Disputations in Zion

A couple of weeks ago, we reached the end of 3 Nephi 26 in our family scripture reading. It’s the culmination of Jesus Christ’s ministry to the New World and the founding of Zion. I’ve always been fascinated by Zion, and especially by the practical side of it. The concept sounds so utopian, but we’re supposed to be building a real Zion down here. How? I wish I knew, but the scriptures seem so tantalizingly silent on the details. In 3 Nephi 26, we get one of the hallmarks of Zion in verse 19:

And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another.

But of course around that we are explicitly told that we’re getting a redacted version of Christ’s teachings, as in vs. 16, “the things which they did utter were forbidden that there should not any man write them” and again in vs. 18, “many of them saw and heard unspeakable things, which are not lawful to be written.”

Then, the night after reading chapter 26, we started in with chapter 27:

And it came to pass that as the disciples of Jesus were journeying and were preaching the things which they had both heard and seen, and were baptizing in the name of Jesus, it came to pass that the disciples were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting.

After reading this verse, my initial reaction was: what did they have to pray and fast mightily about? I mean, you’ve got a Zion society and that’s pretty much the end, right? You defeated the final boss. It’s time to just sit back and enjoy the final theme while the credits roll, right? I think of praying and fasting that’s might and I think of personal tragedy–Alma fasting for his wayward son–or civilizational crisis–Nephi foreseeing his children’s doom, maybe, or Mormon living through it before he gave up hope. These guys are living in a brand-new Zion. It still has that new Utopian smell. What’s the crisis?

2 And Jesus again showed himself unto them, for they were praying unto the Father in his name; and Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you?

OK, I have to admit this seems anticlimactic. Kind of makes sense, I guess. After you finish the main plotline of a video game, all you have left are maybe a few leftover side-quests or maybe that in-game minigame you never perfected. Maybe picking the perfect name for your Zion society is just the sort of thing that seems like a crisis when all the real crises are already taken care of?

3 And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.

Wait, what now? I thought a Zion society was one where everybody was “of one heart and one mind”. I suppose you could still have differences of opinion, sure, but “disputations”? Maybe I’m missing some linguistic nuance, but a “disputation” sounds like the next best thing to a “contention,” and we know where those come from.

4 And the Lord said unto them: Verily, verily, I say unto you, why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing?

And now we’ve got the m-word, which is impossible to separate from Laman and Lemuel.

I’m not sure what’s going on here. It might be that the Nephite Zion was qualitatively inferior to the City of Enoch version. The Nephites did not ascend into Heaven. Instead, as we know, they only had their Zion society for a couple of generations before they drove it right into a ditch. And when they collapsed it wasn’t into mediocrity. They passed Go, collected their $200, and went straight to the kind of total depravity that would impress Calvin.

I’m hesitant to draw too many conclusions from such these few verses, but here are a couple thoughts.

  • Not all Zions are the same. Some involve total unity of heart and mind and the eradication of poverty. Others involve some kind of communitarianism and general justice, but fall short on total unity (and maybe more, beside).
  • This means that getting to Zion can’t be the endgame. If the Nephite society was a Zion–and hey, maybe it wasn’t?–it was certainly an incomplete one. Maybe work in the City of Enoch was done–or at least, had become a different kind of labor–but the Nephite Zion never escaped the limitations of ordinary, fractious human society.

I choose to see this in an upbeat light. If makes the idea of Zion seem much more reachable. I have no idea how to even start building a Zion like Enoch’s. But a Zion like the Nephite one? That seems attainable.

Attainable, but also insufficient.

That’s OK. We can work with that.

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