This article is on an important topic where Latter-day Saints have a variety of viewpoints. In addition to the comments section at the end of the article, if you have longer comments, you may send them for possible publication to ed*******@me**************.com
Don’t be put off by the title. The term “social justice” evokes political connotations in modern America, but the concept itself is scriptural. The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, has strong opinions about what sorts of societies are more just or more righteous than others. (In Hebrew there is a single word, tzedek, which can be translated into English as either “justice” or “righteousness,” and the same is true of the Greek word dikaiosune; the two ideas are intimately connected). In this essay, we will be looking at what it means to keep those commandments having to do with how we treat our neighbors. According to the Book of Mormon, God approves of certain types of social arrangements and condemns others.
But before we turn to particular verses, three cautions are in order. In fact, they are probably relevant to most attempts to “liken the scripture unto ourselves.” 1) Avoid “prooftexting,” that is, the practice of pulling single verses out of context and using them to support predetermined opinions. As Shakespeare once wrote, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” 2) On a related note, be wary of interpretations that merely confirm what you believed before you started. Perhaps your ideas were right all along, but there is always a temptation to exclude contrary evidence or alternative interpretations. Apply the same level of skepticism to your own views that you would use on others. And 3) keep in mind that the ancient world was different in fundamental ways from modern life. The Nephites, as with other premodern societies, would have been mostly subsistence farmers, with minimal technology and government and few notions of democracy, science, property rights, contract law, nation states, gender equality, public education, mass media, etc. Finding capitalism in the Book of Mormon is almost as unlikely as seeing socialism there.
As much as I would have liked to have heard the voices of Benjamin or Alma, I would not trade my situation—with modern medicine and sanitation, labor-saving devices, ample food, heating and air-conditioning, modern life-expectancies, insurance, relatively low levels of violence, diverse career options, access to science and the humanities, artificial light, rapid travel and communications, and representative government—for life among the Nephites. So the point is to identify general principles that might be applicable in the twenty-first century, as opposed to idealizing specific practices from the 1st century BC.
When we read through the Book of Mormon, it is obvious that many different prophets were bothered by the same sorts of things. Jacob, in the first generation of immigrants to the promised land, was distressed by the social consequences of their success at pioneering: “Because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren, ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they” (Jacob 2:13) There could not have been many more than a hundred Nephites at the time, all of them close relatives, but Jacob still has to urge them to “think of your brethren like unto yourselves and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (v. 17), and he tells them that the only appropriate reason to seek riches is “to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (v. 19). He issues a stern warning against inequality—“Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable unto him who created all flesh? And the one being is a precious in his sight as the other” (v. 21)—before moving on to the topics of monogamy and chastity.
Jacob’s comments echo and perhaps revise an earlier discourse in which he simply condemned the rich, with no allowances for doing good with one’s money: “Wo unto the rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and the persecute they meek” (2 Ne. 9:30). He then goes on to link the wealthy with those who are spiritually stubborn, liars, murderers, sexual transgressors, idolaters, and the learned (the last of which at least get a “but to be learned is good if . . . .)
We see the opposite situation at the beginning of Alma, when within the church “they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel” (Alma 1:26-27). As a result, church members were blessed more than those outside the church, who were beset with idolatry, idleness, wearing costly apparel, pride, lying, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering. For a time, at least, the church was able to stay true to God’s social commandments:
And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need (v. 30; cf. Alma 34:28-29).
The pattern is consistent through the Book of Mormon. Religious leaders are distressed by pride, costly apparel, inequality, and hearts set on riches within the church, even when those things were “obtained by their industry” (Alma 4:6-8). Alma warns against “supposing that ye are better one than another,” and asks pointedly, “Will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?” (Alma 5:54-55). Mormon celebrates a time when “there was no inequality among them” (apparently speaking here of Nephite society in general; see Alma 16:16). The Zoramites were condemned for their pride, fine clothing, and persecution of the poor, along with their religious apostasy (Alma 31-32).
