RS/MP Lesson 27: “Work and Personal Responsibility” (Gospel Principles Manual)
Posted by joespencer on February 6, 2011
I have tortured feelings about this lesson. In many ways it seems quite dated, something perhaps indicated by one small—but obviously necessary—change made to the manual for the new edition. The paragraph on page 157 that reads “A prophet of God has said, ‘Work is to be reenthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership’ (Heber J. Grant, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant , 115)” used to be introduced with the three words “In this century, . . . .”
More troubling for me, though, is the removal from this lesson of a beautiful statement by President Kimball: “I feel strongly that men who accept wages or salary and do not give . . . [fair] time, energy, devotion, and service are receiving money that is not clean.” The quotation went on to describe filthy lucre as including money obtained through “oppression of the poor” and “exploitation,” and clean money as that received as “fair profit from the sale of goods, commodities, or service.” All this has disappeared from the lesson, and I worry that its non-presence is a lost opportunity. I have many concerns about our collective wealthy self-satisfaction in Mormon culture, and I’d love to see a direct word calling it into question.
But I don’t want to bother with criticisms and concerns. Instead, I’ll take up a few passages drawn from the Doctrine and Covenants that—thankfully—appear in the lesson. They have long needed close attention, and I think they go directly to the core of the idea of “work and personal responsibility,” much more directly than much of what else appears in this lesson.
The scriptures that interest me here all deal with “idleness.” The theme is introduced at the top of page 157: “In the early days of the restored Church, the Lord told the Latter-day Saints, ‘Now, I, the Lord, am not well pleased with the inhabitants of Zion, for there are idlers among them’ (D&C 68:31).” This appears under the heading We Are Commanded to Work. But then the topic reemerges on pages 158-159 under the heading God Condemns Idleness:
The Lord is not pleased with those who are lazy or idle. He said, “The idler shall not have place in the church, except he repent and men his ways” (D&C 75:29). He also commanded, “Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread now wear the garments of the laborer” (D&C 42:42).
All together, then, that gives me the following list of texts to interpret: D&C 42:42; 68:31; and 75:29. In turn . . . .
Allow me to begin my discussion of this passage by quoting Hugh Nibley, who spoke of:
one of those neat magician’s tricks in which all our attention is focused on one hand while the other hand does the manipulating. Implicit in the [contemporary ideology of the] work ethic are the ideas (1) that because one must work to acquire wealth, work equals wealth, and (2) that that is the whole equation. With these go the corollaries that anyone who has wealth must have earned it by hard work and is, therefore, beyond criticism; that anyone who doesn’t have it deserves to suffer—thus penalizing any who do not work for money; and (since you have a right to all you earn) that the only real work is for one’s self; and, finally, that any limit set to the amount of wealth an individual may acquire is a satanic device to deprive men of their free agency—thus making mockery of the Council of Heaven. These editorial syllogisms we have heard a thousand times, but you will not find them in the scriptures. Even the cornerstone of virtue, “He that is idle shall not eat the bread . . . of the laborer” (D&C 42:42), hailed as the franchise of unbridled capitalism, is rather a rebuke to that system which has allowed idlers to live in luxury and laborers in want throughout the whole course of history. The whole emphasis in the holy writ is not on whether one works or not, but what one works for: “The laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:31). — Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, p. 48, emphasis added.
I quote this in order to dispense in advance with a common but terrible interpretation of the verse I’ll be discussing first: to say that “he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer” is not to say that the poor deserve their poverty, but precisely that the idle rich have to stop taking bread out of the laborer’s mouth!
The passage in fact appears in the most significant of places: section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants is the law, according to Joseph Smith, and even a short reading of the revelation makes clear that by the law, Joseph meant that this revelation outlines the law of consecration. It is clearly of significance that this verse about idleness appears immediately following the crucial verses (verses 30-39) in which the order of the law of consecration is first laid out for the Saints. What do those verses say? They state, in no uncertain terms, that all in Zion must work for Zion, and whatever anyone makes in excess of their needs is to be given over for the poor and the needy. And what of those who can’t work? The revelation goes on immediately to address that question as well, speaking of those who “are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe” (verse 43). And what is to be done with them? “They who have not faith to do these things, but believe in me, have power to become my sons; and inasmuch as they break not my laws, thou shalt bear their infirmities” (verse 52).
But does verse 42 not state outrightly that what one earns one gets to keep? It does say that the laborer is entitled to his or her bread and garments. But one can only eat so much. And what kind of garments does the Lord have in mind? Verse 40: “And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands.” I’m not sure the Lord could be any clearer. Those in Zion work for the building up of Zion, for “the building up of the New Jerusalem” (verse 35) and in order give “the riches of those who embrace my gospel . . . unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel” (verse 39). All work in Zion is focused on pushing along the work of the Abrahamic covenant. It is in that that we are not to be idle.
This emphasis on Zion is unmistakable in the next passage to be discussed: “Now, I, the Lord, am not well pleased with the inhabitants of Zion, for there are idlers among them.” But who are these idlers? The Lord goes on: “they also seek not earnestly the riches of eternity, but their eyes are full of greediness.” The idlers are, all over again, those who are focused on earthly reward. One becomes idle the moment begins to “seek not earnestly the riches of eternity.” This is made clear also in the verse immediately preceding this one: “And the inhabitants of Zion also shall remember their labors, inasmuch as they are appointed to labor, in all faithfulness; for the idler shall be had in remembrance before the Lord.” What is being avoided by the idle in question is not the capitalistic desire to accumulate wealth, but the hard work of building the kingdom. Indeed, it is precisely because their eyes are turned towards earthly rewards that the idle in Zion avoid the work they have to do.
