War, Famine and Economics #BOM2016

Helaman 11 is a pretty darned fascinating piece of scripture. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of God, the ability of humans to affect the will of God, and the nature of humans to choose evil over good — and that’s just the first 20 verses. The latter half of the chapter speaks to our penchant for recidivism, our inability to root evil out from among us, and how the only way to vanquish evil is to fight it relentlessly and tirelessly.

But for this post I want to talk about the narrative in the first 20 verses, when the Lord begins to make good on Nephi’s promise from Helaman 10: repent or be destroyed.

The Gadianton robbers, in concert (one supposes) with the Nephite leadership, begin to make war and be slain by the sword. The reasons for these wars are not given; instead they are simply described as “contentions”. What was the nature of these contentions, their origin? It’s unclear from the text, but somehow rooted in an inability to hear the word of God via Nephi that they should repent and believe in Christ. They begin to kill each other with the sword, and there are wars everywhere. The description of the wars is very brief and conveys almost the impression that these are wars without purpose, without origin, that the people have been possessed by some mad spirit of destruction.

Nephi is grieved of these battles, and does something pretty unusual: he takes this to the Lord. Nephi’s argument is that war results in rapid bloodshed and swift destruction — but if people are allowed to suffer more slowly, this will perhaps give them time to reflect, to repent and be saved. From a pure means-of-death perspective, this makes sense; suffering can lead to repentance, because it can work on our mind and humble us in ways that, say, getting our heads chopped off do not allow. Remarkably, the Lord agrees. I say ‘remarkably’ because it is always a fairly major event in scripture when a mortal is able to alter the course of God. Moses, Amos, Jonah, a few others in the Old Testament have been witnesses to when God has changed his mind (see, e.g. Exodus 32:11-14 as an example, though the JST has in some measure altered the meaning here). Perhaps God always intended for Nephi to present his argument and to change his initial course. Regardless, whatever it was that provoked the swordfighting now is turned off, and instead the famine switch is turned on.

Nephi’s argument is shown to be correct: the Lamanites and the Nephites, suffering hunger and thirst and dying by the thousands, repent. They entreat Nephi to talk to God on their behalf. Nephi does so, and the famine switch is turned off. Three verses later and they have returned to evil, and the Gadianton robbers return in force and there is war again, but (this time) it is not to the utter destruction of the Nephites.

There’s a lot in these verses to unpack, and the narrative is brief, but the part that has always bothered me here is the neatness of the armed conflict vs. the famine. Wars happen for a reason, typically over scarcity of resources: territory, water, food, property. Interpersonal conflicts happen all the time over dumb stuff, fits of passion, but wars need governments/tribes/organization and they need reasons. The Book of Mormon treats wars almost like an infectious disease, something that comes over a people and possesses them to their destruction. The Jaredites, for example, engage in a generational blood feud down to the last man. The Nephites are ultimately destroyed, and the reason for the final wars is never really clearly outlined other than broad terms of formerly-good vs. evil. But we know that there is always more to war, and at the base of it all is economics.

Similarly, famine doesn’t work quite this way, either. When wells dry up and crops fail, people don’t just sit in their doorsteps and languish. If the strong do not have food, they take it. People guard resources. People fight. In other words, wars happen because of famine (with some exceptions in modern times thanks to modern trade – for example, trade has largely kept South Korea going despite famine, while in many parts of Africa famine has resulted in immense armed conflict). It is surprising that there is no mention of this result in the Helaman 11 narrative, and I don’t know why it’s not there. When the economic demands hit, conflict is inevitable. Typically, a request like Nephi’s would have resulted only in more armed conflict, coupled with the backdrop of intense famine.

