The Return to Wickedness

In Jacob 2, the prophet Jacob is compelled by God to declare to the people that they are becoming more wicked and to deliver a warning to them. That warning, starting in verse 12, pertains to riches. Jacob condemns those who seek riches and then, as they obtain them more abundantly than others, establish a social hierarchy.

The signs: displays of wealth, costly apparel, and persecution of others because those with more wealth suppose that they are better than the others.

This supposition is not necessarily a blunt, broad, or overbearing one. It can also be subtle and done with a smile. Persecution can be done without hatred or ill-feeling towards the persecuted. Persecution can arise simply out of seeing other people as different and deciding that their social position or legal equality should therefore be different. Statements defending persecution often include comments on how we can’t expect “those people” to behave, act, or decide properly about certain things. Because of those statements, “those people” find themselves walled off from equality by people who believe that money makes someone more important.

Persecution, whether it’s done by someone who expresses open hatred or by someone who protests that they’re “the least racist person”, is condemned by God. God’s judgments for persecutors are promised, and speedily so.

Jacob’s message from God is direct and piercing: “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they bay be rich like unto you.” Seeking riches in and of themselves is no crime, provided one seeks God first and then seeks the riches with the intent of doing good – to others! “To clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” When one uses money for those purposes, there is no time nor desire for fine apparel or displays of wealth – and with none of those things, there is no persecution.

Jacob’s message is to see those with less wealth not as requiring different societal position, but as requiring the same love and compassion as any human desires or needs. Jacob closes his comments on the pride of riches with a comment that, “… the one being is as precious in His sight as the other.”

The Primary Signs of Wickedness

I say primary and not just first, because these signs are the first and most prominent among a people that is becoming – or which has become – wicked in the eyes of God. Jacob 1:15-16 describes the primary signs: “And now it came to pass that the people… began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son. Yea, and they also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride.”

The people were good prior to that change, but now they show the early stages of wickedness, and those things can only get worse if left uncorrected. They obviously do not value women as individuals and they are obsessing over riches. Both of these things lead to ruin. Imagine a society like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead – the rich have a law very much different from the poor, and the women at all levels are made to suffer under a patriarchy. When a nation makes women less than men before the law, that is a crime in the eyes of God.

The riches go along with that in terms of creating further unequal social structures, and I’ve made comment on that line in previous posts. But finding an added element of gender rights to this narrative is fascinating. Therefore, beware those who fight against equal rights: they will drag a nation into wickedness and ruin.

The Sin of -centric Thinking

I used to teach History. I remember the first time I was cautioned about Eurocentric thinking. I bristled at the thought because I myself had been taught from a largely Eurocentric point of view – that is, pretty much all the history worth knowing was from Europe and the USA, and that’s that. Once I learned how much history happened outside of Europe and how it was downplayed by Europeans because it didn’t happen in Europe, my thinking changed.

There’s also the idea of “American Exceptionalism” that postulates America is a special place, and that automatically makes it a better place and its national interest better interests. That’s another type of -centric thinking that comes out of a biased point of view. It’s propaganda for a theory of superiority of one people relative to another – the beginnings of nationalism and racism.

The Book of Mormon takes both of those ideas out to the dustbin of history. The success of America in its revolt against the British came not because of any inherent goodness of the Americans or specialness from their geographic blessings: the Book of Mormon laconically states that God willed it, and so it happened. While other authors of the day sang the praises of the mettle and determination of the Founding Fathers, the Book of Mormon passes over it all as a matter of God’s will, nothing more and nothing less. The USA is not a special, gifted place because it is the USA, in so many words. It is a nation made up of people who can choose to ruin it as surely as they can choose to make it better.

As for other -centrisms, 2 Nephi 29 comes down very hard on the people who think they have it all, and who forget that all humanity is a family. It talks about the Gentiles rejecting additional words of God because they already have a collection of God’s words to people in Palestine. There’s a deeper issue in that, “Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?”

It would seem that the Gentiles have forgotten whose shoulders they stand upon. The next verse is even more severe: “O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.”

The antisemitism that accompanied much of Western Civilization’s thinking – and which remains with us to this day – is clearly condemned in this passage.

Later in the chapter, God speaks of drawing Israel, his covenant people, from all the world. Essentially, we cannot say that only one people is blessed above all others. Rather, the seed of Abraham is in all nations, and we have to live according to that knowledge. Should we, in a bout of some kind of -centric thinking, deny equality to another, we may very well be making war against Israel, and, by extension, war against God Himself.

On the Corruption of the Last Days

2 Nephi 28 describes the wickedness of the latter days, in which people put themselves above others out of their pride, and who justify their wealth and lofty position at the expense of others with false doctrines. They are corrupted because of pride, and pride leads them to rob the poor.

“They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.”

Wickedness is associated once more not with base and brutish actions, but with premeditated sins of civilization – amassing wealth and fineries through exploiting the poor and denying them the resources used in making those fineries.

The Path I Follow

I may rest along the way, but not too long.
There is a destination I intend to reach.
I see many footprints along the way,
Some leaving the trail,
Others joining.

