If They But Serve the God of the Land
Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. Ether 2:12.
This promise seems especially precious right now, in a time of pestilence and political tumult that is unprecedented in my lifetime. So what does it mean?
First of all, what is the geography of this promise? Does it pertain to a limited locality or the Americas as a whole? Do other lands have a similar promise?
A quick survey of related scriptures in the Book of Mormon leads me to the conclusion that the promise extends beyond the general area where the Jaredites and/or Lehi and his family first landed. Not that it was always understood that way. Captain Moroni seems to have first understood it to have a more narrow application to the southern lands known by the Lehites. But then, he seems to have been inspired to broaden his understanding to include north and south. Alma 46:17 records, "when he had poured out his soul to God, he named all the land which was south of the land Desolation, yea, and in fine, all the land, both on the north and on the south - A chosen land, and the land of liberty."
It seems like Jesus also clarified the extended geography when He foretold the Restoration and coming forth of the Book of Mormon among the Gentiles:
"For it is wisdom in the Father that they should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth from them unto a remnant of your seed." (3 Nephi 21:4).
So, the choice land described in Ether 2:12 seems to be the Americas. My next question is whether this promise is unique to the Americas or whether the Lord has promised to preserve liberty in other lands, conditional on their inhabitants serving Him?
The entire chapter of Deuteronomy 28 details the Lord's covenant to the children of Israel as they prepared to cross the Jordan into their land of promise. Among many other blessings that would be rained upon them, if they would obey Him, He made a similar promise of freedom from captivity:
"The LORD shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways... And all the people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of thee" (Deut 28:7,10).
I like the idea that this choice land is choice to those of us who live here (by birth or immigration), and that others have lands that are choice to them. It seems that the Lord doesn't use "choice" as an exclusive designation; that we can make any place we inhabit choice by choosing Him there. He created the entire earth. It is all precious to Him as are we. And He covenants to secure to us our lands of inheritance and to provide for our physical needs as we serve and trust in Him. In this way, there is no division between the material and the spiritual (see D&C 29:34). The love that binds us to our land becomes an outgrowth, rather than a rival, of the love that binds us to Him.
The second question I have is: in what ways does the Lord expect us to "serve the God of this land, who is Jesus Christ"? More specifically, where we live in nations that were identified as Christian at their founding, does embracing pluralism constitute a rejection of Jesus Christ as the God of this land and de-qualify us from the promise of liberty?
There are several thoughts that come to mind.
First, that the Lord is not nearly so interested in how we identify as in how we live. And if our actions are out of harmony with our declarations of faith, that's an offence toward Him.
In Joseph Smith's First Vision, the Lord warned about religious leaders of the time. He lamented, "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof" (Joseph Smith - History 1:19).
This was not a new problem. Early in the ministry of Isaiah, it appears the people of the covenant were being very attentive to the rituals of the law, but they were receiving the curses, not the blessings, outlined in Deuteronomy 28. The Lord explained why. He described them as a "sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity," whose ritual worship grieved him.
"To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood." (Isaiah 1:11-15).
So, if doing lip service to His name or going through the motions of prescribed worship does not count as serving the God of this land, what does? Continuing in Isaiah, the Lord replies:
"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil. Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17).
I'm stuck with how similar that message is to Jesus' declaration, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40) and King Benjamin's instruction, "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17).
Back to pluralism. There's a part of me that wants to regret what I'm inclined to see as the declining influence of Christianity in public policy because I believe that true Christianity, that is, honest, earnest and genuine discipleship of Jesus Christ, is the most potent force for good that exists in society. But nominal discipleship is problematic at best. It has a tendency to focus on self-justification, on legitimizing injustices (ala the Ku Klux Klan) and on absolution for sins we don't intend to abandon.
Is it possible that pluralism offers us an opportunity to practice genuine Christianity? That willingly sharing political power and public space with people of differing faith traditions is a requirement of our discipleship?
In March 1841, under the direction of Joseph Smith, the City of Nauvoo passed a pluralistic ordinance:
"Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city".
In June 2016, the newsroom of the Church published an article inviting members to engage with each other across differences. It said that the choice to evade or engage "may determine whether we flourish or splinter as a society." If we engage:
"A population of isolated individuals develops into a community when people think outside themselves. Tolerance then grows to understanding. Monologue changes to dialogue. The echo chamber of identical voices transforms into a roundtable of dynamic voices. In a healthy society diverse elements are in constant encounter."
The article concludes with this quote from John Inazu, a distinguished professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis: "We can choose to model kindness and charity across deep differences without sacrificing the claims upon which we stake our lives" ("Pluralism Doesn't Mean Relativism," Christianity Today, Apr. 6, 2015).
What does all of this mean to me?
It means that I need to resist the pull of tribalism and seek to become a peacemaker in the culture wars. And I don't mean trying to make peace with the Devil. But it's the Devil, not our brothers and sisters of different faiths and world views, who is our enemy. With my brothers and sisters, I need to seek and celebrate common ground. If I want to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, I need to join hands with others who seek to eschew evil and "learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." It doesn't matter to our cooperation whether or not those others recognize Jesus Christ as the God of this land. He is, whether His name is acknowledged or not. And, under whatever name we know Him, insofar as we are serving our fellow beings, we are serving Him. And then we qualify for His promises of liberty.
What does this mean to you? In what ways do you think pluralism serves or hampers the cause of Christ?