Let God Judge between Me and Thee

August 23, 2004 | 11 comments
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Nephi cast lots to determine God’s will. Bruce R. McConkie famously suggested we do the same.

I must have had those two in mind when I read a puzzling description of Captain Moroni’s first Lamanite campaign. The Lamanites were sneaking around through the wilderness. Moroni tracked them:
And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take . . . and ambushed them.

This is all very strange. The modern reader, like me, thinks of wars as either unjust or just. If a war is just you fight in every way you can, if a war is unjust you do not fight at all. Moroni and his chronicler seem to make a similar distinction between just and unjust (or perhaps between clearly just and ambiguous) wars but were willing to fight in them all. It’s only that in the just wars you didn’t have to play fair. Did the last Nephites lose their battles because their generals Mormon and Moroni refused to use strategems? I read all this and asked myself why.

The answer I came up with is that Captain Moroni and the Nephites saw warfare as a form of casting lots. When their cause was just they fought to win. Conversely, if they had doubts on whose side justice lay, they fought fair and eschewed strategem, so God could better choose the right.

The medievals thought too that God chose the winner when they arranged for trial by combat. Abraham Lincoln at times saw the Civil War as an appeal to God to choose one side or another. Perhaps the games on the Meso-American ball court were also. Our games too, for all I know.

Tom Wolfe believes, or else I misread The Right Stuff, that we humans have an urge to believe in champions and trials by combat. He says America adored its astronauts because, well, because they were willing to make their lives into a divinatory offering; and because they succeeded, because God did not take their lives, they were living proof that divine favor hadn’t left us; and because they brought us proof of God’s favor–because they were vessels of his approval in a way–they must have been pretty saintly themselves.

I don’t know what to think. I do like astronauts, but Wolfe makes it all sound so anthropological. Do I really want to see divine pleasure or disgust in everything? I will admit, though, that I am a football fan. In my secret heart I pray over the BYU Cougars. When I see the team stumble through vicissitudes and iniquities–Mr. Gordon S. mentions the latest–I can’t help feel that retribution is coming, or that if we win it will be because those players who remain have cleansed themselves.

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11 Responses to Let God Judge between Me and Thee

  1. Rusty on August 23, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve always loved the idea that God helps one sports team more than another. I guess he favors the team that prays the most. Or gives him the most gratitude after a touchdown. Really, does he even care? Even in the case of BYU, does he care?

    In prayers before we play church sports we like to say stuff like, “bless us that we may perform to the best of our abilities…” Does that mean that when I get together with other guys in the ward to play Halo (xbox) we should pray that we can kill each other to the best of our abilities? Or should we not use strategy when we play and let God determine choose the winner?

  2. Chris Monsour on August 23, 2004 at 10:09 pm

    It has been observed that the institution of the civil jury is a similar sort of black box. In order that justice be done, we need to know what we cannot know: did Defendant really knock the concrete block off the roof onto Plaintiff’s head, or was he lying quietly on the rooftop sunning himself when the block suddenly slipped? So we submit the evidence to a jury, and we ask them for an answer — but we make sure they don’t tell us how or why they reached their answer, because if we knew that we’d never trust the verdict. Trial by combat or by chance is the same: we end up with an answer, but no explanation or justification.

    Beyond that, it occurs to me that there may be an affinity between the just-war principles you attribute to the Nephites and our modern system of summary judgment. When the just result is clear — or as the Federal Rules put it, when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and…the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law” — we don’t give the plaintiff a chance at a “fair fight” before a jury. We “ambush” him with “stratagems”; we take away that much-vaunted “day in court” that we say everyone deserves. But when the case is ambiguous — like the Nephites when a war’s justice is ambiguous — we submit it to a black box whose result we can’t predict in advance. And then we trust the result.

  3. Jazz on August 24, 2004 at 12:27 am

    A couple of years ago when the Jazz and the Bulls were battling it out for the championship, a prayer which was offered for priesthood openning excercises by a devout Jazz fan included the phrase: “…and we pray that the Jazz will kick the Bull’s butt.” It was on the evening of that same sabbath that Jordan stripped the ball from Malone and scored the final point that would determine the championship.

  4. Derek on August 24, 2004 at 12:36 am

    “It’s only that in the just wars you didn’t have to play fair.”

    If the original purpose of the war was just but your combat tactics aren’t, is it still a just war?

  5. Jack on August 24, 2004 at 1:10 am

    Oops! I signed my name “Jazz” instead of “Jack” on my comment about the Jazz.