I walk alone at times, but I also know times of company
Good and bad
Some footpaths that have left the trail are mine
I nearly died out there
I almost lost my way more than once

There is a handrail
I can hold to it
I can lean on it for stability
I can use it to pull myself along
When the slope is too steep
When my arms are stronger than my legs
When I stagger and falter.
Sometimes, all I can do is sit by the rail and weep.

I have crossed dry plains, marshlands, mountain passes, deep and soothing forests, quiet deserts, and eagle-topped hills.

I have heard many languages spoken by my fellow-travelers
Many faces of various shapes and colors dot my memories
I hear voices from the dust
And I have had friends pass to the dust,
And I am promised such a fate, as well.

Still, I walk on.
Death is part of the journey.
It is not the end, it is a stretch of road.
In life, we choose the path we follow when we are dead
We choose a rough and rocky path forward
Or pacing between prison walls

Pebbles in my shoes, pains in my muscles
Illness in my guts, mind swimming in fatigue
But I have a destination I must attain
Even when others question if it is truly there
Even when others mock me for thinking it is there

I move more quickly when I give aid to others
I move not at all when I feed my demons
I leave the path when I harm others unknowingly
I drive others from the path when I harm, aware of the harm I do
I have real guilt for the wrong I have done
And I will not arrive at my destination on my own
I cannot enter that place, unclean as I am

So I try to open every door on my path
That I might have a door opened for me
I try to give hope to every person on my path
That I might have hope given to me
It is not hypocrisy when I try to do good as I sin
It is a desperate desire that I might become clean
And humble
And found worthy

I see those who do not bow their heads,
Who draw things unto themselves,
Who amass and array about their persons
Who do not see any need to change
Who do not see any need in their fellows
They do not walk with anyone,
But remain in their palaces
And they cannot arrive at the place they do not move towards

Sometimes all I can do is say “one more step”
And then take it

You will see many sets of footprints on the path
The trick is not to follow any of them
But instead to hold that handrail
To smile and to be kind
To ask for help when you need it
And to have hope that you will arrive
And be cleansed of your evils that you might enter therein
There is a way for that last door to open
And then I will have the rest I seek after a life and a death
Of walking on that path

The Ungodliness of Inequality

A passage of scriptures in 2 Nephi 26, starting with verse 20, again addresses the concept of economic disparity being a keystone of wickedness and unbelief:

“And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. “

That is the very first characteristic associated with their wickedness – the root thereof being “that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.” Not getting gain from ethical business practices, getting gain from exploiting the poor and those with relatively less power in the society.

These prides are themselves connected to the secret combinations and murders “of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things.” The exploitation of the poor is directly connected to back-room dealings and murders. It does not matter if such things are made legitimate by the laws or customs of men: these things go against the laws and customs of God and His people.

God is contrasted with this power of pride and wealth in verse 25: “… he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.” There is no monetary cost to come unto God, none at all. The cost is in faith and humility and charity. In verse 27, “… he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.”

In verse 29, the sermon returns to the enemies of God:

“He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.”

It is not enough for these men to get gain, but that they must also be seen as doing the equivalent of God’s work in the eyes of the world, even as they build up their own kingdom. In the next verse, we are told, “Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity, which charity is love.” These things, these prides, these oppressions, these inconsiderate acts and practices that build up some and hold many down, these are forbidden of the Lord, and they are the first on the list of things that are forbidden. Murder, lying, stealing, cursing, envying, malice, contentions, and whoredoms all follow in a catalog in the next verse. Those are also bad, but the chief among those listed is the pride in setting one’s self up to get wealth and gain as they rule over a nation.

One has to assume that, if these proud and uncharitable men are ruling a nation, that they have made arrangements to make their works of darkness nevertheless legitimized by their laws. Consider that Christ was crucified according to law, not an act of a mob swept up in a moment of violent whims. The apostles were put down according to law – and I’ll note that at the same time, the devout teachers who followed Rabbi Akiva were also martyred by that same law. All these people were preaching against the pride and riches of the powerful, and the powerful had an answer for that ready to go in their unjust legal system.

The catalog of wrongdoing from murder to whoredoms will always be among normal human populations. Such is the way of things. But when committed by individuals, they do not flourish and those who commit those sins have opportunity to repent in a just society. That is why they are mentioned in passing in a sermon targeting the chief evil among men, that which gets their governments to be exploitative and unjust. In an unjust society, built up to ensconce men in power, those wicked things flourish, especially in service to those men in power. And let us make no mistake – “men” here is not a general term referring to all humanity. “Men” is specifically focused on the male segment of the population, which has been dominant in perpetuating unjust and unequal power structures throughout history. There seems to be a special need for males to have specific instruction in how to govern according to the laws of God, and that their tendency to abuse power has been a plague upon humanity from the earliest times.

