That is, truth-teller. Far greater than his scholarship, in my opinion, was his unwavering determination to speak plainly about what he understood to be the plain teachings–the social, economic, political and cultural teachings–of the prophets. By so doing he changed lives, and even, I think, saved souls. Of course, the actual “value” of his interpretations can be disputed; certainly it is the case that his somewhat flaky, scripturally inspired socialism/environmentalism/pacifism/agrarianism/what-have-you-ism never amounted to a solid foundation upon which one could erect laws, establish policies, distribute goods, enforce treaties, and basically get things done. It was, in other words, strictly speaking, useless.
“The position of…Richard Nixon is supremely simple and straightforward: It is the Good Guys on one side and the Bad Guys on the other, and that explains everything….There are just two poles and we are all at one pole and [Soviet communism is] at the other. Their evil deeds repel us, yet, strange to say, we do everything they do–because they force us to!…We must fight them because they do all these bad things–and to fight them, we too must do all those same bad things. Thus, just like them, we must give up desirable social goals to attain military aims….[This recalls] President Spencer W. Kimball in his great bicentennial address: ‘We commit vast resources to the fabrication of…ships, plains, missles, fortifications–and depend upon them for deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy rather than pro-Kingdom of God….What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him?…We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the arm of the flesh.’ Mr. Nixon has an answer to that one: Faith without strength is futile. What a revealing statement! Faith is the source of strength, the very power by which the worlds were created. To say it is helpless without military backing recalls an ancient saw: ‘I trust God but I feel better with money in the bank’….In Mr. Nixon’s book, God is indeed on the side of the big battalions.” (“The Prophetic Book of Mormon,” The Prophetic Book of Mormon, 450, 452-453)
“Today the beautiful word Zion, with all its emotional and historical associations, is used as the name Christian was formerly used, to put the stamp of sanctity on what men choose to do. The Hebrew word for financial activity of any kind is mamonut, and the financier is a mamonai; that is, financing is, quite frankly, in that honest language, the business of Mammon. From the very first there were Latter-day Saints who thought to promote the cause of Zion by using the methods of Babylon….[But we] have the word of the Prophet Joseph that Zion is not to be built up using the methods of Babylon. He says, ‘Here are those who begin to spread out, buying up all the land they are able to, to the exclusion of the poorer ones who are not so much blessed with this world’s goods, thinking to lay foundations for themselves only, looking to their own individual families and those who are to follow them….Now I want to tell you that Zion cannot be built up in any such way.’ What do we find today? Zion’s Investement, Zion Used Cars, Zion Construction, Zion Development, Zion Bank, Zion Leasing, Zion Insurance, Zion Securities, Zion Trust, and so on. The institutions of Mammon are made respectable by the beautiful name of Zion. Zion and Babylon both have their appeal, but the voice of the latter-day revelation makes one thing perfectly clear as it tells us over and over again that we cannot have them both.” (“Our Glory or Our Condemnation,” Approaching Zion, 20-21)
“A favorite trick [of Satan] is to put the whole blame on sex. Sex can be a pernicious appetite, but it runs a poor second to the other. For example: We are wont to think of Sodom as the original sexpot, but according to all accounts ‘this was the iniquity of they sister Sodom’: that great wealth made her people cruel and self-righteous. The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable, with its granite walls and steel vaults, its bronze gates, its onyx trimmings and marble floors (all borrowed from ancient temples, for these are our modern temples) and its bullet-proof glass–the awesome symbols of total security. Keeping her orgies decently private, she presents a front of unalterable propriety to all…. ‘When I see this people grow and spread and prosper,’ said Brigham Young, ‘I feel there is more danger than when they are in poverty. Being driven from city to city…is nothing compared to the danger of becoming rich and being hailed by outsiders as a first-class community.’” (“What is Zion? A Distant View,” Approaching Zion, 54-55)
“[The] most pernicious aspect of today’s state of things is that it permits us only a very limited choice of [career] ladders, nay, it forces us to choose between business and law, the alternative being starvation….Of course, the choice of ladders is actually as wide as ever, but our young people are thoroughly intimidated….What are we instructed to do, then, in our fallen state? One of the shortest and most concise sections of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, ‘Let your time be devoted to the studying of the scriptures; and to preaching, and to confirming the church…and to perfoming your labors on the land.’ (D&C 26:1). The Great Triple Combination–farming, church, and study. Even so Adam was told to cultivate his garden, preach the gospel among his children (a most strenuous mission), and finally to seek ever greater light and knowledge. Let me remind you that this system has worked throughout the ages, whenever it has been given a try. What is the result of our industrial-military complex, which seems to be the inevitable trend of every greedy industrial society? It has never worked; not for one decade has it failed to fill the earth with blood and horror.” (“Deny Not the Gifts of God,” Approaching Zion, 145)
