MSH Paper: Stewardship and Hierarchy in a Secular Age (Final version)

“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 are the saints—or in fact “all men,” as Joseph puts it—so quick to exercise unrighteous dominion?

This question is, I think, connected to the theme of our conference. Within the context of secularism, we’re naturally wary or suspicious about hierarchy—about hierarchies in general. We look back through history and find examples of kings oppressing their subjects, masters oppressing their slaves, parents oppressing their children, and those of higher social and economic status oppressing the poor and needy. And from where we stand, the most natural conclusion we draw as we review the injustices of history is that hierarchy, as such, is oppressive.

In this paper, however, I want to suggest that Mormonism points in a different direction—in the direction of the possibility that hierarchy need not lead to oppression. Obviously, at the very least, Mormonism’s commitment to structured priesthood must point in such a direction. But even as it points in such a direction, Mormonism arguably agrees in important ways with our secular perspective. D&C 121, for instance, by using the language of “almost all,” shares our suspicion that hierarchy rather naturally leads to oppression. And yet the same “almost all” suggests the possibility nonetheless of a hierarchy without oppression. That is, D&C 121 says that, somehow, it is possible for someone to receive stewardship over others and not treat them wrongly. So, how is it possible?

In response to such a question, we might be tempted just to think that non-oppressive hierarchy is possible simply or exclusively when the virtuous occupy positions of authority. More commonly put colloquially, we’re tempted to say that the key is just to “be a nice person.” But in this paper, I’ll argue that the problem addressed in D&C 121 most likely stems from failing to distinguish appropriately two different sorts of hierarchy—one that I’ll call the hierarchy of stewardship, and one that I’ll call the hierarchy of spiritual capacity. Drawing on the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, I’ll argue that where these are distinguished, hierarchy can exist without oppression. So that I can focus on a couple of scriptural texts that illustrate the separation of these two hierarchies, I’ll take more or less for granted, in this paper, that where the two hierarchies of stewardship and spiritual capacity coincide or end up confused, oppression is the inevitable result.

To begin, I want to look at D&C 121 a little more closely. I think the key word in this verse is “suppose.” “As soon as [human beings] get a little authority, as they suppose , . . . they will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” They suppose they have authority and then begin to oppress.

They suppose they have authority, Joseph says. The way the word is used here seems to suggest that they don’t have authority—and yet the context makes perfectly clear that those in question here unmistakably do have stewardship (at least, they have had conferred on them the “rights of priesthood”). The rhetorical force of the passage suggests that these priesthood holders both do and do not bear authority, that they both are and are not part of a hierarchy. Better put: at first read, the word “suppose” almost seems to suggest that the prophet sees a complete lack of hierarchy at work in priesthood, and that it’s only when a priesthood holder supposes that there’s any hierarchy that oppression arises. Certainly, this is a rather amiable reading of the passage in our secular age.

My aim here, though, is to suggest another possible reading. Let me state my reading from the outset, and then I’ll draw on some theoretical resources to flesh it out. What I want to suggest is that the supposing of D&C 121 is an overlaying of one sort of hierarchy onto another—that is, a confusion or a coincidence of radically distinct hierarchies, which when confused, inevitably leads to oppression. Unrighteous dominion, in other words, is a direct result of doubling one sort of hierarchy with another.

To get clear about these two hierarchies, and about what it would mean to distinguish them, I want to turn to Ranciere. In his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Ranciere claims that there are almost always two hierarchies present when a teacher instructs a student. The first he calls the hierarchy of will—that is, the fact that the teacher or the master exerts pressure or authority over the will of the student. The teacher makes demands, and the student is expected to obey. The second hierarchy, almost always present, he calls the hierarchy of intelligence. This second hierarchy is usually hidden. The teacher assumes she or he has a higher intellectual capacity than the student, while the student assumes she or he has an inferior intellectual capacity. This double assumption has a kind of intuitive appeal. Why else would the teacher need 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 keeps the basic pedagogical order functioning. For Ranciere, what characterizes most educational situations is that these two hierarchies are not only operative, but they’re assumed to coincide. Each, as it were, justifies or implies the other. The teacher or the master is intellectually superior, and so therefore the student must obey.