Things looked much the same during the judgeship of Helaman3 (Hel. 3:33-34) and at the time of Nephi2, when the familiar mix of riches, pride, crime, and social inequality was exacerbated by the influence of secret combinations in the government that sought through corrupt means to maintain and increase their power (Hel. 6:16-19), with terrible consequences for the poor and upright: “and thus they [the Gaddianton robbers] did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet, and smite, and rend, and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God (v. 39). How exactly might corrupt officials mistreat the poor? Perhaps by manipulating the laws to their own benefit, refusing to enforce statutes or prosecute crimes, or ignoring the pleas of those who could not or would not offer bribes.
These problems could afflict Nephite society as a whole, but the church was seen as having a particular responsibility, and sometimes bore particular consequences:
In the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yet even unto great persecutions; for there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers. And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and other did receive great learning because of their riches. Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble . . . And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up. (3 Ne. 6:10-14)
When Jesus came to the Nephites, he recited the words of Malachi on social justice—“I will be swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger, and fear not me, saith the Lord of Hosts” (3 Ne. 24:5)—and initiated a social transformation in which “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” (4 Ne. 1:2-3), at least until the old problems returned nearly two centuries later (vv. 22-26).
This has been a rather lengthy survey, but several basic principles are in evidence:
? God is not pleased with societies in which there are great inequalities in wealth; all his children are equally precious to him
? Riches can often lead to pride and other serious sins including lying, theft, sexual immorality, political corruption, and even murder
? Caring for the needy is not an extra, optional component of righteousness; it seems to be as essential as being kind, honest or chaste
? God will judge us by how we treat others, especially the less fortunate and the vulnerable
? Church members have a particular responsibility with regard to these issues
What might these mean for our own society? Here are a few brief observations.
Income inequality in the US has been increasing since the 1970s and is greater than it has been since the 1920s. As Nicholas Kristof has reported, “The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976,” which means that income equality in the U.S. is on par with Ghana, lagging behind countries like Egypt and India (as measured by the UN Gini Index).i The distribution of total assets is even more skewed; Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University have noted that in the US, “the top 20% of wealthy individuals own about 85% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% own very near 0%.”ii This is partly because well-to-do families have found ways to preserve wealth over generations; there is more upward social mobility (where people tend to be rewarded for their intelligence, skill, and hard work) in France, Germany, and Spain than in the US.iii
We should, however, keep in mind that even average Americans are unimaginably wealthy by Nephite standards, or by the standards of contemporary underdeveloped nations. Across the world, wealth inequality is phenomenal; a 2006 UN study found that “the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.”iv Economists argue about the causes of these disparities (education, technology, two-career families, government policies), but it is undeniable that many of us enjoy much more than we need, while others in our country, and around the globe, struggle daily with unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and disease. The social costs are high. Even when comparing industrialized, wealthy nations, or US states, there are higher rates of disease, violence, infant mortality, obesity, teen pregnancies, depression, imprisonment, and divorce in regions with less economic equality.v
Sin and pride seem rampant in our society. To be fair, I should note that overall crime rates in the US have been declining in recent years, but not everything immoral is illegal. Sometimes having more money makes it easier to get into trouble. While Nephites thought of the poor, the sick, widows, and the fatherless as being particularly vulnerable, today we might add minorities, immigrants, and the unborn. And as for the particular role of Latter-day Saints in all this, we can heed the counsel of President Monson: “We have a responsibility to extend help as well as hope to the hungry, to the hopeless and the downtrodden both at home and abroad” (Ensign, May 1990; reprinted in the Church News, Feb. 12, 2011).
Nephi and Moroni saw our day in vision and discerned the same sorts of social problems that plagued their own society. Nephi prophesied that the Gentiles of the last days would be “lifted up in the pride of their eyes . . . and [would] preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. . . . and there [would also be] secret combinations, even as in times of old” (2 Ne. 26:20-22). He also warned of corrupt churches that “rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up (2 Ne. 28:13). It seems to me that many churches today do the work of the Lord in caring for the poor and the downtrodden, but there is nevertheless a caution here about the role of religion in perpetuating social injustice.
