The official opinion of the Church is that secular authority was ordained for the benefit of mankind. The objective reality is that government serves as a benefit to man only as an object lesson of what not to do. The civil authority is a rejection of God’s good creation. The civil authority can only be said to have been instituted by God because God is the author of man’s agency. The civil authority arises out of rebellion against God.
Did God institute government? If, by common consent, the members of the church can accept philosophies, opinions, personal beliefs and interpretations as doctrine, then it follows that doctrine is not always revelation and, therefore, may not always be true. We can categorize D&C 134 amongst other doctrines that are not revelation, but accepted by common consent, like the Songs of Solomon.
From the Doctrine and Covenant Student Manual:
“It should be noted that in the minutes, and also in the introduction to this article on government, the brethren were careful to state that this declaration was accepted as the belief, or ‘opinion’ of the officers of the Church, and not as a revelation, and therefore does not hold the same place in the doctrines of the Church as do the revelations.”
The perfect form of government revealed to Adam is the same one Christ instituted while upon the earth: the Church. The benefit I see in subservience to government is pragmatic (“for wrath’s sake”) and not moral. If we compare secular authority (government) with God’s authority (church), then by knowing good from evil through comparing and contrasting there is much to be learned. But pragmatic considerations requiring our subservience in order to survive does not mean that the idolaters who hold us in bondage are thereby doing a just or moral thing. Our need for pragmatic recourse through subjection does not thereby make government moral.
Of strangers the Lord instructed the Israelites to treat as equals, often reminding them that as strangers in Egypt they were not equals. This is an important lesson because the Lord is instructing his covenant people to do the exact opposite of what they had been doing since being liberated from government. They were indistinguishable from Egyptians in their attitudes towards outsiders and this led to their destruction on several occasions. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you was something they failed to do. Instead of repaying evil with evil (because it was justifiable before the Lord), the Lord admonished mercy, righteousness, and that which is good (gospel living and ministry).
The final lesson is that although one is justified to wield the sword, there are inescapable consequences for doing so. If the consequences are to be avoided, one must not merely do what is justifiable before the Lord. Instead, one must do righteousness. Is it legal? It may be pragmatic to ask the question, but those who ask if it is moral own the future (D&C 98:30-31).
The Opinion of the Church
“We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.” (Doctrine and Covenants 134:1)
It is important to note that Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants is the official “opinion” (Preamble to the Section) of Church leaders in 1835 concerning laws of man and of earthly governments (more specifically, the United States of America). This verse of scripture cross-references important verses in the Old and New Testament and in other sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. These include: Jeremiah 27:4-11, John 19:11; Romans 13:1-4, Doctrine and Covenant 98:4-7 and 101:77.
Let’s start with Jeremiah 27:4-11 since the statement “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man” seems to be founded upon these verses:
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me. And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him. And all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son’s son, until the very time of his land come; and then many nations and great kings shall serve themselves of him. And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and that will not put their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation will I punish with the sword, and with the famine, and with the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand.
Therefore hearken not ye to your prophets, nor to your diviners, nor to your dreamers, nor to your enchanters, nor to your sorcerers, which speak unto you saying, ‘Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for they prophesy a lie unto you, to remove you far from your land; and that I should drive you out, and ye should perish. But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him, those will I let remain still in their own land and they shall till it and dwell therein.”
Now we know why Lehi was rejected by the Jews and by his family (but so was Jeremiah). It is apparent that the House of Israel was to bring their necks under the yoke of Babylon instead of resisting invasion through war and insurgency. This begs several questions: Why would the Lord bring the Jews into bondage? Did God institute the Babylonian empire? Were the Babylonians a just and righteous people? How did the Jews serve Nebuchadnezzar exactly? How did subjection to Babylon benefit the Jews?
