Sunday, March 28, 2004

Come, let us haggle together 

by Grimshizzle
Okay, imagine this scenario: the lesson is on the word of wisdom, and the teacher begins by reading the pertinent scriptures, then taking comments from the gallery. "I have a strong testimony of the Word of Wisdom," says one member, "but a beer or two in the evening really helps me unwind." A sister chimes in: "And red wine is actually good for your heart; I don't see the harm in having a glass with dinner." A general consensus emerges among the class that there are numerous circumstances in which it is okay--laudable, in fact--to break the Word of Wisdom. Curiously, the entire class seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that they have more or less rejected outright the entire point of the lesson.

Of course, this would be inconceivable in any ward I've ever lived in. But a few members of our current ward, bless their hearts, seems prone to this sort of thing, though not regarding anything so clearly yes-I-do/no-I-don't as the Word of Wisdom. Rather, this tendency emerges any time the subjects of service and charity come up. My wife came out of Relief Society absolutely fuming today, after a lesson on service surreptitiously became a lesson on self-service. The teacher started with the question "Why do we serve others?" Many answers that followed betrayed a kind of "market" approach to the gospel, one that boiled down every action to a transaction. The members who offered these ideas did not seem to notice how centered on self their answers were (because they didn't have me conveniently adding italics in the pertinent places): We serve because we get blessings, we serve because it helps us grow, etc. Finally, my deep-thinking but normally soft-spoken wife piped up and pointed out the obvious but overlooked: "I think God asks us serve because there are lots of his other children that he loves just as much as he loves us, and they need our help, and he wants them to get it." Nonetheless, as the class progressed, the comments continually seemed to emphasize the many things that legitimately limit the time and effort we spend helping others: family, work, keeping ones life "in order," etc., and hardly touched upon the merits of extending our service beyond the realm of the convenient. The same thing happened not long ago in a class I was in, when a discussion of King Benjamin's admonitions to give to the poor circumscribed a trajectory exactly opposite of that stated in the scriptural passages supposedly under consideration: the general consensus of the class, it seemed, was that one takes care of one's own, that charity takes a low position in one's budget, and that alms-giving encourages sloth.

This is particularly bothersome considering the fact that, regardless of the sharp downward pull my family's meager income exerts on the curve, our ward is, by and large, extremely well-off. Nonetheless, when the First Presidency extended a challenge to our stake a few years ago to raise funds for a special project, our ward came up shamefully short of its share, and many members even complained publicly to the Stake President (whose reputation as a bleeding heart liberal democrat perhaps lent the whole affair a "tax and spend" aura in their minds) for his audacity in asking them to donate. Sisters organizing a humanitarian service project, in which members were asked to purchase items for newborn kits for around $6, met similar resistance from some members.

I can't help but draw a connection between this mentality and dominant political attitudes. It's like the old joke (which I mentioned in a comment to something somewhere on another blog, so apologies for the repeat): When a democrat sees a half -glass of water, s/he says "That glass is half full." When a republican sees a half-glass of water, s/he says "Who the hell drank half my water?!" Some members ask me outright, as they might well ask you, how one can be LDS and be in the same political party as "the abortionists" and "the gays," etc. I have a much harder time reconciling the theme of selflessness that permeates the scriptures (ancient and modern) with the general sense of entitlement that characterizes the republican mentality.

Is it fair for me to extend this observation beyond matters of monetary resources? It seems to me that it is this same what's-in-it-for-me mentality that pervades spiritual discussions as well: good deeds are legal tender for blessings; people in need are a kind of divine commodity, an opportunity for furthering one's own progress; obedience means a contractual obligation on the part of Deity to return the favor. The concept of giving without the thought of something in return seems to go neglected by many members. God's own recursive formula for joy, in which his happiness depends on ours, and ours depends on passing it along, gets short shrift.

(I should mention that, thankfully, the cases above are counterbalanced by a number of ward members who give of their time and resources to a fault. There are certain members--and I wish I could say that I'm one of them--who show up at every move, take dinner after every baby born, volunteer first to step in someone's absence, send a load of newborn kits or school kits to Humanitarian Services every month, and generally give til it hurts. Service disrupts their lives, to the point that it is enmeshed with it--which, I suspect, is probably the point at which it registers with the heavens.)

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