Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Latter-Day Responsibility: Questions Answered by LDS Author Connor Boyack

A few years ago while on a business trip from Wisconsin to Utah, I met Connor Boyack, author of Latter-day Liberty and the forthcoming book, Latter-day Responsibility. We actually had lunch together twice, once in Salt Lake and once in Provo. I was interested in his previous web page design work and some other accomplishments. The fact that he shares my distrust of politicians in both parties makes him all the more likable.

With Latter-day Responsibility coming out soon (see LatterDayResponsibility.com), I posed a few questions on this topic and have permission to share his responses.

The topic of personal responsibility is important to me and in my opinion is one of many significant aspects of LDS theology that can help people find much more meaning and happiness in life, particularly when infused with a sound knowledge of what the Atonement of Christ does. On the other hand, I've been disappointed to see the words "personal responsibility" used too harshly in dealing with people in great need. Yes, we must help people develop responsibility, must not create dependency, and must recognize that many times simply giving money is not the answer. However, in expecting responsibility from others, we cannot abandon our own personal responsibility to minister, to love, and to share, even with the beggar whose own irresponsibility may be (or may not be) the cause of his poverty. That sharing, of course, is most effective when it is done the Lord's way which, as I understand it is, is based on voluntary giving and service and not, as too often happens, through the compulsion of bureaucrats using concern for poverty as a pretext for seizing and controlling great wealth. Of course, there are no easy answers to how to best help the needy, which is why I think it is right for welfare issues in the Lord's kingdom to be handled individually, case-by-case, with leaders seeking revelation through the Spirit of the Lord to know how best to help feed His sheep.

Before sharing the Q&A, here is a snippet from the book:
Just as was the case during the war in heaven, it is imperative that we fight here on earth to defend our agency against any who might wish to inhibit it or take it away. As President Hinckley taught, today’s continuation of that protracted war is “between truth and error, between agency and compulsion,” and requires “that we close ranks, that we march together as one.” It is arguably more important, however, that rather than simply defending agency, we promote its wise use. This entails, among other things, making good decisions, obeying God’s commandments, and using our agency in a righteous and responsible manner. By acknowledging, accepting, and acting upon our personal responsibilities, and by encouraging others to do the same, we switch from playing defense to playing offense in the battle to preserve agency. We put Satan and his legions on the ropes, and we increase tactical advantages. We win battles and gain ground, rather than defensively trying to limit our casualties.

Responsibility is one of the three Rs of agency, the other two being right and results. The right to choose is paramount and precedes the others, since having the unfettered ability to weigh and choose between different options is what allows agency to even be possible. This right comes directly from God, who made his children “agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56) who are “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27) their course. The responsibility of choice requires taking accountability for one’s decisions, suffering whatever the consequences of those choices are, whether for good or for bad. This leads to the result of choice, where the consequences of one’s decision are brought to pass, whether immediately or in the future. The rights, responsibility, and results implicit in our agency are either a burden or a blessing, depending on how they are used. When we choose to fulfill our personal responsibilities—when we pay the price for the results we seek after—then we increase our ability to be free and independent. By choosing to abandon those responsibilities, the result will be much like what is occurring in the world around us: staggering debt, dependence upon the state, weak and broken families, and a general deviation from God’s commandments.

By being responsible, we become wise stewards of the many things God has placed under our care. As wise stewards, we protect our agency and promote righteousness. In becoming righteous, we ensure that our individual liberty has a strong and sure foundation upon which to resist the encroachments of the state. It is a virtuous cycle. In short, only by “supporting and defending the principles of truth, right, and freedom” can we truly preserve liberty. The cycle begins by choosing to be responsible.
Now here are some questions I posed with Connor's answers.

1) Can personal responsibility sometimes be an excuse to ignore those who need our service and financial aid? How do we let personal responsibility strengthen rather than hinder our compassionate service to others?
This is such an important question to ponder and address. Latter-day Saints have a complex history of attempting to balance a life of self-reliance and yet service to (or rendered by) others. Many seek after independence, when the true ideal is interdependence. Our responsibility is not just to ourselves and those within our stewardship, but to those around us as well—to all of God's children. I love this statement by Joseph Smith: “A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."

In the quest to be independent and self-reliant, I've observed many of Christ's disciples turn a cold shoulder to somebody in need, claiming that they didn't want to foster dependence in that person. I've even heard the "if you give a man to fish, you'll feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you'll feed him for a lifetime" phrase used to justify denying a proverbial fish to somebody in need. And yet in that case, no fishing instruction was given.

I think sometimes we believe that those in need have to work harder and be more responsible, and if they applied themselves just a little more, they would not be asking for assistance. But going back to the previous question, regarding work/responsibility and grace, I think it's important that we remember one of the ways we see grace manifested in our lives, namely, through the work and fulfilled responsibilities of other people. God's hand is seen most easily through the hands of his servants.

The general mandate to be responsible and self-reliant was not intended by God to be absolute, as if all of his children must independently provide for themselves and forge their own path. This mandate is, I think, contextualized by countless commandments to freely impart of our substance and succor the weak.

We should recognize that God's desire for us to increase our personal responsibility is so that we can increase our agency. By dedicating our time, talents, and resources to building the kingdom of God (by building up others in need, both spiritually and temporally), we increase our power. In effect, as instruments in God's hands, we become more precise and effective the more we are used. Seen in this light, our responsibilities are not checklist mandates that carry condemnation for non-compliance, but opportunities to become like God.

2) As you explored this topic, did you come away with any new insights on the process of repentance and how we can better encourage repentance for people trapped in sin (OK, let's not just talk about me - try to keep this general)?

This book aims to be a practical one—discussing the importance of these responsibilities, their application to our everyday lives, and specific things we can do to better fulfill them. While I don't refer much to repentance per se, I do heavily discuss the relationship between liberty, agency and responsibility. They are inter-related and co-dependent; we cannot defend and promote our liberty or agency without also fulfilling our responsibilities. I believe that each of these influences the other—as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.

How can we help those trapped in sin? Are we all not in this situation? Remember that sin comes in two types, commission and omission. Most of us are familiar with, and primarily focus on, the sins of comission—adultery, theft, jealousy, violence, etc. These are easily identifiable, and therefore receive most of our attention when referring to sin. But personal responsibility deals in many ways with sins of omission, since we so very often fail to do things that we ought. We should have faith, be morally clean in action and thought, do our civic duty, serve those in need, get out of debt, be a more caring spouse or parent, and on and on and on. Falling short of these high standards is itself a sin, but a less recognizable one since it mainly involves a lack of action, and not an observable and identifiable action.

We're all very familiar with the repentance required for sins of commission. In short, it involves simply ceasing to do the sinful action. But how do we encourage repentance for people trapped in sins of omission? "Many of us... have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission," said Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions."

My goal in writing Latter-day Responsibility is to generate more conversation about this fundamental concept. To have liberty, or to be a better steward, or simply to obey God, we must rise to a higher level of action. Lehi's counsel is a clarion call to be a responsible people: "Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust."

Personal responsibility is a fundamental (and largely unrecognized) pillar of our society. That pillar has progressively become weakened through increased dependence upon government, indifference towards those in need, and myriad distractions leading people to abandon their responsibilities and avoid accountability for their actions. This alarming and long-standing trend must be called out and confronted by Latter-day Saints willing to be a light to the world, showing what personal responsibility really looks like in practice. And so as I look around at my fellow Saints, and inwardly at myself, I think… we've got some work to do.

3) Does the LDS view of personal responsibility trump grace? What is the relationship between our responsibility and the work of grace from Christ?
I don't really explore this angle in my book, as I contrast responsibility against individual liberty rather than grace. But it's an important question since responsibility is part of the "work" Christians are required to do, and therefore part of the larger work/grace debate that may never reach any satisfying conclusion for the general Christian community until His second coming.

