Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, part 4 (conclusion)

In this series I have been discussing why early Mormon Utopian economic experiments failed. Having previously outlined why communal experiments collapsed, I explained in part 3 why the less onerous stewardship system didn't work either.

The conclusion I took from an article by Orson Scott Card was that all of the various Utopian systems devised by early Mormons suffered from insufficiently providing for "God-given agency." I agree with Scott's assertion that:
"To the degree that plans for economic fairness, for having “no poor among us” and “all things in common,” interfere with freedom to select among good and worthy alternatives, then to that degree they cannot be the Law of Consecration."
I believe that expansive agency is essential to becoming more like God. It allows individuals to exceed what previously was thought to be impossible. Author Charles Murray contends, "Freedom regularly makes ridiculous anyone who thinks he has figured out the limits of what is possible."

The question then is how is the Law of Consecration to be lived? What kind of system adequately honors individual agency while also observing scriptural and prophetic commandments as well as covenants regarding consecration?

It may help to understand what the law of consecration is and what it is not. It is not uncommon in Mormon circles to hear the law of consecration equated with early attempts to live that law. I believe this harms our understanding of the law and the covenant to live that law.

Like many Mormons I grew up with the understanding that tithing was an inferior law that church members were to observe until such a time that the law of consecration was restored in its fullness; an event that apparently would occur when the saints were sufficiently righteous and unselfish.

I was taught that the communal systems of early Mormons were the more perfect way. As stated in my previous posts in this series, I now understand that these economic systems were inherently flawed. The systems required coercion. They stifled human ingenuity and healthy individualism.

No one will arrive in the celestial kingdom without freely choosing to become celestial in every way, including economically. Coercion is not part of the plan. With free choice comes variety, which leads to overall better productivity and better stewardship. While it allows for suboptimal behavior, it also leads to accountability.

It is true that the law of tithing is incumbent on every church member. Consecration, on the other hand, is a covenant made in the holy temple. As explained in the booklet Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple, in the temple we "covenant with the Lord to devote our time, talents, and means to His kingdom."

But this does not man that tithing is a lesser law. After all, the Lord calls it "a standing law unto them forever" (D&C 199:4). Tithing is part of living the covenant of consecration. In this article Orson Scott Card contends that paying a full tithe along with fulfilling our church callings to the best of our abilities is essentially equivalent with living the law of consecration.

But that's not the whole story. In earlier articles Card discusses other facets of consecration. In The King Benjamin Society he writes about the importance of freely caring for others, even when they do not seem to deserve our aid. In Already Consecrated he explores what consecration means. (Pay particular attention to the words in bold type.) He writes:
"Consecration is not some past practice that will be restored, or some future law that will someday be given. We already live the law, we Latter-day Saints. It sets us apart from all other people. Nobody else takes part in the life of their church the way we do.
"And yet we also see that it costs us nothing. All our time, talents, and goods came to us as a trust from God. We improve them as best we can, and use them to serve others in his name, and as directed by the stewards set over us."
LDS bishops today generally refrain from digging into members' personal finances unless a member is coming to them for economic help. But that doesn't mean that church members are not by covenant accountable to their bishops for their personal stewardships, including their private finances.

Years ago I heard Elder Monte J. Brough of the Seventy tell about the time his family bought a new Suburban SUV. A week later his friend, who was the ward scoutmaster came and asked if he could use the new SUV to take the Boy Scouts to summer camp. He told his friend no.

A few days later, however, Brother Brough's bishop approached him and asked the same question. He gave his bishop the keys to the new vehicle. His friend was somewhat hurt by the fact that Bro. Brough would entrust the SUV to the bishop (who he contended was a worse driver) but not to a close friend with whom he presumably shared a great deal of trust.

Bro. Brough explained to his scoutmaster friend that the way he saw it, the bishop held the priesthood keys to ask any member of his ward to put their covenant of consecration on the line at any moment for the building up of the Lord's kingdom on earth, but that the scoutmaster didn't hold such keys.

The way the law of consecration works in the church nowadays, we are given a great deal of personal flexibility, depending on our capacities and interests. My octogenarian mom is no less committed than she was three decades ago, but she simply can't do as much as she used to. Billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr. has the means to build cancer institutes and donate corporate aircraft to church leaders; things that the average church member will never be able to do. But neither is it expected of them.

We are individually accountable to the Lord and to his servants for our various stewardships. Having enough flexibility to enable individual agency means that we can choose to be insufficiently committed to the covenants we have made. The social consequences for doing so won't be nearly as problematic nowadays as was wearing a new pair of store bought pants in Orderville during the height of its communal experiment. But deep down we all have some idea of where we sit with the Lord. At any rate, the Lord will not be fooled.

In other words, we already have an economic system today that enables fully living the law of consecration. It enables all kinds of other variations as well. But the economic choices of our neighbors impact us far less than would be the case in the collectivist experiments of yore. No one is required to "run faster than he has strength," yet "it is expedient that [each] should be diligent" (Mosiah 4:27). Where we are at on that continuum at any given moment is between each individual and the Lord.

Maybe this personal way of being consecrated is actually more difficult than living within the narrow constraints of either the communal or stewardship orders. But it is far closer to the real law of consecration than were those systems.

But what of Enoch's society? Did they not achieve a community where they had all things common and there were no poor among them? Isn't this what we strive for?

Yes, yes, and yes. But it is important to note that Enoch's society consisted of completely willing and united participants. They became a separate group. They cared for their own poor, but not for the poor of the whole world. In fact, the record suggests that they were often at war with the outside world. We would consider this to be severe social stratification today. Imagine the negative media coverage that would ensue.

We also have no idea know how Enoch's system of having all things common worked. Did young people just entering the job market automatically get handed to them everything that the skilled workers of their parents' generation had? What kind of market variety existed in the city? There may be a good reason that we don't have this information. Maybe we're supposed to figure out how to apply the law of consecration to our own cultural situations.

One way "having all things common" can happen in our current era is described in the story told by Elder Brough (above) and by the Card in his article about tithing. We pay our tithes and offerings, serve faithfully in chruch callings, reach out to help others where we can, and occasionally respond to extraordinary needs.

What about having no poor among us? I do not live in a wealthy ward by Wasatch Front standards. And yet we have no poor among us that are not adequately cared for. We also regularly participate in projects to help the poor outside of our ward boundaries. While other wards and units in other parts of the world may not be able to say this, even Enoch's society had boundaries, and we are members of our given ward/branch for a reason.

Instead of waiting for perfect conditions or trying to re-enact the details of Enoch's society, we are called to personally live the law of consecration here and now in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. We are called to bring to pass much righteousness of our own free will (D&C 58:26-29) instead of waiting for some central authority to direct us.

Echoing what I said earlier, this may actually be more difficult than living in a centrally planned society. But, unlike those systems, it has the benefit of actually being able to work.

No comments: