“If ye are not one…”

“…ye are not mine” (D&C 38:7)

In Joshua 6-7, we read about how immediately after conquering Jericho, the Israelites were surprisingly defeated by the weaker people of Ai. Understandably concerned–since, after all, the Lord had basically said Israel would never be defeated in battle when He was with them–Joshua prays for answers and is told that Israel is under condemnation because one of their soldiers (Achan) disobeyed a direct commandment by taking valuable items from Jericho.

So, as a result of one person’s mistake, many innocent Israelites are killed in battle. After Achan’s discovery and confession, the decreed punishment is: both he and his family are put to death. So we have, in two separate instances, incidents where other innocent people suffer the punishment for someone else’s poor choice.

That’s not really ‘fair’, now is it? And yet, the scriptures (Old Testament in particular) have a number of incidents like this where the Lord allowed (even commanded) the many to be punished for the actions of a few. Is there a purpose to this blatant ‘unfairness’?

There are many reasons why the Lord does not (usually) stop the wicked from causing the righteous to suffer–free agency being the primary one–despite being manifestly ‘unjust’ on the surface. But, when the unfairness is due to direct commandment from the Lord (as in Joshua 7), perhaps a subtle lesson is also being taught: that the people of Israel must stand or fall together, that one person’s mistake is essentially everyone’s mistake.

We can see this principle in the army and in sports, where frequently the entire unit will be called upon to do pushups when one person does something wrong. Why are these coaching techniques useful from a teamwork/unity standpoint? By reinforcing the idea that our actions can and will affect other people–fair or not–and we need to take that into account when making decisions.

Back in the discussion of fear, I made note that I might be willing to live in a tent and starve by myself, but in no way am I going to allow my wife and kids to starve because I couldn’t support them financially. The fact that I can (‘unfairly’) cause them to suffer through no fault of their own is a greater incentive not to. Very few want to be responsible for punishments inflicted against their ‘teammates’…

Many people will be more likely to consider bad behavior when they believe they are the only ones being affected (see: drug use). Living in circumstances where your choices do affect others–even by ‘unjust’ divine mandate–may cause many to reconsider their choices when they know that the punishment will not be borne only by themselves, but those around them whom they care about and whom ‘shouldn’t’ be punished. Believing mankind to be inherently good, I think this has a positive net effect on righteousness and obedience, because the number of people who, upon seeing that they are unable to live and move in complete isolation from others, will refuse to allow others to suffer because of their own decisions is greater than the ones who will abuse the system and take others down with them. (Not that this won’t still happen, of course…)

So, in the end, I think this becomes one more element of our earthly stewardship–that we have to face the fact that our choices will affect the secular and spiritual well-being of others around us, and that–fair or not–we’re “all in this together”…

19 thoughts on ““If ye are not one…”

  1. A similar principle: those “Bad Missionary” stories we all have heard…

    A lot of people can share stories where bad behavior by missionaries has set missionary work back in that area for years. When you put on the nametag, you are essentially joining a ‘team’ where your behavior has adverse effects on everyone else after you bearing that same nametag. When a missionary can’t get in a door because the family had something stolen from them by a previous missionary visitor some years previous, that’s not “fair”–but that’s reality. Knowing that you will be held as an example for the entire Church (good or bad) gives you a greater incentive to be more careful, and–as mentioned–is all part of our ‘stewardship’…

  2. Kevin, I think you make an excellent point: one’s behavior does affect the larger community. I believe that is one of the lessons we are meant to take from these stories. The danger is extending that argument to the point where you start restricting somebody else’s agency “for the good of the larger community.” The Founding Fathers had lengthy, lengthy discussions about this issue: to what extent should personal freedom be restricted for the good of the larger community. And for the most part they agreed that there was a need for community to teach and enforce certain basic moral rules — and if these were not enforced anarchy would result. Have we as a society sided too far on allowing unrestricted behavior that will result eventually in anarchy? That is a very good question that needs to be asked, it seems to me.

  3. I like this post.

    And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity. (Mni 10:22)

    I just realized last month that this verse doesn’t say that the despair and the iniquity will occur in the same person/people.

  4. I worked at the Utah State Mental Hospital during my undergrad ‘Y’ days in the 1970s (known then as “the graduate school”). The forensics ward had some groundbreaking programs that resulted in a remarkable 7% recidivism rate. One of the main programs was built upon the principle of interrealiance; a new world for lifelong sociopaths.

    In this program, the prisoner-patients had to get others to pledge collateral in order to receive privileges. For example, someone who wanted a weekend home visit wouldn’t be able to go until others had pledged penalties that they would receive if the petitioner didn’t return on time. A (Forensics) Ward Council would determine when enough pledges, known for some reason as “teeth,” were pledged. If the recipient of the privilege failed to act responsibly, the others had to “take teeth” because of it. Teeth could be things like foregoing lunches or not receiving your mail for a period of time. When the errant soul was returned to the ward, he had to deal with his fellow sociopaths, who weren’t used to doing anything for someone else’s benefit, whom he had burned.

