional chaos. Gideon is seen as a righteous figure, but he failed to overthrow the king, and after a Lamanite invasion the people splintered further. In Helaman one the Nephites seized, tried, and executed a contender for the chief judgeship as he was “about to” flatter the people. As I explained, this could have fueled a sense of injustice and likely fueled the insurgency.[10]


    As you can see, I have some great ideas that are forming my next book. The matter is a little more organized but I still don’t know what the final product will look like.  My focus is far more systematic examination of all scripture. I’m particularly interested in how the different scriptures interact with each other, how the scriptures interact with military thinkers across the world ranging from the Salamanca School to the Mohists of classical China and focusing on more than what’s in the war chapters. What sounds most interesting to you? What would you like to see?


[1] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (Basic Books, 2015), 56.  

[2] Peter Lorge, War Politics and Society in Early Modern Chinese: 900-1795, (Routledge Press, 2005), 58-59.

[3] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 132.  

[4] Fransico De Vitoria, Principles of Politics and International Law in the Work of Francisco De Vitoria, Antoni Serra ed., (Madrid Edicones Cultura Historica, 1946), 78.

[5] Grotius on the Laws and War of Peace, Stephen Neff ed, (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 81

[6] Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories, (Greg Koffored Books, 2019), 265-266.

[7] John Gee, “Limhi in the Library,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 54–66.

[8] Grotius, War and Peace, 73.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Make sure to check out the comments in that link. They are equal parts hilarious and sad as I’m called a Marxist Schmuck- even though in my presentation I mocked hipsters that wear Che Guevarra t shirts and I chuckled over my heavily biased left-wing sources during my dissertation research. Despite the groundbreaking research into Mao’s insurgency, I don’t know basic facts about Mao’s text. Even though I mentioned 4 times that I trust the text’s spiritual pronouncements, I supposedly “don’t trust” the men of God by providing historical context of the robbers. And so on. Mormons will die on historicity hill, but when you apply historical methods to the text to produce new understanding they freak out like the out of coffee scene from Airplane.

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