Accusers and the Myth of a Meritocracy

Photo by Brijesh Nirmal on Unsplash

Samuel Alonzo Dodge is a PhD candidate studying American Religious History at Lehigh University. He teaches a variety of history courses at DeSales University and has published with the Journal of Mormon History, Methodist History, and the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University. He lives in Allentown Pennsylvania with his wife and three children.

It is a challenging time for many reasons not the least of which is the social distancing that though necessary, keeps us from meeting together in person and can stress our sense of community. This sense of the importance of community is what shaped my thinking as I read the Come, Follow Me lesson earlier this summer, Alma 30-31. Though perhaps not immediately apparent, The account of Korihor and his contention with Alma has important lessons for us regarding our conduct, vulnerability, and responsibilities as members of religious and civic communities.

In these chapters, we read of Korihor who preaches among the Nephite people, arguing that there is no Christ. As I read the account of Korihor’s efforts to discredit the gospel, I came to realize that it is a powerful illustration of the various ways the Adversary, or his servants, can attack our faith and sow doubts in our minds. For example, Korihor begins his teaching by deriding the gospel of Christ as nothing more than a “vain hope,” “foolish traditions,” or the acts of a “frenzied mind.”[1] Moreover, Korihor appeals to man’s limited perspective and turns it into a weapon arguing that “no man can know of anything which is to come. How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see…ye do not know that there shall be a Christ.”[2] These lines of attack are cunning and often effective. In seeking to undermine faith, Korihor appeals to insecurities and rational minds. In Korihor’s estimation, if there are facets of the gospel that one does not fully understand, everything must therefore be cast aside. In this scenario, there is no room for faith, no room for growth.

By embracing this line of attack, Korihor takes upon himself a particular role of the Adversary that John the Revelator described as “the accuser.”[3] Accusers charge us with lack of understanding, valuing the wrong things, ulterior motives, having weak minds, or being dupes. We hear such accusations today: “How can you believe the Book of Mormon with all its anachronisms? The prophets and apostles of your church clearly cannot be in touch with the issues the world faces today. If you actually knew the history of your church you would leave it,” and on it goes. The objectives of accusers are not to build faith or understanding, but to tear down and destroy. When people offer critiques of our faith, we should ask ourselves, are they trying to build or tear down? This will help much in our efforts to discern what is lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy, from what should be cast aside.[4] Remember what Elder Holland has taught,

Once there has been genuine illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give up when the pressure mounts. You can find an apartment. You can win over your mother-in-law. You can sell your harmonica and therein fund one more meal. It’s been done before. Don’t give in. Certainly don’t give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness.  He wants everyone to be miserable like unto himself. Face your doubts. Master your fears. “Cast not away therefore your confidence.”[5]

Following Elder Holland’s counsel will do much to help us develop the kind of discernment necessary to maintain our faith when confronted by accusers such as Korihor.

There is one additional aspect of Korihor’s accusations that has particular relevance to our experiences today. In his efforts to deny the Christ, Korihor by necessity had to deny the role of the Savior’s grace as well. The result was a bleak vision of the world where “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius and that every man conquered according to his strength.”[6] The word “conquered” here is telling. In Korihor’s vision, the world was nothing more than a competition between rival beings who had no interest in looking out for anyone beyond him or herself. In other words, life in this world is a zero-sum game with winners and losers and one person’s good fortune is another’s affliction. But more than that, Korihor’s description of society is one of an unadulterated meritocracy, where men and women only prosper and rule only according to their “merit” or by their ability or “genius.” The idea of a meritocracy can be particularly seductive in our present day, in part, because in American political parlance the idea of a “self-made man” has held considerable influence since the founding of the nation. Narratives of rugged pioneers and innovative entrepreneurs have long served as the rhetorical grist to form national identities and have fed into a vision of American exceptionalism that continues to shape the way we see and engage the world around us. There is little room for community in this worldview, nor is there any acknowledgement of our mutual dependency upon one another or our ultimate dependency upon our Father in Heaven.

A study of the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, teaches us that such a competitive philosophy is not the way our Father in Heaven relates to us nor the way that we should relate to each other. King Benjamin reminds us that we will always be unprofitable servants because God continually blesses us. Indeed, we are “indebted unto him, and are, and will be forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?”[7] By insisting that we have no grounds to boast, King Benjamin undercuts Korihor’s central message that man’s success, his ability to “conquer,” is through his own strength. Our successes, no matter how hard we labor, are only possible through God’s good graces. In this light, how hollow our continual chest-thumping appears.