    I don’t believe there was much in terms of traditional retaliation for causing ward members to take teeth, but it would be difficult for this person to collect enough pledges for privileges in the future — until the others realized that they may need this person’s pledge to receive privileges that they sought. An uneasy, then easy interdependence developed among them as they experienced the mutual benefits of risking for others and having others risk for them.

  5. I wonder if Ezekiel 18 isn’t meant as a refinement or correction of principles Israelites might have erroneously drawn from the earlier custom of punishment of children for the deeds of their parents. Our own Constitution, in prohibiting the “Corruption of Blood” as penalty for treason seems also to follow the Ezekiel principle (Article III, Section 3), as does our own second article of faith.

  6. Kevin: Great thoughts, thanks. I posted some follow-up thoughts here regarding how this might tie in to the Sinai vs. Davidic Covenant, and how Christ’s individual act of atonement redeems us from the communal condemnation we are all under due to Adam’s transgression.

  7. While Ezekiel and our constitution and so on are against *punishing* people for other people’s sins, they don’t say anything about people *suffering the consequences* of other people’s sins. That’s because you can’t stop that any more than you can stop the tide.

    And that’s not just a feature of a fallen world, either. Its eternal that the rebellion of the rebels will devastate their families and their God, but nothing can or should be done about it.

  8. “Its eternal that the rebellion of the rebels will devastate their families and their God, but nothing can or should be done about it.”

    I do not doubt that one person’s choices affect others. I was responding to the notion of God’s commanding the Israelites to kill Achan and his family for Achan’s sin.

  9. RobertC, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the whole idea of *communal* condemnation for an individual’s sin, beyond their responsibility for tolerating it in the first place, is some sort of Near Eastern cultural artifact that deserves no place in scripture, Paul’s analogical echo of it notwithstanding.

    To start with, taken very far it is irrational and unjust. It also reeks of apologetic justification of severely clannish concepts of divine favoritism – the doctrine of the Zoramites, as well as the fairy tale explanation of evil that started with blaming Adam, proceeded to communal condemnation – Original Sin by another name, and ended in Total Depravity.

    Now Brigham Young was not particularly fond of Paul’s comments on the subject, and said that he was wrong on several of these points. So beyond Paul’s long standing reputation among the respectable, what *theological* reason have we to prefer Paul’s apparent perspective over Brigham Young’s?

    Might there be a possibility that Paul was merely appealing to shared cultural heritage, and not establishing a proper theology from first principles, in the passages concerned?

    The time honored practice of not refuting a tradition, but co-opting it unless it is particularly problematic?

  10. Mark, I wrote a somewhat confusing sketch of an argument one might make here at Jim F.’s SS thread. The idea is that the Sinai Covenant and Mosaic law were inherently and intentionally incomplete/flawed and difficult to observe in order to show the need for a newer/more perfect and easier path back to God, namely through the intermediating nature of the Davidic Covenant, fulfilled through Christ.

    Another implicit argument (suggested by Jim F. and others on lds-phil recently) is the existence of what seems to be a mirrored concept in terms of blessings. That is, I think a theology that says we receive blessings independent of others is hard to defend (D&C 128:15 and Heb 11:40 for example teach that salvation of the dead and the living is interdependent). Likewise, I think a theology suggesting we receive condemnation strictly according to our individual actions independent of community (if such a concept can be defined) would be difficult to defend. But I think the direction I’m going in the argument above would ultimately be pretty difficult to defend also, so I’m not really sure of the best approach on this….

  11. RobertC, When I was in sixth grade, one day someone in my class threw a crumpled piece of paper into the “ball box” instead of the trash. My sixth grade teacher must have been having a very bad day, because when he discovered it that afternoon, he had us all sit down, demanded to know who it was, and said we would all be punished if no one confessed. We sat there for about three minutes, and no one made a peep, so he all made us write 100 sentences of the form “I will not throw trash in the ball box”.

    If he was covertly trying to teach us the insanity of the corruption of blood he could not have done a better job.

    Now I agree that sin and righteousness are very often collective affairs, that no one (not even God) can save themselves, that Zion is Zion because it is a society, and that the consequences of our actions, and influences thereunto spread and gather far from a single individual.

    Sure the community suffers due to the sin of an individual. But does that mean the community should be intentionally *punished* because of the sin of a bad apple. The scriptural principle is that if that bad apple does not repent, he will be cast out at the last day, not that he will delay the exaltation of the righteous until the bad apple turns a new leaf.

    Indeed the principle is that God suspends judgments upon the wicked due to the presence of the righteous, and as soon as they leave, judgment is sure to follow (cf. Sodom, Ammonihah)

  12. Mark Butler,
    the military does the same thing all the time, and its never struck me as particularly insane.

  13. Mark, I think for humans to practice communal guilt is definitely unjust (a la “of you it is required to forgive all men”), I’m only talking in terms of our standing before God and the eternal laws of justice (cf. Alma 42:14-18).

