Monday, February 20, 2012

Socialism vs. Zionism: A Theological Perspective

Zion, The City of Enoch is Taken Up
As a political blog, I don't generally use this forum to comment on religious matters. However, since both politics and religion seek to manage or control, by compulsion or by conscience, the "moral" behavior of mankind, the occasional mixing of the two is virtually unavoidable.

A friend recently shared an article entitled "The Case for Book of Mormon Socialism;" published a year ago in the Salt Lake Tribune and solicited my thoughts. The conversation was stimulating so I decided to expand on it here. I'm indebted to John Hajicek for several of the scriptural references cited below.

The matter is of relevant political interest because it calls into question Mormon doctrine and its influence on the current front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination for President, Mitt Romney. Governor Romney is a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--an affiliation that we share.

Author, Troy Williams, quotes (inaccurately) from Moses Ch. 7 (ironically NOT the Book of Mormon, but the Pearl of Great Price) “the Lord called his people Zion because they were of one heart and one mind and they did have all things in common — and there were no poor among them,” (vs. 18) to advance his thesis that the "At their most righteous, the Nephites (Book of Mormon people)...were benevolent socialists; at their most depraved, they were greedy free-market capitalists."

He further asserts, "Redistribution is not an anomaly in Mormon scriptures. Joseph Smith declared that 'It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.' (Doctrine and Covenants 49:20)."

Guilty as charged! I'm neither a theological scholar nor an anthropological one, but the doctrine of shared materialism in holy writ is indisputable. And of course, no Christian or Jew would dispute the scriptural imperative to care for the poor and needy. 

Ironically, Williams' misquoted verse refers not to the Book of Mormon people, but to Enoch's followers in the times before the great flood. These people were so righteous that they were eventually "taken up into heaven" to dwell with God. (Moses 7:68)

In the Apostolic age, the Church of Christ apparently practiced a similar economic order where "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." (Acts 4:32)

Similarly, after Christ appeared to ancient Americans a period of peace and prosperity ensued wherein  "...they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another." (3 Nephi 26:19). This principle apparently contributed to a sustained period peace and prosperity that lasted nearly 200 years. (4 Nephi 1: 22-23).

In modern times, Joseph Smith, Founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, restored this principle, commonly referred to as the Law of Consecration. During its formative decades the Church organized several cooperative communities on the principle of the "United Order" both prior to the westward migration and after the Saints settled in Utah. (See Doctrine and Covenants Section 104). Even today, Mormon faithful promise not only to pay an honest tithe (a tenth of their income),  but to wholly commit their time, talents, and very lives to the building up of God's kingdom on earth.

While the principle of economic parity is indisputably present in Mormon doctrine, as well as in "traditional" Judeo/Christian theology, the manner of its practice is another issue altogether. There are at least two key points of differentiation related to the redistribution or sharing of material wealth that, in my observation, separate the communal societies of the Judea-Christian tradition, substantially, from the modern communist/socialist state and negate Williams' claim:

1. While all the citations above confirm Williams' assertion that ancient Christians and Jews organized societies in which property was shared among the participants, there's little detail in accompanying scripture as to how this was carried out in practice--or how successfully. Notably, Williams also ignores a key qualifying principle articulated in the very verse he cites (and others) that sheds clarifying light on the subject. It reads, "they were of one heart and mind."

This is where the great divide between ancient Zionism and modern collectivism begins. The phrase describes a unity of purpose and of thought. A society based in love and of common values, ideals and indeed, faith shared in an uncommon way. The sequence of the phraseology also suggests that the coming together of spiritual things precedes the coming together in temporal things.

2. The singleness of heart referred to presupposes perhaps the MOST important distinction: In these communities, participation is strictly voluntary. Freedom of choice--individual agency and accountability and self-government are fundamental. There is no compulsion. There's no need for it! No imperative for one to be placed above another in power, property or authority. No place for coercion, political authority, or force. There is, essentially, no distinction between the ruler and the ruled. All are one, working together for the same shared ends.