Babylon and Government
Nimrod was an apostate in the days of Abraham. As a hunter, he laid claim to vast stretches of land and was constantly in conflict with farmers and sheepherders. He followed after the order of Cain and established a state (Tower of Babel). If in protecting the free exercise of Cain’s and Nimrod’s agency (John 19:11) it can be said “God instituted government for the benefit of man,” then so mote it be (and I agree). Certainly, man does benefit from the crucifixion of Christ (the common criminal certainly would not have done it) and from being presented with several choices ranging from collaboration or revolution to withdrawal or ministry. Is government (more specifically the state) doing a just thing? Not unless serving Satan is a just thing (Luke 4:6). Punishment for an offense is a natural consequence arising only out of fallen man. It is something to be overcome in the Christian. The Babylonian conquest of Israel was a direct consequence of Jewish provocation and rejecting the Lord as their king. How did the Jews offend the Babylonians? Was it Jewish anarchy? No. It was Jewish statism and imperialism under the kings that offended the Babylonians. In an attempt to engage in geopolitics (by siding with Egypt against Babylon) and to exploit the masses through prosboul, the Jews had corrupted themselves. The Lord would bring the Jews into bondage under those more wicked than themselves to teach them patient suffering (renunciation of control) and to relieve them of any desire towards politics and materialism so that the Lord’s people can focus on worshiping God as they had covenanted to do (consecrated worship through church mission and service). The Jews sought to make themselves high and the Lord brought them low. Bondage can be viewed as opportunity in the sense of letting go the cares of the world and embracing the yoke of Christ, the burden of which is light (in comparison). The Lord’s protection of The Powers That Be is the result of the Saints nonviolence more than of the civil authorities might. We are “powerless” (in the words of Pres. Harold B. Lee) because we are nonresistant, neither because they are mighty (the Lord is on our side) nor because the Lord hedges the office of the civil authority (they will be cut off from the land in the Lord’s due time). They are agents to be judged for their acts in the flesh. They create the criminals and the poor they later claim to resolve through warfare and welfare.
Jesus Christ established a government called the church. It was noncoercive and voluntary. The leadership was self-employed. In 1 Nephi 14, the Lord reveals that there are only two churches in the world and one which is of the world. The great and abominable church persecutes the church of Christ. The church of Christ is not so much in conflict with the church of the devil as the church of the devil persecutes the church of Christ. The war proceeds with violence in one direction. The church of Christ utilizes redress, negotiation, adjustment and persuasion to protect itself and to call the church of the devil to repentance. If an institution is not the church of Christ, then it can only be part of the church of the devil. Where does that leave civil government?
The Latter-day Saints
The account of the Jews prior to their subjection to Babylonian rule runs parallel to the account of the early saints before their subjection to United States rule. How did the Saints benefit from Governor Boggs extinction order, Martin Van Buren’s neglect of pleas for redress, the abolition of polygamy, the confiscation of church property, and the United States plans by Buchanan and Lincoln to subdue the rebel Saints? In Doctrine and Covenants 101 we read of the early saints being persecuted and afflicted for their own transgressions. The saints with their new found faith had offended many of the gentiles with their much boasting and talk of conquering the land. The saints eventually struck out to create their own nation in the west through exodus. When great atrocities befell those who stayed, the Lord prevented their rescue. Many of the saints sought to defend violently those besieged, but the Lord turned them back and told them such was not the way of the Lord. Because the early saints refused to live a patient lifestyle and to live the Law of Consecration (and no doubt because the United States government had desires to expand westward in the name of “manifest destiny”), the Lord instructed the saints to bring their necks under the yoke of constitutional government. They would have no independent nation of their own. The yoke of human law would teach them patient suffering and refocus their priorities away from politics and towards the salvation of souls. They would not be free, rather subject to the law of the land which is constitutional:
“And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:5)