I guess I bring this up because I was reading some remarks by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Coates has a series of tweets along this theme, and he reminds us that racism, homophobia, sexual harassment are not just aberrations of logic that occur in the abstract mind. These pestilences are real because they deny others their rights to property and liberty — in other words, economics. Even me calling them “pestilences” attributes to them some non-volitional abstraction when they have always been much more nakedly about taking what you want at someone else’s expense. When you treat others as non-human, it’s to defend your stuff. This is fallen human nature, and it’s at the heart of the Book of Mormon — except when it comes to large-scale destruction such as here in Helaman 11. When these wars and famines are happening in this chapter, the text gives us the impression of this neat separation between economic suffering and war, but the two are so inherently linked that it almost seems unbelievable that one would switch off in favor of the other so neatly. Perhaps this is a testament to the divine origin of these Nephite destructions, because they have an incomplete or artificial air. More likely, the narrative is abbreviated and incomplete.

I recognize that what Coates is describing is different from what Helaman 11 is describing. What I’m trying to do here is take the text seriously and understand how these events are happening based on what I know about human nature and how war works. There’s a lot more to the story.


  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    Stealing resources would work initially, but in a famine they’d dry up pretty quickly (especially if there were armies to feed). After that there’d be no point fighting over them (as they wouldn’t exist), and the armies would be busy killing each other off anyway.

    I guess it’d end up in the situation where the only people left would be the feeble, young, poor, and otherwise non-fighting. Who (like those ejected from the rameumpton building) may undergo a forced humility.

  2. John Mansfield says:

    Interesting question. What comes to mind is what I saw of Baltimore in the ’90s. There was a lot of crime, including homicide, but pretty much no talk of gangs. My impression was that the environment was too poor to allow criminals to band together in any significant way, unlike, say, the purported Bloods and Crips in glamorous LA. There is a recent Slate piece along these lines:

    The word gang suggests a network of criminals who are working together in service of some shared goal—typically money and power. Gangs, in the popular imagination, have leaders, lieutenants, and foot soldiers and are engaged in criminal enterprises like racketeering, extortion, and drug sales. In theory, at least, that means they can be taken out by law enforcement with the help of sound intelligence and vigilant policing.

    But most experts on urban violence I’ve talked to believe this is an outdated idea of what gangs really are. In cities all over America—New York, Boston, Chicago—gangs now take the form of small, loosely affiliated groups of friends who live in desperately poor neighborhoods, have access to guns, and kill each other over petty squabbles and in acts of revenge, not just illicit business interests. According to Daniel Webster, an expert on gun violence at Johns Hopkins University who has worked closely with police and community leaders, that’s true in Baltimore too.

    “Baltimore gangs have tended to be much smaller, much more fluid,” Webster said. “I think there’s a whole lot of not-so-professional violence that occurs. You might have somebody who somewhere along the line had some gang connection, but that doesn’t mean they’re shooting each other because of that connection. People shoot each other because of girlfriends and all kinds of stupid stuff that has nothing to do with the gang component.”

    My knowledge of Baltimore crime is very limited, and I hope not to distract too much with this example. I bring it up to suggest that economic scarcity promotes violence that is different from the violence that comes with abundance: small-scale and personal instead of vast and organized, less about gain because there is little out there to be gained.

  3. John Mansfield says:

    Another thought: the violence we inflict on each other is influenced not only by current stresses, but also by our history. With a sudden famine, it would take time to progress from snatching food when no one is looking to raiding other neighborhoods. I listened to a man a couple weeks ago describe crime in his childhood Preston, Idaho: His grandfather hated it if anyone took the keys out a car’s ignition and then he had go look for the key. A neighbor did have a car stolen and reported it four days later, waiting those days because he assumed someone had borrowed the car and would return it. He wasn’t sure if his parents’ house had a lock on the door. Idyllic low crime environment, no concerns for personal safety. “But they would steal your water. No hesitation about that. And rustling was a real thing, and it’s profitable. If I have a cow worth $1,000, and you steal it, you can sell it for $1,000. No pennies on the dollar like if you stole a famous painting.”

    A complication with this idea is that the history going into the Helaman 11 famine was already a history of violence; that was reason for invoking the famine.