Moroni was even more blunt as he addressed modern readers directly: “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not? Yea, why do ye build up your secret combinations to get gain, and cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans to mourn before the Lord . . . Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you”. (Morm. 8:39-41). It would be hard to argue that while this may have been true in 1830, it no longer applies to the world of 2011.
So, by Book of Mormon standards, our nation and our contemporary world, with its increasingly globalized economy, are deficient in social justice, and the Lord expects members of his church to do something about it. But what, exactly? How can we promote a more just, more fair, more righteous society?
King Benjamin, in one of the great discourses in scripture on the subject of social justice, offers some guidance.
He urges his people to begin on an individual level with faith, repentance, humility, and basic fairness: “Ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due.
” Then we can expand the circle of concern and generosity to our families—“ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked”—and eventually to outsiders and strangers: “ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 4:13-16). Several chapters later, there is an explanation of how charity should work within the church, among those who have made a covenant to “bear one another’s burdens”:
Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, everyone according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly, he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not, should be given. And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul. (Mosiah 18:8, 27-28).
I think that as Latter-day Saints, we do fairly well along these lines. We are known for our honesty and moral standards, we take care of our families and fellow Mormons, and we try to be of service in our communities, Certainly we strive for justice and righteousness on the local level, but what do we owe to strangers? How can we best help those in need whom we do not know personally? The answers, in our modern world, will inevitably involve larger social organizations—the Church, charities, businesses, corporations, and governments.
Like you, I am proud to be a Latter-day Saint when I read about the Church’s accomplishments in humanitarian services. Mormons are often quite generous in response to specific disasters. Some Latter-day Saints have become involved with various charities, and Brigham Young University is a leader in global outreach. But voluntary contributions can only go so far in remedying inequality or meeting the physical needs of God’s children, especially when problems are widespread, chronic, and systemic. I personally believe that the best remedy for poverty is a strong economy, with the kinds of jobs and benefits that only free enterprise and open markets can create. But here again there are limits; capitalism can be very cruel to those who are less gifted or less well-connected, who start with fewer resources, are taken advantage of, or lack access to education or health care, and to those who are simply unlucky. And this leads us to a consideration of the role of government.
I am pleased when my tax dollars are used to alleviate suffering and help the disadvantaged. Some may object that this is entirely different from what the Church does; tithes and offerings are, in Alma’s words, given “of [our] own free will,” while taxes are legally extracted and are therefore illegitimate, or at least unscriptural, means of achieving a more just society. But in the Book of Mormon, Benjamin taught his great sermon on social justice as a reigning king, and just as there are accounts of taxes being wickedly squandered (Mosiah 11), there is also an example of the government righteously redistributing wealth in order to support those in need: “Now there was a great number of women, more than there was of men; therefore King Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger; and this did because of the greatness of their number that had been slain” (Mosiah 21:17).
I pay tithing, I donate fast offerings and make contributions to charities, but realistically, most of what I do to make our country a better place goes through the government—and that includes support for the elderly, health care for seniors and the poor, nutrition for children, elementary and secondary education, college loans, public universities, scientific research, physical and financial infrastructure, transportation and energy, consumer protections, clean water, environmental safeguards, mail service, police and fire protection, disaster relief, national defense, building codes, sanitation, veteran’s benefits, and the court system. (I don’t think the Nephites ever dreamed of such things.) Of course, I’m not happy about everything the government spends money on, and I think that sometimes such spending does more harm than good, but if I could be assured that my taxes actually helped those truly in need, I would gladly pay more. Life for me and my family would still be pretty great, compared to most people in history, even if my taxes were double or triple what they are now.
