Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Dwelling in Righteousness with No Poor among Us
So, I led a discussion on Sunday using the questions I listed in the last post as a general outline. Lots of discussion. Many insightful ideas on what’s preventing us from establishing Zion and what we can do to overcome these obstacles. I’ll share a few thoughts here on the third through sixth questions, about dwelling in righteousness and eliminating poverty.
First, though, another thought about what prevents us from being of one heart and one mind. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to unity is incomplete information (or just plain bad information). If we had all knowledge, we would see things clearly and would likely agree on everything. But the nature of mortality is ignorance about most things. We also have lots of information that is simply inaccurate. And then there’s the problem of people who want poor information, who only want to confirm their prejudices and preconceptions. So, better information is one key to creating greater unity.
But what about righteousness? What prevents us from dwelling in righteousness? Well, the usual suspects show up here. Temptation, sin, ignorance. I would also throw in bad laws. The more important question, I believe, is, what can we do to become more righteous? It’s pretty straightforward to make ourselves more righteous (not easy, but straightforward). But how do we get other people to be more righteous? How do parents get their children to be more righteous? Ah, that old problem. Well, even our Heavenly Father didn’t have great success on that count. We can list the usual ideas—teach correct principles, use love and compassion rather than criticism—but these methods have only limited effectiveness, because of that pesky thing called agency. This seems to be a rather large obstacle to creating a true Zion society. I suppose you could just kick everyone out who doesn’t fall in line, but in our modern society, where the Church is embedded in a variety of social and economic systems, we can’t create Zion isolated from the circumstances we find ourselves in. And as societies, we can’t simply exclude half the population. Where would we send them? Short of fleeing to some remote location where only the righteously inclined will gather, this appears to be an impossible requirement. And as I mentioned above, even Heavenly Father struggled with this. Which brings up the question of how God will maintain order and peace in his eternal kingdoms in the hereafter, particularly the telestial and terrestrial. Of course, that’s well beyond the scope of this post.
So let’s move on to the final characteristic of Zion: no poor. What are some of the causes of poverty? I was surprised and pleased that in two different wards where I asked this question, nobody mentioned laziness, which is a common explanation among some conservatives. Yes, there are a few people who are poor because they are lazy. But they are a minority, perhaps even a small minority. Other causes? Physical illness, disability, age, mental illness, lack of decent-paying jobs, lack of education or job-related skills, and even bad luck. Which reminds me of an experience I once had.
Back in 1999, Church magazines sent me to Quebec to write a story about the Montreal Homeless Choir. A young dental technician from France, Pierre Anthian, had moved to Montreal to get married. The engagement fell apart, but Pierre stayed. Because his mother had taught him to serve the less fortunate, he found a local homeless shelter/food kitchen and volunteered. But after a while he grew frustrated. Giving out meals was a short-term fix, he knew, but it wasn’t doing anything to create real change. So he cooked up an idea. He had been trained in the conservatories of Paris and Pau, and this background led him to the idea of forming a choir of homeless men. There was no requirement that the choir members had to be able to carry a tune. He advertised, and a few men showed up to practice. Then a few more. Eventually he had seventeen men who would follow his simple rules.
When they were ready, more or less, they went to the busiest Metro station in Montreal and started singing. Soon a crowd gathered, and people started dropping money into the hat Pierre had place in front of the choir. They became a news story. They sang regularly in the subway, but they also started getting invitations to sing at schools and businesses. They even performed at an NHL game. The money they earned from these appearances they donated to the food kitchen. The money they received in the subway station Pierre split among the seventeen singers. They earned enough to be able to afford apartments and food. Pierre’s idea got seventeen men off the street.
He told me one day that most of these men were criminals. Because of their circumstances, they had lived difficult lives. “Let’s just say thievery and attempted murder are not the worst offenses on the list,” Pierre once told a reporter. “And they are my friends.” He told me that the primary difference between himself and these men was just bad luck. Sometimes that’s all it takes. One bad break, and your life can spiral out of control. Pierre had given his life to serving these men. He gave up his business making dentures and devoted his time to the choir. The homeless shelter provided him a small living allowance so he could do this work.1
But seventeen is a drop in the bucket of floundering humanity. There are millions in America who are living in poverty and who don’t have a Pierre Anthian to rescue them. So, how do we eliminate poverty? One homeless choir at a time?
