November 11, 2013 by Tariq Khan
I gave a talk in sacrament meeting this morning. This is what I said.
They say that the gospel serves to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Hopefully I’ll be able to do a little bit of both here today.
If you pay attention to current events you may have heard about the two Pennsylvania judges who recently plead guilty to charges of fraud and other related charges connected to what has come to be known as the “cash for kids” scandal. The short version of the story is this; the state, like many states these days, contracted out the job of punishing “criminal” children to a private prison company. These judges had financial ties, in a few different ways, to this company. What this created was a situation in which these judges profited financially from the incarceration of children. The more youth they sent to jail, they more money they made. Sure enough, there was a marked increase in the number of youth who these judges sentenced to juvenile detention, often on the grounds of very minor offences. Eventually, as more parents of victimized children raised their voices in righteous indignation, it came out that several youth had suffered harsh, cruel, and unusual punishment due to a combination of judges and private prisons. Most of these children’s supposed “crimes” were the kinds of things that when I was a youth, would not have been considered by most reasonable people as law enforcement issues at all, let alone legally punishable offences. Things like getting into scuffles at the bus stop or making fun of the principle. While this is the most recent story like this to come out, it is not the only story. Over the past ten years there have been several children from various parts of the country who have been similarly abused not just by corrupt individuals in power, but by a corrupt system.
The reason why I bring this up is because it dramatically symbolizes a much larger trend that I’ve witnessed over my lifetime; a trend of the devaluation of our children, the devaluation of the youth. Our precious children’s lives in many ways are subordinated to cold economic calculation. This trend runs in direct opposition to the message of Jesus Christ who said that it is better for a man “that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” (Luke 17:2). This devaluation not only in the way our society treats children, but even in the way it thinks about children, is most pronounced when it comes to the children of the poor, or children from certain communities of color. When there are sad and horrific incidents of gun violence against white middle class children, mainstream middle class society rightly reacts with the grave seriousness such tragedies deserve. There are calls for deep and thoughtful national conversations about the culture of violence. But when the children of the poor or children of color in certain communities are similarly victimized, mainstream middle class society goes on with business as usual; as if such incidents are natural, expected, and unavoidable when it comes to “those” people. How easily we forget that “God is no respecter of persons,” (Acts 10:34) that all are alike unto God, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2Nephi 26:33). Not only are all alike unto God, but it is in how we treat the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the underprivileged that we exhibit how Christian our hearts truly are: for “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40). And conversely, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” (Matt. 25:45).
Jesus Christ took extra special care to acknowledge and teach his disciples the great worth of children. On one occasion, people brought their little ones to be blessed by Jesus, and when His disciples saw it, they rebuked the people for getting in the way of the Lord’s important work. Jesus quickly intervened. He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16) The Psalm tells us that “Children are an heritage of the Lord.” (Psalms 127:3).
One of the greatest lessons on the preciousness of children is found in the Book of Mormon. When Christ visited the Nephites, of all that he could have done, of all the lessons he could have taught, “He commanded that their little children should be brought… and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept… And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.” (3 Nephi 17: 11-24). How great is the worth of children in the eyes of God!
He did not just bless the children, as a faceless mass, but He took them “one by one, and blessed them” one by one. What great reverence and respect He exhibited for the individuality of each child, recognizing that each individual child faces his or her own different challenges and has different needs. No “one size fits all” solution in this scenario. No one system. No one box that each child must be bent and twisted to fit into. How listless, weak, soulless, anemic our own systems seem in comparison to the example of Christ on that day. How cheap our own society feels as an increasing amount of our social responsibilities, which affect children the most, are infused with the profit motive; while education, basic social services, healthcare, and even what is ironically termed “criminal justice” become ways for some to profit at the expense and detriment of others.
