I am sorry to say that I think that King Benjamin’s great sermon has badly distorted the way that Latter-day Saints think about charity, the treatment of the poor, and the redistribution of wealth. Consider this passage:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, who soever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and have no interest in the kingdom of God. (Mos. 4:16-18)
This, to be sure, is strong stuff. It is a stark indictment of self-justification for withholding charity, and places our reaction to the poor at the center of our reaction to God. “For behold are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have…?” (Mos. 4:19) Not surprisingly, I think that these verses explicitly or implicitly structure virtually all Mormon discussions (as opposed to discussions by Mormons) of what we ought to do in the face of poverty. The debate generally goes something like this:
LIBERAL: King Benjamin’s sermon makes clear that we cannot excuse indifference to the plight of the poor. Accordingly, we ought to support government programs aimed at the redistribution of wealth to alleviate the suffering of those in poverty.
CONSERVATIVE: Ah, but King Benjamin is talking about personal virtue and generosity isn’t he? He says “ye yourselves” not “ye or the government bureaucrats that you can hire by taxing others.” In order for us to be virtuous in the way that King Benjamin is commanding we must voluntarily give of our own substance. Taxes and government spending aren’t voluntary, and therefore they don’t have anything to do with what King Benjamin is talking about.
LIBERAL: You are a bad, bad, person. Obviously, you are simply hiding behind the notion of personal generosity in order to justify keeping your taxes low. Besides, if we live in a democracy, there is a sense in which we consent to taxes and government spending. The government isn’t something that “they” do to “us,” but rather is something that we do together.
CONSERVATIVE: What pink-tinged planet do you live on? If you don’t pay your taxes, men with guns will come and confiscate your property and throw you in prison. If this isn’t coercion nothing is.
And so on. In a sense, I think that both sides of this debate are right. For all of our blustering over the social contract, democracy, and the like, taxes really are coercive, and voting to spend someone else’s money doesn’t seem to cut it as a great act of personal virtue. On the other hand, one can’t help but find the argument against taxes a bit self-serving. It does justify a less painful April 15th, and as often as not charitable giving gets forgotten or minimized. However, on a fundamental level, I think that this debate is mistaken, or at any rate radically incomplete. The problem is the way that King Benjamin’s framing of the issue relentlessly focuses our attention on the moral status of giver. This, however, is only part of what is at issue in our response to poverty.
Consider the story of Christ feeding the five thousand. A huge crowd follows Jesus to a desert place. He “saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were sheep not having a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34) At the end of the day, the crowd is hungry, and the disciples tell Christ to dismiss the people. Christ says that they should feed the people instead. “Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?” ask the disciples. No, says Christ, give me the food that you have. (Note: it is unclear who owns the food, at least in Mark. The disciples? The crowd?) He takes the food and miraculously feeds the multitude, and at the end of the feast they take up twelve baskets of extra food. Whoever’s loaves and fishes they were was amply recompensed for what amounted to a brief loan.
What I find interesting about this story is that in contrast to King Benjamin’s psychology, we know virtually nothing of the motives of those involved. All we know is that Christ was moved by mercy, but even this is ambiguous in a sense because he seems to be moved by the leaderlessness and lostness of the people. Yet he feeds them, and we take it that this was a good thing. The miracle, however, is at the heart of the story and it points towards an important point. The food ultimately did not come from anywhere. It simply arrived and fed the people. Ultimately, its source in a virtuous sacrifice (there is no sacrifice in the story) is not what matters. What matters is that the five thousand hungry people were fed.
This is what is missing in King Benjamin’s sermon and the debates that it provokes among Latter-day Saints. I take it that the feeding of the five thousand teaches us that all virtuous giving aside, a world in which the hungry are fed is a better world than one in which children starve. What is at issue in our reaction to poverty is not simply our own personal virtue, but also the material well-being of the poor.
Hence, I think that transfer payments can be justified independent of the question of whether or not such payments fulfill our duty to be charitable and generous. Indeed, I doubt that they do fulfill this duty. Voting for a government program does not seem to me to be an act of personal virtue or charity. However, if transfer payments result in fewer hungry children, then I take it that the scriptures teach us that the world is better and God is pleased, even if you and I still need to work on being charitable. None of this, of course, speaks to the empirical issue of what sorts of transfer payments actually help the poor and what sorts of programs are ultimately hurtful. Nor does it speak the question of what sorts of costs those programs have or other moral issues they raise. (Like, “When are we justified in sending men with guns to take the property of another.”) However, I take it that the claim that they are not acts of personal charity is, ultimately, beside the point.
[Note: this post was inspired by Blaine’s very thoughtful post over at Approaching Zion]