He urges his people to begin on an individual level with faith, repentance, humility, and basic fairness: “Ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due.
” Then we can expand the circle of concern and generosity to our families—“ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked”—and eventually to outsiders and strangers: “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” (Mosiah 4:13-16). Several chapters later, there is an explanation of how charity should work within the church, among those who have made a covenant to “bear one another’s burdens”:
Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, everyone according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly, he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not, should be given. And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul. (Mosiah 18:8, 27-28).
I think that as Latter-day Saints, we do fairly well along these lines. We are known for our honesty and moral standards, we take care of our families and fellow Mormons, and we try to be of service in our communities, Certainly we strive for justice and righteousness on the local level, but what do we owe to strangers? How can we best help those in need whom we do not know personally? The answers, in our modern world, will inevitably involve larger social organizations—the Church, charities, businesses, corporations, and governments.
Like you, I am proud to be a Latter-day Saint when I read about the Church’s accomplishments in humanitarian services. Mormons are often quite generous in response to specific disasters. Some Latter-day Saints have become involved with various charities, and Brigham Young University is a leader in global outreach. But voluntary contributions can only go so far in remedying inequality or meeting the physical needs of God’s children, especially when problems are widespread, chronic, and systemic. I personally believe that the best remedy for poverty is a strong economy, with the kinds of jobs and benefits that only free enterprise and open markets can create. But here again there are limits; capitalism can be very cruel to those who are less gifted or less well-connected, who start with fewer resources, are taken advantage of, or lack access to education or health care, and to those who are simply unlucky. And this leads us to a consideration of the role of government.
I am pleased when my tax dollars are used to alleviate suffering and help the disadvantaged. Some may object that this is entirely different from what the Church does; tithes and offerings are, in Alma’s words, given “of [our] own free will,” while taxes are legally extracted and are therefore illegitimate, or at least unscriptural, means of achieving a more just society. But in the Book of Mormon, Benjamin taught his great sermon on social justice as a reigning king, and just as there are accounts of taxes being wickedly squandered (Mosiah 11), there is also an example of the government righteously redistributing wealth in order to support those in need: “Now there was a great number of women, more than there was of men; therefore King Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger; and this did because of the greatness of their number that had been slain” (Mosiah 21:17).
I pay tithing, I donate fast offerings and make contributions to charities, but realistically, most of what I do to make our country a better place goes through the government—and that includes support for the elderly, health care for seniors and the poor, nutrition for children, elementary and secondary education, college loans, public universities, scientific research, physical and financial infrastructure, transportation and energy, consumer protections, clean water, environmental safeguards, mail service, police and fire protection, disaster relief, national defense, building codes, sanitation, veteran’s benefits, and the court system. (I don’t think the Nephites ever dreamed of such things.) Of course, I’m not happy about everything the government spends money on, and I think that sometimes such spending does more harm than good, but if I could be assured that my taxes actually helped those truly in need, I would gladly pay more. Life for me and my family would still be pretty great, compared to most people in history, even if my taxes were double or triple what they are now.
Sometimes I hear complaints about government social programs that seem to have been rebutted long ago by King Benjamin:
I shouldn’t have to share what I have with people who have not worked as hard or who have made bad decisions or broken the law. Benjamin: “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, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent” (Mosiah 4:17)
Why should I have to support people who are not like me? My children deserve more than other people’s children; Mormons deserve more than non-Mormons; Americans deserve more than foreigners: “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the
I worked hard for what I’ve got and so I deserve to do with it as I please. This actually sounds a little like Korihor at Alma 30:17. Benjamin reminds his people that they actually can’t claim credit for their own wealth: “If ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth. (v. 22) (By the way, the “hard work” argument is especially difficult to make for those who have inherited money, or whose families have paid for their education or given them loans.)
I’m a good person, even an upstanding churchgoer; why should I have to care about the poor?
Benjamin: “For the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every many according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants” (v.