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.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sufficient For Our Needs

I once asked a good friend, a pastor actually, what she believed the ideal society would look like.  I really liked her response: “In a perfect world everyone would have what they needed.”  I like this response because it coincides with what I read in scripture concerning God’s vision of the perfect world.  In the Torah, God told the people, “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, italics added) It seems the God too desires that all people in the world have sufficient for their needs.  He also desires that we who have greater abundance should open our hands wide unto them.  This requires us to recognize when we have sufficient for our needs and use the surplus to impart unto others.

In latter-day scripture the Lord established the Law of Consecration in which an individual was made to be a “steward” over his own property, “as much as is sufficient for himself and family.”  The “residue”, or that which was more than needful for the needs of his family was to be used “to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:32-33) In a later revelation this residue was called a “surplus”. (Doctrine and Covenants 119) We learn an interesting story about this later revelation from Brigham Young in a talk he gave some years later:

When the revelation which I have read was given in 1838, I was present, and recollect the feelings of the brethren. A number of revelations were given on the same day. The brethren wished me to go among the Churches and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West. I accordingly went from place to place through the country. Before I started, I asked brother Joseph, "Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?" Said he, "Let them be the judge themselves, for I care not if they do not give a single dime. So far as I am concerned, I do not want anything they have.  

Then I replied, "I will go and ask them for their surplus property;" and I did so; I found the people said they were willing to do about as they were counselled, but, upon asking them about their surplus property, most of the men who owned land and cattle would say, "I have got so many hundred acres of land, and I have got so many boys, and I want each one of them to have eighty acres, therefore this is not surplus property." Again, "I have got so many girls, and I do not believe I shall be able to give them more than forty acres each." "Well, you have got two or three hundred acres left." "Yes, but I have a brother−in−law coming on, and he will depend on me for a living; my wife's nephew is also coming on, he is poor, and I shall have to furnish him a farm after he arrives here." I would go on to the next one, and he would have more land and cattle than he could make use of to advantage. It is a laughable idea but is nevertheless true, men would tell me they were young and beginning the world, and would say, "We have no children, but our prospects are good, and we think we shall have a family of children, and if we do, we want to give them eighty acres of land each; we have no surplus property." "How many cattle have you?" "So many." "How many horses, &c?" "So many, but I have made provisions for all these, and I have use for every thing I have got.” [1]

The system worked fine until it came time for people judge at what point they had sufficient for their needs.  And it could only rely on the individuals themselves to make that judgment.  The way of the Lord was not a forced redistribution but a society of love and concern for the other.

Beyond the benefit we can offer to others through our own surplus there is a great peace and happiness that comes from recognizing when we have sufficient for our needs.  We live in a materialistic society, always moving forward to the next big thing: the next iPhone, the next car model, the next style of clothing.  We rush around frantically to accumulate more money to buy all of these things without considering the things we already have.  And always the comparisons.  What do the neighbors have that we don’t?  How can I compete in the workforce?  There is no time, no peace.  What we need is to slow down.

Brigham Young was a great organizer and built the economy of Utah from the ground up.  He recognized the material needs of the Saints.  But he also cautioned against the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.  He consistently warned the Saints not to run off after gold during the California Gold Rush.  And he recognized the wisdom in trusting in the Lord to take care of us:

This is the counsel I have for the Latter−day Saints to−day. Stop, do not be in a hurry. I do not know that I could find a man in our community but what wishes wealth, would like to have everything in his possession that would conduce to his comfort and convenience. Do you know how to get it? "Well," replies one, "If I do not, I wish I did; but I do not seem to be exactly fortunate − fortune is somewhat against me." I will tell you the reason of this − you are in too much of a hurry; you do not go to meeting enough, you do not pray enough, you do not read the Scriptures enough, you do not meditate enough, you are all the time on the wing, and in such a hurry that you do not know what to do first. This is not the way to get rich. I merely use the term "rich" to lead the mind along, until we obtain eternal riches in the celestial kingdom of God. Here we wish for riches in a comparative sense, we wish for the comforts of life. If we desire them let us take a course to get them. Let me reduce this to a simple saying − one of the most simple and homely that can be used − "Keep your dish right side up," so that when the shower of porridge does come, you can catch your dish full. [2]

We should not be so concerned about trying to fill up our own dish as much as just preparing to receive the blessings that the Lord will provide and trusting that he will do so—“Keep your dish right side up”.

Jesus was very nonchalant about material things.  “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” Well that’s very nice but what are we supposed to do then?  Jesus says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?  Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?  And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?  Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-24)

I love this passage of scripture.  It’s so beautiful.  Look at nature and they way the rains provide water and the sun provides energy.  God takes care of the world and He will take care of us.  I especially love the line, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” or in perhaps a clearer translation, “today’s trouble is enough for today.”  Just take things one day at a time and don’t worry so much.  Trust in God.

Before saying all of this Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24) “Mammon” means riches or wealth.  The point of this whole discourse is clear—you cannot serve in Kingdom of God if you are worried about material things.  This is very important.  Satan wishes for us to be preoccupied all the time about not having enough.  He will always put the thought in our ear—“Have you any money?”  “You can by anything in this world with money.”

This is the condition of our time.  The prophet Mormon saw our day and he didn’t seem particularly impressed: “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts.  For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (Mormon 8:36-37) It is clear that Mormon compiled the records in the Book of Mormon he felt were most relevant to us and to our problems.  He saw our materialism and our disregard for the poor, a loss of perspective on the things that are most important.

Paul also warned Timothy of people who would teach, “that gain is godliness”.  Paul said further: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:3-10) After we have food and raiment we may be content.  And the Lord has promised that the Father will provide these things if we trust in him.  Just keep your dish right side up.

There is great peace in being content with our basic needs.  Life is beautiful in it’s basic simplicity—love, family, friends, memories.  The earth is beautiful, not for it’s resources but for it’s own sake.  If we take time to slow down, as Brigham Young said, to pray and to meditate we can find that we already have much of what we need.  And to those who do not have sufficient for their needs we can be a blessing to others.  We can bring more people into our circle of friends by helping them.  The Lord has asked us to care for one another and to give of our surplus to those who are lacking.  But first we must recognize when we have a surplus.  We will be tempted to neglect the needs of others, distracted by expensive toys and clothing.  But the wise and proper response has always been the same—we have sufficient for needs.


1.  Journal of Discourses 2:306-307
2.  Journal of Discourses 15:36-37