In the 1990s UNICEF, that’s the United Nations Children’s Fund, published a very telling study titled Child Neglect in Rich Nations. The study, headed by a very good American economist named Sylvia Hewlett, is quite sobering. In it, Hewlett finds what she terms an “anti-child and anti-family spirit that’s loose in these lands,” these lands being the United States and Britain. This anti-child and anti-family spirit is rooted in social and economic policy; policy that values profit above all else; profit over people, profit over children and families. Many companies maximize profit by cutting wages and benefits. Costs of living increase while wages decrease. This means that many people have little choice but to work longer hours in order to survive. Decreases in job security further exacerbate this by further limiting choice. Even in families with two parents, both parents often have to enter the labor market whether they want to or not. Rising costs of living on falling incomes mean more time parents have to spend working which means less time parents have to be there for their children. Quality family time is disappearing; not because parents are wicked or don’t care about their children, but because parents are increasingly constrained by a wicked and uncaring economic system. The study found that over the span of only two decades, time spent by parents with children declined by forty percent.
What this leads to is a weakening of family identity and values. It leads to a measurable increase in reliance on things like television and videogames for child supervision. It leads to a significant increase in the number of children who are alone, what when I was a kid were called “latchkey children.” It means more children waking up in the morning with no parent at home, more children going to bed at night with no parent at home, leaving for school with no parent to send them off. When children are alone, alienated, disconnected from family support structures, disconnected from family identity and values, disconnected from daily family interaction, then what happens? What happens is there is a rise in child alcoholism and drug use, a rise in youth on youth violence, a rise in irresponsible sexual behavior beginning at younger ages. There are ill effects on child health and education, declines in SAT and IQ scores. This decline has nothing to with genetics and everything to do with social and economic factors.
At this point you might be asking; what does this have to do with the gospel? It has everything to do with the gospel. Counselor in the First Presidency Dieter F. Uchtdorf teaches the same thing that all of the scriptures teach, that “the temporal is intertwined with the spiritual.” “Unfortunately,” he says, “there are those who overlook the temporal because they consider it less important. They treasure the spiritual while minimizing the temporal. While it is important to have our thoughts inclined toward heaven, we miss the essence of our religion if our hands are not also inclined toward our fellow man.” (Uchtdorf, “Providing in the Lord’s Way).
We as a Church have seen the ill effects I have discussed. We have recognized the chipping away of family identity, family values, and the devaluation of children. We have quite correctly noticed that there is what we have come to term an “attack on the family” happening in our society, what Hewlett called an “anti-child and anti-family spirit that’s loose in these lands.” But I lament that in many instances we have incorrectly identified the source of this attack. In some cases we have scapegoated single mothers. In other cases we have scapegoated feminists. In many more cases we have scapegoated our LGBT brothers and sisters, who are precious and loved children of our heavenly parents. We have unfairly scapegoated them as “enemies” of the family, forgetting that they too are members of families, and in many cases they are members of our families. Far too often as individuals and as a Church I am sad to say, we have caused our LGBT brothers and sisters to feel unwanted, unwelcome, unloved, and worthless. We have at times acted as a stumbling block, hindering their ability to partake of heavenly gifts.
Rudi Wobbe was one of the three courageous Mormon youth in Germany who agitated against the Nazi regime in the early 1940s. In 2002 he published his book Three Against Hitler about his experience of being a Mormon youth during the Third Reich. One of the most heartbreaking stories he tells is the story of his friend Salomon Schwartz. Salomon’s mother was a Hungarian Jew. She was raped by a soldier, got pregnant, and gave birth to Salomon. As a teenager, Salomon became very interested in the gospel, and in 1935 he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was very enthusiastic about the gospel and helped to bring his half-sister Anna Marie into the Church as well. The Church was a wonderful experience for him until 1939. Salomon joined the district choir, which met in the building of another branch. The president of that branch approached Salomon and demanded that he produce an Aryan ID Card. As Salomon was half Jewish, he had no such card. The branch president told him to leave and not return until he could prove he was Aryan. Shortly thereafter, a sign appeared on the entrance of the Church that said, “Jews Are Not Allowed To Enter.” Can you imagine? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born into the Tribe of Judah, saying “Jews are not allowed to enter”? Understandably, Salomon was devastated.
