We Latter-day Saints have an interesting tension in two elements of our world view:
1. We prize self-sufficiency. We store food and teach people to care for themselves. This fundamental principle is one of the reasons that LDS have often voted for conservative candidates. We are inclined to limit government interference. We want people to accept responsibility—to learn the law of the harvest.
2. We cherish compassion. We have a culture that strongly endorses helpful actions—everything from helping people move to providing meals in times of need. We hold up our welfare system as a model of readiness to care for people. We are instructed to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). Utah sets the pace for all US states in charitable giving.
These two principles can create interesting tensions in our culture. Our high value for self-sufficiency can make us deeply conflicted about divine grace. How much must I do and how much will He do to save me? The LDS culture is still struggling to reconcile personal responsibility with heavenly graciousness. The tension causes some fairly unchristian conversations among the saints.
A conflict that burdens our souls
There is another conflict that bedevils us. We try to keep government out of the welfare business. We worry that government support of the poor will make the poor more dependent on the government. It will undermine self-sufficiency and initiative. We want to prevent intergenerational welfare dependence.
If you’re ever in a priesthood quorum meeting when brethren are dozing off, suggest that the federal government should do more to care for the poor. I can almost guarantee that brethren edging into coma will snap to attention and be ready to fight.
So, under the righteous principle of self-sufficiency, we chafe at any suggestion that the government should do more to help the poor. I think of John Kenneth Galbraith’s accusing words: “The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building value of privation for the poor.”
Struggling for balance
In the process of championing self-sufficiency, we may regularly neglect the principle of compassion. I wonder if King Benjamin was speaking directly to us when he said:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:16-19)
This is remarkably strong medicine. If we do not respond to the plea of the poor, we have great cause to repent. We will perish. We are presuming to hoard what God has graciously granted us. This is offensive to Heaven. We know we are not a Zion people as long as there are poor among us (See Moses 7:18)
Finding our own way to obey
So we must break free of Satan’s either-or trap. Even if we do not think the government should be more involved in helping the poor, we must find some way to do our part unless we want to end up as short-order cooks in hell’s kitchen. Maybe we give as much to the Humanitarian or Perpetual Education Fund as we do to tithing. Maybe we reach out to people in our communities. Or maybe we take part in efforts to get the government intelligently involved in helping the poor.
It is not clear to me that God has mandated one method over another. Yet He HAS mandated that we do something to care for the poor. Those who trust the government may vote for policies to provide support programs. Those who trust the government less may contribute more to the Church or undertake personal efforts to help the poor. Our care for the poor demonstrates to God our understanding of our dependence on Him. In the absence of earnest and consistent efforts to help the poor, we stand condemned before the Lord.
We often feel that we can’t do anything for the poor when we are struggling financially ourselves. Yet the Book of Mormon tells us that our attitude should be that “I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give” (Mosiah 4:24).
We’re richer than we think
I read not long ago that the average American has a better quality of life than 99.99% of all the people who have lived on this earth. We may not be as rich as the Joneses, but the ordinary among us are richer than the vast majority of earth’s inhabitants. Of course we can keep ourselves in self-imposed poverty by buying more house, more car, more food, more of everything than we need. It is the rare saint who buys less house than the bank says they can afford. It is the rare disciple who cooks more of their own meals so they can share more with those who have no meals.
How can we know how much to give? I think it is interesting to ask if we give as much to fast offerings every month as we spend on clothes. Could we eat more simply and give half our food budget to the hungry? Could we buy affordable cars and regularly contribute to the Perpetual Education Fund? Could we live in smaller houses and help others with a rent payment or a down payment?
God awaits our answer.