"And even I, myself, (King Benjamin of Nephite fame) have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day. -- (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 2:14)

Utopian socialists pursue a similar outcome in an egalitarian social order in which all wealth, i.e. property, is "equally" distributed. To achieve this "noble" end, they must employ the most ignoble of means. In the absence of spiritual unity, pure love, and individual choice they must employ the power of the state, which is brute force, to compel the redistribution of property from producers to consumers, and/or to "care" for the poor.  This is probably the single most significant reason such societies always eventually fall. Pluralism, diversity, and individuality all have their merits. But only in a context of extraordinary charity and virtue can such diversity survive in an economic order of equally shared wealth. The disparity of human ambition, talent, skill, opinion, and conscience in an egocentric race renders such an order unsustainable for human kind--particularly in the absence of shared faith and common purpose.

Without moral self-government, such societies are, of necessity, led by a dictatorial elite; those in power who decide for the masses how, what, when, where, and by whom wealth will be created and distributed. Whether despotic, oligarchical, or even theocratic, the ruling class or bourgeoisie typically siphon an excessive share of the wealth from the society as a whole and have a vested interest in keeping the proletariat contained and controlled. They do so by creating a dependency upon the state to the extent that freedom and self-determinism is subverted in favor of cradle to grave security.

As an aside, control the healthcare, food, and energy supplies of the people and you subjugate them.

3. The United Order or communal societies of early Christendom were theocratic societies, not strictly speaking, democratic ones. They were more republican in nature--ruled by common consent to laws based on the revealed "commandments" of God. The unity they attained, was first and foremost, a unity of faith. Specifically, faith in Jesus Christ. They were presided over directly by the Deity through individuals universally accepted by adherents as Divinely appointed stewards chosen to serve, not to rule.

Modern socialist states are typically atheistic because they cannot acknowledge any power higher than themselves without compromising their authority. Autocrats cloak their avarice in a lexicon of "the common good," exploiting the charitable instincts of the masses to supply their vain ambitions.

So were the Christian Nephites socialists? Only in the outward manifestation of shared property. But in the underlying matters of the heart, the wellspring of their unity and their charity, they were not. Socialism as we know it, is anything but benevolent. And it produces nothing, if not shared misery and ultimate violence and revolt. Look no further than modern Greece. Why? Because it denies human beings their individuality--their insatiable craving for freedom and self-determination. It exchanges incentive and industry for security and the dole. Rather than capitalizing on our virtues and strengths, rather than appealing to the best that is in us--our ability to rise and grow in pursuit of reward, it sees only the worst. It assumes we are incapable of independent virtue and self-rule--that any high achievement MUST be accompanied by equal doses of exploitation. That life is a zero sum game and that for one to proper, another must be suppressed. It plays upon our weaknesses--jealousy, greed, covetousness, insecurity, and fear.

Finally, Williams suggests that contrary to the virtues of their "benevolent socialism" at their most depraved,  they (the Book of Mormon peoples) were greedy free-market capitalists." Again, not so. When at their worst, they were either ruled by unrighteous kings or corrupt judges where the corridors of power had been overrun with secret combinations of evildoers whose aim was to destroy the freedom of men and gratify their own insatiable carnal desires.

From Mosiah Chapter 11 (Book of Mormon) we read the account of the wicked Nephite king, Noah:

For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.
And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.
And all this did he take to support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom.

And from Helaman 7 we read of the notorious Gadianton Robbers who infiltrated government at its highest levels and stirred the people up against one another to acquire power and gain.

And seeing the people in a state of such awful wickedness, and those Gadianton robbers filling the judgment-seats—having usurped the power and authority of the land; laying aside the commandments of God, and not in the least aright before him; doing no justice unto the children of men;
Condemning the righteous because of their righteousness; letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money; and moreover to be held in office at the head of government, to rule and do according to their wills, that they might get gain and glory of the world, and, moreover, that they might the more easily commit adultery, and steal, and kill, and do according to their own wills—

This latter group provides and eerie foreshadowing and offers a stern warning to our day. A representative government of laws and judges infiltrated by wicked, self-serving officials and bureaucrats usurped the authority of the people, became overbearing and corrupt, self-serving and unjust; conferring favor on "insiders" while undermining the liberty and industry of the populace. This was not free market capitalism--if anything, it was crony capitalism and statism. Sound familiar?