And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.–Mosiah 4:16
Mormon liberals love to quote King Benjamin. He seems to validate the whole social-justice/safety-net program of the contemporary left. He admonishes us to give to the poor, and, like so many of the prophets of the Old Testament, condemns an entire society for allowing deep inequalities in its midst. If there are better liberal-Mormon proof texts in the Book of Mormon than Mosiah 4, I don’t know them.
Of course, this is no slam dunk. Politically conservative Saints can always point out that Benjamin does not say that the government should take care of the poor—and, in fact, he places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of wealthy individuals to “administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need.” If Benjamin wanted a social welfare program, he could have created one; he was, after all, the king.
This argument is like a chess game where both sides know the opening moves by heart and can go through them halfheartedly on the way to shouting a lot and tipping over the chess board. For centuries, Christians have played similar moves in their arguments about the ministry of Jesus Christ, who also had more than a few things to say about taking care of the poor, and who also did not ever directly say that this be done by the state.
These have always seemed to me to be the wrong kinds of questions to ask. We know next to nothing about Benjamin’s kingdom, including how (or whether) it had any structural way to take care of the poor. And even if we knew more, there is no possibility that we could meaningfully map our political situation onto that of an ancient tribal kingdom somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Ancient scriptures were never designed to instruct us in the proper means of government.
They were, though (among other things) designed to teach us the proper ends of government. Ancient prophets regularly described, under the name “the Kingdom of God,” what a good society should look like. If we are truly disciples of Christ, we should want to live in the kind of society that they described–which includes some structural way of caring for the poor and vulnerable. I have a hard time believing that anybody living in a democratic society could read the New Testament or the words of King Benjamin and come away believing that these texts completely divorce responsibility for the poor from the proper function of government.
But there’s more. Not only does King Benjamin require us to become a society that takes care of the poor. He invites us to imagine a society that doesn’t have any poor–one that is not inherently structured to favor those with great wealth, status, or political power. This actually a difficult kind of society to imagine, since every form of government we have experienced so far always does end up structured to favor the rich and the powerful. It is much easier to work on alleviating the symptoms of poverty than to imagine a society with out it, But this is exactly the kind of society that King Benjamin, like Jesus, asks us to believe in.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no room for disagreement about how to best accomplish the goals that Benjamin set forth. It is not self-evidently true to me that government redistribution programs are the best way to care for the poor, nor is it patently unthinkable that market-based solutions cannot do the job even better. Intelligent, moral, and non-crazy people can legitimately disagree about how best to accomplish the social vision that King Benjamin sets out in the fourth chapter of Mosiah.
But passages like these do take some political arguments off of the table. One argument in particular simply cannot survive a sincere belief in the Book of Mormon. Benjamin himself outlines this argument in Mosiah 4:17-19:
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
19 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?
The claim that wealthy people deserve their wealth, while poor people are poor because of their own actions or innate characteristics, has no place in our religious or political discourse. Benjamin refutes it unequivocally, as did a long line of prophets from Isaiah to Jesus to Joseph Smith. We should view with great suspicion any policy or political movement that proceeds from such morally flawed assumptions.
One of the functions of prophets has always been to challenge us to imagine a different world than we have ever lived in. Isaiah, Jesus, and Joseph Smith all did this; they called that world both Zion and the Kingdom of God. King Benjamin does it too. Not only have these prophets invited us to imagine such a society; they have enjoined us to create it in a world where all of the models come from Babylon. This is not a task that we can defer to a millennial future. The responsibility to build Zion here and now inheres in the Restoration. The Kingdom of God is within us. And this is not irrelevant to the way that we participate in the political process.