Friday, July 1, 2011

Given for a Principle

As part of my daily scripture study today, I read D&C section 89, "The Word of Wisdom." In verse three -- at the end of the preamble written by the prophet -- I was particularly struck by the phrase "given for a principle." The Saints usually focus on the phrase "principle with promise"; we usually focus on the health benefits that come from following the injunction to avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But it seems to me that the prophet invited the Saints to look at this revelation as more than just a health code; to see the social, moral and spiritual principle underlying it. So this time around, I read it to see if there was a larger pattern that might be applied in other areas of our lives.

The beginning of the revelation proper is verse four, which warns against "evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days." The revelation then proceeds, in verses five and following, to discuss a series of products and their healthy and proper uses. The evils and designs at issue have to do with the ways in which American capitalism subordinates all human values to the profit motive; how it exploits human needs and desires by fostering addictive behavior; how it uses clever techniques to create extraneous needs and desires, to persuade us that we want things we don't in fact need at all and that may in fact be bad for us. That's why the Word of Wisdom is presented in the form of an explanation of what humans in fact need, and how the world's goods supply those needs in a healthy way when used properly. Proper use is a central principle here. The goods at issue here are not in and of themselves harmful. The concern is misuse of good things.

When we consider the history of American capitalism since 1833 when this revelation was received, how our entire economic system has been possessed by mass consumption and mass marketing spinning ever out of control, it gives added significance to the phrase "evils and designs which do and will exist... in the last days." Whatever concerns the early Saints may have had about the evils of Demon Rum, they seem, to me, dwarfed by the mayhem of the wars and world-wide ecological disaster that are the unintended side-effects of oil-driven industry. The Word of Wisdom does have something directly to say to the modern meat industry, about which a good deal more could be written -- whether we're talking about the destruction of rainforests for the production of South American beef, or the toxic ecological effects of concentrated, mass-scale hog farming, or the cruelty of the poultry industry, or the health effects of McDiets. The bottom line is, we live in a society where something on the order of half a trillion dollars a year are invested in mass marketing, in order to get us hooked on fast food, fast cars ("zoom! zoom!"), pornography, stylish clothes, and hand-held electronic devices, all with very questionable effects on human lives, human relationships and the ecology of our planet.

Pornography, to me, is a classic example of our our economy works, and how the Word of Wisdom exposes the evil underlying it. Humans have a legitimate need for love and affection, and sex is the physical dimension, a physical expression of that most sacred need. Pornography commodifies that need, and sells us sex in a way that can't possibly meet that need in a humanly satisfying way. We become "addicted to love," substituting pictures of sex acts for human relationships, and in the process distorting the human relationships themselves. And our economy uses pornography to sell us chewing gum and cars. Has anybody else noticed how common it has become lately to sell clothes -- usually really expensive clothes -- by presenting pictures of people who aren't actually wearing any?

The Word of Wisdom, I think, humanizes us by reminding us that all the world's goods have a proper use, and warning us against a system that would use our own fundamental needs and urges against us, to get us buying stuff without thinking whether or how we actually need it.

3 comments:

mohoguy said...

I could not agree more. Thanks for sharing this insight. It is cool to consider the deeper message. Brad

JonJon said...

I love the way you take an existing principal and find broader meanings that can apply to other things.

J G-W said...

Yeah... On the other hand, it drives me crazy to reduce the Word of Wisdom to quibbling about whether it's OK to drink Coca Cola or not... Turning it into a totally legalistic thing I think really misses the point.

I've been thinking a lot about (and planning to post on) the LDS doctrine of Zion, so I was also thinking about how section 89 has in it some implicit critiques of capitalism.