A couple of weeks back I posted about an radio broadcast I heard by Dr. Stephen Bezruschka. I haven't been able to get some of his ideas out of my head, but the last comment on the post, by Christie, really got me thinking. Then, today, I read this story about Warren Buffet, whom I have enormous respect for. I think that he and Bill and Melinda Gates have done as much for Africa as the rest of our country combined. Anyway, my recent thoughts and the article I read today have prompted this post.
Years ago President Benson gave a very (now) famous quote about howChrist takes the slums out of the people and then the people take themselves out of the slums. This quote was given in a First Presidency message in the 1989 Ensign. I have always really loved this idea. I think this is why Bezrushka's essays/broadcasts are so appealling to me. For all of his policy arguments, underneath it all he emphasized that, as Americans in particular, we have gotten so good at trying to accumulate wealth that we have completely forgotten one another. As I listened/read to more of Dr. Bezruchka's work, what he is saying at the heart of it is that many social ills are effectively a product of our poor treatment of others and the breakdown of the family. He says that we need to strive more to love others and desire true equality. He follows up by saying that true equality can only happen if young children are given all the love and the support they need by a caregiver who is consistent and is available to them later in life.
So, in a philisophical sense, his ideas are not too far from President Benson's. They are both supporting the idea that true social change needs to take place in the heart and the mind before it can be affected on a grand scale.
The difference, of course, is that President Benson is right when he says that only Christ can affect this change in our hearts for good. Dr. Bezruchka advocates government intervention. I don't think the good doctor is suggesting any kind of an anarchist overthrow, but I think he wants people to change their mindset about the way they vote. Now he isn't necessarily saying we have to give all we have to the government (though he cites historically much higher taxes as a time in our country when healthcare wasn't so complicated and the division of assets was more equitable), but he is saying that if the government reallocated resources to be good for children--as much as a year paid time off for one or both parents of new babies, schools, pre-natal care and education for single mothers, etc. . . then we wouldn't spend so much on the other end--health care (especially mental health), prisons, welfare, etc. Because, he maintains, the foundation for our lives is so fundamentally laid in those years before we ever attend school, that there are very few who break the cycle of poverty and violence and lack of nurturing. These things lead to all kinds of health issues . . . and so on.
I'm not suggesting expensive government programs to take care of all of its citizens. Really. Our government shows, generation after generation, that few government programs are succesful at accomplishing what they were designed to do. But there are scriputral lessons from history that are illustrative here. Let's look at the hallmarks of a Zion Society. All things in common. No poor among them. And while I'm not anxious for the government to be big brother (too many countries have shown the ineffectiveness of THATsocial policy), we do need to remember that one day the Lord will expect us to cheerfully consecrate all we have to the church and then use our talents to bless others. Isn't the best government really a socialist theocracy? This is so the opposite of capitalist democracy that it isn't even funny.
I read an article once put out by FARMS written by Hugh Nibley some years back. He was talking about lessons learned from the Book of Mormon, even after forty years of the initial Book of Mormon class he taught at BYU. I'm going to quote it liberally here,
"Less than a month ago I gave students in the Book of Mormon class the choice of writing a term paper on either a religious or economic theme. Ninety-four percent of the class chose the theme, "Discuss the problem of riches in the Book of Mormon. " Almost every scholar began by evoking the sacred cliche; there is nothing wrong with wealth itself; wealth as such is good. It is only how you use it that may be bad. They insisted that a free market was the perfect and flawless order of things, the ordained sanction of free agency. It is only when the system is abused that things go wrong and that in itself proves that it is good in itself.