  4. trade has largely kept South Korea going despite famine, while in many parts of Africa famine has resulted in immense armed conflict

    Speaking of which, South Korea and others in Asia and the Middle East have turned to Africa as their breadbasket, buying or leasing vast swaths of land.

  5. Interesting thoughts John. It’s clear that not all illegal enterprises operate the same. A drug cartel is not a street gang. But the differences there are more than just economic. I do think the violence from scarcity can be different from the violence of abundance, but the commonality is there: it’s always about the economics.

  6. Follow the money, as usual. Some wars are, on the surface, religious or ethnic in nature, but underneath there is always an economic motivation. Why is it missing in the Book of Mormon so often?

  7. “Some wars are, on the surface, religious or ethnic in nature, but underneath there is always an economic motivation. Why is it missing in the Book of Mormon so often?”

    Hi Franklin. I think economics was likely an unstated agitator that was veiled in other issues. I mean, the Nephites effectively owned the access point between the Lamanites to the south and any other indigenous groups to the north. Any trading between northern and southern cultures would have to pass through Nephite territory, so I imagine that would be an underlying grievance (and why Lamanites tried so many times [often succeeding] in taking Nephite territory instead of Nephites wanting Lamanite territory).

  8. The Book of Mormon is a religious text. I don’t really think it’s necessarily a realistic depiction of any of the events it describes.

  9. It appears to me that a context for the Nephite church as recorded in the Book of Mormon seems to be about having all things in common, a communal economic system where all prosper or all suffer together. The breakdown, dissension, and wickedness come about when members of the Nephite church seem to stray from this pattern, and are “lifted up in the pride of their hearts,” and are starting to wear “fine apparel” to distinguish themselves from the common people and common good. The Gadianton robbers turn to conspiracy to “get gain,” and in 4th Nephi, the ultimate end of the 200 years of common prosperity is linked, it appears, to income inequality. A famine is a good way to remind the Nephites and Lamanites that their continued existence and prosperity are inevitably linked to the common good, at a level that we don’t seem to understand (or are willing to submit to) yet.

  10. I’m not convinced it is always only about the economics. I think that’s too reductive. People need meaning to their lives — it is as valuable to them as possessions — so they’ll fight for pride, honor, glory, power, and duty. I’m not convinced that all religious conflict, for example, can be reduced to competing for resources.

  11. Reductive? Moi ? Impossible. But yes, religious conflict is economic. Show me one that isn’t. Nauvoo? Check. Israel? Check.

  12. I was about to quickly post a comment thanking BCC for having such a lengthy piece dedicated solely to discussing and applying several verses of Latter-day Scripture. I’ve always thought the site needed more of this.

    Then I read and re-read the piece and I can see virtually no quotes other than a couple isolated words for effect.

    That you’ve given more space to a direct quote from Coates more than Nephi speaks volumes

    I can obviously go read the chapter on my own, and stylistically, I suppose that can be part of the intent. But I’d like to engage with the text and your idea, but I just get your idea of the text.

    You’ve certainly summarized a lot of Nephi, but you’re unwilling to let his words stand on their own without filtering them through yourself. Coates get preeminent treatment. There’s some truth behind this criticism, like it or not.

  13. I certainly don’t like your comment, WPIT, but that doesn’t mean you’re correct. I’m presuming you can read the chapter and understand it yourself. If you have a different read of the text, be a big boy and discuss it. Don’t whine.

  14. Oh, brother.

  15. I don’t like how you say “Coates has a series of tweets along this theme” but then you only show the two, Steve. Am I supposed to go to his Twitter feed myself? Ridiculous.

  16. Steve, I’ll counter your Israel argument slightly. It’s not that economics isn’t involved, because it is, but take either the Palestinians or the Jewish Israelis and offer them another land of equal value, and my guess is that the majority of both groups would want to reject the offer. They’d want the other group to take the offer. They have historical and religious claims on THAT land. When I say you’re being too reductive, that’s all I mean. I think other factors play into it as well.

  17. Martin, push away! I like it.