Still a faithful believer in the gospel, and still a member of the Church, Salomon hoped that even though he couldn’t be in the choir, he could at least be permitted to attend a special Church conference meeting featuring a visiting Church authority at that same building. “As they approached the meeting, he asked his sister to go inside and ask permission from the mission president for Salomon to attend. The president sent a message out with his secretary that Salomon would not be able to enter. His sister, with a heavy heart, had to go and tell him of the decision. Salomon broke down and cried as he said, ‘Why can’t I be with my brothers and sisters in the gospel and worship with them?’ His sister told him to go home, assuring him she would report the messages of the conference to him later. He told her he wanted to stay there, outside the chapel, to hear the Church hymns they were singing.” When confronted by others about this exclusionary treatment, the Branch President justified himself by saying, “I am just following party lines.” The branch president had been a Nazi party member since 1933. Salomon was killed in the Gas Chambers in 1943. (Three Against Hitler, p. 30-32).
While I am not saying that the Church today is like the Nazis, in my own lifetime there have been instances in which members of the Church, even people in leadership positions, have treated LGBT youth no better than that Branch President treated Salomon. In far too many instances we have allowed political ideology, party loyalty, business interests, and even outright prejudice and ignorance to corrupt, pollute, or at the very least water-down the gospel’s strong message of social and economic equality. While we may have a hard time recognizing the social and economic roots of societal deterioration, the scriptures do not. The scriptures teach us quite clearly that if we’re serious about having strong and happy families, then we need to stop scapegoating people and get serious about adopting Christian social and economic values. We don’t have to argue, debate, or guess what Christian social and economic values are. They are spelled out for us very plainly several times in the scriptures.
The great ancient prophet Enoch “built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion.” (Moses 7:19). “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” What we often overlook is that in order for there to be no poor, there must also be no rich. A Zion society is not a society in which the rich are kind and make charitable donations for the poor, although charitable donations can be a wonderful thing. A Zion society is one in which there are no rich or poor, but there is social and economic equality. The earth is abundant with resources, says the Lord, “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” (D&C 49:20) When Alma and Amulek went forth and established the Church throughout the land, the righteousness of the people was manifest in the fact that, says the Book of Mormon, “There was no inequality among them,” and “the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land…” (Alma 16:16). During his mortal life on earth, Jesus Christ was not a conservative, nor was he a liberal reformer. He transcended these narrow categories. If anything he was a radical revolutionary. His disciples learned from him that in order to transform themselves, it was essential to transform their society. We learn in Acts that the early Christians “were together, and had all things in common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45). “And 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). They didn’t fetishize private property the way we do. It wasn’t the church of Ayn Rand or the Church of Fox News; it was the Church of Jesus Christ. And while the followers of Christ were not rich, say the scriptures, “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 4:34-35). “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33).
The Book of Fourth Nephi in the Book of Mormon is one of the most fascinating books of scripture to me, because it is such a clearly laid out example of how sin enters the world. After Christ visited the Nephites, “the disciples of Jesus had formed a church of Christ in all the lands round about.” (4Nephi 1:1). “And they 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.” (4Nephi 1:3) Not only were there no rich or poor, but there were no national, racial, or ethnic divisions. They were no longer Nephites and Lamanites, “nor any manner of –ites,” it says, “but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the Kingdom of God.” (4Nephi1:17). And directly because there was social and economic equality, “There were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murderers, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” (4Nephi1:16). Individual spiritual transformation is connected to systemic social and economic transformation.
Interesting in this account in Fourth Nephi is that as soon as the word “rich” comes up, which is in verse 23, the word “pride” follows in verse 24, and shortly thereafter comes class division, and it is not until after they have abandoned Christian ideals of social and economic equality do what we think of as more traditional sins enter the picture. “And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted 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…” (4Nephi1:24-26). People divided up into –ites again. The destruction of social and economic equality due to pride is the cause, not the effect, of what the scripture calls “all manner of wickedness.” (4Nephi1:27). Those who became a privileged class built prisons to serve their own selfish interests. And “they did exercise power and authority over the disciples of Jesus who did tarry with them, and they did cast them into prison…” (4Nephi 1:30). And this privileged class of people, says verse 42, protected their privilege by creating institutions that worked in secret, as the Gadiantons of old. And this privileged class of people called themselves Nephites, and they “began to be proud in their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, and become vain… And from this time the disciples began to sorrow for the sins of the world.” (4Nephi 1:44).
