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Don’t be put off by the title. The term “social justice” evokes political connotations in modern America, but the concept itself is scriptural. The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, has strong opinions about what sorts of societies are more just or more righteous than others. (In Hebrew there is a single word, tzedek, which can be translated into English as either “justice” or “righteousness,” and the same is true of the Greek word dikaiosune; the two ideas are intimately connected). In this essay, we will be looking at what it means to keep those commandments having to do with how we treat our neighbors. According to the Book of Mormon, God approves of certain types of social arrangements and condemns others.
But before we turn to particular verses, three cautions are in order. In fact, they are probably relevant to most attempts to “liken the scripture unto ourselves.” 1) Avoid “prooftexting,” that is, the practice of pulling single verses out of context and using them to support predetermined opinions. As Shakespeare once wrote, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” 2) On a related note, be wary of interpretations that merely confirm what you believed before you started. Perhaps your ideas were right all along, but there is always a temptation to exclude contrary evidence or alternative interpretations. Apply the same level of skepticism to your own views that you would use on others. And 3) keep in mind that the ancient world was different in fundamental ways from modern life. The Nephites, as with other premodern societies, would have been mostly subsistence farmers, with minimal technology and government and few notions of democracy, science, property rights, contract law, nation states, gender equality, public education, mass media, etc. Finding capitalism in the Book of Mormon is almost as unlikely as seeing socialism there.
As much as I would have liked to have heard the voices of Benjamin or Alma, I would not trade my situation—with modern medicine and sanitation, labor-saving devices, ample food, heating and air-conditioning, modern life-expectancies, insurance, relatively low levels of violence, diverse career options, access to science and the humanities, artificial light, rapid travel and communications, and representative government—for life among the Nephites. So the point is to identify general principles that might be applicable in the twenty-first century, as opposed to idealizing specific practices from the 1st century BC.
When we read through the Book of Mormon, it is obvious that many different prophets were bothered by the same sorts of things. Jacob, in the first generation of immigrants to the promised land, was distressed by the social consequences of their success at pioneering: “Because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren, ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they” (Jacob 2:13) There could not have been many more than a hundred Nephites at the time, all of them close relatives, but Jacob still has to urge them to “think of your brethren like unto yourselves and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (v. 17), and he tells them that the only appropriate reason to seek riches is “to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (v. 19). He issues a stern warning against inequality—“Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable unto him who created all flesh? And the one being is a precious in his sight as the other” (v. 21)—before moving on to the topics of monogamy and chastity.
Jacob’s comments echo and perhaps revise an earlier discourse in which he simply condemned the rich, with no allowances for doing good with one’s money: “Wo unto the rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and the persecute they meek” (2 Ne. 9:30). He then goes on to link the wealthy with those who are spiritually stubborn, liars, murderers, sexual transgressors, idolaters, and the learned (the last of which at least get a “but to be learned is good if . . . .)
We see the opposite situation at the beginning of Alma, when within the church “they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel” (Alma 1:26-27). As a result, church members were blessed more than those outside the church, who were beset with idolatry, idleness, wearing costly apparel, pride, lying, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering. For a time, at least, the church was able to stay true to God’s social commandments:
And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need (v. 30; cf. Alma 34:28-29).
The pattern is consistent through the Book of Mormon. Religious leaders are distressed by pride, costly apparel, inequality, and hearts set on riches within the church, even when those things were “obtained by their industry” (Alma 4:6-8). Alma warns against
Things looked much the same during the judgeship of Helaman3 (Hel. 3:33-34) and at the time of Nephi2, when the familiar mix of riches, pride, crime, and social inequality was exacerbated by the influence of secret combinations in the government that sought through corrupt means to maintain and increase their power (Hel. 6:16-19), with terrible consequences for the poor and upright: “and thus they [the Gaddianton robbers] did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet, and smite, and rend, and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God (v. 39). How exactly might corrupt officials mistreat the poor? Perhaps by manipulating the laws to their own benefit, refusing to enforce statutes or prosecute crimes, or ignoring the pleas of those who could not or would not offer bribes.