This, I suggest, maps more or less directly onto the situation described in D&C 121. Just as Ranciere’s teachers or master “suppose” that they have greater intellectual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of will, those appointed to a position within a priesthood-based hierarchy might naturally “suppose” that they must have greater spiritual ability and that this secures their position in a hierarchy of stewardship. The word “suppose” perhaps does a bit more work here as well. Ranciere emphasizes the fact that no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of intelligence in the pedagogical situation. In a similar vein, no one attempts to prove—nor does anyone feel the need to prove—the existence of a hierarchy of spiritual capacity in ecclesiastical hierarchies. It’s simply “supposed.”

My perspective here, then, is that those who exercise unrighteous dominion ultimately “suppose” an authority that is not given them, an authority not stated in scripture. Coupling the real hierarchy of stewardship with a parallel (but ultimately imaginary) hierarchy of spiritual capacity, they go beyond scripture and cannot help but exercise dominion in an unrighteous manner. But scripture, I believe, clearly insists that all human beings actually are equally capable of understanding spiritual things. Mormon scripture encourages all to pray and seek personal revelation. It directs 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 all are beggars before God, and Ether 12 says that God makes us all weak together. And all the same, Mormon scripture commits believers also to the hope that everyone on earth has the full potential to be exalted! Of course, that’s not to say that all equally act on their potential, or that all do so in the same ways or with the same experiences or at the same time as another. But one must never let that lead to a belief that anyone is spiritually superior to anyone else. There are simply distinct experiences in spiritual development, what Ranciere calls in the area of education “adventures in the land of knowledge.” At any rate, all have the capacity to understand spiritual things. And no one can prove that they have a greater capacity than someone else. This only gets assumed, or “supposed.”

Ranciere calls the realization of one’s intellectual capacity, usually via the practical separation of the two hierarchies, “intellectual emancipation.” From a Mormon theological perspective, I think we might call a realization of one’s spiritual capacity, or the disentangling of every position of authority from any imaginary hierarchy of spiritual superiority, “spiritual emancipation.” In education, emancipation 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, emancipatory teachers eliminate or ignore the social fiction of intellectual hierarchy, insisting solely on a hierarchy of will. They exercise their will always and only to place students in a direct intellectual relationship with the material they’re to learn. They constantly persuade and push students to work harder and pay more attention to the material.

In a similar vein, leaders in a hierarchy of stewardship can treat those under their care in two different ways. When leaders justify their position as stewards by imagining they bear a position of superior spirituality, they are unlikely to trust those supposedly spiritually inferior to them to receive their own inspiration. In practical terms, they’re more likely to micromanage others’ callings, or to explain how to live commandments in every detail. They’re likely to carry an imagined burden of responsibility, as if everything rides on their own understanding of spiritual things. On the other hand, when leaders don’t feel the need to justify their position in a hierarchy of stewardship, they can’t help but trust others’ spiritual capacity. They point others away from themselves to God and to scripture, trusting they can also understand things of the Spirit. And this trust, frankly, is vital if others are to grow spiritually – to, for example, receive answers to prayer, to trust in God’s love, or simply to repent. In short, we could say that “spiritual emancipation” is possible when leaders refuse to add any hierarchy of spiritual capacity to the ordained hierarchy of stewardship. 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.” These qualities come into their own, I want to say, in when spiritual equality is assumed.

Now, is it really possible for someone in a hierarchy to claim spiritual equality to those under their care and still retain a 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? For a few minutes, I want to review two places in Mormon scripture where I believe something precisely like this is presented.