Sometimes I hear complaints about government social programs that seem to have been rebutted long ago by King Benjamin:
I shouldn’t have to share what I have with people who have not worked as hard or who have made bad decisions or broken the law. Benjamin: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent” (Mosiah 4:17)
Why should I have to support people who are not like me? My children deserve more than other people’s children; Mormons deserve more than non-Mormons; Americans deserve more than foreigners: “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches we have of every kind?” (v. 19)
I worked hard for what I’ve got and so I deserve to do with it as I please. This actually sounds a little like Korihor at Alma 30:17. Benjamin reminds his people that they actually can’t claim credit for their own wealth: “If ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth. (v. 22) (By the way, the “hard work” argument is especially difficult to make for those who have inherited money, or whose families have paid for their education or given them loans.)
I’m a good person, even an upstanding churchgoer; why should I have to care about the poor?
Benjamin: “For the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every many according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants” (v.
It’s true that Benjamin counsels conservative caution—“See that all these things are done in wisdom and order” (v. 27)—and he had earlier mentioned overly burdensome taxes (2:14, though in the context of a subsistence economy), but his emphatic insistence on meeting basic human needs makes the exact mechanism of secondary importance. Believers in the Book of Mormon should be much more concerned with what actually works than with ideological assumptions. Can health care for all Americans be best achieved through a government system like Medicare, or a free market system (perhaps separated from employment), or some combination of the two based on government-subsidized health insurance? Latter-day Saints may have different opinions about how to get there, but there should be no disagreement on the basic goal: to reduce inequality and “administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:19). Otherwise, we are like Nephites criticized by Alma for “turning their backs” on those in poor health (Alma 4:12).
Similarly, we should be working to increase equal access to education (3 Ne. 6:12) and employment (Mosiah 27:3-4), as well as basic food, clothing, and housing, and we should be worried about the exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable. These aims may be best achieved through charity, private enterprise, investment, or government programs, but as long as the destitute are suffering, the Book of Mormon warns that God will condemn those who ignore their plight or despise them or withhold their substance.
We can and should have debates about the economic impact and relative effectiveness of farm subsidies, free trade agreements, immigration restrictions, unemployment benefits, bailouts, tax rates, Head Start, WIC, labor laws, and mortgage interest deductions, but the criteria for judgment should be “what will genuinely help the less fortunate?,” not “how can I maximize my assets?” or “how can I play the system to get ahead?” or “how can I keep my money out of the hands of those less deserving?” or even “how can I give as much to my children as possible?” Those sorts of concerns were prophesied of by Moroni, when he saw our day and lamented, “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” (Morm. 8:37).
Our ambition should be to emulate the Nephites at their best, as seen in a verse worth quoting again:
And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need. (Alma 1:30)
Whatever it takes to get the job done, God expects no less of those who read and love the Book of Mormon.
Note: For any Latter-day Saint who wants to think clearly about issues of justice, fairness, and public policy, my strong recommendation is to read Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). This book, based on one of the most influential and popular courses at Harvard, is a quick and accessible introduction to what some of the greatest minds in history have had to say about the subject, from Aristotle and Mill to Kant and Rawls. Sandel presents the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major theories of social justice, and then applies them to current political debates (what he says about particular issues may surprise you!). The book is invaluable.
Grant Hardy is the editor of The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is a professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina—Asheville.
i Nicholas D. Kristof, “Our Banana Republic,” New York Times, Nov. 6, 2010. National rankings by Gini Index can be found at the Wikipedia article “List of Countries by Income Equality.”
ii Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely, “Spreading the Wealth,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10, 2010., by James B. Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks, and Edward N. Wolff, 5 December 2006.
v Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010). Robert H. Frank, “Income Inequality: Too Big to Ignore,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2010.
Colby PageAugust 10, 2015
This comment is a few years late, but I think this is an awesome study. I have been working on publishing a similar study. If you, or any other readers are interested it is at: https://unconventionalinquiry.blogspot.com/2015/08/introduction-what-does-book-of-mormon.html