Are we not all beggars? No, not really.

Once in a while I hear someone complaining that we don’t refer to the scriptures enough around here, so here goes:

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, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

It takes real gall to disagree with King Benjamin. Here goes.

King Benjamin is of course correct is a general sense: God, as Creator of all things, is the ultimate source of everything – without him there would exist no gold, nor silver. It is also correct in a generalized sense to thank God for our blessings, and to recognize His hand in all things. But this isn’t even King Benjamin’s main point here: he is referring in verses 16 through 26 to the duty of the rich to aid the poor. King Benjamin’s argument that we are all beggars is a supporting claim offered towards the primary argument that we must give to the poor or else we are condemned. The rhetorical effect of arguing that we are all ultimately beggars works towards breaking down the social boundary between rich and poor, thereby removing the ‘otherness’ that poverty often brings. We will be more likely to give to poor people when we look at them as human beings instead of “the poor”. This is all extremely good.

But the argument that we all depend on God for our riches strikes me as problematic, even though it is offered up for a laudable purpose. Like I said above, I think it’s a correct assertion from a generalized point of view, but I see at least two dangers that come from this perspective: first, it threatens to lead us towards a ‘prosperity gospel‘, and second, it promotes a simplistic view of divine intervention that raises serious theodicy issues.

Regarding the Prosperity Gospel, few LDS would argue that this is current doctrine but it seems (at least superficially) to be one of the major teachings of the Book of Mormon (AKA the Nephite Cycle of Righteousness). It goes something like this: if you keep the commandments, you shall prosper in the land. It appears many times in the Book of Mormon (I didn’t count them because I am lazy, but here you go). If that’s not the Prosperity Gospel, then I don’t know what is. [1] So what are we supposed to do when one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon is something roundly debunked and disavowed by LDS and other Christians alike? It’s extremely problematic. Let’s say you qualify the expression to say that it applies to a righteous people as a whole and not to individuals. First of all, the Book of Mormon clearly applies it both to groups and to individuals, but even ignoring that fact, it’s still fairly difficult to say that a people is rich because they are more righteous. It smacks of Zoramite rameumptom-speak, and you can imagine the warm reception LDS people would receive in the eyes of our Christian neighbors to hear us talk of our collective righteousness and the wealth it brings. I can still recognize the normative argument that peace brings prosperity, and righteousness brings peace, so perhaps that’s an approach to consider, but I don’t know that brings us much closer to the Book of Mormon approach, which is far more direct and explicit. When King Benjamin suggests that we are all beggars depending on God for our sustenance, he is drawing upon this prosperity approach, which he had reiterated two chapters previously. Perhaps the Prosperity Gospel has not been rejected by Mormonism, and it’s still fair game as a doctrinal theory. This could be the case – and I might be entirely wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The theodicy issue is linked to the problems inherent in the Prosperity Gospel. It goes like this – if God is responsible for helping righteous people prosper, and is truly the source on which we should depend for gold and silver, what does it mean when we fail financially? One might answer, “it means you weren’t righteous,” which is something offered up occasionally by early Church leaders to account for why the Saints were persecuted and lost their lands — this despite their obvious devotion and fervour. Insufficient righteousness might be a valid reason for financial failure, but given the poverty of so many the promises of prosperity seem essentially unobtainable and therefore not very useful. Otherwise we are left to wonder why God didn’t make us rich even when we did all He asked – did He break his promise? The prospect of a covenant-breaking God is abominable. Similarly, the prospect of a vending machine Creator is repugnant and childish. We’re left with what, then?

We’re left with a clear injunction to aid the poor, which is pre-eminent and especially important to those of us who can afford computers, internet, and the privilege of being in the First World. It’s worth remembering, even if some of the arguments advanced in the Book of Mormon are tricky.

PS – I’d also add that in fact, not even all beggars are actually beggars, and thus we shouldn’t give to beggars at all. Also, since beggars have lots of existing options, panhandling shouldn’t even be necessary (what would Dickens say?). So you can go your way with a clear conscience, knowing that you don’t need to give at all since those asking for your money are undeserving. You might feel embarrassment from time to time when confronted with the spectre of poverty but don’t let it bother you too much. Thanks, Church-owned news services!

