Sometimes in Gospel Doctrine class, the scriptural text we’re reading raises more questions, concerns, or downright silliness in my mind than it can rightfully be expected to resolve. I think of these as back-row questions, because they’re the sort of thing that Sunday School teachers dread when back-row class members raise their hands to contribute to the general discussion. This week’s lesson materials raised several such thoughts in my mind; rather than impose them on a Gospel Doctrine class or whisper them to Taryn, I thought I’d just post them here. What follows may well add up to nothing.
D&C Section 101 starts right out with an attempted answer to the problem of evil: Mormons in Jackson County, Missouri, were subjected to religious and/or ethnic persecution and explusion “in consequence of their transgressions.” This is a classic answer to the problem of why God allows evil in the world; Bart Ehrman, in his book God’s Problem, calls this the “prophetic solution” to the problem of evil, because it’s the answer offered by many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament (other Bible books offer different solutions).
I often worry about this explanation for two reasons: it usually involves disproportionality between the crime and the punishment, as well as a collective mode of punishment that affects innocents as well as the guilty. On the subject of disproportionality, consider the list of sins that are supposed to account for the Missouri Saints’ sufferings:
…there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them… (D&C 101: 6)
An impressive list, to be sure. (I bet that some of their children also lied about who ate the leftovers.) Are we meant to see God’s justice in responding to these petty and ubiquitous human weaknesses with violence and total dispossession? This image of God makes me think of a parent who punishes a child who doesn’t do her homework before playing by taking away her bed.
Speaking of children… Surely not all of the Missouri Saints were equally guilty of envy, gossip, and whatnot. Yet the suffering affected all of them — innocent and guilty alike. Indeed, some categories of the innocent, very young children in particular, arguably may have suffered more than the guilty. Once again, this is a vision of God that just bugs me.
There’s arguably a second justification for the Saints’ suffering in verse 4:
…they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.
Which one is it, chastened or tried? These are very different things, and the analogy to Abraham seems muddled by the equivocation. Abraham was tried — he was told by God to murder his son, and the trial involved his response to that instruction. No chastening was involved, really, although arguably Abraham deserved some for his willingness to do an evil deed just because someone told him to. Unlike Abraham, the Missouri Saints didn’t really have a choice to make, just imposed suffering to live through. The comparison seems a bit weak.
While the first part of this section offers what strike me as unpersuasive and even morally dubious explanations for why the Missouri Saints were dispossessed, the next part pursues what I see as a far preferable approach: a version of what Ehrman identifies as the “apocalyptic” solution to the problem of suffering. In essence, this kind of narrative says: yes, there is unjust suffering in the world during the present age, but all will be set right by miraculous reversal in the age to come. (See D&C 101:10-19, 22-66). This is an idea that helps one cope with present inequities, and it often leads to beautiful text — as, indeed, it does in this instance.
Verses 20-21 seem to pose a problem. In them, God tells us that there is no other place, besides Jackson County, for the gathering of the Saints — and there never will be, until Jackson County is full. I guess we’re being metaphorical, then, when we talk about the gathering, since it evidently hasn’t even started yet.
A funny theme arises in verses 76-80, in which God recommends the pursuit of legal and political recourse regarding the Jackson County expulsion. In this context, God explains why he established the U.S. Constitution: because
…it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
Of course, the Constitution in question is one that provides a legal context for slavery. Ah, well.
Section 103 offers much of the same. The first verses reiterate that God allowed the Jackson County events because the Saints were not “altogether” perfect in their obedience to God’s commandments and revelations. They also add that the expulsion was allowed so that God’s enemies “might fill up the measure of their iniquities” (D&C 103:3). Good! I’d hate to think that God’s enemies were shorted…
The last part of Section 103 is cagey, seeming to promise participants in Zion’s Camp that they will be successful in regaining Jackson County lands without actually guaranteeing anything.
Section 105 seems to offer a slightly different explanation for the Jackson County expulsions, and also suggests a reason for the (abject and total) failure of Zion’s Camp to meet its stated goal of restoring the Saints to their land. The Mormons were kicked out of Jackson County, according to Section 105, not because of gossip and thinking dirty thoughts, as I read Section 101 to propose, but rather because they were insufficiently egalitarian and communitarian. This explanation emphasizes themes that I see as central to the gospel, but it still seems too harsh. Most everybody ever has always had these sins, and God doesn’t always allow/provide semi-genocidal retribution.
Verse 24 offers some very sound advice, telling the Saints:
Talk not of judgments, neither boast of faith nor of mighty works, but carefully gather together, as much in one region as can be, consistently with the feelings of the people…
If the Mormons’ post-Jackson County settlement patterns and relationships with outsiders had better followed this humble and low-key model, I wonder how many lives might have been saved? Of course, the revelation leaves it ambiguous whether this advice was meant to last for the long term or only during the course of appeals regarding the Jackson County expulsion. Whatever the original intent, taking this verse seriously in a broader sense could have saved a lot of 19th-century grief…
This section is of two minds on the smiting question. Several verses predict future moments when the armies of Israel will demolish their enemies and generally carry out a good, old-fashioned, Joshua-style smiting. Yet the section also advises,
And again I say unto you, sue for peace, not only to the people that have smitten you, but also to all people; and lift up an ensign of peace, and make a proclamation of peace unto the ends of the earth; and make proposals for peace unto those who have smitten you, according to the voice of the Spirit which is in you, and all things shall work together for your good. (D&C 105:38-40)
Given the relatively positive tone regarding military scattering, throwing down, avenging, laying waste, etc., earlier on, how are we to understand these instructions? Are the Saints supposed to sincerely sue for peace, proving themselves to be morally superior to the Lord’s offer of vengeance? Or are the proposals for peace to be seen as strategic and insincere, a way to buy time to let “my army become very great” (v. 31)?
These sections are a fascinating window into the way that the same questions and the same answers come up generation after generation, and even millennium after millennium. Why do God’s people suffer? Why do God’s promises of victory not always come true? Perhaps because God’s people have sinned, or perhaps because the wicked need to meet some kind of evilness quota to justify their punishment in the coming age. The questions are so much more emotionally and practically compelling than the available answers that there is every reason to expect this conversation to continue as long as God has a people.