"How do we escape abuses . . . In the Book of Mormon, the destructive power of wealth is pervasive and inespacable, since, as Helaman discovered, we can always count on humanity to do foolish things. The question is, what economic system would suit such people? The Book of Mormon answer is clear; None that they could devise. . . have we any assurance that we, whom the book is designed to warn against that very folly, are doing any better? Christ gave them the economic system by which they lived happily for a far longer peroid than any of the brief boom-cycles enjoyed by the Nephites. And we know what he taught; should that not suffice? Should not 4th Nephi put an end to all argument and sophistry? If we want answers, here they are. Yet, strangely, for Momons this is off limits and out of bounds--so long ago and far away. But the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to make all things present to us; it has been edited to delete anything not relevant to our condition. It makes no difference where or in which dispensation we live, all are tested equally. And now the Book of Mormon is holding up the mirror up to our ugliness--no wonder we look the other way as it pleads with us, "O be wise! What more can [we]say?'
"The two pasages which the student choose to score their point are anything but a brief for riches if we read them with care. They were highly favored by the class because out of more than sixty statments on the seeking of wealth in the Book of Mormon, there are virtually the only ones that can be interpreted as giving countenance to the profit motive. The first of these is in Jacob 2:18-19: 'But before yeseek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ, ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them. 'That is great favorite.
"It is standard practice to stop there and leave it at that, but even if we go no further, the plain lesson of this injunction is to seek the kingom of God first of all. And how do we build up the kingdom of God and establish Zion? By obeserving and keeping the law of consecration. What does that mean? The preceding verse, routinely overlooked, explains: 'Think of your brethren like unto yourselves,and be familar with all and free with our substance that they may be rich like unto you.' That looks suspiciously like equalizing thewealth--this is with reference to 'substance'; you cannot get out of it by saying you will make them 'spiritually rich.' We give to the poor enough to make us feel virtuous and keep them on the the leash, but the order here is for a basic redistrubition of wealth . . . ."
Okay, that is enough, and Nibley was certainly no prophet or even general authority, but his scholarship raises some interesting questions. He goes on at length about equality and the scriptural ideas espoused in the Lord's prayer ('thy kingdom come . . .') and cancellation of debt, one man not 'possessing' above another, not opressing the hireling in his wages, etc. He is critical of the students' citing of wealthy Mormons who have made large donations. Why? Because don't they have their reward when their giving is public? And have they given away so much that they are equal? Again, I'm not saying that Dr. Bezrushka necessarily has it all figured out, but I don't know if the modern manifestation of the "American Dream" necessarily fits in perfectly with God's plan either. It is easy to feel poor and desirous to have more and more when we live in such a consumer driven society. Maybe what Nibley and Benson and Bezrushka are saying is impossible, at least before the Savior comes, a Utopia out of step with the level our society has fallen to, but how can we give up? Maybe it isn't just enough to be good to our own families or neighborhoods . . . I don't know anymore.
I had a friend once whose political ideas differed widely from mine. (Okay, I've had MANY friends like this, but I'm thinking of a particular incident.) She said that if the government would give more money back the people, then she would be able to be freer with her substance in giving to the poor. While that may have been true for her, she had a very good heart, what about the rest of us? I don't know if I would. Like most families out there, I feel like we are working really hard to make ends meet, and not always succeeding. As two income families ravenously try to accumulate more of the world's goods, home prices skyrocket and it becomes harder and harder to stay at home and afford a home in a neighborhood where your kids are safe. To me, more money in my pocket would mean less debt. It wouldn't mean an extra handout to the homeless shelter or more fast offering or checks to the humanitarian fund or United Way.
And so, if citizens have failed one another, perhaps government does have a role here? Just this week a very telling thing happened in our nation. President Bush vetoed the first bill of his administration, though it passed Congress with more than just Democratic support. It was a Health and Human Services funding bill aimed primarily at healthcare for poor Americans, particularly children. He called the bill, with is 4.5 billion dollar pricetag, "wasteful." The same day, his part was pushing a 40 billion plus spending bill for the Pentagon for 2008.
When we cease to care for the poorest and most downtrodden among us, no amount of money or weapons or homage to gods of stone and steel can save us.