—————————————-
[1] which is entirely possible.

Comments

  1. Two thoughts:

    1) I think a lot of Mormons actually _do_ embrace something like a Prosperity Gospel, even if they don’t call it that. Romney-worship is a supersized reflection of our correlation between wealth and ecclesiastical position (which of course is a result of our lay clergy structure, in which the guys who end up being mission presidents and GAs are generally guys with some expendable reserves). I’m not pleased when I see it, but I do see it.

    2) Isn’t there a structural incongruity between Prosperity Gospel and the BoM cycle? Prosperity Gospel is an arrow. Righteousness–>Wealth. (It points in the other direction, too: if I’m wealthy, I must have done something righteous to get here.) The pride cycle is just that: a cycle. Righteousness–>Wealth–>Pride–>Wickedness–>Downfall–>Humility–>Righteousness. In other words, everything in the cycle points to everything else in the cycle, eventually. I doesn’t just offer the possibility that righteousness–>wealth, but also that righteousness–>pride.

  2. But OT, the BoM teaching isn’t about the pride cycle; many times it just reiterates the “if you’re righteous you’ll prosper” promise. The cycle is not the doctrine being taught, it’s just the lesson of how people screw up after they become wealthy.

  3. You might want to read “Why Giving Matters,” Arthur C. Brooks, BYU Speeches, 24 Feb 2009. He gives a pretty explanation (and he’s a non-member no less) why giving tends to make one prosper.

  4. NO! We are ALL BEGGARS in that ALL of us, even righteous people like yourself, are WHOLLY dependent on the Savior’s mercy come judgement day. We need his help – all of us. None earn a thing in this respect on his own. For this reason, we are all beggars! (and thus, with this perspective, ought to be especially merciful unto others ala the parable of the debt of the 10000 talents).

  5. But Ian, that’s not what King Benjamin says.

  6. BJ Mitchell says:

    Actually, King Benjamin is talking about in a couple of ways that are broader than just the notion of the prosperity gospel that’s mentioned here.

    For example, in chapter 2 and in verse 21 of chapter 4, King Benjamin says that we are dependent on God for everything we have–even the air that we breathe and our ability to move. Without those things, we couldn’t “earn” a living. And in the very next verse in chapter 4, (4:20) he discusses the fact that the people (i.e., us) had all been pleading with God and “begging” for forgiveness of sins. And that is the essence of the chapter–that God does not shut us out when we beg, so we should not shut out those who beg of us.

  7. Steve, in other words, “if you’re deeply in debt, the obvious solution is to pay 10% of your income that could go toward paying off you debts, and give it the Church.” This not a controversial position in the least and stems directly from the Mormon version of the prosperity gospel.

  8. We certainly embrace a prosperity gospel in missionary work. Be obedient, have faith, reap success, ie baptisms. No baptisms? Not enough obedience and faith.

  9. If King Benjamin’s words are true, he can’t possibly mean that wealth has no place with the wicked. No serious Mormon with 2 eyes can honestly hold this position.

  10. BJ, I agree with you there and like I’ve said, I agree with his conclusion – but it’s the implication and correlation of righteousness and wealth that is problematic.

  11. It seems to me the biggest problem in this sort of discussion is that so many people want to insist that OTHER PEOPLE be more generous to the poor. But what is far more important for any one individual is HIS or HER own effort to help the poor. I should be worried about MY generosity, not my neighbor’s.

    Any who has ears to hear the command to remember the poor, let him or her go and do it. And let him or her continue to love his neighbor who doesn’t remember so well. That’s the gospel message!

  12. Several members of my ward, including those in leadership, have recently quoted Doc & Cov 130:20-21 (“when we obtain any blessing from God it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated”) as a justification for a form of prosperity gospel. If you want blessings, be obedient! If you’re not getting the blessings you want/need, you must not be obedient enough! It’s certainly not like King Benjamin is a lone voice in the scriptural wilderness here.