What part of the constitution maintains rights? The Bill of Rights, of course. It is the principles in the Bill of Rights that belong to all mankind. It is upon these principles that the saints desiring freedom seek redress by an appeal to the courts and the vote. Anything more than this in the participation of government by a Saint comes of evil. It is interesting that the Lord uses the term “justifiable” and not “just.” The two terms do not mean the same thing. The latter means “morally righteous, merciful, condonable” and the former means “legally permissible, sufferable, allowable.” This is consistent with the rest of Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants. A “just” response would be to forgive as many times as an offender repents and to indignantly estrange after no less than four times where an offender does not repent, rather than appeal to the courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-12, while the courts are lawful, they are not expedient). An appeal to the vote may be “justifiable,” but that does not mean it is necessarily “just” (it is hardly wise to give legitimacy to the centralization of power in the hands of men by electing good ones). The Lord has “suffered” that the Saints should be subjected by human laws (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77), but this does not mean that human laws are “just.” Therefore, the Saints are not to rise up against the powers that be, even though the powers that be are the enemies of the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 58:22). The Saints serve the enemy by “till[ing]” the ground. The Saints are serfs (not nights, not kings, not nobles). The Saints make their living through the economic means and leave the political means entirely alone. The Saints pay tribute and, therefore, are not children of the secular crown. As serfs, the Saints are “resident aliens” or “accidental citizens” and are entirely nonresistant to evils suffered at the hands of sinners and publicans. Today, the Saints find themselves in the same situation as the Jews under Babylonian rule and Christ under Roman rule (Article of Faith 12). The “just” thing to do is to allow these empires to run their course rather than to violently resist them.
To alleviate any confusion, it may be better to pay special attention to Romans 12. However, for the benefit of skeptics, I will give a more traditional interpretation of Romans 13 (although the JST suggests Romans 13 refers to the Church and not the Civil Authority). With its command that every soul be subject to the governing authorities, and its declaration that God has ordained the sword in the hands of rulers to punish evil, Romans 13 has been cited numerous times as an argument for believers to join in acts of violence for the sake of social order. Martin Luther, for example, cited Romans 13 when he encouraged German princes to “knock down, strangle, and stab” starving peasants in 1525. A more careful reading of the text, however, points toward a radically different Christian ethic. Chapter 13 is part of the same literary unit as Chapter 12, which ends with these words: “Repay no evil for evil. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore: ‘ If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 17-21). Obviously, the Saints are to suffer the wicked to rule rather than to rule themselves.
Next comes the so often misquoted instructions about submitting to earthly authorities (we now know who our enemies are). But lest there be any doubt on the matter, in Chapter 13:7-10, Paul returns to the theme of Christian nonresistance, driving his point home with systematic rigor. First, he instructs believers should owe no one anything except love (v.8). Next he defines what love is: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (v.10). Read carefully, and in historical context, Paul is in fact telling the early Church in Rome, in the face of increasing persecution by a brutal and tyrannical regime, to assume a noncoercive, nonviolent, nonresistant, nonrebellious stance as their political responsibility and reconciling ministry. By no means are they encouraged to participate in the evils of state (which would come later as the “great apostasy” in order to continue prospering in the land). He is also telling believers to trust in God’s controlling power over history. There is no hint that believers should therefore volunteer to serve in Assyrian, Egyptian, or Roman law enforcement (and I argue not even an American one). Quite the opposite, Romans 13 makes clear. Christians are called to a different way.
How tragic, then, that this passage is so frequently cited to justify Christians condemning those to whom their calling is to minister the gospel. How tragic, then, that this passage is so frequently cited to justify Christians condemning their fellow Christians in the name of “national interest” and “citizenship.” If Saints are not to resist the evil of the State, does this mean the Saints should participate in the evil of the State? If so, should they participate voluntarily or only when conscripted to do so?
