Alma 1:20-33 — LeGrand Baker with Tyson Hill – meaning of equality

Alma 1:20-33 — LeGrand Baker with Tyson Hill – meaning of equality

These verses, in the first chapter of Alma, contain another of those amazingly profound statements that Mormon passes over as though there was nothing extraordinary about it. This time it is his definition of equality.

The notion that somehow all people are equal comes from very deep roots within our western culture. But it always sits in juxtaposition to the cold reality that people are not really equal at all. Let me give you a quick review of the ideas of equality that are a part of our western heritage. George Orwell’ phrase in Animal Farm, may not be an eternal truth, but it is certainly an accurate appraisal of this world’s reality: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

1. From our present Jewish version of the Law of Moses, we are taught that Jehovah is the God of everybody, but that he loves some much more than he loves others. That was not only true between Israelites and Gentiles, but between Israelites as well. For example, the Law, as we have it, provided that in ancient Israel, if a man were unable to pay his debts, he and his family could be enslaved by his creditor.

2. From the ancient Greeks we have inherited the tradition of participatory government. But the ancient Greek democracy was limited to the elite.

3. From the Romans we inherited our notion of equality before the law, but that was also a selective equality, based on wealth and political status.

4. The New Testament teaches us that we should love one another and submit to authority, and those doctrines were soon turned into a rationale for oppression.

5. Observing the almost universal use of religion to oppress the masses, the philosopher/historian, Will Durant, believed that religion was an invention of the aristocracy to control and weigh down the masses. He used the Christianity of the Dark Ages to make his point. He wrote that the poor were taught that if they would endure their poverty and be subservient in this world, then they would have glorious mansions in the next world. He believed that this tactic had been used by the elite of every ancient culture, and noted that the upper classes were always eager to guarantee to the lower classes every wealth and pleasure they could hope for in the next world – in exchange for their willingness to tolerate poverty in this world.

6. Modern egalitarianism is based on that same assumption. Rousseau taught that equality was impossible because the natural human motivation is avarice and self-aggrandizement. He insisted that the best that could be hoped for was an imposed equanimity, with a self-defined and self-appointed moral elite controlling government, and the powers of both production and distribution. Communism and socialism are variations of his thinking. The problem is that when the same group controls government, production, and distribution, a two-cast system is established that belies the whole notion of a self-appointed moral elite.

7. As I observed two weeks ago, Jefferson believed equality meant that all people had the same innate sense of right and wrong, and upon that principle he justified a government created and elected by the people – believing that a government elected by the masses would have the same sense of right and wrong as the masses who created and elected it. There was nothing in Jefferson’s beliefs that suggested that all people had the same aptitudes or abilities. (See: Gary Wills, Inventing America, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence). He left it to American rugged individualism to sort out the practical implications of that equality.

8. Since Jefferson’s time, our society has invented several new slogan-like definitions of equality. They sound good, but have little practical meaning. “Equal opportunity,” and “equal rights” are concepts written into our laws, but not clearly defined; fought over in the courts, but never resolved; and thus they have become great political footballs.

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Into that maze of conflict between philosophy and reality, Mormon quietly introduces the only fully rational definition of equality I have ever found.

26   And when the priests left their labor to impart the word of God unto the people, the people also left their labors to hear the word of God. And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.
27  And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.
28  And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions.
29  And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.
30  And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.
31  And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church. (Alma 1:20-33.)

The key words are these: “and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, ”

And thus they were all equal!” The “equality” they experienced was the product of their esteem for each other.

The only true equality between two humans is their mutual esteem. No social, economic, or political situation can alter that reality. For example, a Greek scholar might be captured and made that slave of a wealthy Roman. If the slave is contemptuous of the master’s harshness, the master, in the slave’s estimation, is lesser than the slave, and can never be the slave’s equal. It would make no difference how much authority the master exercised over the slave, in the eyes of the slave, the master can never be the slave’s equal until the slave esteems him as such. The college professor can never be the equal of the old farmer, until the farmer esteems him as such. Conversely, the farmer can never be equal to a professor until the professor appreciates the goodness and wisdom of the fine old man. And the cost of a lack of such esteem is subtracted from the richness of the life of the one who withholds it.

Our human condition being what it is, governments are necessary to enforce some sort of equanimity in our legal and economic systems, but “charitable” condescension or patronization are poor substitutes for esteem. Neither the powers of government, its laws, nor the courts can impose an equality of esteem upon any society. It is a product of the individual soul.

Similarly, it is impossible to create a Zion society, by proclaiming it “zion” and inviting people to come in. Rather “Zion is the pure in heart,” which I understand to mean people who esteem others as themselves, and who conduct their lives in accordance to that mutual esteem. A collection of that kind of people becomes a Zion society. But the individuals must be Zion, before a Zion society can become a reality. I can discover no difference between that concept of mutual esteem, and the law of consecration. And I can discover no difference between the law of consecration and love that is called charity. Obedience to the law of consecration is what one does – but only when charity is what one is.

