Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Book of Mormon Witness on Wealth and the Poor

Sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, MN 
March 20, 2011

Text: Mosiah 4: 16-26

I want to start by acknowledging the remarkableness of what is transpiring here. You've invited an excommunicated but believing gay Mormon to come preach to you on texts he's chosen from the Book of Mormon. I'm not sure how many Mormon congregations would return the favor and allow one of your number – excommunicated or not – to come preach to them from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson or some other Unitarian or Universalist sage. So thank you for having me, and thank you for the trust implicit in granting me this time among you. I hope I can live up to that trust.

I also want to say a word about sacred texts, and about the way they are carried by religious communities. I think sometimes, when we are too close to something – like a book of scripture – we can take it for granted too easily, and we can take for granted what we think we know about it. The process of thinking about how to read the Book of Mormon to a non-Mormon audience in a way that you might appreciate it and learn from it I have found both intellectually and spiritually stimulating. So your invitation to me to come preach here has, I am sure, blessed me far more than it will bless you. So again, thank you for all the generosity that implies.

It is important for you to understand that I have personally wrestled much with questions related to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Like most Mormons who accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, I have found my own resolution by actually reading the book, by meditating and praying about its teachings. As a young man, in preparing to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I read the book a half a dozen times. In the last five years I have read it again twice, cover to cover, and have discovered in the reading profound answers to the most pressing challenges in my life. Its teachings have transformed my understanding, given me a growing sense of peace and hope, have helped me live my life closer to God, and have enabled me to hear and respond to the sweet promptings of the Holy Spirit.

One of the more profound ways in which the Book of Mormon has transformed my consciousness has been in what it has to say about the spiritual issues related to poverty and wealth. The Book of Mormon grounds its vision of society in the teaching that we are all utterly dependent on God for all good gifts in life, and that no blessing we receive, either temporal or spiritual, does not come to us as an unearned gift from a compassionate and generous Creator. For some time, I've been looking for an opportunity to more systematically collect my thoughts on this subject. And in reflecting on what I felt might be of greatest value to share with a group of people who know little about the Book of Mormon, this is what I felt most impressed to want to reflect on and share.

The Book of Mormon witness on wealth and the poor is consistent with the Biblical witness, though the Book of Mormon goes further than the Bible in explicitly theologizing the issue of poverty and analyzing the problem of wealth in historical terms. Biblical texts address the issue of poverty in four broad ways. First of all, the Pentateuch prescribes specific mercies for the poor and the unfortunate. Wealthy landowners were required to leave a portion of the harvest (or “gleanings”) for the poor. Every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, ancestral lands that had been sold to pay off debts were returned to the families of who had originally owned them. Limits were also placed on the duration of slavery and on the treatment of slaves.

The second broad biblical way of approaching poverty is found in the prophetic literature of the seventh and sixth centuries before the Christian era. Prophets like Isaiah took concern with poverty to a new level, far beyond the minimal provisions for mercy found in the Law, essentially arguing that no ceremonial or ritual adherence to the Law was pleasing to God if the needs of the poor were ignored:

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.... Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1: 13-17)

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

The third category of biblical teachings on poverty are found in the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus' teaching on this subject is in line with the prophetic witness, as Jesus boils righteousness down to the basic principle that in God's Kingdom “the first shall be last, and the last first,” and that our final judgment hinges on our treatment of those who are considered the “least”:

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.... Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25: 41-45)

The fourth category of biblical teaching on wealth and poverty comes in the witness of the Book of Acts, where it is plainly stated that the early Church practiced what can only really be described as a form of Christian communism. This was a concrete manifestation of Christ's higher law of consecrated love, in which the welfare of each member of society was understood to be interrelated with the welfare of all others:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that bought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4: 32, 34-35)

When we turn to the Book of Mormon, we find similar themes and principles. The Book of Mormon, like the Book of Acts, describes a kind of Christian golden age around the meridian of time, in which “the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land” and “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 3).