To Love Our Enemies
The Lord’s enemies are the kingdoms of this world. He will subdue them, break them to pieces, in his own due time (whether that be through the missionary effort, through international war, or through the glorious presence of the Christ is of secondary concern). Until then, the saints are subject to “the powers that be,” they being protected by the Lord in their free exercise of conscience (untrammeled agency). The final questions to be answered are, “How did the Jews serve Nebuchadnezzar?” and “How did Christ love Caesar?” and “How are the Latter-Day Saints to love and serve Obama?” Or a Hitler? Or a Stalin? Or a Mao Tse-tung? Or a Saddam Hussein? Or a Governor Boggs? Should they oversee and make certain the gulag? Should they oversee and make certain the gas chamber? Should they oversee and make certain the rape rooms? Should they oversee and make certain the extermination of Christians? Should they oversee and make certain the extermination of each other? Will we call it our duty as citizens to volunteer for legislating and administering these practices when kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates desire that it be done? Is this how we “serve” those to whom we are subjected?
Looking at the Topical Guide, synonyms for “serve” are “ministry” and “obey.” As “servants,” the Saints are “slaves” or “in bondage” to human law. Therefore, the Saints are called to observe the laws of the land and to minister the gospel to publicans (the establishment) and to sinners (common criminals) equally (to both sides of human law). Both are in need of repentance and we cannot remain aloof (as did the Pharisees and scribes) from the call to turn both to gospel law and to reconcile each to the other (the Pharisees hoped to polarize Jesus into taking sides and to alienating a reconciliation between the sides; for this Jesus called them vipers and serpents). We renounce war, taking neither side of human law, and proclaim the gospel of peace. A Saint is not called to enable the powers in their vices or their sins by volunteering their help in carrying out or sanctifying such practices. A Saint is neither called to violently resist the powers nor to condemn sinners by an appeal to law.
Saints are called to be peacemakers, to be holy, set apart, and agents of reconciliation. We can look to the examples of Daniel, of Shadrach, of Meshach and of Abed-nego. None took up the sword for Nebuchadnezzar, but sought to keep themselves undefiled from the king’s sins and idolatry. At first, they were successful in their negotiations for redress through the king and, with the help of the prince of the eunuchs, maintained their religious covenants. An exception or accomodation was made for them. But then conspiracies arose against these men, specifically, and against the Jews, generally. A law was passed to worship a false idol. The law of the land conflicted with the law of God and no exception was made for the Jews. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego refused (noncooperation) to observe the law of the land. Daniel was thrown to the lions and the other three were thrown to the flames. The Lord preserves them.
Unfortunately, preservation of the righteous (those who refuse to enforce or cooperate with human laws that conflict with their religious covenants and moral beliefs) does not always happen. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego must have had a mission yet to fulfill amongst the Babylonians. In Alma 14:8-11, Alma and Amulek are teaching the people to repent. They are condemning human law and the laws of the land. They call the powers that be to repent for their unjust laws. They are condemned for being socially irresponsible and all who believe in Alma and Amulek are thrown to the fires. Alma and Amulek are tempted to condemn the magistrates for their murders, but the Spirit constrains them. The Spirit tells them to let the wicked alone and to leave it in the hands of the Lord. The Spirit tells them that in the Lord’s wisdom “the powers that be” should be suffered to prevail that they may be judged according to their actions in the flesh. Another example is Abinadi who calls the magistrates to repentance for corrupting the people with their unjust laws and punishments. Rather than condemn the wicked, the Lord seeks to save some of them. Alma the Elder repents.
When the laws of the land or the punishments affixed to them became unjust, many righteous men, from Alma to Mormon, stepped down from government and refused to enforce them. They refused to enforce the corrupt desires of the people which was to lord it over their neighbors. Verse 2 of Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants is relevant here. Those who volunteer to make and administer (legislate and enforce) unjust laws and punishments will be held accountable before the Lord. Those who fail to resist this evil are not guilty for the evil (else we would say that a woman who submitted to, rather than resisted unto death against, the rape is guilty for the rape). The Lord specifically states in the Sermon on the Mount, “resist not evil” or, be it, “suffer evil” (not to be construed as “support evil”). Instead, these good men chose to minister unto the people, to promote the faith, and build the church. Of one thing we can be certain, while Christ, Daniel, and others observed human laws (“laws of the land”), they in nowise volunteered to enforce them. Instead, they sought only to maintain their religious rights and freedom to worship by negotiating exceptions in human laws (because only this amount of participation in politics is “justifiable” before the Lord).
