The following is a guest post submitted by Dr. Warner Woodworth, Social Entrepreneur & Professor, Marriott School, BYU.
By Dr. Warner Woodworth
We are engulfed in a sea of money and conspicuous consumption. This was a shocking realization for me a few days ago when I ventured out to buy my wonderful wife, Kaye, a Christmas gift. We usually give our money and time to the needy during the holidays, which always makes for a spiritual season for our family. Many times, we spend the days doing humanitarian work around the globe.
But I decided to actually go to the University Mall in Orem and purchase a small gift this year, knowing it could be a pleasant surprise. To avoid the temptations of materialism and shopping frenzies, I took a vow each of the past few years to stay away from such places, dens of iniquity and greed that I often refer to in my campus courses as “Palaces of Babylon.”
But I thought after so many years I was now strong enough so that I could withstand the environment of materialism, and that a nice Christmas gift would show my love.
Entering the mall, I was blown away by the remodeled stores and halls of the place. It was so much larger, so elegant, so commercialized, that I literally felt sick. Oh, the crowds were fun to observe (for about 5 minutes), and someone was playing live holiday music on a piano at one intersection of the stores. But as I went down the corridors, I grew ever more nauseated at the crass commercialism, the huge ads declaring that a new sweater or coat was the essence of Christmas, that blaring high tech toys would give me more speed in life, as well as meaning.
After a few minutes, I ran from the hustle and bustle of Babylon back to campus to start writing this post. (And, yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I did purchase a set of earrings as I left the mall!)
Let me summarize a few symptoms of materialism and extravagant living in our society today.
– There are some 50,000 shopping malls in the U.S.
– Much of what we buy is frivolous spending, not what we need.
– We are spending more on our pets and chocolate than on helping many of our poorest families.
– While family size goes down, square footage of our homes grows ever larger.
– Competition between the haves and the have-nots continues to rise. It is manifest between management and unions, between races, between nations, and between social classes. Instead of a United States or even a United Zion, we are increasingly fractured.
– The average CEO pay in the Standard & Poor’s 500 today is $14.8 million a year.
– Among large firms, the typical top executive gets over 600 times the salaries of the lowest fulltime workers.
– Merrill Lynch’s top executive, for instance, is picking up over $200 million as he is forced out of office for poor performance and huge market losses. During his ruthless tenure he laid off 24,000 employees at the firm.
– Henry Kravis of Barbarians at the Gate fame, earned $450 million last year, or $51,000 an hour. This is more than the average American makes in a year.
– Average pay for the top two dozen hedge fund managers in 2006 was $363 million each, which totaled $14 billion, more than the GDP of Uruguay or Jordan.
– It’s estimated that 2007’s average fund manager will receive over $600,000 just in bonuses.
– To not be outdone by individuals, corporate greed is escalating too. For instance, Exxon Mobile is currently raking in $100 million in profit every single day. The firm’s CEO has been so successful in 2007, he is to receive 20 million in bonus money and a whopping 25 percent pay increase for 2008. Not to be outdone, his firm’s other top execs will share in a bonus pool of $214 million more!
– Product ads engulf our media and our schools: “Coke adds life! “Just do it!”
– My students all wear corporate logos, apparently not just to be cool, but to increase their self-worth.
– Apparently the car we drive expresses who we really are.
– It’s no longer “Toys R Us,” but “Things R Us,” as well!
– Juliet Schurz in her book, Born to Buy, estimates the typical American purchases 48 personal clothing items a year.
– Millions of us declare bankruptcy each year, driven to despair by our spending and our conspicuous consumption habits.
– A emerging literature is growing on the addictive behaviors of consumer shopping and the new malady, Affluenza.
Prophetic Socio-Economic Teachings
The gospel answer for the above problems suggests we use our money to do good, avoid debt, and build a better world. The plea from President Lorenzo Snow below was pronounced as the Saints began a new century on January 1, 1900. It’s a call to action, especially for those with skills, education, and capital to use their resources to empower the world’s poor. LDS entrepreneur and benefactor Jesse Knight was known to carry this proclamation in his coat pocket everywhere he went. He showed it to his business associates and encouraged them to join the cause. They started enterprises to build family self-reliance throughout the Western U.S., and even up into Canada.
