I’ve taken greater interest in the concept of “social justice” ever since Glenn Beck warned us all to leave the Church over it.1 “Social justice” as a theological concept initiated mainly by Catholics, it receives close attention in what is referred to as “Liberation theology” (especially in Latin America), and it has more recently been embraced by John Rawls and other secular political philosophers. The phrase itself is seldom used by Mormons and a full treatment of social justice in Mormon thought has yet to be completed, although restoration scripture is bursting with opportunities for social justice exegesis.2
Joseph A. Grassi’s book, Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament presents an overview of social justice themes throughout the Bible.3 He deftly demonstrates ways that social justice ideals embedded in the Old Testament are carried through the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus. Many of these same themes permeate the Book of Mormon, too.
The Book of Mormon approaches the idea of “righteousness” from a communal and even economic perspective, which resonates deeply with the Hebrew scriptures (especially Isaiah). This is especially evident in Jacob’s sermon condemning pride and inequality. Jacob promotes an ethic of wealth which calls for social justice. He functions similarly to other Hebrew prophets who, according to Grassi, “mainly function as mouthpieces of the living voice of God calling for a radical return” to the Torah’s call for equality. Moreover, a prophet’s “personal characteristics and situation” will flavor a prophet’s message, as can be seen in Jacob’s indictment.4
“[M]any of you have begun to search for…all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully. And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and 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.
And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. But he condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you…
O that ye would listen unto the word of his commands, and let not this pride of your hearts destroy your souls! 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. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.
And now, my brethren, I have spoken unto you concerning pride; and those of you which have afflicted your neighbor, and persecuted him because ye were proud in your hearts, of the things which God hath given you, what say ye of it? Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable unto him who created all flesh? And the one being is as precious in his sight as the other. And all flesh is of the dust; and for the selfsame end hath he created them, that they should keep his commandments and glorify him forever” (Jacob 2:12-21).
The Lehite colonies in the New World have essentially performed a new Exodus and see themselves in that light (See 1 Nephi 4). Note that Jacob refers to their land as a “land of promise.” Similar to God’s promises in the book of Exodus, the LORD promised Lehi a “promised land” in which they would prosper only if they “keep my commandments” (1 Nephi 4:14; 17:13-14). The plates of brass (1 Nephi 5:15) presumably contained the Exodus account, thus they were familiar with the mighty acts of God and the covenants that went along with them. Early prophets in the Book of Mormon repeatedly refer to God’s leading of Israel from captivity in order to emphasize their own dependence on God and their own obligation to keep the Law. Thus the Sinai covenant of Deut. 5:6 is born again in the Lehites own experiences.5 Jacob’s prophetic condemnations clearly resonate with Deuteronomy’s invocation of the Exodus and God’s covenants with Israel (see Deut. 9:6-7).
In this overall context, Jacob’s call resonates deeply with Grassi’s depiction of Isaiah’s presentation of God’s lawsuit against Israel. While there are some interesting differences (Isaiah’s lawsuit is much more compact and not in the same exact order as Jacob’s), here I call attention to five elements from Isaiah which are also present in Jacob. I don’t provide an exhaustive comparison of verses, I only highlight a few touchstones:
1) Judgment time is near. As Jacob says, “if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you.” Isaiah promises destruction to the transgressors, those who oppress and do not succor the fatherless, widow, etc. (Isaiah 1-5).
2) A description of evil works. Jacob: “you have obtained more abundantly…and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren.” He calls direct attention to the “commands” of God which are being neglected by not being “familiar and free with your substance.” In Isaiah, “they do not defend the orphan and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23).
3) Invitation to change.“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.” In Isaiah: “Wash you, make you clean…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:16-18).
4) Justice as a sign of repentance and
5) Hope for the future are combined by Jacob: “ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” Isaiah: “relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow…” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Jacob’s message also aligns well with Jeremiah’s (see for instance Jer. 7:4—7), roughly a contemporary with Jacob’s father Lehi.6
Finally, one further element of Jacob’s sermon deserves attention from a social justice lens. Jacob employs God’s creation of the world as the basis for equality. He notes that God “created all flesh,” and that any one person “is as precious in his sight as the other. And all flesh is of the dust; and for the selfsame end hath he created them, that they should keep his commandments and glorify him forever.” This reminder of common origin is thoroughly Hebrew, rhetorically reminding listeners of the creation which God pronounced “good,” at which time equality was the basis of human existence.7
3. Joseph A. Grassi, Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament, (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).
4. Grassi, 33.
5. See Alma 25:15; cf. 1 Nephi 5:15; 17:40; 19:10; 2 Nephi 3:4; 20:24-26; 25:20; Mosiah 7:19; Alma 36:28, etc.
6. These five points are from Grassi, 37.
7. For more on Creation as a central theme of God’s expectations for human relationships see N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 148-154.