Now, let me not be misunderstood. I see that these passages are addressing those who do not work. But they are not for that reason addressing those who do not work for money; they address those who refuse to work for Zion but who believe that Zion should give them the means to live anyway. The fact is that these passages come from a historical setting that is somewhat foreign to our present circumstances, but a historical setting that we ought to let deeply inflect the way we approach our own present circumstances. So let me leave aside my somewhat heated rhetoric in order to address this issue responsibly and head-on.
So what is the historical setting of these passages that complicates their immediate “application to our everyday lives”? These first two texts were given in the context of the project of Zion, the first in order to lay out the then-still-future project of Zion, and the second once the Saints had already begun their work in Zion. The aim was first and foremost to create a community of stewards, thereby replacing what otherwise would have been a loose gathering of individual owners. Exchanging ownership for stewardship, each person involved in the Zion endeavor would exchange the individualistic aims of the modern capitalist ethic and assume instead an accountability for what one does with what is in one’s “possession.” The idea was, in essence, to ensure that everything was put to use, and that everything was used for the building up of the kingdom of God.
The mistake made both then and now was to regard this project as a communalistic endeavor, to see it as an attempt to forge the right kind of community, a kind of social utopia. Without a doubt, many who went to Zion at the time saw the project this way, and this unquestionably influenced many of them. But it is precisely this that ruined Zion, in my opinion. Too many came to Zion looking for a perfect society and not for a project with theological foundations. And many of those who came—as the revelations bear record—came hoping that communal living meant less work.
The idler in Zion was thus a very particular kind of creature. The idler in Zion was not one who refused to work at all. The idler in Zion was one who refused to work for Zion. The idler was one who refused to cooperate, who was more interested in gain than in Zion, who believed that a new social order would solve social ills and so became quickly disillusioned with a project that aimed elsewhere and otherwise. And these are the idlers that are criticized in the revelation.
What, then, of those who can be said to be simply idle, those who are not idlers in Zion, but idlers in general? Doesn’t the Lord have an unkind word for them as well? That brings us to our next passage.
Here we have a more straightforward statement about idleness outside of the Zion project: “Let every man be diligent in all things. And the idler shall not have place in the church [note: no talk of Zion here], except he repent and mend his ways.” The preceding verse helps to make clear that this is not a statement about idlers in Zion: “And again, verily I say unto you, that every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide, and he shall in nowise lose his crown; and let him labor in the church.”
Here, then, things begin to sound a bit more like what we might expect: idlers in general are bad, and have no place in the Church. But a closer look at the text makes it clear that things are a bit more complicated. Verses 24-26 set up the context:
Behold, I say unto you, that it is the duty of the church to assist in supporting the families of those, and also to support the families of those who are called and must needs be sent unto the world to proclaim the gospel unto the world. Wherefore, I, the Lord, give unto you this commandment, that ye obtain places for your families, inasmuch as your brethren are willing to open their hearts. And let all such as can obtain places for their families, and support of the church for them, not fail to go into the world, whether to the east or to the west, or to the north, or to the south.
It is only with this said that the Lord goes on to say, not that “every man is obliged to provide for his own family,” but “every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide.” What is the point? The Lord is saying that those who can’t, for whatever reason, find those in the Church who will help to provide for his family so that he can attend to the work of preaching the gospel, should attend to his family and not leave them in poverty. And if he is so forced to remain at home to provide for his family, “he shall in nowise lose his crown.” Instead of going out into the field: “let him labor in the church.”
Here, then, verse 29 finally begins to take shape. “Let every man be diligent in all things.” The point here is clear. First, be diligent in looking for a way to ensure that your family is taken care of while you go out to serve in your assignment. If no means are forthcoming, then be diligent in providing for your own family and laboring in the Church. “And the idler shall not have place in the church, except he repent and mend his ways.” The point here? Simply that all this has to be done. The idler would be the person who tries to find a way between the two tasks outlined by the Lord. That is, the idler would be the person who looks for the Church to support his family but then refuses to go out and serve in the mission field. Or, perhaps, the idler would be the person who decides to provide for his own family but then refuses to labor in the Church.
So yet again, the idler talked about in the Doctrine and Covenants is not the person who refuses to sell his or her soul to the modern work ethic, to capitalist ideology. The idler is the person who is looking to use the Church to his or her personal economic advantage, the person who refuses to see the Church as anything but a social organization.
A Concluding Word
How central is work to the gospel? Absolutely central! But is “work” here to be understood as it is in our late capitalist world, in this world thoroughly saturated by the desire always to have more than we need? Never! God has indeed called us out of idleness, but idleness takes more forms than just “failing at the capitalist game.” Indeed, one of the most pernicious forms of idleness today is precisely to succeed at the capitalist game. To be paid three times what one actually works for, to have a well-paying job that actually leaves us more time to Google around on the internet than to do serious work, to earn more while doing less, etc.—idleness is all too rampant among those we would never regard as idle.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with signing a contract for a well-paying job. But there is something wrong with believing that we have then earned the right to do whatever we please with what we “earn.” Zion is not, I have suggested, a communalistic endeavor, but a question of replacing ownership with stewardship. In that guise, the law of consecration has never been revoked, as any endowed member of the Church well knows. Whatever we earn through our work, it is ours only as a stewardship. And whatever we don’t need—anything we don’t need—is not ours to dispose of. We would do well to give it over to outfit all those we are far too inclined to regard as “idle” because their salary is lower, because their work requires less “education,” because they work with their hands, or because they aren’t required to be at work sixty hours a week.
Nibley called the law of consecration the great stumbling block. I’m convinced all too often that he was right. But I worry that it is so only because we mystify what the scriptures have to say about consecration, about work, about accountability, about stewardship. Perhaps something in what I’ve ranted about here will be of help in pulling back the veil with which we too often obscure the meaning of the scriptures.