Disputations in Zion

A couple of weeks ago, we reached the end of 3 Nephi 26 in our family scripture reading. It’s the culmination of Jesus Christ’s ministry to the New World and the founding of Zion. I’ve always been fascinated by Zion, and especially by the practical side of it. The concept sounds so utopian, but we’re supposed to be building a real Zion down here. How? I wish I knew, but the scriptures seem so tantalizingly silent on the details. In 3 Nephi 26, we get one of the hallmarks of Zion in verse 19:

And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another.

But of course around that we are explicitly told that we’re getting a redacted version of Christ’s teachings, as in vs. 16, “the things which they did utter were forbidden that there should not any man write them” and again in vs. 18, “many of them saw and heard unspeakable things, which are not lawful to be written.”

Then, the night after reading chapter 26, we started in with chapter 27:

And it came to pass that as the disciples of Jesus were journeying and were preaching the things which they had both heard and seen, and were baptizing in the name of Jesus, it came to pass that the disciples were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting.

After reading this verse, my initial reaction was: what did they have to pray and fast mightily about? I mean, you’ve got a Zion society and that’s pretty much the end, right? You defeated the final boss. It’s time to just sit back and enjoy the final theme while the credits roll, right? I think of praying and fasting that’s might and I think of personal tragedy–Alma fasting for his wayward son–or civilizational crisis–Nephi foreseeing his children’s doom, maybe, or Mormon living through it before he gave up hope. These guys are living in a brand-new Zion. It still has that new Utopian smell. What’s the crisis?

2 And Jesus again showed himself unto them, for they were praying unto the Father in his name; and Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you?

OK, I have to admit this seems anticlimactic. Kind of makes sense, I guess. After you finish the main plotline of a video game, all you have left are maybe a few leftover side-quests or maybe that in-game minigame you never perfected. Maybe picking the perfect name for your Zion society is just the sort of thing that seems like a crisis when all the real crises are already taken care of?

3 And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.

Wait, what now? I thought a Zion society was one where everybody was “of one heart and one mind”. I suppose you could still have differences of opinion, sure, but “disputations”? Maybe I’m missing some linguistic nuance, but a “disputation” sounds like the next best thing to a “contention,” and we know where those come from.

4 And the Lord said unto them: Verily, verily, I say unto you, why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing?

And now we’ve got the m-word, which is impossible to separate from Laman and Lemuel.

I’m not sure what’s going on here. It might be that the Nephite Zion was qualitatively inferior to the City of Enoch version. The Nephites did not ascend into Heaven. Instead, as we know, they only had their Zion society for a couple of generations before they drove it right into a ditch. And when they collapsed it wasn’t into mediocrity. They passed Go, collected their $200, and went straight to the kind of total depravity that would impress Calvin.

I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions from such these few verses, but here are a couple thoughts.

  • Not all Zions are the same. Some involve total unity of heart and mind and the eradication of poverty. Others involve some kind of communitarianism and general justice, but fall short on total unity (and maybe more, beside).
  • This means that getting to Zion can’t be the endgame. If the Nephite society was a Zion–and hey, maybe it wasn’t?–it was certainly an incomplete one. Maybe work in the City of Enoch was done–or at least, had become a different kind of labor–but the Nephite Zion never escaped the limitations of ordinary, fractious human society.

I choose to see this in an upbeat light. If makes the idea of Zion seem much more reachable. I have no idea how to even start building a Zion like Enoch’s. But a Zion like the Nephite one? That seems attainable.

Attainable, but also insufficient.

That’s OK. We can work with that.

12 comments for “Disputations in Zion

  1. I think many among us have a misconception of Zion.

    I don’t think we build Zion by purposefully building Zion — there will be some amount of urighteous dominion in purposefully building Zion, inasmuch as that means forcing happiness by changing others to fit our definition.

    Rather, I think we build Zion by individually choosing to live righteously — if all or most people in a community do this, Zion is the result. Even when all are living righteously, they are still individuals with individual ideas and actions.

    Too many think that we could have Zion if everyone else would think and act like them. That isn’t Zion — that’s hell. Remember C. S. Lewis? “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”

  2. Here’s a longer quotation:

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

    ? C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

    A false Zion (a Zion by design) will look like this. A real Zion (a Zion by result) will not. When some Latter-day Saints talk of building Zion, they are longing for and seeking for the former — a LDS theocracy. I shudder at the thought.

  3. I enjoyed your thoughts, Nathaniel.

    Yes, the scriptures can be “so tantalizingly silent on the details” (love that phrase). Attempting to fill in the details can often lead to absurd or disastrous results. But here, I like your approach to fleshing things out: charitable, broad-minded, humble but seeking. Good stuff, thanks.

  4. While they were seeking Zion, I’m not sure they achieved it initially. 4 Nephi 2 says, “And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.” The impression is that it didn’t happen before that.

  5. I don’t think US members could cope with no poor among them and all things in common. So no Zion possible, because of conservative culture. Sad limitation?

  6. Geoff, could you please at least try a little harder to masquerade your enmity as moral virtue? You’d probably feel even more superior if you could pull it off.

  7. Clark-

    While they were seeking Zion, I’m not sure they achieved it initially…

    I had the same thought when I got to that part of Fourth Nephi. Looks like my post may be a little premature in that regard. I still think there’s a good lesson to take away from it–something about growing pains towards Zion–but I didn’t get a chance to revise my post in time. Alas.


    I agree with Libcon’s dim assessment of your post, and I have a hard time that you have to seriously ask “Do you disagree with the comment?”

    As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not willing to argue with your interlocutors in good faith, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Including your own.

    Your basic contention seems to be that conservative Americans are opposed to (1) having no poor and (2) sharing things in common. Neither statement makes any sense, although the first is much more reprehensible than the second. As an obvious counter-example, a traditional, generic conservative could easily be opposed to mandatory government confiscation of all private property and simultaneously support voluntarily sharing of all things in common, either on an individual-by-individual basis or–more likely–within a voluntary institution that exists within the framework of the American political system and without the backing of a monopoly on the coercive use of force. This is trivial to imagine, and it is hard to interpret your insistence that something so obvious could not exist as anything other than malicious.

    And, like I said, that’s not as bad as your first contention, which is that most Americans (more than 1/2 Americans are conservative, speaking broadly) just plan want to keep people poor. This isn’t even a question of misunderstanding policies, it’s just a falt-out slander against people who don’t share your politics. The ultimatum, “Either agree with me or I will call you evil” is worse than just malicious, it’s boring.

    Please stop wasting everyone’s time.

  9. It’s actually interesting Nathaniel since it gets to a feature of the Second Coming and Millennium. Some people when they see the verses about the righteous getting caught up with Jesus at his coming assume everyone is translated and everyone else dies. Yet simultaneously Brigham Young and others said that in the Millennium there will be Muslims, Atheists and other religions. So how to reconcile? However I think it clear not everyone is caught up to see him and that translation (if that’s what happens) can’t be for everyone otherwise how are there kids for 1000 years? A common view is that the big work of the Millennium is missionary work both on earth and the spirit world. But that implies something much like you found between the end of 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi.

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