Situating Zion

January 11, 2004 | 7 comments
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We had some wonderful discussion about Zion in the lengthy comments on Material Prosperity, and I would like to revisit the topic here. My visit to India will end this week, and I have been confronted again and again with thoughts about helping the poor. Today, we visited a government heritage park; as we walked along a path, we came upon a family — two parents and a small child — sitting atop a pile of used bricks. Our guide explained that they were employed by the park to turn the bricks into dust for use in the restoration materials. They lived on site. The mother was using a small hammer, like we would use to hang a picture in our living room. The sight of mother and child moved many of us nearly to tears.

Of course, this is but one scene among millions. By all reports India has made great strides in the past decade, but life is still grim for many people here. While many of the people we have met are confident and optimistic about India’s future, most of the people we have met are academics, business people, and government officials who have been hand-picked to entertain US academics. What would we expect them to say?

When I return home, I will visit some of the “poor” of my ward. These are people on fixed incomes (Social Security), living in subsidized housing. But housing! At least they have housing! (Prompting thoughts of Monty Python.)

So, all of this has set me to thinking about Zion. The scriptures describe Zion as a place where the people “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” My guess is that most of us interpret this scripture in roughly the following manner: to obtain Zion, people must be spiritually united, and when people are truly united spiritually, they will have all material things in common. To make my point more pointed, most of us understand the word “poor” as a reference to the distribution of material wealth. I disagree.

The word “poor” is inherently comparative. If there are no poor, there can be no rich. Presumably, then, all of the people in Zion are equal. But what does equality mean here? Follow me to one of my favorite passages of scripture, the description of the oath and covenant of the priesthood:

“And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord; For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.” (D&C 84:35-39)

Again, in this passage, the notion of equality peeks through. Everyone who obtains the blessing spoken of in these verses will receive the same thing: all that my Father hath. I submit that this cannot be true if “all that my Father hath” is a reference to a material kingdom. If the Father gives a material thing to you, then he cannot give it to me. Unless he gives it to us, but the scripture does not speak of collective ownership.

If not a material kingdom, then what is it that the Father can give to all of us equally? That should be obvious: love. Now you should be able to see where I am going with this. If the celestial kingdom is about receiving the fullness of God’s love, then Zion must be about that, too. To describe Zion as a community with “no poor among them,” therefore, means that all members of that community had received the fullness of God’s love.

Although I expect some pushback on the foregoing thoughts, I want to proceed to my main point, which is about situating Zion. Interestingly, Enoch’s City of Zion was just that: a city. What of the people in other cities? Did the people of Zion have no responsibility beyond their city walls? If we think about pursuing Zion today, how are we to think about it? Are the people of India part of my circle of responsibility? Certainly, these people are my “neighbors” (in the Good Samaritan sense of the word), but does that imply an obligation to include them in my Zion community? If it does, then achieving Zion today would be impossible.

Perhaps we should pursue Zion in smaller units, like a Zion ward, a Zion family, or a Zion marriage. My wife and I have talked about achieving Zion in our family. This has proven more difficult than I would have imagined. And as my children get older, I realize that membership in my family is dynamic. At some point in the not-to-distant future, new people will be joining my family, both by marriage and by birth. This sort of thing complicates the pursuit of Zion to the point that I am content for the moment to focus on having a Zion marriage, that is, a marriage of in which the two of us live with one heart and one mind, having no poor among us. If we can achieve that, perhaps it will spread.

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7 Responses to Situating Zion

  1. Clark Goble on January 11, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    While I’m sympathetic to some of the points you make, there are a few difficulties. There is at a minimum D&C 78:6. If you are not equal in earthly things you can not be equal in heavenly. The problem, perhaps an insurmountable problem, is what “equal” means, as you hinted.

    The issue of Zion is quite interesting. Zion, when attempted terribly well, always is quite exclusive and seems built upon a sense of us vs. them. Even the City of Enoch doesn’t exactly seem open to her neighbors according to the text. (And the hints of racism even in the City of Enoch are rather interesting in their own way – indicating that perhaps the City of Enoch *isn’t* a utopia as such)

    Regarding collective ownership, actually the scriptures do seem to talk about that at times. Consider Acts 2:44 or better yet Acts 4:32. 3 Ne 26:19 seems to suggest the same. Now clearly communitarianism wasn’t the only way the United Order was done in 19th century Mormonism. However the way property was dealt with was rather inconsistent, most likely from attempting many orders to see what worked best. (As I recall Arrington asserting)

  2. Jim F. on January 11, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    Gordon, I’m curious as to why you say that the scripture that speak of the Father giving all he has to each doesn’t speak of collective ownership of material things. Why not understand that scripture itself to imply collective ownership?

    The concept of ownership itself is problematic in the context of consecration. If I give everything I have to Zion and then receive a stewardship, I do not own anything, collectively or otherwise. I have given it to God. I have given up ownership.

