I’ve recently been embroiled in a debate regarding the value of the thoughts of Cleon Skousen. My debate partner, citing the endorsement that President McKay gave Bro. Skousen’s work, The Naked Communist, in the Friday session of the 1959 General Conference (I’d post a direct link to the address, but the only place I can find it without loads of commentary is at scriptures.byu.edu and I can’t link directly to it there), feels that Bro. Skousen and his works should be given a modicum of respect. Not that they should be treated as scripture or anything, but things that the Brethren mention positively should be paid attention to. I, on the other hand, think Skousen was crazy and can, therefore, be safely ignored.
This post, as with all posts, was prompted by at least one other thing. In a recent Millennial Star post, the author argues that the Book of Mormon demonstrates that we should be against government taxation (or, at least, most government taxation), using the examples of King Benjamin and King Noah as guides. One of the arguments he made (and he isn’t the only one to make it) is that Joseph’s rationing of food in Egypt was the only example he could think of that demonstrates God-approved government interference in the economy. He also notes that it was temporary and emergency-related. He is wrong, but he isn’t alone, so I thought that, as a public service, I would explain why. This will get back to Skousen in a moment.
You all know the story of the Pharaoh’s dream and of the coming rationing. We often forget how the rationing itself took place. Having acquired a fifth of the food of the land for seven years (by some means that is never explained), Joseph them sells the food back to the Egyptians (and anyone else who comes calling). By the end of the first few years, the Egyptians have run out of money, so they start to sell other things. They sell their cattle and, eventually, they sell themselves and their lands to the government. The 1/5 tax is then placed on them in perpetuity.
If we understand Joseph as a righteous man, approved by God, then a righteous man, approved by God, literally made everyone (who wasn’t a priest) a slave to the king of Egypt. He also instituted permanent taxation, equaling a fifth of income (food) forever. At least King Noah didn’t make everyone slaves! So how are we to understand this turn of events?
We have a couple of options. We could argue, for instance, that Joseph was a fallen prophet. Perhaps the heady influence of imperial Egyptian power proved too much for him and he succumbed to the temptation to enslave everybody. Perhaps it wasn’t really Joseph’s idea. The people he was working for were likely the Hyksos, so they may have enjoyed making all Egypt slaves (since they were once practical slaves there). Maybe the story is made up after the fact, rendering Joseph into the wily trickster, approved by God, who placed those onerous taxes on the pathetic Egyptians (who are pathetic only when it suits the pursuit of Israelite propagandists). Or we could just admit that God isn’t particularly concerned with civil liberties.
But wait, Cleon Skousen says, what about the example of the Children of Israel. According to Bro. Skousen, they were a band devoted to personal liberty, one that discouraged slavery in particular. Bro. Skousen is correct to suggest that slavery law in the Pentateuch is possibly not as bad as slavery law is everywhere else in the Near East, but he fails to note that slavery is just as taken for granted. The reason for the extensive slavery laws in the Pentateuch are two-fold: first, to maintain a basic economic and physical justice for the slaves that were apparently kept by the children of Israel, but not the same level of economic and physical justice that regular householders received; and second, to prevent Israelites from languishing in slavery for more than 7 years. Note that I said Israelites; people of other ethnicities were allowed to remain slaves (along with their children) in perpetuity. For that matter, the position of slave in society was apparently higher than the position of the hired man (because the slave was a part of a household, while a hired man was on his own). If this is a people devoted to the notion of personal liberty, this is an odd way of showing it.
Bro. Skousen ignores (or doesn’t notice) the political, economic, and social inequities in Ancient Israelite society (as portrayed by the Pentateuch) because it doesn’t suit his model. Instead, he finds a democratically elected bicameral legislature with a strong executive branch (really. I am not making this up). There isn’t a thing wrong in what he is doing, actually. After all, he is likening the scriptures unto himself. However, therein lies the rub. If we read ourselves into scripture, is the scripture really necessary at all?
People like to believe that morality comes from scripture, but much more frequently we use scripture to proof text things that we already believe. And scripture (meaning the standard works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is sufficiently broad in genre, scope, theme, and history to provide justification for just about any act. Therefore, while it may be encouraging to the troops to point to scripture A that supports our cause, you can rest assured that the opposing force is pointing to scripture B that does the same.
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi notes that God speaks to men “according to their language, unto their understanding.” I have always taken this to mean that God works within human culture. This means, to me, that God provides extensive rules (many cribbed from Mesopotamia) regarding how to treat slaves and your fellow man to the Ancient Israelites. This means that Jesus restricts his ministry to the Jews, when the Samaritans and Greeks are equally worthy of his time. This means that certain restrictions on the distribution of priesthood authority (no matter what their origin) exist at various times and places. Human culture always includes human prejudice and human cruelty. God could hardly work with us at all without taking these elements of mortal existence into account.
So, should we give up? Accept that our lot in life (or, even worse, their lot in life) is hard, but such is God’s will. I think, again, that this would be substituting our own will for God’s. We all see in a glass, darkly. The one thing that I know is that God loves me and, assuming that I’m not anybody in particular, everybody else. At best, we can hope to better express and share his love for others. Laws that lead to that, I suppose, are superior. But that can be so broadly interpreted as to get us back in the same boat we just tried to escape.
I think, in the end, we are left with this. Even if we are unable to completely understand our own motives and even if we are unable to view the end from the beginning, we are ultimately our own best judge in this life. We should do our best to make the world better for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. What this means is best determined by the individual, whether that means scrupulous conformity or ear-searing objection. We’ve only ourselves, our conscience, and our sense of morality as guides. God will work with what we give him. We could do worse.