Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Osama Bid Laden and Continuing Revelation

May 02nd, 2011 by G.

In the intervals of my enthusiastic and whole-hearted embrace of the unseemly national frenzy of dancing on Bin Laden’s grave, I’ve had a few tentative thoughts about continuing revelation.

Mormons make two main apologies for our doctrine of continuing revelation. Continuing revelation is practical, we say. Circumstances change, we say, and its just possible that the Almighty might have a few pointers that are specific to us. St. Paul didn’t counsel the Corinthians to make a habit of family dinners to counter-act the the centrifugal forces exerted on the middle-class nuclear family by cell phones and the internet, because he couldn’t have. We, however, may need that advice.

We would also say that continuing revelation has a meaning apart from the contents of the revelation. Continuing revelation is the sign of God’s continuing care. It doesn’t matter what God says, it matters that He speaks to us.

Naturally I prefer the second rationale. I’m too high-minded to for grubby practicality. But today, against my nature, I’ve half-baked another practical justification for our doctrine of continuing revelation.

We killed Bin Laden on purpose. We committed a targeted killing. Unfortunately, the upshot is that we’ve set a precedent for an action that heretofore was somewhat suspect.

Like most Americans, I’m all for Bin Laden’s 5.56 mm justice. Like most Americans, I’m uneasy with the principle that nation-states can legitimately execute foreign nationals without trial and without being at war with the foreign nationals’ nation. But the one leads to the other. Why? Because if America’s action is justifiable in this particular case, there must be a justifying reason that is accessible to the human mind. If that reason is general, then it applies to everyone else and to our own future acts too. Or, if we argue that ethics and customs are highly situational, we at the same time destroy the argument that there is a meaningful principle that nation-states should generally *not* target folks for killing.

The same dynamic is at work in the war on terror in general. Unusual, crisis situations have led to arguably justified actions that have, however, set very unpleasant precedents. One might say the same of the history of US government involvement with the US economy in the the last century or so. Emergency responses to crisis situations have not stayed limited to the crisis. Probably they can’t be. General rules are only useful to the degree they can’t be ignored by ad hoc exceptions, but crisis situations demand ad hoc exceptions to general rules.

So what does continuing revelation have to do with it? Well, the exceptions that men make to man-made rules are dangerous because their justifications are in theory accessible to other men and therefore applicable to other situations. Divine exceptions are not. If God directs an exception to a general principle, we can credibly believe that there may be reasons for it beyond our ken. We can’t justify further exceptions because we don’t know and maybe even can’t know what the justification for the exception was.

Continuing revelation allows us to have necessary moral rules and necessary exceptions to those rules without the one destroying the other, or the other the one. Those of us who are perplexed at, say, the Mormon Church’s curious patchwork of rules on abortion may take comfort in knowing that, perhaps, our perplexity is the point.* Legal scholars have sometimes noted how important “fruitful ambiguity” is to human systems. Continuing revelation extends that ambiguity far more fruitfully than humans ever can.**

*You thought one couldn’t tie in Bin Laden to abortion? How wrong you were, my poppets.
** This is true whether there is actual continuing revelation or not. Even a “doctrine” of continual revelation creates fruitful ambiguity, even if no actual continuing revelation is occurring.
***One implication is that human systems–governments and such–should make more use of random elements. Just as exception-making is neutered if the exceptions are too meaningful for human understanding, as with revelation, exception-making is also neutered if the exceptions are meaningless. Who knew that my growing attraction to ostrakacracy was really Joseph Smith’s fault?

Cross-posted at the Old Country.

Comments (9)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , , , ,
May 02nd, 2011 10:39:39

May 2, 2011

Your thoughts on continuing revelation are fine. I particularly like the “just to let us know He still cares” explanation, though the others also work in specific instances.

But on the matter of bin Laden, I think we have a couple of situations in the Book of Mormon that are fruitful for analogy. One is the killing of Laban. The other is the killings by Teancum.

In the first case, the killing of Laban was clearly directed by the Spirit, but it was also arguably just under Hebrew law, and in addition it may have been an assertino of Nephi’s kingly rule. Both arguments come from FARMS papers; I am, of course, too busy to look up the precise references. (You think you’re being treated … unfairly?)

The assassinations by Teancum may be more relevant. They were analogous not only to bin Laden but to the assassination of Yamamoto during the Second World War. The latter action has spawned entire symposiums by legal ethicists intent on showing they are smart enough to make better moral choices than Roosevelt.

Adam G.
May 2, 2011

There are easier ways to make better moral choices thatn Roosevelt.

I take it that an assertino is one of the standard discussion particles?

May 2, 2011

Not only are there easier ways, but there are many more effective ways.

I believe the assertino is one of the fundamental gauge particles of the Force.

Ben Pratt
May 2, 2011

Physics and Star Wars in the same joke! LOL

May 3, 2011

“I’m uneasy with the principle that nation-states can legitimately execute foreign nationals without trial and without being at war with the foreign nationals’ nation. But the one leads to the other.”

So which do you prefer war an invasion or air attack have you considered the collateral damage? Which is more ethical? Targeted assassination is the cleanest way to take care of the problem.

May 3, 2011

I’m bored of people bemoaning the loss of evil people in the world. Sorry people, I believe fully in the death penalty. Those who shed innocent blood (murder), death penalty. Hitler, death penalty. Osama, death penalty. Any child molester, death penalty. It’s not blood lust, it’s a recognition that our society is better off without them on this planet than it is with them on it.

May 3, 2011

Adam, you explained very well something I couldn’t, yet felt. Thank you.

Adam G.
October 3, 2011

More of the same:


Mr. Obama acted entirely properly in having this enemy killed. But the precedent is extremely troubling, especially since it IS now a precedent, now that two different administrations of two different parties have both put American citizens on target lists.

The only remedy is a virtuous and engaged citizenry. Best of luck.

Although this does suggest that maybe we need to start tightening up our immigration laws and be more pro-active about stripping people with no real US ties of their citizenship.

October 3, 2011

I’m not an expert on international law, since His Majesty claims rule over everything and thus has not use for international law. But it strikes me that since these folks are engaging in warlike activities, but cannot trace a chain of command to a sovereign against whom we can formally declare war, they fall into the category of unlawful combatants. And thus have little protection under international law. I don’t see the legal problem with targeting them for assassination.

That they are technically U,.S. citizens doesn’t really alter the picture for me. Lincoln’s minions offed rather a large number of folks who he insisted were still U.S. citizens, without trial, and more power to him.

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