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.  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!
 which is entirely possible.