  6. Ebenezer on August 24, 2004 at 1:30 am

    Interesting comments on Jury Trials, Brother Monsour. Here are a few more thoughts to expand upon the subject and its relationship to the themes that Brother Geenwood has raised.

    Important portions of what has come to us through English Common Law originated in the ancient Scandinavian concept of the “Althing” or assembly. Communities would gather at appointed times to arbitrate disputes, judge the accused, and formalize treaties or property transactions. In ancient England this assembly was called a “Folc-moot” meaning “folk meeting” or “meeting of the people”, and later became the hundred courts, borough courts, and shire courts.

    The concept of trial by a jury of peers originates in these ancient Althing assembly-courts. Law suits were brought before the folc-moot. An accused person would prove his innocence by making an oath and bringing a certain number, traditionally twelve, “oath-helpers” who testified of his innocence (the word juror comes from Latin iurator “swearer”). If the accused could not secure sufficient oath-helpers he was judged guilty. He could optionally opt to allow God to prove his innocence through a Trial by Ordeal.

    The Ordeal was administered by official of the church. One common ordeal was to have the accused carry a piece of molten iron for a specified distance or to retrieve a heavy stone or ball from a cauldron of boiling water:

    “1. And the ordeal, we charge by the commands of God and of the archbishop and all the bishops, that no man come into the church after they carry in the fire with which they must heat the ordeal, except for the priest and he who must undergo it. And from the stake to the mark shall be measured nine feet, by the feet of the man who undergoes it. And if it be by water, they are to heat it until it becomes hot enough to boil, whether the vessel be iron or bronze, lead, or clay.
    2. And the if accusation be ‘single’, the hand is to be plunged in up to the wrist to reach the stone, and if it be three-fold, up to the elbow.
    3. And when the ordeal be ready, then two men from either side are to go in, and they are to be agreed that it be as hot as we said earlier.
    4. And an equal number of men from either side are to go in and stand down the church on both sides of the ordeal; and all those are to be fasting and abstaining from their wives at night; and the priest is to sprinkle holy water over them all–and each of them is to taste the holy water– and give them all the book to kiss, and the sign of Christ’s cross. And no one is to continue making up the fire after they begin the consecration.; but the iron is to lie upon the embers until the last collect; then they are to lay it upon the post, and no other words are to be spoken inside, except that they are to earnestly to pray Almighty God that he make the whole truth plain.
    5. And he is to undergo it, and they are to seal up the hand; and after the third day they are to look and see whether it be corrupt or clean within the seal.
    6. And the ordeal is to be invalid for him who breaks these rules, and he is to pay the king a hundred-and-twenty shillings as a fine.”

    The idea was the God would indicate innocence by preventing the wound from becoming corrupt or infected, or guilt by allowing it to fester.

    Trial by ordeal began to fall into disuse when King Henry II established trial by jury as the norm in the Assize of Clarendon.

    Mankind, at a certain level seems to have a natural sense that good will be ultimately be rewarded and bad will be punished.

    Then peeled the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good-will to men.”

  7. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    I’ve thought the same thing, Chris. We hold a trial at which the jury is told to ignore various bits of evidence they hear, and use others for certain purposes only. We then instruct them unintelligibly. And then we ask them to hide their reasoning and just give us an answer. It really does seem oracular.

  8. gst on August 24, 2004 at 9:33 pm

    Adam, but you can poll the oracle afterwards by a show of hands!

  9. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 24, 2004 at 10:55 pm

    What is really interesting is that Mormon, while editing the book, had qualms about what they had done, and felt the need to editorialize about it.

    Or that Pahoran had doubts about whether it was right to use deadly force against the native kingman elements revolting against Nephite leaders.

    The entire area is really interesting, once you take a look at the text from the outside.

  10. Nathan Tolman on August 26, 2004 at 10:46 am

    I did not take this a statement on the justness of the war at all. Most wars the Nephrites fought with the Laminates were to prevent the taking away of their freedoms, and had an element of justness apart from the moral state of the Nephrites. That is why they were resisted by the righteous element of the Nephrites no matter the wickedness of their brothers.

    Instead, Moroni, through Mormon, seems to say that when the stakes were so high, it was not a time to mess around, but to take any advantage they could, tactically.

  11. Nathan Tolman on August 26, 2004 at 10:55 am

    One more thing. Perhaps it is just me, but since the stakes in sports have little to do with freedom or righteousness, I do not think God cares too much about sports beyond the players that are in them.

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