The natural consequence is, “And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted….And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need….”

Thus these people had established and maintained Zion as a subculture withing a culture that was not Zion at all. And their Zion remained viable until the mutual esteem began to disintegrate:

Yea, he [Alma] saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted. (Alma 4:12.)

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This week, Tyson asked me something that caused me to send him a draft of what you just read. After that, as the week progressed, I realized that our conversation was becoming a necessary conclusion to what I had written. I hope you don’t mind my sending you reports of our conversations. I thought the last time I did that  it would really be the last time, but since he is responsible for my thinking some good thoughts, I don’t think it would be quite honest if I just turned them into a little essay and did not give him the credit. It also occurs to me that you will like to know him. Another consideration is that I understand that you understand that you are getting this email because I love you, and many of you know and love each other also. So I don’t suppose you will mind if you hear me tell Tyson that I love him too. This week Tyson and Tenay are on their way to Seattle where he will soon begin law school.

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— T: —

I have another question that I was pondering on last night. How does one develop true charity (especially since it’s so important)? I understand the importance of serving others, and I know that we have briefly discussed knowing and understanding the entire plan in order to appreciate others, but how do I develop charity for everyone, perhaps even those who I barely meet or have no real opportunity to serve?

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— L: —

I suspect the reason identifying how to have charity is such a difficult question is that we don’t have a concrete sense of what charity is. Therefore one has nothing one can grab hold of and say, “this is it.” I just finished writing what I’m going to send out next week in the BofM Project. Let me send it to you, and then I’ll try to help you answer your question. [I sent Tyson the first draft of the today’s comment.]

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— T: —

I enjoyed the political tie that you put into your analysis of charity. However, you have only partially answered my question. I now understand more fully what charity is, or even how it can be understood. I do, not, however, yet know how to obtain it. How do I esteem others as myself? I know that sounds incredibly, stupidly, and embarrassingly prideful, but I see this flaw in myself. How can I really esteem others: my co-workers, random people on the subway, my enemies…as myself

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— L: —

Tyson, in your email you wrote, “I do, not, however, yet know how to obtain it. How do I esteem others as myself?” I think the problem you describe is in the reality of the meaning of loving one’s Self. So the initial question is: HOW -by what criterion – does one esteem one’s Self.

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— T: —

I really liked what you wrote on charity. I don’t know how I esteem myself. That’s a tricky question. I’m prone to pride at times and at other times, negative humility.

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— L: —

I appreciate our conversations. You are a wonderful stimulus for my thinking. I thought my BofM Project for next week was finished, but you have shown me that it is not –– thanks. One tends to define one’s Self in terms of one’s wants and needs. And therefore defines one’s esteem for others in terms of acknowledging that they have similar wants and needs. But what if one defined oneself in terms different from that. What if one believed this: “I am a person whom the Saviour loves, and the best evidence that I have that I exist is that I know he loves me and that I love him in return.” I love and feel love – therefore I am.

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— T: —

Obviously I love and believe that answer. Does that mean that having charitable Christ-like love for others starts by understanding and feeling Christ’s love for ourselves?

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— L: —

I think that is exactly where it begins – I suppose it ends there as well. To the degree that one can identify and define one’s Self in terms of the Saviour’s love, to that degree one runs out of other alternative ways of identifying and defining other people

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— T: —

How do you recommend one being able to recognize and most importantly feel Christ’s love for us?

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— L: —

I suspect the answer to that is the standard answer to all things. But because the answer is so easy to come by, its depth is difficult to discover – because it rolls off the tongue so easily it appears trite. The formula given in the Sermon on the Mount is the same as the formula one learns in the temple. “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” As far as I can tell: Asking happens in prayer, seeking happens in the way one reads the scriptures and the way one lives. I suppose knocking has something to do with, “that they do always remember him.” But in the end none of those things are sufficient in themselves. They only affirm one’s willingness to receive a gift. The fulfillment is in the gift.

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— T: —

Thanks LeGrand. I agree with what you have said and have been actively seeking and praying for charity. I thought of the two great commandments that Christ gives, both of which define true charity and apparently are the only way to keep the commandments.

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— L: —

You are a remarkable young man Tyson. Lots of people think they want to know the deep things of the gospel. But you want to know the greatest mystery of them all. I love you.

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— T: —

I love you too LeGrand. Thanks for always helping me to be a better person.

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— L: —

I don’t think you need much help.

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Conclusion:

Without ever mentioning it – probably without being aware of it – Tyson put his finger squarely on the central point of the whole issue. His comments are remarkably candid and honest. And it is that kind of honesty that is the key. One can neither love others nor oneself unless one is comfortable with one’s Self. That requires faith, which leads to repentance, which leads to an even increasing sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit, which promotes a self-honesty. It is, as Bruce observed, a never-ending spiral, whose object is to lead one so closely to discovering who and what one is, that one may again, in this world, be true to the law of one’s own being.

Tyson won the chess game, by the way.

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