They heeded the Prophet’s call for “the banishment of poverty,” the “uplifting of the masses,” “for the union of capital and labor.” These leaders would be shocked at our world today where CEOs make 453 times the compensation of their regular fulltime employees. “Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer!….Unlock your vaults, unloose your purses, and embark in enterprises that will give work to the unemployed, and relieve the wretchedness (of the poor).”
Like prophets and apostles down through the ages, President Snow sought to rip off “the yoke from the necks of the people….and plan for union instead of conquest…for the health, wealth, enlightenment and happiness of all tribes and nations.” Thankfully today a small group of inspired individuals are rediscovering calls to action like this, as well as the “Proclamation on the Economy” put forth by Brigham Young and the Brethren back in 1875. At that point they criticized the concentration “of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals….” This was judged to be “one of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at the present time….” Such socio-economic injustices were viewed as a dangerous, even “monstrous power” that divided the “class already rich, and the painful destitution and want among the poor….”
Currently, in our time, a growing number LDS executives, wealthy families and entrepreneurs are turning from ever-increasing self indulgence and family conspicuous consumption to start NGOs, to launch microcredit strategies, to create family nonprofit foundations, and to build social enterprises and/or for-profit businesses to “succor the weak, lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5: Isaiah 35:3).
They are initiating their own efforts and strategies per D&C 58: 26-29 in which Latter-day Saints are told to not wait, but to become “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will….For the power is in them wherein they are agents unto themselves.” Such individuals understand what President Hinckley means when he declares: “We must take care of the poor….But we must be careful not to institutionalize that care (through the church)….I think there is a tendency among us to say, ‘Oh, the church will take care of that. I pay my fast offering. Let the church take care of that.’ We need as individuals to reach down and extend a helping hand…to give of that with which the Lord has so generously blessed us.”
Such individuals understand the great C. S. Lewis’ teachings about how much to give to charity: “I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare….If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenses exclude them.” In other words, as I always say, give until it really hurts. Only then will you experience what Joseph Smith meant about the law and “spirit of sacrificing all things.”
As the gap between rich and poor spirals out of control across the globe, we need to begin to understand what Brigham Young preached in his vision for a new world: “The time must come when this cooperative system…will be carried out by the whole people, and it will be said, ‘Here are the saints.’ Will there be any rich and poor then? No.”
His successor, John Taylor, put it more bluntly to the CEOs and investors of his day: “Talk about financiering! Financier for the poor, for the working man who requires labor and is willing to do it, and act in the interest of the community for the welfare of Zion, and the building up of the kingdom of God upon the earth. This is your calling,” he bellowed. “It is not to build up yourselves….Do not let us have anybody crying for bread, or suffering, for want of employment. Let us furnish employment for all.”
And President Ezra Taft Benson brings it up to our generation by asserting that “All we are doing now is but a prelude to the establishment of the united order, and living the law of consecration.” In Hugh Nibley’s view, there is absolutely nothing keeping us from practicing stewardship and consecration in our personal lives today. Brigham Young taught the same idea in his era, as well.
So as you consider the new year of 2008, please take time to read and reread Lorenzo Snow’s proclamation. See if you might be able to expand your own vision and feel the inspiration to launch something truly great, beyond yourself, something that will bless the lives of countless families who suffer so much and have so little. Maybe you can’t help countless families. But you can lift at least just one. If so, together we can change the world, one family at a time.
Lorenzo Snow’s Proclamation of 1900
Greetings to the World
President Lorenzo Snow
A new century dawns upon the world today. The hundred years just completed were the most momentous in the history of man upon this planet. It would be impossible in a hundred days to make even a brief summary of the notable events, the marvelous developments, the grand achievements and the beneficial inventions and discoveries, which mark the progress of the ten decades now left behind in the ceaseless march of humanity. The very mention of the Nineteenth Century suggests advancement, improvement, liberty and light. Happy are we to have lived amidst its wonders and shared in the riches of its treasures of intelligence.