But God offers an alternative, should we approach with humility and a willingness to let Him prevail over our own prides and desires. In 2 Nephi 26:33, we read:

“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

All are alike unto God – this conclusion to a sermon about the wickedness of pride and wealth gained from oppressing the poor is interesting in that it addresses the very thing that makes the unjust society possible: inequality. Inequalities produce stratified social structures where those in power benefit from the exploitation of those not in power, and that the power itself enforces those inequalities as a means of ensuring the perpetuity of that unjust power. God’s power is just, as it is based upon equality.

Inequality results from men who seek their own gain. Equality results from men who seek the charity of all.

Grinding the Faces of the Poor

Isaiah 3 has the following passages, which are quoted in 2 Nephi 13 in the Book of Mormon:

“The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people. The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people and the princes thereof; for ye have eaten up the vineyard and the spoil of the poor in your houses.”

The judgment is clearly upon the leadership classes of the people, and it is because they have oppressed the poor. That is underlined in a following comment:

“Ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor, saith the Lord God of Hosts.”

What follows is a description of how an elegantly-clad young woman will be stripped of her adornments and have “burning instead of beauty.” The nation is the young woman, and the fine apparel is the symbol of not caring for the poor.

The comment about grinding the faces of the poor is noteworthy because it is not an individual action, but a societal one. A nation is not worthy of blessings or protection if the weakest members of that nation are exploited by the rich and powerful.

A Forsaken People

There are a set of chapters in 2 Nephi that quote directly a set of chapters from the Book of Isaiah. In 2 Nephi 12:6, Isaiah is quoted as saying, “Therefore, O Lord, thou hast forsaken thy people.” What conditions have led to the Lord forsaking his people?

The first set of conditions deal with the ideas from outside that have caused the people to themselves forsake the commandments of God. But the next set of conditions deal with internal issues: “Their land is also full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots. Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.”

While the adjective “God-forsaken” typically applies to a remote, destitute, infertile, and forbidding corner of the world, the adjective here is attached to a center of civilization and commerce. And the implication of those verses is that God forsakes a people because they have forsaken him.

In my focus on the economic issues, for a land to be flush with riches and for those riches to lead to people being more focused on them than on their covenants, there has to be an issue with economic inequality. This is not simply a matter of some people who work hard and some who don’t want to work at all. This is a matter of people who gather riches unjustly and the increasing number of poor because the government either permits or is involved in the unjust transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. A phrase used to describe this in the scriptures is “grinding the face of the poor”.

When a person gains wealth from activities where one does no work, there is a high risk of unjust gathering of riches. Raising rents, refusing or skimping on repairs to rental properties, charging interest, lowering wages in real terms, “company store” arrangements that impoverish workers, fine-print contract clauses that lead to exploited loopholes, false advertising, concealment of the hazards of a product, pollution of the environment: all these things potentially constitute worshipping the work of one’s own hands as one forgets to have compassion towards one’s fellow human beings. And, yes, “charging interest” is on that list. Check carefully in the scriptures how it is universally condemned and then how men find ways to justify a little interest here and a little interest there until they have forsaken that part of God’s word… and become themselves a forsaken people.

The Vainness of Men

“O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God.” So the prophet Jacob opens his criticism on the failings of men in 2 Nephi 9. But there is hope for the learned: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” It’s not a curse to be learned, if one is also humble.

Jacob’s next words are for the rich: “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.”

But as with the learned, there is an implied way out for the rich: support the poor, elevate the meek, and put your heart on people instead of things. This would not only be in a personal way, but in a societal way, remembering Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Kingdom of Judah. The structure of the society must be such that the poor and the meek are protected and sustained, even if it means the rich are sacrificing wealth and power in order to do so. If a society concentrates power among the powerful and concentrates wealth among the wealthy, it is running afoul of Jeremiah’s and Jacob’s preaching.

Jacob continues a few verses later: “… and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches – yea, they are they whom he [God] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.”

In earlier verses, Jacob had preached against liars, murderers, and adulterers, but it is the vainness of learning and riches that Jacob returns to to explicitly call out as those who cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. These are the most serious things to consider, as they are the sins of the ruling classes and, as such, impact the whole of a nation more than the actions of a lone depraved murderer or adulterer. These are the sins that set the tone for a nation and which bring it under condemnation.

Delightsome and Loathsome

One of the starkest sets of verses to involve a white/black dichotomy appears in 2 Nephi 5:21-22. A people is described as going from being “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” to “a skin of blackness” because of their evils. Even though the white/black is symbolic – future dealings with this people indicate an equality of skin tone and coloration – the symbolism is nevertheless there.

But even though the divisions between the peoples are not based on skin color, there is nevertheless a tribal split, and that tribal split worsens with a history of violence between the tribes. A modern reader finding racist tones in those words would not be too far off the mark, in terms of the hatreds between the peoples.

But a major section of the Book of Mormon deals with an attempt by one tribe to reach out to the other, hoping to end the strife between the tribes. There is no attempt to “elevate” or otherwise change the other tribe. The attempt is to find peace through love and forgiveness. And it works. If the book is a message for our time, it is in teaching us that equating white with good and black with bad – and corresponding thinking that black is made better by making it more white – is wrong, plain and simple. It is a thought pattern that is easy to develop, but one that can blind us to what true love actually is.