  13. Right on, ji.

  14. Throughout the scriptures, having mercy for others and being dependent on the Savior’s mercy is intermingled with money. The primary example of this is the parable of the debt of the 10000 talents. The bottom line is that we should treat others with generosity – both financial and of spirit. I think this has nothing to do with embracing the “Gospel of Prosperity”. What matters is what is in our hearts. Do we have charity and love for others and does it manifest itself in us being generous in every way? Poor or rich, it is good for us if yes, and bad for us if no.

  15. We need to stop the silly rhetoric about the “real” blessings of charity being the eternal consequences of the charitable giver. No, the real blessing of charity is the child that no longer starves.

    Regardless of whether the prosperity of the Mormon prosperity gospel is material or eternal, it’s a selfish and satanic way to exist.

  16. I’ve always thought the prosperity gospel had some accuracy to it, but only if you step back and look at it across decades and generations (the way the BoM and OT tend to). I might be impoverished, but my right living will set up my children for success, intelligence, good looks, delightsomeness…all that stuff. And then their right living sets up their children. Prosperity gospel in action!

    Only, those children will be intolerable brats, whose kids will fail financially and fall back into poverty with their families.

    Pride cycle in action!

    I also question the accuracy of calling wealth a “blessing.” And B.I.G. concurs, so…

  17. I think part of the difficulty is in making the lesson too personal. The instances of people prospering in the BoM is never about individuals prospering, it is about whole communities prospering because the entire community, in general, was righteous. There are also plenty of instances where groups and individuals were -very- righteous, but still had incredibly difficult (and sometimes fatal) trials.

    Those who use the BoM as rationale for a “prosperity gospel” are picking and choosing which parts they want to pay attention to, leaving the rest as “but that won’t happen to -me-”.

  18. Frank, the problem with your comment is that your first assertion is patently wrong – there are many instances where promises of prosperity are personally directed. I agree that it’s easier to follow as a communal promise, but in the BoM it’s not consistently offered as such.

  19. I’ll assume your rebuttal to Frank applies to me too, Steve.

  20. Yes, I think so.

  21. Steve,

    When King Benjamin suggests that we are all beggars depending on God for our sustenance, he is drawing upon this prosperity approach…

    I’d like to think I know these passages pretty well, and I absolutely do not see the connection which you’re making here. How, exactly, does the affirmation that we are all dependent upon God for all things, thus emphasizing the fundamental equality of the rich and the poor, support the claims of the prosperity gospel, which emphasizes not that we are all equally dependent upon, but that God will materially reward those who obey his commands (presumably in the way He will not reward those who don’t)? The claims of King Benjamin in the passage you quote (Mosiah 4:19, as well as 16-26 in general) don’t involve any kind of rewards at all. I guess you are assuming that, if we take God to be ultimately responsible for the blessings we enjoy, that therefore it must be the case that God will reward us in a particular way when we do what He says. That may be a reasonable assumption, given Mosiah 2:22, but it makes just as much, if not more, sense to me to assume that Benjamin at that point is making a different point, especially since the beginning of Mosiah 4 makes it clear that Benjamin had finished speaking and then started again, speaking less doctrinally and more by way of pastoral exhortation. Benjamin may well have believed in some version of what gets called the “Prosperity Gospel” today (though I would make the argument that what you see as a similarity to that teaching is specifically bound up to covenants which are presented as particular to the children of Lehi, and not a reference to how God normally operates)–but in any case, I really don’t think is at all implied by the beggar passage itself. So, yes Steve, rich First World beggars we all remain.

  22. Prosperity gospel? Gag me with a spoon. Do you really follow the savior and obey the commandments (and uphold your covenants) as a means to the end of financial prosperity?

  23. Russell, I’m not sure if I follow you here – you seem to be making a few different points. The last one first: the claim that the BoM prosperity promises are solely to Lehi and his progeny is explicitly debunked by Mormon/Moroni later on.