Again let me reiterate, individual spiritual transformation is connected to systemic social and economic transformation. Or as Elder Uchtdorf says, “The temporal is intertwined with the spiritual.” The prophet Joseph Smith understood this well. Brigham Young understood this well. Both men attempted, more than once, to institute a radical revolutionary Christian economic system called the United Order of Enoch. President Young told the Saints at conference: “The underlying principle of the United Order is that there should be no rich and no poor, that men’s talents should be used for the common good, and that selfish interests should make way for a more benevolent and generous spirit among the saints.” (Nibley, “Law of Consecration”). Each time that Brother Joseph and Brother Brigham attempted to institute this economy it failed. Why did it fail? According to Brigham Young, its failure had nothing to do with poor people being lazy and trying to take advantage of the system, which is a common stereotype in our society today. Brigham Young blamed the failure of the United Order not on the poor, but on the privileged Saints who were covetous, who loved their wealth, their superior status and influence in society, more than they loved the Lord. We all like the idea of having no poor, but the idea of no rich goes against the grain of how we’ve been socialized here in Babylon. Christian economics demand it nonetheless. When the Lord revealed the United Order to Joseph Smith in 1834, he told Joseph that “this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” (D&C 104:16). A necessary condition for the eradication of poverty is the leveling of the rich.
Far too often we foolishly equate being wealthy with being righteous. Jesus Christ lived a humble life of poverty. He was born in the Levant, one of the poorest, most marginalized sections of the Roman Empire. Joseph Smith was born into economic hardship. His father, a righteous, hard-working man, went to debtor’s prison, because despite his diligence, he could not make ends meet. More privileged families in the community looked down on the Smith family. Joseph grew up with a keen awareness of the injustice of the so-called free market. He never became rich. Even when he was the prophet, the leader of the Church, he often had to rely on the kindness of friends and family so that his children would have food to eat and a safe, warm, dry place to sleep at night. Individual economic success does not necessarily equal righteousness and poverty does not necessarily equal laziness or character flaws. Widespread poverty is not the result of widespread laziness. It is the result of a wicked economic system.
I suspect that part of why this “righteousness equals wealth” myth has so much currency in contemporary Mormon culture is because we misread the Book of Mormon. We read it through the lens of so-called free-market economics rather than through the lens of Christian economics. We read in the Book of Mormon that when people are righteous they prosper in the land. What we fail to understand is that the Book of Mormon is not describing individual prosperity, but that the righteous prosper together, as a community. The moment those same righteous people turn away from their egalitarian, communitarian ethics, the whole thing falls apart. Why does the world lie in sin? The D&C explains that the world lies in sin because of social and economic inequality. For “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” (D&C 49:20). For “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare… For the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1Timothy 6:9-10).
So to bring it back to where we started, I agree that there is such a thing as an attack on the family, but that attack is not coming from our LGBT brothers and sisters who are precious and loved children of Heavenly Parents. The attack on the family is coming first and foremost from our individualistic, profit-driven, heartless, un-Christlike economic system. Joseph Smith knew this. Brigham Young knew this. We’ve chosen to forget it. We’ve made virtues of shallow conformity and respectability, forgetting that the one we call our Lord, Savior, and exemplar was a rebel who was executed by the leading imperialist power of his day. We forget that those who take upon them the name of Jesus Christ wrestle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12). Fighting for family values means fighting for social, political, and economic equality for all of God’s children regardless of X, Y, or Z; a society in which all are made free and partakers of the heavenly gift. Let us take a lesson from the great egalitarian leader Chief Captain Moroni who wrote, “I seek not for power, but to pull it down.” (Alma 60:36). I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.