    It isn’t an easy thing to decide what these scriptures and ideas mean for us, but they are at least a serious challenge to the way I live my life right now.

  3. Clark Goble on January 11, 2004 at 9:03 pm

    I think that the change is one from ownership to stewardship. And Jim is right that is a big change. However I’m not sure it necessarily invokes a change that some often associate with communial arrangements. i.e. in practice what is the difference between stewardship and ownership?

    As we discussed in the other thread, the main difference is whether we are “us” focused vs. “other” focused. The one problem I see with most communial societies (and why they fail) is that we look at community in terms of “us.” As I suggested in the other thread, that relationship of us and them is not at all trivial to think through.

  4. Nate Oman on January 11, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    Jim: I think it is a bit much to say that “the concept of ownership itself is problematic in the context of consecration” if by this you are implying that anything other than collective ownership makes not sense under the law of consecreation. To a certain extent, I think that your problem with the idea of ownership comes from the fact that you are assuming that ownership means something like:

    1. Possession,
    2. Right to exclude others,
    3. Right to benefits, and
    4. Exclusivity of 1, 2, and 3.

    Call this the “liberal notion of property.” Against this you lay out some communitarian notion, which I take to consist of the denial of at least 4 and perhaps 2 as well.

    However, there are lots of other models of property and ownership. Consider, for example, the feudal notion of property in land. Under the feudal law, every person held there land from some one else. Furthermore, they held their land in a particular kind of service. Originally the idea was that the king owned everything (ownership being a bit of a vague concept here), and then gave fiefs to lower downs. These lower downs owed him fealty in the form of military service and obedience. Lower downs then would give property to yet further lower downs who would give them fealty, and so on. Under this system, both the lord and the vassal, owned the land. They simply owned it in different ways. Both were entitled to economic benefits from the land. Furthermore, the concept of ownership was tied to a particular status, which carried with it recipricol rights and duties. Indeed, one’s social position and social role was defined in terms of HOW one happened to own land. Notice a couple of things about this model. First, it makes ownership the nexus of obligation to others rather than the nexus of independence from others, a la the liberal concept of property. Second, ownership is not understood in simple, collectivist terms. For example, there is no idea that every one’s right to the benefits of ownership are as good as everyone elses rights, etc. (Notice also, for you economists, that the feudal notion eliminates the problem of the tragedy of the commons without going clear to liberal ownership).

    To be honest with you, I tend to think that feudalism may provide a more useful lense for thinking about property in Zion than do various forms of collectivism or communal ownership.

  5. Clark Goble on January 12, 2004 at 2:32 am

    Just to add to what Nate said, it does appear that the metaphor of vassalhood is rather common in the scriptures as a way to describe our state. The question is whether this is simply an accident of the fact that Isaiah and others lived in that sort of culture or whether it describes something essential about our relationship with God.

  6. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    I’ve noticed that some of the most interesting Christian writers–Chesterton, Lewis, Waugh, Tolkien–were those most fascinated with medievalry. Make of it what you will.

  7. Gordon Smith on January 13, 2004 at 8:36 am

    Sorry for my virtual absence. It was due to my physical absence. I wrote my message just before departing on a two-day trip outside of Delhi. Back now, and ready to learn.

    Jim focuses on the issue that most bothered me about my original post. Frankly, I do not have a good answer to his question. I thought about it while writing the original post, but I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.

    I note that Jim speaks of us giving to God, but the context in which I made the questionable assumptions about the nature of ownership involved God giving to us. Not sure that matters, especially in light of Nate’s interesting rejoinder. In any event, this point was not essential to my main query, so I think I will punt on that until a later date.

    About that main query: Clark engages it a bit, but the other comments seem to have avoided it. I am interested in how we might pursue Zion. Because people in the Church often conflate Zion and the United Order, I get the impression that we think of Zion as a Church-based phenomenon. In other words, the borders of Zion are not geographic, but relational. This prompts questions of underinclusiveness and overinclusiveness.

    Underinclusiveness: Why limit Zion to the Church? Can we really just ignore our Hindu “brethren and sisters” in India? If we include all of the earth as our aspiration, Zion become hopeless prior to the Second Coming. Maybe that is all right, but I am bothered by the idea that others have achieved Zion on this earth and I am precluded from doing so.

    Overinclusiveness: Even if you think of Zion as Church-based, certainly that is too big to be meaningful. Can we as Mormons really be “of one heart and one mind” with “no poor among [us]“? As a practical matter, I just don’t think this work. Geographic proximity may be essential to Zion.

    In trying to make the concept of Zion meaningful, I have found myself narrowing my aspirations, despite the risk of underinclusiveness. As I said in the original post, my main goal is to create a Zion marriage. That would be both doable and meaningful, but I am not sure how much time it leaves for India.