    Next, I’m not convinced by your argument in a clean bifurcation between Mosiah 4 and the rest of the speech. There is a rhetorical break but you’re straining that a fair bit here.

    But your primary point is the one that maybe needs more discussion. I agree that king Benjamin offers up the statement that we’re all beggars to establish a sense of equality (my post says so, actually). But again, there’s a difference between acknowledging the role of God as creator and source of all things and saying that he gives people wealth.

  24. What Russell said.

    Ian, it’s a human tendency and theory all over the world and throughout history – and its roots run deep. Frankly, it’s as blatant in the Old Testament as it is in the Book of Mormon – which one would expect if they are similar records of similar people from similar theological and philosophical backgrounds and similar times.

  25. I am not disputing that the theory exists, but can that actually be your motivation? Are you really so fixated on wealth that this is what the gospel is really all about for you practically speaking?

  26. Ian, “wealth” could also be read as “feeding my children”. Yes, a lot of people around the world have little choice but to be obsessed with it.

  27. It could be, but I don’t think that is what is being talked about here

  28. First things first: My impression has long been that most of the regular commenters at BCC have the decency to not use scripture as a weapon in a rhetorical p. match.

    My impression of this discussion is almost as short. (Geez guys, it’s 16 days till Christmas. I can’t join in without sacrificing something on my list) As I read these comments, some secular scripture (as it were) comes to mind: One of the “six things that Nelson Mandela believed that people won’t talk about” (google that) is that freedom from poverty is a fundamental human right, and that poverty is one of the greatest evils in the world. I felt the spirit testify reading that one. I’ve watched for years another admirable man, Paul Farmer, pursue his belief that health care is a fundamental human right, and in about 25 years, he and others have built a delivery system to provide health care to some of the poorest people in the world. It’s small and very fiscally modest compared to the giant systems in the developed world, but so inspiring to see him and his growing team of people prove the naysayers wrong and help people have basic health care that we take for granted. Imagine if there was a team of economists, social health professionals, hmmm, maybe some good-hearted bankers, lawyers, and business people (even Wall Street-types!) who took on the evil of poverty. It’s complicated. If I may misquote scripture, this kind goeth not out but by hard work, trial and error, cooperation, and probably a dose of prayer and fasting wouldn’t hurt.

    An examination of whether or not we are infected by prosperity-gospel is tedious to me. Yes. We are. Secular culture too.

  29. “Are you really so fixated on wealth that this is what the gospel is really all about for you practically speaking?”

    No. See how easy that was? (Steve won’t let me insert a smiley emoticon, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Based on the question yo asked, I assume you have a good one. Yes, imagine one more emoticon.)

  30. marginalizedmormon says:

    I think Benjamin is reminding his people that “you can’t take it with you”–

    he is reminding his people that everything they have originally came from God. I don’t see that as the same as the prosperity gospel, which I believe is alive and well in at least our part of the church–

    as for the pride/prosperity cycle–

    if the people were not corrupt, then there was probably more prosperity; then it went to their heads, corruption became more rampant as wealth became more important (pride), and then prosperity for the general population dropped–

    that is a pretty simple principle–

    the fact that there is so much stratification in *our* present culture (church and western) might lead one to believe that only those who can function well in a corrupt culture are really doing well–

    Corruption impoverishes everyone–

    except the most corrupt, and they are usually in the shadows–

    so I believe that possibly *we* misunderstand the culture of the Book of Mormon people–not all of it, but that place wasn’t modern America, and that church wasn’t the LDS church–

  31. Bill Lund says:

    I wonder if our own focus on material things in this discussion isn’t missing the mark. At April 1990 conference President Hinckley said, after quoting the same verses that started this discussion:

    “So spoke King Benjamin. To which I add that the power of the Master is certain and His word is sure. He will keep His promise toward those who are compassionate. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7.)

    I am confident that a time will come for each of us when, whether because of sickness or infirmity, of poverty or distress, of oppressive measures against us by man or nature, we shall wish for mercy. And if, through our lives, we have granted mercy to others, we shall obtain it for ourselves.”