When Daniel was conscripted to be stewards over others, he declined. Instead, he asked that the appointment be imposed on Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. Daniel wanted to remain set apart as one consecrated to the Lord for the interpretation of dreams. The three good and wise men served their stewardships in righteousness, with tender love, mercy, charity and compassion. Conscription leaves the Saints unaccountable before the Lord and this brings us to something the First Presidency said in a 1945 letter to Congress about government jobs and military service. To uphold and support either, to volunteer for or even conscript to, according to the First Presidency, would be to subject membership “to encouragement in a belief that they can always live off the labors of others through the government or otherwise.” It is interesting that in Doctrine and Covenants 134:12, the civil authority is compared to slaveholders. The belief that members should make a living through the political means (or as overseers of the slaves) should not be encouraged.
So, exactly how should a Saint serve the enemies of the Lord? (1 Cor. 4:8-13 cf 6:1-12) We rule only when conscripted to do so (and, to the extent it is legal, with equity and mercy). We seek to decentralize government in order to strengthen communities. We seek redress of wrongs against the sovereignty of private institutions by negotiating exceptions in the law for them (after the tradition of the Bill of Rights). We vote for good and wise men despite their chances of winning. We observe the laws of the land, keep the commandments, and grow the church. We take upon ourselves the burdens of those who are oppressed by the current unjust (albeit justifiable) system. The poor (under and unemployed because of our central planning), the imprisoned (nonviolent addicts and petty criminals because of our prejudice), the widows and orphans (of war because of our hate), the homeless (crazy and disadvantaged because of our greed) are every bit as much, as the Saints, victims at the hands of the wicked who rule. While they may be more deserving of their chastisement (because they have not borne patiently their subjection), we are not entirely undeserving of our own (that is, if we believe The Powers That Be represent God’s wrath). Still, the world’s ways are not the Lord’s way and those who follow in the Lord’s way will find peace and joy in the resurrection. Worry not that those who, being legally justified to follow after the world’s way, secure for themselves “joy,” “peace” and “happiness” in this life at the expense of others. Those who live by government, will be enslaved by government. Those who go to law will be judged by law. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. They have their reward and, if they do not repent, in the resurrection they will reap what they have sown (they, having sought human justice, will receive God’s justice).
Tolerating an Uncomfortable Situation
In D&C 101:77, the Lord reveals that he “suffered” the laws and constitution to be established. According to the BD, to suffer something is to permit, allow or tolerate an uncomfortable situation. Why would the Lord permit the establishment of laws and a constitution that would create an uncomfortable situation for the Saints?
D&C 101:81 compares the Church to a woman and the government the Constitution created to an unjust judge. Is it safe to say that the government the Constitution created failed to live up to just and holy principles, that it failed to protect all flesh or to maintain the rights of the people? Is it safe to say that the government the Constitution created held men in bondage one to another?
Obviously, the government the Constitution created was to be tolerated as an uncomfortable situation for the Saints. But to what end did the Lord allow this to happen?
D&C 101:81 says this uncomfortable situation was permitted that men might “pray and not faint.” The curse of government is permitted in order to turn the hearts of the Saints to the Lord. But there is another reason.
In D&C 101:90-93, the Lord states that government is permitted to prove allegiances, whether men will serve God or Caesar. In verse 90, the Lord suggests whom might be found in the employ of government, the “wicked, unfaithful, and unjust steward.” The Lord will “appoint them their portion among hypocrites, and unbelievers,” and in verse 91, “even in outer darkness, where there is weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.”
The Lord instructs the Saints to pray for government officials, that they might repent as King Lamoni and Alma the Elder had done, that the Lord “may be merciful unto them, that these things may not come upon them.”
This strange work of permitting the uncomfortable situation of government and commanding the Saints to tolerate it in love is necessary to prove mankind’s allegiance, “that all men may be left without excuse.” (D&C 101:93 c.f. Alma 14:10-11)