What Should I Do About Economic Inequality?

Earlier this week, I wrote about how wearing “costly apparel” can distract us from caring for the poor and the needy. Yesterday, we discussed the Lord’s expectation that we be responsive to the needs of the people around us. The Book of Mormon also talks about these principles on a larger scale: social classes, wealth gaps, and economic mobility.

Early in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob becomes concerned about the effects of the economic inequality among his people: “Because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts,… and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they” (Jacob 2:13). The solution he provided was straightforward: “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (Jacob 2:17).

About 400 years later, Alma encountered the same issue. He was unhappy to see that some wealthy people were “turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted” (Alma 4:12). To him, this was an indication of spiritual poverty. He gave up his government responsibilities and dedicated himself to the ministry. One of the questions he asked in his sermon to the church at Zarahemla was, “Will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another?” (Alma 5:54). Like Jacob, Alma wanted his people to see each other as equals.

In his mission to the Zoramites, Alma saw the brutal effects of economic inequality firsthand. The poor people in the community had built the synagogue but were not allowed to enter because of “the coarseness of their apparel” (Alma 32:1-5). As a result, the hearts of the wealthy people were hardened, while the poor people believed that they had no way to access God. But the poorer class was humble and receptive to the words of Alma and his associates. Alma even told them that it was a good thing that they had been mistreated in this way, “for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart” (Alma 32:12). The wealthy class, on the other hand, became more and more hardened, until they joined forces with the Lamanites to declare war on their own people (Alma 35).

After the people saw the sign of Jesus Christ’s birth, a number of good things happened in rapid succession. Many doubters were converted to the gospel. The Gadianton robbers were defeated. The Nephites and the Lamanites, who had previously been enemies, formed an alliance. Things were so good that by the year 26 A.D., Mormon tells us (ominously) that “there was nothing in all the land to hinder the people from prospering continually, except they should fall into transgression” (3 Nephi 6:5).

As you might guess, the people found a way to sabotage their own success. Within about three years, they began to be prosperous, and “the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Nephi 6:12). Note that access to education enabled the wealthy classes to protect their status. And a lack of access to education prevented the poor class from rising out of poverty.

Shortly afterward, the church was broken up. The government fell shortly afterward, and the people separated themselves into tribes. Mormon makes it a point to emphasize to us that all of this happened very quickly. It doesn’t take generations for a society to unravel. It can all happen in a few short years. (3 Nephi 6:16, 3 Nephi 7:8). When social classes calcify and people lose hope, civil unrest follows naturally.

After the appearance of Jesus Christ, the people lived in peace and happiness for many years. There were no class distinctions: “They had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1:3). Mormon tells us that no one could be happier than these people were at this time (4 Nephi 1:16). How did this peace and happiness fall apart? It happened in three stages:

  1. “They [became] exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ” (4 Nephi 1:23).
  2. Some people began to be “lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world” (4 Nephi 1:24).
  3. “They began to be divided into classes” (4 Nephi 1:26).

This was the beginning of the end of their happiness and peace.

Today, I will follow Jacob’s and Alma’s advice to think of other people as my equals. I will strive to treat others with the respect and love shown by the people after the Savior’s visit to the American continent. I will remember that, even though prosperity may be distributed unevenly, the Lord is not pleased with social classes and economic inequality. He wants us to treat one another without labels, to share freely with one another, and to provide opportunities for the less fortunate to grow and improve their situation.

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