“The…issue is independence. Charged with a special emotional impact for Americans, the word has become a fetish for the Latter-day Saints and led them into endless speculations and plans. ‘They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare,’ says Paul–all of which the Lord has strictly forbidden (1 Timothy 6:9). In the scriptures the word independent occurs only once, describing the church with no reference to any individual: ‘The church may stand independent above all other creatures’ because it is entirely dependent upon ‘my providence’ (D&C 78:14)….Let us refer back for the moment to Satan’s promise of independence. When, following Satan’s instructions, Cain murdered ‘his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain’ (Moses 5:50), he declared his independence: ‘And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands!’ (Moses 5:33). Recently this gospel was proclaimed by one of the richest Americans addressing the student body of Ohio State University: ‘There is nothing that gives freedom,’ he said, ‘like bucks in the bank.’ This seems to be the policy we are following today, and there is no doubt whose policy it is.” (“Work We Must, But the Lunch Is Free,” Approaching Zion, 229-230)
“Modern revelation has some interesting things to say about idlers: ‘Let every man be diligent in all things. And the idler shall not have place in the church’ (D&C 75:29). We are all to work in the kingdom and for the kingdom. ‘And the inhabitants of Zion also shall remember their labors, inasmuch as they are appointed to labor…for the idler shall be had in remembrance before the Lord’ (D&C 68:30). Note that it is not the withholding of lunch by the observant eye of the Lord that admonishes the idler. This refers to all of us as laborers in Zion, and ‘the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish’ (2 Nephi 26:31). That is the theme here: ‘Now, I, the Lord, am not well pleased with the inhabitants of Zion, for there are idlers among them…they also seek not earnestly the riches of eternity, but their eyes are full of greediness‘ (D&C 68:31). An idler in the Lord’s book is one who is not working for the building up of the kingdom of God on earth and the establishment of Zion, no matter how hard he may be working to satisfy his own greed. Latter-day Saints prefer to ignore that distinction as they repeate a favorite maxim of their own invention, that the idler shall not eat the bread or wear the clothing of the laborer. And what an ingenious argument they make of it! The director of a Latter-day Saint Institute was recently astounded when this writer pointed out to him that the ancient teaching that the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer has always mean that the idle rich shall not eat the bread of the laboring poor, as they always have….[H]ow can the meager and insufficient lunch of a poor child possibly deprive a rich man’s dinner table of the vital protiens and calories he needs? It can only be the other way around. The extra food on the rich man’s table does not belong to him, says King Benjamin, but to God, and he wants the poor man to have it (Mosiah 4:22). The moral imperative of the work-ethic is by no means the eternal law we assume it to be, for it rests on a completely artificial and cunningly contrived theory of property….A common objection to [this] economic equality on which the scriptures insist is that it would produce a drab, monotonous sameness among us. But that sameness already exists–we all have about the same number of eyes, ears, arms, and legs….[F]ew of us need two lunches a day. We might as well face it, we are all very much alike in such things…It is in the endless reaches of the mind, expanding forever in all directions, that infinite variety invites us, with endless space for all so that none need be jealous of another. It is those who seek distinction in costly apparel, living quarters, diversions, meals, cars, and estates who become the slaves of fashion and the most stereotyped people on earth.” (“Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free,” 240-242)
“Work We Must” is Nibley’s greatest essay, his magnum opus; it stands beside the great prophetic critiques of modern society voiced by men like Martin Luther King and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (two people that he quoted with some frequency, though not as much as he did those earlier prophetic critics of today’s world: Jospeh Smith and Brigham Young). But “Work We Must” is also Nibley’s most dismissed essay. Reject wealth?! Reject merit?! Reject rewards?! Again, utterly useless. But of course, it would seem useless to those of us who–whether we like to admit it or not–have for all intents and purposes made peace with the struggle for power and profits and position which defines the Babylon in which we dwell, wouldn’t it?
And besides, perhaps Nibley wasn’t as demanding as his critics think:
“I certainly pray that we may fill our hearts with the desire to fulfill the Lord’s purposes on the earth. Some of us are good at administrating the things of the earth. ‘Some of us’–I use that very flatteringly, because there never was a worse one than myself for bungling with thinkgs like that, so I can very well talk sour grapes. But notice the spirit in which it’s to be done. Brigham Young, the greatest and certainly the most able economist and administrator and businessman this nation has ever seen, didn’t give a hoot for earthly things: ‘I have never walked across the streets to make a trade.’ He didn’t mean that literally. You always do have to handle things. But in what spirit do we do it? Not in the Krishna way, by renunciation….If you refuse to be concerned with these things at all, and say ‘I’m above all that,’ that’s a great fault. The things of the world have got to be administered; they must be taken care of, they are to be considered. We have to keep things clean, and in order. That’s required of us. This is a test by which we are being proven. This is the way by which we prepare, always showing that these things will never captivate our hearts, that they will never become our principal concern. That takes a bit of doing, and that is why we have the formula ‘with an eye single to his glory’ (Mormon 8:15). Keep first your eye on the star, then on all the other considerations of the ship. You will have all sorts of problems on the ship, but unless you steer by the star, forget the ship. Sink it. You won’t go anywhere.” (“Three Degrees of Righteousness,” Approaching Zion, 336)
Hugh Nibley, I think, got there. Wish I could get there too. RIP.