Today is Constitution Day in the United States, a day to celebrate our country’s Founding and the ongoing experiment it started. It also marks the one year anniversary of the Occupy movement, which builds on the freedoms protected by the Constitution in order to increase social and political equality at a time when it is too common to value wealth more than welfare.
One of the key beliefs of the Occupy movement as I understand it centers around the importance of reforming the systems of power that propagate economic and social inequality. This power imbalance heavily favors the already wealthy and well-connected, leaving the rest of us to beg for trickles from above. I would like to point out three main dangers that Mormonism and Occupy both preach against: favoring the rich, demonizing the poor, and accepting inequality.
Favoring the rich
“There is widespread belief, at least among my students, that public spending on the poor is a major government expense and a significant cause of budget deficits. Furthermore, the poor’s willingness to “take something for nothing” is cited as proof of their degeneracy. Not a few students ask, “Why should I work hard just so others can receive a handout?” That is certainly a valid public policy question, and asking it should not necessarily call into question one’s morality. The problem is that it is misdirected. Vastly greater sums of public money are doled out to the non-poor in “wealthfare” than to the poor via welfare. The difference is that the price of benefits to the poor includes public humiliation and loss of self-respect, while the rest of us take our handouts with clear consciences and unsullied reputations.”- – -
“‘Doing nothing’ is justified by some on the grounds that everyone simply has what she or he has earned. That conclusion, of course, fails morally and logically. Scriptures state clearly that the obligation to assist the poor remains intact whether or not the poor are judged to be ‘deserving.’ And how can anyone reasonably view the growing millions of poor infants and children as undeserving of help, regardless of one’s opinion of their parents?”
BYU Professor of Sociology, Dr. Richard E. Johnson [PDF]
Demonizing the poor
The scriptures are pretty clear that judging the poor isn’t our business. We are encouraged to remember that our blessings come from the Lord, that we shouldn’t look upon our poor brothers and sisters and persecute them due to being, as the Lord says “proud in your hearts, of the things which God hath given you” (Jacob 2:20). The Book of Mormon anticipated this type of claim in a call to action worthy of any well-intentioned Occupy gathering:
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. 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—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.Book of Mormon; Mosiah 4: 16-18
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?
-Book of Mormon, Mosiah 4:19
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.
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
The earth… was made for man; and one man was not made to trample his fellowman under his feet, and enjoy all his heart desires, while the thousands suffer. We will take a moral view, a political view, and see the inequality that exists in the human family… It is an unequal condition of mankind. We see servants that labor early and late, and that have not the opportunity of measuring the hours ten in twenty-four. They cannot go to school, nor hardly get clothing to go to meeting on the Sabbath. I have seen many cases of this kind in Europe, when the young lady would have to take her clothing on Saturday night and wash it, in order that she might go to meeting on the Sunday with a clean dress on. Who is she working for? For those who, many of them, are living in luxury. And to serve classes that are living on them, the poor laboring men and women are toiling, working their lives and to earn that which will keep a little life within them. Is this equality? No! What is to be done? The Latter-day Saints will never accomplish their mission until this inequality shall cease on the earth.
While Mormon doctrine and Occupy protests don’t agree on everything, they do have a lot in common. Both warn of the dangers of parading the rich, demonizing the poor, and complacently accepting inequality. Both preach the importance of checking power and avoiding abuses of authority. Both warn of placing faith in the bronze bull of prosperity or the golden calf of greed, preaching instead a gospel of sharing, cooperation, and humanity. And both lead us to believe that things will get better for us all if we work together.