    I’ve gleaned from this that I am in need of mercy and should therefore be merciful.

  32. I wonder if King Benjamin lived in a society without a coin or paper currency, where nobody knew what it meant to love money. What if Nephite society did not switch from bartering commodities to a system of representative money until the days of Alma?

    The early Nephite writings say their society had gold and silver, but were these materials primarily used for ornamentation and idol worship? What evidence do we have that the early Nephites used them as mediums of exchange or to settle a debt?

    Maybe there were no businessmen at that time who could profit off the labor of others. What if the members of those societies traded what they had for what they needed? Is it possible they lived in a community that could only function and survive if everyone shared what they had?

    Would we be missing the point if we asked whether King Noah instituted a tax that stifled, rather than stimulated, economic activity? Or was he guilty of taking more than his fair share and not giving much back to the fellow members of his community?

    What if we are reading too much into the word “prosper”? Adherents of the prosperity gospel say God extends financial blessings to the righteous. But what if the early Nephites used the word prosper to mostly convey the idea of growing and increasing?

    What if the Nephite prayer to prosper in the land was actually a plea for survival in their new home? Perhaps their leaders recognized they were not alone on the continent. What if they were asking the Lord to multiply their members and lands, so their enemies would not join together and outnumber them?

    Did King Noah “plac[e] his heart upon his riches” when he compromised the safety of his society? Did the Nephite prophets avoid the word “wealth” because the appearance of riches was only a symptom of the devastation that happens to a community when its members become prideful and selfish?

    Is it just coincidence the word “individual” is missing from the ancient scriptures? Do we realize the Lord is the only person in the Book of Mormon who uses the word “self”? Did King Benjamin portray the members of his community as “beggars” because they literally depended on the Lord and each other for their lives?

  33. I love what sterflu said. I have never interpreted “prospering in the land” to literally mean financial blessings or comfort. I think it’s important to look at what kind of a context it is given in. Assuming the BoM culture and history is true within itself, they were fighting not just with their brethren to stay alive, but perhaps with the wild land itself. We see that these two societies lived either in tents and hunted or farmed for sustenance. Perhaps part of prospering was being able to find predictability and longevity in literally the land itself. I suppose that could be assumed a wealth of sorts, but it’s very different from our view of wealth where survival and predictability are assumed.
    The other thing I think of is the prophets’ use of the term. In Alma 36, Alma swears to his son that if he keeps the commandments of God he will prosper in the land. Yet in verse three, he mentions that trusting God means you’ll have support in trials, troubles, and afflictions. Prospering in our modern view often comes with a belief that it will save us from some of those things, but Alma pretty much tells his son that even if he’s prospering (whatever that means in that time and place), life is going to be rough. Lehi also promises his children they will prosper. Considering the context of Jewish ideals at the time, and that they were a small group in a new land, perhaps it was more along the lines of having good, productive posterity who could create a functioning society and government. Prospering is bringing about a new race of people-not being financially wealthy.
    The last thing I think of is Joseph Smith’s hopes for material wealth that constantly manifest themselves throughout his life even as the Lord tries to show him that material wealth is not what He means when he says he will make him rich or that he has a treasure for him. Even the man who translated the Book of Mormon needed to learn that lesson, so I think it’s quite possible the very definition of “prosper” may have little to do with money.

  34. Interesting, because I have always thought that King Benjamin speech leads to liberation theology. Is it possible that some people, seeing the draw and reacting negatively, reinterpret into a prosperity gospel?