But the Book of Mormon makes explicit in a way that the Bible does not, how the righteousness or wickedness of a people was directly related to their attitudes toward wealth and the poor. The biblical ideal, elaborated both in the Pentateuch and in the prophetic literature, that Israel brought down God's judgment for failing to obey God's law, is recapitulated in the Book of Mormon. But while the Bible tends to frame righteousness and wickedness in relation to the Law, the Book of Mormon frames it in relation to the existence of class divisions and inequity. In the Book of Mormon, inequality is either caused by or leads to pride, hardness of heart, and an unwillingness to obey God. The prophet Mormon summarized the process in the Book of 4th Nephi:

And now I, Mormon, would that ye should know that the people had multiplied, insomuch that they were spread upon all the face of the land, and that they had become exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ. And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world. And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ. (4 Nephi 23-26)

Wealth leads to pride, pride leads to class division, and class division is implicated in the denial of Christ. The beginning of the end is signaled when people no longer share their goods in common, a sign that their sense of individual well-being is no longer tied to the common good. Apostate Christianity is a Christianity whose purpose is to facilitate the getting of “gain.”

The scripture reading for today was taken from the Book of Mosiah, from a much beloved text among Latter-day Saints, known as the sermon of King Benjamin. The clarity with which King Benjamin speaks to the requirement of mercy toward “beggars” has had a discernible impact on Mormon culture. Devout Mormons are among the only people I know who as a matter of principle cannot refuse direct requests for money from panhandlers. If someone asks me for a dollar, as much as this drives my husband crazy, I feel morally obliged to dig into my wallet. It's against my religion to say no. This was documented as a more general phenomenon in an essay published in Sunstone magazine a few years back, which followed the panhandling activities of homeless people in Salt Lake City. There's a story – I don't know if it's apocryphal or not – that former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson – known for his arch-conservative political views – always gave money to panhandlers. When questioned by someone if he didn't worry that they were just going to spend the money on alcohol, Benson's reply was that he would rather give money to ninety-nine beggars who used the money poorly, than to turn away one person in genuine need.

Be that as it may, the theological principle in King Benjamin's sermon runs far deeper than how we respond to panhandlers. The sermon dispenses neatly with one of main historic arguments against welfare, namely that the indigent person is to blame for his own poverty:

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; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, 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 which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4: 17-19)

All the material, physical goods that we enjoy are literally unearned gifts. Without the air we breathe, without the water renewed in cycles of evaporation and rain, without the earth from which crops grow and minerals are mined, we would have nothing; and all of this came to us as the unearned consequence of being born into a world filled with material abundance. So if only in this very literal, physical sense we are beggars in relation to God, and we have no moral basis to deny help to anyone in need on the grounds that they haven't earned our assistance.

But King Benjamin speaks not only to the implications of being born into a world of material abundance, he finds material, physical applications of principles we would ordinarily think of as purely spiritual. Spiritually, King Benjamin says, we are beggars, because we are all sinners. This is a common theme in the New Testament as well, the idea that human sinfulness makes us “debtors” in relation to God, that failure to forgive the debts of others will result in God's refusal to forgive us our debts. But King Benjamin takes this principle out of the realm of the spiritual and applies it back again directly to the material, temporal realm:

And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. (Mosiah 4: 20-21)

In this framework, refusal to help the poor is a grievous sin, perhaps the grievous sin, for it is a sin that is directly implicated in a refusal to acknowledge the nature of our relationship with God, a relationship that is defined by complete and utter dependence:

And 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.... (Mosiah 4: 22)

In King Benjamin's discourse, receiving and retaining remission of our sins literally depends on sharing our material wealth with others:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, 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 man 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. (Mosiah 4: 26)

Beginning in 1834, in Kirtland, Ohio and later in Missouri, Latter-day Saints sought to implement the principle of having all goods in common. They called the system they were trying to establish “The United Order,” and the principle undergirding it “The Law of Consecration.” Those early efforts ultimately failed, and in 1838 were replaced with what the Saints to this day understand to be the inferior “Law of Tithing,” presently practiced by donating a mere ten percent of our increase to the Church. Latter-day Saints still understand that to fully live the higher law instituted by Christ, we are called upon to consecrate everything we have and everything we are to the building of Zion, defined as “the pure in heart” (D&C 97: 21), a state in which we will be of one heart and one mind, and dwell in righteousness; and where there will be no poor among us (paraphrased from Moses 7: 18).