To answer the first question directly, no, I don't believe that the Latter-day Saint view of personal responsibility trumps grace. "After all we can do," said the prophet Nephi, "it is by grace that we are saved." Nothing should (or can) trump the enabling and healing power of Christ's atonement for mankind.

When serving a mission in Honduras, I would often use the example of a drowning person being swept away in a fast-paced river. Imagine a friend on the shoreline extending a branch to save this person. All the drowning person has to do is accept and utilize the assistance being offered. Such a small amount of work is required to take advantage of a life-saving opportunity.

It's our responsibility to extend such branches to those in need—to be the instruments in God's hands. But it's also our responsibility to be smart about not jumping in the river to begin with, or at least being mindful of the current and taking necessary precautions. And yet the miracle of Christ's atonement is that no matter how irresponsible we may have been, He can make up the difference.

Congratulations to Connor on the new book. May he keep writing, thinking, and sharing in this critical era when far too little real thinking takes place. He's a good example of someone who has demonstrated a great deal of personal responsibility in his efforts to make the world a better place.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Boyack is confusing agency with freedom. They're not the same thing. Even when one lacks political freedom one typically retains moral agency. Even in a totalitarian society, one retains a knowledge of good and evil and the capacity and responsibility to choose the former over the latter (though in an unfree country the costs of doing so might be much higher).

People in the old British colonies had every bit as much moral agency as people in the United States that came after. The American revolution increased their freedom, but not their agency. Different things! Oscar Schindler (of Schindler's List fame) had no less moral agency after the Nazis took over than he had before. Etc.

Freedom and agency are different things! Yet Boyar has them hopelessly confused.

The things that can "inhibit" moral agency or "take it away" are things like mental illness, drug addiction, brainwashing, etc. But people like Boyar reduce moral agency to political freedom in order to disguise their pet political preferences as theological necessities. This reduction allows opposition to Boyar to be painted as opposition to God. It's an old rhetorical trick.

-- Eveningsun

Connor said...

Eveningsun,

I don't believe that I conflate or confuse the terms, and I understand the contrast you're drawing. I explain this in my previous book, Latter-day Liberty.

What I talk about this book in relation to agency and liberty is the way by which agency can be inhibited -- through attempts to remove accountability for one's actions. It's what Satan was up to in the pre-mortal realm, and what he aims to do today. A great book that explains this is detail is Greg Wright's Satan's War on Free Agency.

Anonymous said...

Hi Connor--thanks for the response. If one makes the distinction I'm insisting on (and that you say you agree with), it makes sense to speak of promoting the "wise use" of agency. But I don't see how one can sensibly speak of "defend[ing] our agency against any who might wish to inhibit it or take it away," at least if one is referring to statism here. Statism poses a threat to liberty, not to agency.

But I have a different question: Why should a Christian believe that the "highest political end" should be liberty in the first place? Why not base one's political philosophy on some other first principle, such as justice? Seems to me that the Bible holds out justice as a general good (e.g. Amos, "let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream") much more than liberty.

-- Eveningsun

Bookslinger said...

Eve:

There you go again mischaracterizing and misrepresenting what Mormons say and write. You're doing to CB what you continually do to JL.

The connection or relation between freedom and agency is plain. Lack of freedom restricts a person's opportunities to exercise agency, and the scope in which agency may be exercised. Greater freedom offers more opportunities in which agency may be exercised, and a greater scope or degree of influence or outcome produced by agency.

Why don't you go to some pro-Islamic blog and debate the finer points of how hard-line pro-Sharia Islamists view freedom and agency? Please go flaunt your mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in their face.

What is your purpose here? To protect the world from Mormons?

Why don't you go protect the world from Sharia and hard-line radical Islamists?

Anonymous said...

Bookslinger, I said that agency and freedom are not the same. I never said they weren't related. This would seem to be obvious enough in my first comment above.