The lessons of the past century should have prepared us for the duties and glories of the opening era. It ought to be the age of peace, of greater progress, of the universal adoption of the golden rule. The barbarism of the past should be buried. War with its horrors should be a memory. The aim of nations should be fraternity and mutual greatness. The welfare of humanity should be studied instead of the enrichment of a race or the extension of an empire. Awake, ye monarchs of the earth and rulers among nations, and gaze upon the scene on which the early rays of the rising Millennial day gild the morn of the Twentieth Century! The power is in your hands to pave the way for the coming King of Kings, whose dominion will be over all the earth. Disband your armies; turn your weapons of strife into implements of industry; take the yoke from the necks of the people, arbitrate your disputes; meet in royal congress, and plan for union instead of conquest, for the banishment of poverty, for the uplifting of the masses, and for the health, wealth, enlightenment and happiness of all tribes and peoples and nations. Then shall the Twentieth Century be to you the glory of your lives and the luster of your crowns, and posterity shall sing your praises, while the Eternal One shall place you on high among the mighty.
Ye toiling millions who, in the sweat of your faces, earn your daily bread, look up and greet the power from above which shall lift you from bondage! The day of your redemption draweth nigh. Cease to waste your wages in that which helps to keep you in want. Regard not wealth as your enemy and your employers as your oppressors. Seek for the union of capital and labor. Be provident when in prosperity. Do not become a prey to designing men who seek to stir up strife for their own selfish ends. Strive for your rights by lawful means, and desist from violence and destruction. Anarchism and lawlessness are your deadly foes. Dissipation and vice are chains that bind you to slavery. Freedom is coming for you, its light approaches as the century dawns.
Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer! Take the idle from the crowded centers of population and place them on the untilled areas that await the hand of industry. Unlock your vaults, unloose your purses, and embark in enterprises that will give work to the unemployed, and relieve the wretchedness that leads to the vice and crime which curse your great cities, and that poison the moral atmosphere around you. Make others happy, and you will be happy yourselves.
In the eighty-seventh year of my age on earth, I feel full of earnest desire for the benefit of humanity. I wish all a Happy New Year. I hope and look for grand events to occur in the Twentieth Century. At its auspicious dawn, I lift my hands and invoke the blessings of heaven upon the inhabitants of the earth. May the sunshine from above smile upon you. May the treasures of the ground and the fruits of the soil be brought forth freely for your good. May the light of truth chase darkness from your soul. May righteousness increase and iniquity diminish as the years of the century roll on. May justice triumph and corruption be stamped out. And may virtue and chastity and honor prevail, until evil shall be overcome and the earth shall be cleansed from wickedness. Let these sentiments as the voice of “Mormons” in the mountains of Utah, go forth to the whole world, and let all people know that our wish and our mission are for the blessing and salvation of the entire human race. May the Twentieth Century prove the happiest as it will be the grandest of all the ages of time, and may God be glorified in the victory that is coming over sin and sorrow and misery and death. Peace be unto you all!”
We can change the world by changing ourselves. These words above consist of President Snow’s call to action for the saints over a century ago. May we each determine ways to heed his words today. They have never been refuted or rejected by his successors. May each Millennial Star reader be blessed to see your true potential for radical change. It takes focus and intention to do so. But first, it requires being cognizant. President Spencer W. Kimball used to remark that he didn’t worry about LDS members being unwilling to serve those who suffer. His main concern was that they were just not aware. So first, you must see the poverty in the world. I argue that it must actually stare you in the face! You, in turn, must stare right back until you feel guilty, suffer from empathy, and begin to actually grieve for that impoverished family. You must almost touch the sunken eyes of that oppressed mother, the extended belly of a starving child. Only then can you really connect. At this point, you can begin to do more than just write out a check. Indeed, instead of simply feeling sad and switching the TV channel, you will become empowered to act.
You will be able to dig down deep and respond to your unique personal identity, tools, and being, what Abraham Maslow describes as “self-actualization.” This comes from finding what I teach my BYU students to explore, their “informal calling in life.” Not one’s career that they will eventually retire from, or a church assignment from which they are ultimately released. This is something more. Maslow describes it as the “mission one chooses to love and sacrifice to.” Catholic theologians have long referred to it as one’s “vocation as a Christian” in the world. In so doing, you begin to act, rather than just be acted upon (2 Nephi 2:14). You discover your own capacity for solving social problems and generating transformational impacts that improve the quality of life around the globe. As Gandhi puts it, you then begin to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” In short, you become a social entrepreneur.
May God bless you and your family during this move into a new year of 2008. And through your acts of consecration, may He bless the world’s have-nots as well.