“…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”…