But the dependency that King Benjamin illuminates is not only ours to Deity, but also one we share with one another. This dependency is clearest as he describes our obligations to one another. King Benjamin makes a point that when looking at those around us we must do more than “love one another, and…serve one another” but also “succor those that stand in need…administer of your substance” and “not suffer that the beggar [put] up his petition in vain.” Beyond this counsel, the King leaves a stern warning that those who dismiss the poor as merely reaping the bitter fruits of their own poor choices or idleness have “great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth forever.”[8]

Why such a harsh warning? Why is repentance necessary for assuming that those in desperate circumstance may be there through actions of their own? Again, the account of Korihor suggests an answer. Repentance is necessary because when we begin judging others’ worthiness of our mercy or our help, we become accusers ourselves, laying crimes at their feet that may be unwarranted while also ignoring our own shortcomings. Christ has dispensed his charity freely. He is anxious to bless us and forgive, regardless of addictions, shortsightedness, or appetites of the flesh. We should do likewise.

Alma too understood that condemning the poor for their poverty jeopardizes our own standing before God. While teaching his son Corianton, Alma warned that the harshness, or mercy, which we meet out to others will be returned upon our own heads:

O, my son…the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. See that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly…and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; yea shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgement restored unto you again.[9]

The message of King Benjamin and Alma are clear. We must not dismiss the needs of others or ignore their pleas for help because our own claims upon mercy are dependent upon how merciful we are in the first place. After all, not only are we are all beggars, we are all created in the image of God.[10]

With this communal approach to life and our relationships, we will recognize that meritocracy is a myth. We don’t prosper merely according to our own strength, ability, or genius, but we lean on each other’s shoulders, we feed each other when hungry, we lift up hands and chins when they hang down, and we should always acknowledge the grace of God in all things. While describing the followers of the Savior, the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a single “body of Christ” where the good health of one member causes all others to rejoice. Such a community reflects an understanding of mutual dependency and interest in the welfare of one another.[11] When we truly enter such a community, we will show gratitude by acknowledging how much our personal successes in life are only possible by the support and guidance of those around us and from our Father in Heaven. We will understand that wearing masks outside is not a sign of oppression, but a testimony of our commitment and love for our fellowman. We will be reluctant to dismiss welfare as merely a “handout” to those who refuse to work, but will make an effort to follow the Savior’s admonition to feed the hungry and cloth the naked without judgement. And as our communal lives are informed by scripture, we will better understand that those crying “Black Lives Matter” are merely people pleading for the protection that comes from full inclusion in a community. We will finally understand that no man is an island and how much we need each other![12]   

If we are not careful, we can fall victim to Korihor-like accusations belittling our faith or the seductive allure of meritocracy. Meritocracy, in its own odd way, offers fleeting comfort through the idea that we can control our fate merely through grit and hard work, independent of others or circumstance. But such control is an illusion. God holds us in his hands just as we hold up the hands of one another. We are connected as one body of saints, one family of God. I pray that we can recognize those connections and serve each other accordingly with mercy and humility.


[1] Alma 30: 12-14, 16

[2] Alma 30: 13, 15, 26

[3] Revelation 12:10

[4] Article of Faith 1:13; Philippians 4:8

[5] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence,” Devotional, Brigham Young University, 2 March 1999.

[6] Alma 30:17

[7] Mosiah 2:21-24, emphasis mine.

[8] Mosiah 4:15-18

[9] Alma 41:13-14

[10] Mosiah 2:19; Matthew 25:42-45

[11] 1 Corinthians 12:20-27

[12] John Donne, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII,” in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (1952; repr., New York: The Modern Library, 1994), 441.

Comments

  1. There is an extension to this. I have members telling me that helping our neighbour can only be done by individuals or churches. That governments helping the poor is not voluntary, in fact forced, so of the devil.
    Now if the majority of the people vote for it, it is no more forced than a tax cut, or increase for that matter.
    I live in Australia, we all vote to have universal healthcare, we are proud of it, it costs half the American system, and provides such service (including preventative services) that our life expectancy is 5 years longer than the US. There is nothing forced, we are proud of it. We have a minimum wage of $19.84, with a 25% loading for casual workers. Forced?

    If in November you elect a democrat government, and they help reduce inequality in America, perhaps by redistributing wealth toward the poor, instead of the present government redistributing wealth to the rich by tax cuts. Will that be forcing anyone? Do you believe in democracy? The will of the people? It used to be, before present political division, that after the election people pulled together under new management.

