Thursday, September 1, 2011

Social Justice in Book of Mormon-Era Governments

I recently came across the following verse in the Book of Mormon, Helaman 6:39:
And thus they 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.
At this time in the history of the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are righteous and the Nephites are not, so much so that the Nephites have allowed the Gadianton robbers to take control of the government.  Upon taking control the Gadianton folks immediately started harassing and making life miserable for the poor.
There are various ways to interpret this verse, we don't really know for sure exactly what was going on, but it struck me that this verse may be evidence of social justice in Book of Mormon-era government.  The assumption of the verse seems to me to be that previous to the robbers taking over the government, the government was in the business, to some unknown degree, of helping the poor.  Following the take-over the policy is reversed and the robbers used the government as described.  Why else would the author describe of the oppression of the poor and meek in the same sentence he states that the Gadianton's took over the government if not to draw that contrast?

Many moderate Mormon conservatives contend that the government should not be running programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare because those are properly the the domain of the private sector, and maybe charities in particular.  I have no problem with the argument, I happen to disagree strongly but understand the reasoning behind it.  The problem is that they often use the gospel or Book of Mormon as the basis for their arguments, which I do have a problem with.

I think a righteous people, or even people just trying to do their best, as the pre-Gadianton Nephites were, could have, and indeed did, view the government as an efficient and justifiable means to helping the poor and meek, perfectly in line with their gospel beliefs.  Perhaps their beliefs even required that they use every means and institution available to them to aid the poor and underprivileged, as that is a basic requirement that God gives to all his covenant people.  I think this verse may give us a glimpse of that in the Book of Mormon.


    Pugs said...

    One thing I find interesting about this topic, as I'm often lumped into the group saying that the "government" has no reason to be providing those services, is how often I am lumped into a bucket because my thought process.

    Perhaps I'm the minority and because of asymmetric insight have surrounded myself with like-minded individuals, but nearly 100% of my friends that agree with me about the role of government are only talking about the Federal government.

    I don't believe that any sort of concept like our Federal government existed in the Book of Mormon times, so those parallels don't necessarily follow.

    My current favorite speaker at conference, Elder Uchtdorf, gave a beautiful talk that changed the way I think about charitable donations. The one he called Lift Where You Stand.

    I extend the principles of that talk into my view of government. As I've said more than once on this blog, I believe myself to be ultra conservative with respect to the federal government, and quite liberal in terms of state government. I do personally believe that the closer you keep the money, the more accountable the politicians can and will be held, I believe that 100%. This doesn't eliminate corruption, or bad decision making, but it certainly empowers the people to have real actions against the politicians making said decisions.

    I don't disagree with what you're saying about the role of government and social justice, I probably just disagree with where that work should be centralized.

    Jacob S. said...

    I generally agree with everything you said, with one caveat. As long as we are the United States of America, the same protections and opportunities need to be available to all, no matter what state you live in. So while I agree that decisions and programs are most effective and accountable when they are administered as close to the people as possible, there also need to be enforceable minimum standards at the federal level that bind the states. If we want to solve problems that effect the entire country, we need to think in terms of the entire country.

    Anyway, I am glad to see your last paragraph as I feel strongly about the idea of social justice.

    Joseph said...

    Good points, Jacob S. Unquestionably the Book of Mormon promotes social justice. It's not enough to just have faith in God's redemption (which was the Nehor argument). Social and economic inequalities have to be done away with (which the true Church always did in the Book of Mormon). To argue against that one would have to take scriptures out of context and ignore about 90% of the rest of the book (which is done constantly).

    As you point out, though, an exact program for carrying social justice out is by and large missing. This isn't surprising, since Nephi and Mormon tell us those things just won't fit on the plates they are making. But this verse does indicate that government likely had a role.

    Architect said...

    Has Social Security made people less social or more social? Medicare? Medicaid? Welfare?

    Being social is good. Having justice is good. I'm not certain that social justice is good. My understanding is that Social Justice takes from the people as a whole, decisions of value, and gives it into the hands of "Deciders" (perhaps they are elected or perhaps not).

    Here are a few questions to consider...

    Will Social Justice Deciders reward high achievers or knock them down because they have too much talent or drive or success?

    How do we treat the Deciders if they award unequal portions?

    Do Social Justice Deciders have to obey the laws of supply & demand or other laws of economics?

    What about foreigners, will the Deciders award equal shares of things to non-citizens, why or why not?

    How about non-residents, will the Deciders send goods and services to foreign nations?

    Is Social Justice any different from what we have now, and how so?

    Joseph said...


    I'm not quite clear on how your comment addresses the main point Jacob S. was making. What do your "deciders" have to do with taking a closer look at Helaman 6:39? It's really not that much of a leap to conclude that if the Gadianton Robbers' overthrow of Nephite government involved neglecting the poor, then previously Nephite government must have been involved in caring for the poor in some way. Your comment doesn't really address that at all.

    You set up a pretty scary straw man with your "Deciders" concerns. But, as intimidating as they might seem, your deciders are still just straw men.

    Social Justice is a notoriously ambiguous term in politics, and what it means often depends on who is using it and in what context. Mainly it is concerned with "just conditions of social operations" (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics). How that is achieved is not necessarily agreed on even by those who claim to believe in social justice.

    I have no idea what Jacob S. ultimately believes about how to achieve social justice, and I don't have any programs in mind at this moment. But again, this post is just pointing out that clearly there were "just conditions" in Nephite society that provided for the poor that were overthrown by the Gadianton Robbers. If you've got a solid argument against that interpretation, then your comment might make more sense to me.

    As far as your question about things being the same or different, I think your "deciders" scenario describes how Corporate America functions pretty effectively. Whether or not your description fits what a socially just society would be like is something I'm not convinced of.

    Architect said...

    "You set up a pretty scary straw man with your "Deciders" concerns."

    When we surrender our right to decide, we don't get what we want.

    In the Soviet Union, students did not decide what they wanted to study. "Experts" administered tests and decided for the students.

    We have city councils that want to become "deciders" about rent. There is clear evidence that in cities around the world where rent control takes place, the quality and quantity of places to rent degrades. (See books by Dr. Thomas Sowell).

    Patrick Henry said in a very famous speech, "I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past." Social Justice sounds like using public policy to change who owns what.

    I do not believe that Helaman 6:39 is about Social Justice. I believe it is more likely that the Nephite civilization followed the Law of Moses and Ancient Israel with Jubilee years and allowing gleaning of fields to take care of the poor.

    I believe that it is more likely that the Book of Mormon is about Justice & God's Justice than "Social Justice."

    Architect said...

    Here is a simple video about deciders.

    Derek Baker said...

    I just found this thread so forgive me for the late input. During the period prior to the Nephite Government being led by the Gadianton Robbers, the Nephites were a largely moral and just society. For this reason, the government was not necessary in facilitating help for the poor. The just people supported the poor of their own free will. However, the Gadianton Robbers were allowed to take over the government when the people became unjust and immoral. So it stands to reason that the robbers did not support the poor, just like the previous government, and that the difference in the situation of the poor can be accounted for in the difference of the morality of the people. The people were no longer good, therefore the charity which had sustained the poor was no longer available, and the government under the Robbers continued to not support the poor. So the morality of the people, or rather, lack thereof, was the determining factor in the newfound bad condition of the poor class.