“We have learned by sad experience,” says Joseph Smith in what is now D&C 121, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” These sobering and troubling words were written to the early saints while Joseph himself lay oppressed in a small jail cell. Why is it that this happens? Why were the saints so quick to exercise unrighteous dominion?
Certainly this is a potential problem with hierarchies in general. We can look back through history and find abundant examples of kings who oppressed their subjects, masters who oppressed their slaves, parents who oppressed their children, and those of higher social and economic status who oppressed the poor and needy. Quite frankly, it is easy to look around and see examples of oppression everywhere.
But Mormonism calls for something else. A chance, at least, for a hierarchy to not turn out this way. D&C 121 says that somehow, it is possible for someone to receive some stewardship over other people and not treat them wrongly. But even D&C 121 says it’s hard. Almost impossible even. But still, it claims it is possible. So, how is it possible?
The answer, I believe, is more than just simply “being a nice person.” In this paper I will argue that the problem addressed in D&C 121 most likely stems from tying to justify a hierarchy with claims to superiority of one kind or another. After explaining how this justification comes about, I will also show that there are scriptural examples of those who didn’t feel the need to justify their position, and show how that influenced their success. Finally, I will look at several scriptures that explicitly call for an eye to equality even while still functioning within a hierarchy.
To start, I want to look at D&C 121 verse 39 a little more closely. I think there is a key word in this verse: “suppose.” “As soon as [the saints] get a little authority, as they suppose” then “they will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” They suppose that they have authority, and then begin to oppress. They assume they have authority. Well, do they or don’t they? D&C 121, after all, is talking specifically about men who have had conferred on them the “rights of priesthood.” What is wrong with them supposing they have authority?
A tangent here might be helpful. Jacques Ranciere, a contemporary French philosopher, wrote a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. While he was looking at oppression and emancipation within the hierarchies of education, I think his ideas can be helpful to answering our question.
Ranciere claims that there are almost always two hierarchies present when a teacher is instructing a student. The first is the obvious structure of teacher over a student; that is, the teacher has authority to do things like give assignments and hold students accountable by grading them. But the second hierarchy is a bit hidden: the teacher assumes to have a higher intellectual capacity and the student assumes to have an inferior intellectual capacity. Why would the teacher be able to step in and explain the material to students if they were able to understand the material on their own? It can’t necessarily be proven that teachers have greater intellectual capacity than others, but it is an assumption that helps keep the order functioning. And so, Ranciere says that we have two hierarchies in education that are usually merged together: the hierarchy of teacher and student, and the hierarchy of superior and inferior intelligence.
I wonder if Ranciere’s theory might be helpful in thinking about the word “suppose” in D&C 121. When teachers “suppose” that they have greater intellectual ability, it helps secure their position in the hierarchy. But it can only be “supposed” because it’s never proven, declared, or usually even stated. It is an invisible hierarchy that supports the visible hierarchy of teacher over student.
Perhaps Joseph Smith’s letter is warning about something similar. When a man is given the responsibility to function as a priest, or whenever a member is given a stewardship over another member, this puts him in a hierarchy over those to whom he ministers. This language of “over” immediately makes us squirm, because of the examples of oppression we may have seen or experienced. The problem here perhaps might be similar to what Ranciere observed about teachers. That is, perhaps sometimes these priests or other leaders “suppose” that there is a second hierarchy – a hierarchy of spiritual capacity – that serves to hold up the priest or stewardship hierarchy.
But in this, I think they would “suppose” an authority that is not given them, and not stated in scripture. Quite the opposite is stated in fact. Scriptures often put forth the idea that we are actually all equally capable of understanding spiritual things. Scriptures encourage everyone to pray and seek personal revelation. Scriptures direct that all members receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after they are baptized and D&C 46 says that everyone receives spiritual gifts. King Benjamin says we are all beggars before God and Ether 12 says that God gives to every human being weakness. And all the same, we also claim the hope that everyone on earth has the potential to be exalted! That’s not to say that we all equally act on our potential, or do so in the same ways or with the same experiences. But we all have the capacity to understand spiritual things. And no one can prove that they have a greater capacity than someone else.
Ranciere calls the realization of one’s intellectual capacity “intellectual emancipation.” I think we might call a realization of one’s spiritual capacity “spiritual emancipation.” With education, this is usually the result of a teacher who believes in students’ intellectual capacity, such that the students are redirected away from the teacher and towards the material itself. That is, these teachers eliminate or at least ignore the hierarchy of intelligence and replace it with a hierarchy of will. These teachers are the ones constantly persuading and pushing students to work harder and pay more attention to the material.