    If a reason not to vote democrat is that thay are labeled socialist, even marxist, these are labels that say they want to help the poor and needy. That is good. Christlike even. They are advocating making America a caring society. There is a world happiness index, where countries are rated for hapiness by their citizens, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report This is citizens rating how zion like their society is. Australia is number 11, America is 19, but with the division, at present should be much lower.

    My understanding of the gospel of christ is that we show our love for God by loving our fellows, and caring for those that need help, especially by removing systemic obstacles like, sexism, racism, and other financial discrimination. If our politics causes us to come up with reasons we can only do that under certain very limited circumstances, as korihor did?

    If you believe charity can only be provided by churches or individuals, how do you overcome government imposed discrimination.

  2. Inspiring and thought provoking, thank you.

  3. BYU 55 Navy 3 – bigger, stronger, faster though not necessarily more loving or righteous.

  4. A couple of thoughts.
    1. “When people offer critiques of our faith, we should ask ourselves, are they trying to build or tear down?” Or, is it possible that they are neither trying to build your faith nor tear it down but are merely trying to point out the truth to you? Some of the things we believe are contradictory and some of our history is really messy and the Book of Mormon really does have a lot of anachronisms and questionable plot elements. Is it trying to tear down faith to try to figure out why all these things are in the book and point out the difficulties? Faith has to be based on truth. Pointing out error is not tearing down faith but perhaps building it on a correct foundation. Your statement here rests on some questionable assumptions.
    2. Korihor’s economic theory is very similar to current Republican economics. Work requirements for food stamps, efforts to cut Medicaid, lawsuits to remove health insurance from people with pre-existing conditions, and tax cuts for billionaires all fit comfortably within Korihor’s belief system but not King Benjamin’s. Just sayin’.

  5. Australia is number 11, America is 19

    Canada #9! Eat our dust every other country not in the top 10!

  6. The Church leadership could set a great example for the membership by:
    1. Acknowledging flat out that God was NOT responsible for the priesthood/temple ban. And state once and for all that there was NO curse of Cain/Ham. And apologize to the black community and make the necessary restitution. The Church’s current initiative with the NAACP is NOT sufficient.
    2. Acknowledging that hording $100B+ while there is ongoing pandemic and many in the world are living in misery, WAS/IS a mistake. And atoning by taking immediate steps to improve world conditions. Well placed interventions are truly needed.

  7. Wally took the words right out of my mouth. Many of us are not attempting to build the kingdom or tear it down. We are just seeking the truth, wherever that takes us.

  8. p:
    Yes, BYU won a football game, against a Navy team which has been allowed limited contact in practice sessions. But that is not what was important about that game. Watch the responses of the two coaches at the end of the game. Classy, kind and respectful of each other and each other’s team. Neither claimed to be more righteous or loving than the other. The competition was a football game, not a competition over values both men obviously shared.

  9. Mallory Funkhouser says:

    Great post Sam. I appreciate your insights. I hadn’t connected the dots between Korihor’s verses and meritocracy.

  10. Jason allred says:

    One thing we don’t do well in the church is critique our selves. Instead we fear monger it and say don’t go there. In order to get strong we must tear down that which is inaccurate or unhealthy. If our mindset is always to “build” on instead of tear down then we inevitably build on rotten unstable facts or ideologies.

    It’s like the ressurection. You must tear down to build anew. We are afraid of the tear down. It’s vitally important to test our historical facts to make sure they are accurate and to test our ideas to make sure they are right and healthy to withstand the test of time

    We are not good at doing that.

  11. Samuel, there was certainly a lot of wisdom in your counsel! It has caused me to reflect deeper! God does hold us in the hollow of our his hands! When did we forget this! I am ALWAYS hoping he has my back! This is a Hard world to navigate anymore. I take great comfort GPS💙⭐️🎶

  12. Applying Ethics says:

    I used to watch The Mountain of the Lord a lot. I would groan every time BY said the foundation of the temple was incorrect and had to be torn down. So much time! So many materials! So much work and sacrifice! And yet…yes, built on a bad foundation, a building will not be sound. As the church and I started to diverge in key areas, I answered the summons, as they say, to tear down my own “faith” (certainties and suppositions), examine the pieces, and rebuild. This was holy work, and I had as mighty a change of heart as I’d had as an adult joining the church.

    A lot of me is now built on “I don’t know, we can’t know this yet, but here is what I hope” and then acting on that. I am sure I will continue to examine how the rebuild and mindset opened me up to receive so much more divinity and feel so much more love (I do know Elder Poelman’s original GC talk helps explain some of it) but I am just so grateful. I want to speak up for the teardown that Jason mentioned; don’t let fear keep you in one place.

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