The first comes from the Book of Mormon, in the story of Alma’s preaching in Ammonihah. You might remember that, according to the story, when Alma first preaches in Ammonihah, the people there reject him specifically because they think he has no power or authority over them. 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 understand Alma only as a person within hierarchies that don’t apply to them anymore. They see no reason that Alma can claim superior authority over them, so they easily reject 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 ends up with an opportunity to explain how he understands his role as a high priest. On my reading, he spends most of his sermon explaining that he comes neither as a person of superior rank in administration nor as a person of superior spirituality. I see him making 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, in Alma’s time, the Nephite Church has only been around for two generations! Alma reminds his audience that, according to their scriptures, the first priests were ordained to teach the very things that angels taught Adam and Eve. While Alma also has a place in a church administrative 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. He occupies a position of stewardship, but one that’s uncoupled from the ecclesiastical setting.

Second, Alma points out that this role as a priest does not indicate that he is spiritually superior to his hearers. He claims that every person is on equal standing before God, though not every person acts in faith or seeks out spiritual understanding. This point is especially important, because it’s precisely in the context of defending his place in a hierarchy of priestly stewardship that Alma insists on spiritual equality before God.

Third, Alma explains that the gift high priests have received through their faith is to “enter into God’s rest,” but then he goes on to promise the people that if they “humble [themselves] before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, [they can] also enter into that rest.” This seems to suggest not only that Alma sees the people as equal to him in spiritual capacity, but also that he sees it necessary that they give up their belief in superiority if they would begin to repent and develop spiritually. To prove that this is possible, he tells the story of Melchizedek converting an entire city!

Thus Alma makes 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 anyone. So what is he left with? Only persuasion and long-suffering. Alma believes he can still be a priest without a hierarchy of spiritual capacity to justify his calling and stewardship. He uncouples his position of responsibility from any hierarchy of spiritual capacity. 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.

Does it work for Alma? Well, though not everyone likes what they hear from him, we do read that “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent, and to search the scriptures.” That last detail, I think, is particularly striking. Those who feel the force of Alma’s words begin to trust less in the interpretations of the Ammonihah priests 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 those very books of scriptures during their horrible massacre.

This whole story perfectly illustrates what I hear in the words of D&C 121, clarified with reference to Ranciere. I think the same can be said of the text of D&C 84. Obviously less narrative in tone, here I’ll choose to be briefer.

D&C 84 teaches that those who hold the priesthood, perhaps especially those holding it in a full or more complete way, receive some remarkable blessings. But D&C 84 also teaches that these same blessings are available to those without the priesthood. For example, verse 35 says that “All they who receive this priesthood receive me,” but the next verse adds “he that receiveth my servants receiveth me.” There’s thus a kind of arbitrariness about stewardship, one that undermines any coupling of a hierarchy of stewardship with any spiritual hierarchy. Similarly, further along, D&C 84 states that both priests and non-priests can receive a knowledge of heavenly covenants. Verse 40 says those who receive priesthood receive a specific oath and covenant. But verses 47-48 say that “every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father…And the Father teacheth him of the covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon” those who hold the priesthood. Here again a certain spiritual equality is clearly assumed precisely in the context of some being appointed stewards and others not. Further, the covenant in question, which I take (in light of textual links to the letter to the Hebrews) to be the Abrahamic Covenant, is given, according to the revelation, “not for your sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.” So while some receive heavenly blessings in connection with their place in a hierarchy—that is, as priests—others receive the same blessings in connection with a rather different place in the same hierarchy—that is, as those who receive such priests. The hierarchy of stewardship is, it seems, arbitrary, and certainly unrelated to any spiritual hierarchy. Like Alma, the priests of D&C 84 are sent to persuade, bearing testimony and calling people to repentance.

What I think these two texts display is the possibility and the productivity of interpreting D&C 121 in a Rancierean vein. They demonstrate one powerful way of understanding what it means to “suppose” that one has authority, in such a way that unrighteous dominion follows. And also, these two texts demonstrate that it’s possible not to “suppose” one has authority, even as one remains in a position of stewardship within a hierarchy. In our context—not only in the context of our secular age, but also in the context of practical matters in Mormon culture – both daily lived applications and also heated and complicated debates over universal access to priesthood hierarchy—I believe getting clear about the nature of hierarchy and stewardship is a place to begin.


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