“On Equal Grounds”

July 20, 2004 | 4 comments
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The story of Korihor in Alma 30 contains many lessons for the modern audience. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting part of the chapter to me is the discussion of law in verses 7-11. In particular, this discussion is bookended by the concept of equality:

7. “Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.”

12. “… Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.”

In an earlier post, Jim Faulconer asked a question that I would like to revisit here: What does it mean to be “on equal grounds”?

We learn from the other verses in this section that punishing people for their actions did not violate the principle of equality. Verse 10 and the first part of verse 11 state: “But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes.” Clearly, the author is distinguishing action (punishment justified) from belief (punishment unjustified). Perhaps some wish to quibble with this distinction or to demonstrate the difficulty of drawing bright lines between the two, but that is not my target.

Instead, I am interested in the role of equality in this system. Not punishing beliefs is essential to fulfilling the condition of equality, but equality survives when specified actions lead to punishment. Verses 8-9, which follow the initial reference to “unequal grounds,” may offer some assistance in resolving this puzzle:

For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

Notice that verse 8 begins with “for” as a conjunction, suggesting that what follows explains the prior conclusion. This is my interpretation: punishing belief would violate the notion of equality because each person needs to choose God, rather than having God chosen for him or her. It’s Lucifer’s plan versus God’s plan all over again. Under this view, “equality” means laboring for exaltation under the similar conditions.

While we can find some scriptural support for this view, it is at first blush a rather strange basis for regulation. Surely criminalizing conduct disrupts equality in the same way as criminalizing belief. Why not construct a system in which all people would be free to choose murder or adultery? The obvious concern here is with third-party effects, namely, harm to person or property. We criminalize certain actions because they have third-party effects that we would like to discourage. On the other hand, we refrain from criminalizing beliefs because they do not have such effects, at least directly.

Once beliefs are expressed, of course, they may lead others to choose harmful paths. This seems to have been the main concern with Korihor: he was “leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.” Alma 30:18. Nevertheless, for purposes of criminal law, we can distinguish between Korihor the preacher and his congregation (though we might, in some instances, be inclined to punish the preacher, too). Accordingly, Korihor was not punished under the Nephite criminal code, but rather by the wrath of God.

But we have gone astray, offering a different rationale for the Nephite system (third-party effects) than the one proferred in the Book of Mormon (equality). The only way I can come close to making sense of the emphasis on “equal grounds” in Alma is to appeal to the famous “lust” scripture in Matthew 5:27-28: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” If the “heart” is the domain of the spirit, then we might achieve equality by refraining for regulation of thought or belief while still discouraging harmful third-party effects by regulating actions. The problem here should be obvious: this view discounts the spiritual effects of actions (why do we have a body if not to develop our spirits?).

Thus we return to Jim’s still not adequately answered question: What does it mean to be “on equal grounds”?

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4 Responses to “On Equal Grounds”

  1. greenfrog on July 20, 2004 at 11:21 am

    I’m not sure of the answer to this question, but perhaps it should be informed by Alma’s answer to Korihor which, as Jim F pointed out, focuses on Alma’s refutation of Korihor’s slander of Alma, rather than on doctrinal points (or even points of belief which others embody in actions).

    Also, part of this puzzle seems to be Korihor’s teaching that there is no such thing as sin or crime. I’m inclined to read those statements as rejection of the intrinsically bad nature of particular conduct — that there is nothing evil per se. I don’t think there is enough context to support the idea that Korihor was saying that even in context there was no basis for distinguishing between socially acceptable and not socially acceptable. His preaching seems to have been tailored to fit the “equal grounds” model of law that is articulated at the beginning of the story, so presumably, he wasn’t unconscious of (or at least not willing to suffer the consequences of violating) societal constraints.

    My musings about equality in this context (I made my teacher’s quorum discuss this topic a week ago because I was puzzling over it) are admittedly vague, but I don’t see a lot of contextual support for your idea of choice being necessary for exaltation.

    It seems to me that the narrator goes out of his way to preface this story with the legal context. Why start a story and immediately stop it to provide an exegesis of equal protection law? Presumably, the narrator believed that the story couldn’t be understood properly without the digression. That leads me to this question: What wrong conclusions could we have drawn from the story without the legal context?

    Again, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but a few more speculations: though he gets a relatively receptive audience at first, in the next two towns he visits, Korihor is bound (and gagged?) and carried off to the authorities. These actions seem inconsistent with the equality of belief law (unless belief was only permitted to differ so long as it was silent, and since Alma doesn’t take Korihor to task for that, I don’t think we have much support fot that concept). So perhaps we are to conclude that those town’s actions were not consistent with the articulated principle of equality, and we’re being cautioned not to follow those examples. (But, again, the narrator could have said so more directly, if that was the point.)

    Perhaps the legal digression was simply to prevent the story from being construed as a “Don’t allow dissent” morality tale. If there is a principle of equality of belief, this reading, at least, seems to fit with the nature of the text, which shows different persons’ reactions to Korihor’s ideas (which, BTW, are not uniformly wrong, silly, or evil — if they were, the story would be a lot shallower than I think it is).

    Another way that the legal digression could be understood is the narrator’s attempt to deflect up front what he might expect to be criticism of his story. IOW, he may be concerned that if he doesn’t state up front that he endorses the concept of equality of belief, that his story will be dismissed by his audience as the actions of unprincipled heathens.

    I’m not sure that this alternative suggests a way to import a particular meaning or basis for an equality principle, but I’m still thinking about this.

    gf

  2. Gordon Smith on July 20, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    greenfrog: That was great. I like this question: “What wrong conclusions could we have drawn from the story without the legal context?” Perhaps the narrator was offering the legal background to show why they didn’t just throw Korihor in jail (though, as you note, they didn’t just leave him alone, either). Some readers may have been wondering why an act of God was necessary to silence him.

    Also, it is possible that the author was attempting to make a point of contrasting the proper role of earthly government and the proper role of God. Interesting that the principle of equality is important for the earthly government, but presumably God does not need to employ the principle in the same way. (Because he is all knowing?)

    You wrote, “I made my teacher’s quorum discuss this topic a week ago …” Wow! Those teachers must be pretty precocious. Or did the “discussion” consist of you talking and them staring back in stunned silence? ;-)

  3. Ralph Hancock on July 20, 2004 at 2:17 pm

    What about the interesting editorial judgment expressed in Alma 30:20: the “more wise” people of Ammon seem to be bothered by no libertarian scruples? This seems to argue against the possibility of situating the earlier remarks about equality and the exemption of beliefs from legal penalties within some perfectly coherent and universal theory.

  4. greenfrog on July 20, 2004 at 3:12 pm

    Ralph – good point.

    Gordon – I’ve found that any teacher’s quorum lesson that involves large quantities of free (and mostly empty) calories gets a lot more participation, no matter what the subject, than any one that doesn’t.