For those of us who claim to adhere to the Restored Gospel established through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the very least we can acknowledge is that the present capitalist order of things is false and conceived in sin. As regards things temporal and material, we are at best living under the inferior law of mercy; at best, trying to limit the worst effects of poverty. Rather than kicking away the supports that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, we would be actively looking for ways to extend supports, improve education, expand health care, build affordable housing, invest less of our gross national product in electronic toys or gas-guzzling SUVs, and more in a clean environment and in ecologically responsible agriculture. In other words, we would see it as our Christian calling to develop a more humane and environmentally responsible social infrastructure. And far from scoffing or hissing at the redistribution of wealth, we would recognize it as a profoundly scriptural principle, we would welcome it and long for it and prepare our hearts for it. The ability to see how, from the least to the greatest, from the last to the first, we all are profoundly interrelated, we would recognize as a mark of spiritual maturity, and we would make the highest goal of our spiritual institutions the fostering of that kind of consciousness. The terrifying, heart-breaking news that we see every day from Japan lately calls us to recognize and live into our interdependence, or risk descending each alone into our own individual hells.

I know that in the minds of many, to preach a sermon like this marks me, at best, as a hopeless idealist, though these days I find myself more motivated by hope than hopelessness. My own sister can't decide whether I'm a misguided fool or a dangerous radical. I can't help it. I can't help this deep yearning for Zion, any more than I can help cracking open a wallet when someone asks me for a dollar. I can't help it because the teachings of King Benjamin and the witness of the Holy Spirit won't let me go. They won't let me forget that the notion a dollar belongs to me is an illusion. They remind that if I'm not willing to give that dollar away, I'll never appreciate the full truth of my existence: that I am dependent, that we all are dependent, on Heavenly Parents who have given everything and all as a pure and free gift of perfect love.

That the Holy Spirit may plant that truth deep in our hearts and teach us the way of that pure and perfect love is my humble prayer, in Jesus' name. Amen.


Lisa said...

Hey there Brother Wrathall, I clicked on to blog from Reuben's where the title of your post caught my attention. After reading it, all I can say is wow! That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing your talk. It's a great reminder for me to live my religion.

J G-W said...

Lisa, thank you so much! There were some very interesting one-on-one conversations after this talk yesterday.

I felt really lucky having the opportunity to give this talk, but I really miss Lake Nokomis, and look forward to being back in my home ward again next Sunday!

J G-W said...

The best response I got afterward came from our foreign exchange student. He smiled at me yesterday afternoon and said: "King Benjamin: We are ALL beggars!"

That has to be one of the most powerful sermons in a long history of sermons... Easy to build an amazing talk around it.

Anonymous said...

Very well done. Makes me realize I need to take another look at my native religion, and not just throw it out because I'm gay.

Robert said...

Just about the best sermon I've ever read on the topic. I do not believe that any civil government is capable of carrying out God's law. People who govern people are corrupt (this includes some who are called but not chosen). Honest men (and women) should continue to expose corruption in all forms. People will be judged individually by their acts.

J G-W said...

Robert - I'm glad you appreciated this sermon... Of all the things I've written, I believe this is the most important.

We will be judged individually, but also, I think, collectively. Christ's judgments will be not just on each of us individually, but on our civilization as a whole, which is sorely lacking. "Mene, mene tekel upharsin" (Daniel 5: 25-28). To whatever extent we bear responsibility for the course of that civilization, we are accountable, I think. It's why, as much as I'd like to tune out of politics sometimes, I can't in good conscience.