  35. Good stuff, pieface.

  36. My sense of Prosperity Gospel (with the capital P) is that it really is closely tied to motive. It teaches “Do you want to get rich? Then be righteous, and you will soon be!” As a church, I think we usually do a pretty good job of avoiding that one: Continuing adversity is part of the plan, stories of the righteous poor are part of the standard conference repertoire, and humanitarian aid is distributed without preliminary worthiness interviews. That said, shades of Prosperity Gospel are likely in any religion that teaches (1) all that we have is from God (or at least all good things, but the principle of tithing makes it hard to leave money off the list) and (2) God gives blessings to the righteous.
    Two lesser versions (both already discussed) are more difficult to navigate. First is the idea that societal prosperity is a natural consequence of collective righteous living (or its God-given, I’m never sure how to differentiate or whether it even makes sense to). Almost all of the BOM references Steve painstakingly assembled into one link seem to fit this category, though a couple admittedly do not. It’s an uncomfortable argument to make from a position of First-World security, but maybe less so if tied to principles of righteousness and completely divorced from religious creed, ordinance, etc. Then it might amount to saying: Establish and honor rule of law, fight corruption, educate your children (even the girls!), pay taxes, care for the poor, don’t pick fights with your neighbors, and future generations are likely to enjoy increased prosperity. It’s not a promise that there will be no good poor people, and certainly not “Join my church and get rich quick! And if you’re not rich, that means God hates you. Or at least loves you less than He does me.”
    I agree that we should not equate BOM “prosperity” with piles of money, but I’m inclined to think it means more than not being eaten by a jaguar, since the same promise is offered to all future inhabitants of the land. On an individual level, I think of it as spiritual prosperity (ok, maybe with hints of basic security – perhaps not completely removed from the jaguar thing) rather than monetary. Interesting that the logic is: Righteous -> prosper in the land; Unrighteous -> Cut off from His presence (not impoverished). Regarding the specific mention in Mosiah of the righteous acquiring riches, I’ve always read it as (1) if you seek first the kingdom of heaven (implies untainted motive) and (2) you then seek financial means to help the poor, then (3) you will be blessed with greater resources to do so. Like blessed with the ability to open your very own soup kitchen, not with the other kind of Jaguar.

  37. I think it’s significant that Mosiah 4:19 (“are we not all beggars”) comes right after the arguments in 4:17-18. When he brings up the fact that we’re all beggars, King Benjamin seems to be anticipating and responding to a very particular counterargument to the idea that “ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.”

    As soon as King Benjamin levels that charge, it’s as if he can hear someone in the audience say (to put a contemporary filter on it) “but if we help them they’ll become dependent on our help!” or “I built this! I earned this money and if I just give it to them they’ll never learn!” or “maybe that poor person should have taken more personal responsibility and not gotten to be so poor.”

    To which King Benjamin responds: “we’re all dependent, buddy,” and “no, God built that, and He gives you things all the time to help you learn,” and “do you presume to judge this beggar and find him/her deserving of poverty? You’re walking on dangerous ground there, my friend.”

    When you look at the specific rhetorical situation, King Benjamin is simply telling the wealthy they literally have no excuse for not helping the poor.

    At least that’s the way I see it.

  38. I feel that Jacob chapter 2 could not be more clear in refuting the existence of prosperity gospel.

    We are explicitly commanded NOT to seek for riches, but to seek for wisdom. Once we have obtained wisdom, we won’t desire riches in the worldly sense, although we may be blessed with them. In the event we are blessed with worldly riches, our wisdom and love of God will cause us to give away our riches to the poor.

    Look at the footnotes for riches in those verses. The riches we obtain once we seek and arrive at wisdom are not the riches of the world. They are the riches of eternal life.

    The truly righteous, don’t have a desire for an abundance of earthly wealth just for wealth’s sake. They have a burning desire to use their wealth to help other people. Can that ebb and flow? Certainly, as does everything associated with our mortal existence. But the underpinning of how God looks upon money is that he doesn’t want us obsessing over it, or amassing it just to be “rich” by the world’s definition. He wants us to seek Him first. Once we have truly become disciples, if he chooses us to bless us with money, He knows we’ll use that money to help other people, not just create a lavish lifestyle for ourselves.

  39. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    @ BJ Mitchell. Thanks for this: “King Benjamin says that we are dependent on God for everything we have–even the air that we breathe and our ability to move. Without those things, we couldn’t ‘earn’ a living.” It sounds like King B is saying, “You didn’t build that.”

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