I think we sometimes get the idea that if we just live the gospel, Zion will somehow magically happen. Voila! No more poor. But I think this is naïve in the extreme. In any society, there will always be people who are sick, disabled, mentally ill, or poorly qualified for decent-paying work. There will always be people who experience bad luck. And sometimes the economy will dip into recession, which will tip millions of people into unemployment. To assume that there is some sort of solution to these circumstances that does not involve government is simply absurd. Most Mormons don’t even consider the notion that the city of Enoch had a government. And it undoubtedly had laws prohibiting the hoarding of wealth. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tried to establish Zion in a variety of ways. But they always implemented economic restrictions that attempted to equalize wealth.
One of the causes of poverty that is more systemic than individual is the concentration of wealth. Today we are experiencing historic levels of economic inequality, and despite what some conservatives like to claim, this is indeed a cause of poverty, and it is unsustainable. All you have to do is plot the current trends on a chart to see that where we are heading is socially destructive and economically disastrous. But this problem is not unique to twenty-first-century America.
In 1875, Brigham Young and thirteen members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve issued a statement regarding the cooperative movement, particularly Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which the Church established to promote economic equality and stand against the inroads of American capitalism that had come with the railroad in 1869. It reads, in part:
The experience of mankind has shown that the people of communities and nations among whom wealth is the most equally distributed, enjoy the largest degree of liberty, are the least exposed to tyranny and oppression and suffer the least from luxurious habits which beget vice. . . . One of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations. . . . It threatens to give shape to the legislation, both state and national, of the entire country. If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin.2
A fitting warning for our day. There are a couple of ways to correct this imbalance. One is to tax massive wealth inequality out of existence to help lift up the lower levels of society. And progressive taxation will always be necessary as long as there are members of society who are sick, disabled, aged, mentally ill, or otherwise unable to provide for themselves. Charity is never sufficient to meet these needs. But there is another way we can equalize wealth in society that does not involve taxation. It is actually to create the sort of capitalism Adam Smith and other worldly philosophers envisioned. William Greider put it well: “The problem is not that capital is privately owned, as Marx supposed. The problem is that most people don’t own any.”3
In our current system, those who actually create the products and sell them, as well as those who fill support functions in businesses do not receive a proportionate share of the wealth they create. This is because they do not share in the ownership of the businesses where they work. Consequently, the profits all go to investors and executives. This creates a dual wage system. One group of people is paid as much as possible; the other group is paid as little as possible (a “competitive” wage, we call it). This system is designed to create increasing inequality. But consider Michael Ventura’s perspective on this system:
As a worker, I am not an “operating cost.” I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. . . . I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic “input,” but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral. . . . It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company’s work. Isn’t that an investment? Doesn’t it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power? . . . If the people who do the work don’t own some part of the product, and don’t have any power over what happens to their enterprise—they are being robbed. You are being robbed. And don’t think for a minute that those who are robbing you don’t know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.4
Sharing ownership of businesses with workers would do more to equalize wealth in our modern society than any other method. This is not communism. It is capitalism as it was initially intended to be. How exactly the surviving Lehites achieved a society with not just no poor, but where “there were not rich and poor” (4 Ne. 1:3) is not explained in the Book of Mormon, but it certainly didn’t come about by allowing some people to own the time and labor of others or to treat them as “human resources” or “commodities.”
This last section was not part of my lesson on Sunday. Not nearly enough time. And it’s probably not appropriate for a priesthood meeting. But maybe it is. If we’re serious about establishing Zion, we need to consider the practical aspects of what we will need to do to accomplish this herculean task. It’s not going to happen by magic.
1. See Roger Terry, “The Least of These,” Liahona (December 2000), https://www.lds.org/study/liahona/2000/12/the-least-of-these?lang=eng.
2. James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75), 2:267–72.
3. William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 416.
4. Michael Ventura, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life,” Utne Reader (July/August 1991); 78, 80, reprinted from the L.A. Weekly.