  14. Note that a common motivation for communal punishment is missing information as to who the guilty parties are. If one knows (as God does) then does it still make sense?

    I gave very clear examples of God applying the opposite principle – Sparing the wicked temporarily so the righteous do not get unjustly punished. If we are going to take this collective guilt thing seriously then Germany should have been wiped off the face of the earth, right?

  15. If we are going to take this collective guilt thing seriously then Germany should have been wiped off the face of the earth, right?

    And those of us who found ourselves unmarried in our early thirties (or even late twenties) should have all been excommunicated too. Then there are those married couples who are apparently behind on their “quiver quota” . . .

  16. I’ve always wondered about the popular teaching that if, for example, the priest who blesses the sacrament is unworthy to do so, you’ll still get the blessings for taking the sacrament. The idea is that the sins of a priesthood holder won’t invalidate the ordinance.

    That doesn’t mesh with the idea of letting others’ suffer the consequences of someone else’s sin. If that priest is unworthy, then the sacrament that week is just a piece of bread, not a symbol of anything. It may have some meaning to me, but it isn’t the “sacrament” because it wasn’t blessed by a worthy priesthood holder. D&C 121 has no compunction about “saying amen to the authority and priesthood” of a sinner. If we say that the unworthy priesthood holder can still perform valid ordinances with his priesthood, then we’ve pulled the teeth out of that scripture.

    I think our sins can affect other people. Specifically, I think that if a priesthood ordinance is performed unworthily, then the ordinance is void. God doesn’t sidestep the priest and bless the bread anyway. That makes it too easy for the priest to figure his sins don’t really matter because they don’t affect anyone but him. The idea that he’s penalizing the entire congregation would make him think a bit harder about whether or not he’s worthy.

    And manaen, comment #4 was fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  17. An interesting perspective.

    The promise of the sacrament is to have God’s spirit with us always, conditioned on our witnessing to God that we are “willing” (a) to take upon us the name of Jesus, (b) to always remember Him, and (c) keep His commandments that He has given us. If the sacrament is just a piece of bread, not having been properly “blessed and sanctified”, does that mean that we are not witnessing (or not “properly” witnessing) those things to God by partaking of the Sacrament? Does the “unworthiness” of a 16 year old boy really mean that no one in the congregation may have God’s spirit to be with him or her?

    Section 121’s reference to “amen” to a person’s priesthood does not focus on situations that we traditionally consider “unworthy”, but includes all forms of unrighteous exercise of authority–domination, dictatorial attitudes, and the like. Is a baptism invalid if performed by a father who is overly strict with his children (enough to violate section 121)? What about a baptism performed by a father who swore at his wife earlier in the day? Or an ordinance performed by a bishop who has been spiritually abusive of one or more members of the ward?

    What about temple ordinances performed by a person unworthy of a recommend? How would we even know which ordinances should be repeated, since no longer even keep a record of who has performed an ordinance for a particular deceased individual?

  18. Melinda, this was a controversy in the early Christian (Catholic) Church that was serious enough that they almost split over it.

    Donatus was a bishop who taught that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the ministering priest. The general viewpoint is known as Donatism. Well for various reasons that are too involved to discuss properly here, notably the idea that we are all sinners to one degree or another, Donatism was rejected by the early Church, and became an official heresy.

    That doesn’t conclude the question for our Church, but I think it is safe to say we are on the anti-Donatist side of the question as well, for similar reasons. Can you imagine the work that would need to be re-done if a single Priesthood ordination in the nineteenth century was deemed invalid, such that the acts of all who received it directly or indirectly from his hands were judged null and void as well?

  19. It is worth noting that following similar logic the Catholic Church held *LDS* baptisms to be valid until very recently. They still hold valid the baptisms of other Christian denominations – holding that God will honor the baptism as long as form is reasonable and the intent of the baptised person is in the right place.

    [They recently invalidated our baptism on the ground that they do not think the words we use mean the same thing as theirs, due to our peculiar doctrine of exaltation, such that our form is wrong despite outward appearances]

    No we wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, holding rather that the priesthood must be conferred upon another by one holding the proper authority. The difference between our view and the Donatist view is that we do not hold Priesthood to be automatically un-conferred is someone isn’t worthy, although most if not all Priesthood ordinances require authorization from someone holding the keys, and who inquires into worthiness issues, such that God is not mocked and his ordinances dishonored, despite their *formal* effectiveness.

    So we should duly and properly say that whether an ordinance is effective or not is for God to decide, and surely he can neglect his own forms. In any case the sacrament is not sanctified by the Priesthood holder, it is sanctified by the Spirit.

    The effectiveness of the Priesthood as in “amen to the priesthood of that man”, is a matter of loss of influence or the ability to persuade people to come unto Christ (cf. D&C 121:46), not the automatic loss of formal authorization.

    That is a secondary process, to keep the formalities of the Priesthood authority in line with the spirit of Priesthood power, insofar as possible. But as always, the spirit of grace is from God, not from the priesthood holder, except by divine investiture of authority, an investiture that is not *wholly* dependent upon personal righteousness.

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