Leaders in a hierarchy of stewardship can treat those under them in two different ways. When leaders justify their position on superior spirituality, then they will be less likely to trust those under them to receive their own inspiration. They will be more likely to micromanage others’ callings, explain how to live a commandment in every detail, and basically try to ensure that no one is going to mess things up. At least, according to their understanding. On the other hand, when leaders don’t feel the need to justify their position, they will be more likely to trust others’ spiritual capacity. They will be more likely to point others away from themselves and to God, trusting that they can also understand things of the Spirit. And this trust, frankly, is vital if a person is going to grow spiritually – to, for example, recieve answers to prayers, to trust that God loves them, or simply – to repent. That is, we could say that “spiritual emancipation” is possible when a leader replaces the hierarchy of spiritual capacity with a hierarchy of will. As D&C 121 puts it, one’s real power or influence over anyone can “only” come this way: “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”
But is it really possible for someone in a hierarchy to claim that they are equal to those under them, and still retain their place in a hierarchy? That is, is it possible, as I have claimed, to disentangle the hierarchy of stewardship from the hierarchy of spiritual superiority? Let’s take a look at two passages of scripture that I believe explore this very question.
The first example comes from Alma and Amulek’s preaching in Ammonihah. Remember that the first time Alma preached in the city, they rejected him specifically because they didn’t think he had power or authority over them. In Alma 8 they say, “And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us.” They understood Alma only as a person within hierarchies that didn’t apply to them anymore. They saw no reason that Alma could claim superior authority over them, so they easily rejected his call to repent.
After a walk, a visit from an angel, and a good meal at Amulek’s house, Alma is ready to try again. This time, luckily, he has an opportunity to explain how he sees himself functioning as a high priest. He actually spends most of chapter 13 explaining that he isn’t trying to come as a person of superior rank in administration or a person of superior spirituality. He makes three specific claims regarding equality:
First, he points out that Church administration is only one way to understand priesthood. Priests were ordained long before the creation of the Nephite church. In fact the Nephite Church had only been around for two generations! Alma reminds his audience that the first priests were ordained to teach the very things that angels taught Adam and Eve. While Alma also has a place in the Church administative hierarchy, he puts that aside and instead claims a different sort of role: he is coming to them as a high priest after the holy order, whose only assignment really is to preach.
Second, Alma points out that his role as a priest does not indicate that he is spiritually superior to his audience. Alma claims that every person is on equal standing before God, though, not every person acts in faith or seeks out spiritual understanding.
Third, Alma points out that the gift these priests have received, through their faith, is “entering into God’s rest.” But he then promises the people that if they “humble [themselves] before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, [they can] also enter into that rest.” (verses 12-13) And to prove that this is possible, he tells the story of Melchizedek converting an entire city!
Alma has made it clear that he is not coming to teach because he believes himself superior in spiritual things. He is not trying to exercise power or authority over them. So what is he left with? Only persuasion and long-suffering. Alma believed he could still be a priest without a hierarchy of spiritual capacity to justify his calling. He replaced the hierarchy of spiritual capacity, with the hierarchy of will. And he points to Melchizedek as his role model: a man who had faith and then successfully preached and encouraged his people to also have faith.
Did it work for Alma? Well, though not everyone liked what they heard, we do read that “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.” I love that last detail. They began to trust less in the Ammonihah priests’ interpretations and more in their own capacity to understand the scriptures. (And it’s worth noting, that a few verses later, the Ammonihah priests choose to burn their books of scriptures during their horrible massacre.)
A second scriptural example comes from D&C 84. Here the early Latter-day Saints are receiving some instruction about the roles of Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood holders. After promising some grand blessings to those holding these two priesthoods, perhaps especially to those holding them in a full or more complete way, this section specifies at least three ways in which even these priests are not superior to the rest of the people.
First, D&C 84 claims that these priests as well as non-priests receive the same blessing of receiving God himself. In verse 35, it states that “all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord.” But then the section goes on to say that “he that receiveth my servants receiveth me.” And in fact, those who receive servants end up receiving “all that [the] Father hath.” While some receive the blessing after being called as a priest and others receive it by listening to a priest, both priest and non-priest receive the same blessing.
Second, D&C 84 says that priests and non-priests can receive a knowledge of heavenly covenants. Those who receive priesthood receive an oath and covenant. But D&C 84 also says that the “Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world…And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father…And the Father teacheth him of the covenant.” (vs.46-48). God can reveal the same covenant to everyone, some via the priesthood, and some via the Spirit.
And finally, D&C 84 says that the covenant they have received is for everyone’s benefit. This covenant, which I take to be the Abrahamic Covenant, is given “not for [their] sakes only,” it says, “but for the sake of the whole world.”
Where to go next??