Sunday, November 20, 2011

Personal and Social Righteousness

The scriptures give some beautiful examples of ideal communities, in records about the past and in prophesy about the future.  There was the City of Enoch where the people “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18) There was the community in the Book of Mormon after the visitation of Christ and afterward in which “there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.  And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:2-3) Prophets have also prophesied that after the Second Coming of Christ there would follow the Millennium, a thousand-year period of peace and righteousness.  It is said, “children shall grow up without sin unto salvation.” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:58) It is also said “Satan shall not have power to tempt any man.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:28) In Revelation it is said that Satan will be “bound”. (Revelation 20:2) In the Book of Mormon, Nephi added some insight to this prophesy saying, “And because of the righteousness of his [the Lord’s] people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness, and the Holy One of Israel reigneth.” (1 Nephi 22:26) It is not because Satan has no power that the people are righteous, it is because the people are righteous that Satan has no power.  Why are the people righteous during these times and why are people not similarly righteous all the time?

What is interesting about such paradisiacal periods is that all the people in these societies are righteous.  This is unusual.  We are used to reading stories about a few righteous people living amid evil—the lone voice crying in the wilderness as it were.  But for an entire people to be righteous is quite noteworthy.  Is it because such a society is made up of very special people or is there something about the shared values of the society itself that helps people to be righteous? 

Looking at an entire community is a different way of approaching the subject of righteousness.  In our churches we focus a lot on individual behavior—and that is important since a society is made up of individuals.  But in the scriptures we often read about groups of people.  Nations and peoples are condemned or praised for their practices.  The scriptures often approach things communally, focusing especially on the rulers: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” (Proverbs 29:2) “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? Says the Lord GOD of hosts.” (Isaiah 3:14-15) In the Book of Mormon as well the warnings are often given to entire cities: “Behold ye, the people of this great city, and hearken unto my words; yea, hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you.  Ye do not remember the Lord your God in the things with which he hath blessed you, but ye do always remember your riches, not to thank the Lord your God for them; yea, your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities.” (Helaman 13:21-22, italics added)

Thinking about these Zion communities, I think there is something fundamental about the things they value that empower individuals in them to live more righteously.  They foster an environment that is highly conducive to everyone's happiness.  This is important because looking at the world now there are ways that our society makes it difficult to live righteously because of the things we value as a group.  A Zion society values love, peace and equality.  But I find that we do not universally value these things in our society, at least not in practice.

The scriptures say to treat people the way we would like to be treated. (Matthew 7:12) But while we pay lip service to selflessness our business culture is not built upon it.  Our ways of dealing with each other are very opportunistic.  A man in a dire situation can be taken advantage of like when he is desperate to sell his home.  We call this a “buyer’s market”.  We are encouraged and rewarded for taking advantage of other people.  The same mentality applies to wages and benefits.  In a recession, you can pay an employee less and offer fewer benefits because he can be easily replaced and is, therefore, “expendable”.  A Zion people with “no poor among them” must have a dramatically different way of thinking about people than we currently do in our society.  Love and equality must be foundational values.

The media contribute a great deal to our values.  In many ways the media improve our lives by allowing us to connect with the rest of the world and to learn.  Indeed, I should think that the media could be a very important, uplifting influence in Zion.  But many of the things valued by the media today are hardly uplifting. The media can be very adversarial, especially many “news” stations that foment anger and division over trivial matters.  It reminds me of the lawyers in the Book of Mormon who would “stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ.” (Alma 11:20) Sensationalism over controversy translates into high ratings for stations that enable them also to get gain.  The system is structured in a way that you have to be negative to be successful.

The media also send many harmful messages about sexuality.  There is nothing wrong with sexuality but our values regarding it can be distorted in ways that can really damage people.  To women especially, the implicit message is that men only value women of a certain appearance and if you don’t look like the doctored images on the magazine covers then you will not be attractive to anyone.  Sexuality is being used a commodity to be bought and sold, literally and figuratively, rather than something to be held sacred.  Of course, by no means should sexuality be suppressed.   It should be celebrated, but in an uplifting, respectful and sacred way founded in real love.

One of the most memorable prophesies of the Millennium is that it will be a time of peace.  To describe this we often quote this beautiful passage in Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) This reminds me of something President Eisenhower said in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” [1] I see Eisenhower’s comments as a kind of modern version of Isaiah’s prophesy.  What will we be able to do when we get over our lust for war?  All the science, technology and labor that we devote to weapons of destruction can be applied to building societies up instead of tearing them down.

Moving from a warlike mentality to a commitment for peace means that we need to be more inclusive in our thought.  We have to include all nations, races and religion into our circle of friendship.  It is not enough to just be nice, honorable people to those within our own community and family.  In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were very loving among themselves.  Jacob said of them, “their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children.” (Jacob 2:7) But even though Lamanites were loving toward one another they were still hateful to the Nephites.  Being peaceful means that we widen our circle to include Muslims, Arabs, Chinese, Russians and everyone else in the world.

In our society we still value power over peace and we still glorify war.  In 1976, the bicentennial year of the United States, the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball said: “We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’” [2]

It is interesting to me that President Kimball would mention that our obsession with weaponry and war distracts us from preparing for the coming of the Lord.  I often hear people express a kind of resigned acceptance of the current condition of the world, expecting that God is just going to fix everything after the Second Coming.  That may be true, but the point is that we should be preparing ourselves and our communities to live a more excellent way.  There is nothing preventing us from adopting the values of these paradisiacal societies right now. 

The values of the Gospel such as love, peace and equality are, in many important ways, different from the things we value right now in our society.  Of course, here I have shown examples of problems to contrast them with the ideal of the Kingdom of God.  In many ways we are doing quite well and the world is getting better.  You are much less likely to die a violent death today than in any other time in history.  So there is much to be pleased about.  But we are still not Zion.  We want to value love, peace and equality but we don’t actually do it. The Gospel really boils down to love for all people, without exception.  And it requires action.  It’s not just sitting on the couch or at your computer thinking nice thoughts about people.  Real love involves service and sacrifice.  It’s a matter of taking that seriously, in real life with real people, right now.


1 comment:

  1. I found your contrast between Zion values and our current society's values to be very instructive.