Note, however, that the relations between freedom and agency are not as "plain" as you suggest. Think about Hobbes, the state of nature, and the social contract; the idea is that people voluntarily give up a certain amount of liberty in exchange for a reasonably secure existence. How many opportunities are there to exercise agency in a life that is nasty, brutish, and short? Are there not perhaps more such opportunities in a modern welfare state like the U.S., even under the horrors of Obamacare, than in a state of nature?

The assertion that more freedom automatically equals more scope for agency just doesn't compute.

As for your angry and hostile questions, I'm not aware of any hard-line radical Islamists seriously spending millions of dollars to buy campaign ads to influence my country's politics, much less running for president, so why should I care what they think? But if it makes you feel better, I'll just say I think they're nuts. (Seriously, what are you insinuating about me with your questions? I disagree with you, but that hardly makes me Lilburn Boggs. Relax.)

And since when is it forbidden to debate the finer points of LDS theology at Mormanity? Perhaps you would agree with me that, contra the radical Islamists, it's good for people to work out their political differences and bring others around to their point of view, not by flying airliners into buildings, but by using words. That's why I'm here.

-- Eveningsun

ji said...

Indeed, liberty and agency are very different -- a man in prison has no liberty, but may still have complete moral agency.

Anonymous said...

Yes. And conversely, a man with severe mental illness can have severely diminished moral agency, yet may still have full liberty.

-- Eveningsun

jackg said...

Jeff,

This is an amzazing post that addresses the conflicts people feel when deciding whether or not to help someone in need or not. I, too, am disappointed with how people use the term "personal responsibility." I am Supportive Family Services director at a rescue mission. I see people coming through our doors who are in great need of food,clothing, and other temporal needs, as well as spiritual needs. We don't make them prove their need, we just give what they say the need.

Often times, donors ask how we make sure people aren't abusing the system. Well, they might abuse the system. That is out of our control. Abuse is between that person and God. If they are abusing the system, then I trust that the Spirit is working in their lives to convict them and lead them to repentance. Sometimes, donors worry that people are selling the clothing at yard sales or the flea market. That might be happening, but in the end the clothing is helping them to survive when they turn it into cash to pay for gas, food, or whatever. Naturally, the donor wants to make sure that what they donate is not going to buy cigarettes and drugs/alcohol. That is a legitimate concern but, again, that is the job of the Spirit to work in those who are misusing the gifts of grace.

jackg said...

cont'd

I see scores of people on assistance who make sure they have what they need to support their destructive addictions at the expense of healthier needs. But, addiction is another issue that lots of folks fail to understand completely. This speaks to the issue you raised when you said, "However, in expecting responsibility from others, we cannot abandon our own personal responsibility to minister, to love, and to share, even with the beggar whose own irresponsibility may be (or may not be) the cause of his poverty." We can't worry why they are where they are when we see our responsibility to offer relief. At the same time, however, it is prudent to remember what a college professor once said, "You can't do more for another person than they are willing to do for themselves." So, there does need to be balance but, like you said, we can rely on the Spirit to guide us in these decisions. There are times when I give and times when I don't.

I like that Mr. Boyack uses the term "interdependent." It speaks to the notion of community, how we need each other. I remember when I was a boy and my dad got into a motorcycle accident. The relief society came and assessed our needs, and we received groceries. The bishop came to our house and told us how the church was going to help us financially. The only thing he asked in return was that we volunteer to work the orange groves (southern CA) when it was our stake assignment. Working in the orange groves was also designed to help us feel as if we were just "taking" but also contributing. It was also a lot of fun, and I still remember the orange groves 40 years later. A lot of folks we serve at the mission ask how they can volunteer. Unfortunately, due to laws and regulations that non-profit agencies have to follow, recipients of services can't volunteer until they are no longer receiving aid (it can't look like quid pro quo).

"I think it's important that we remember one of the ways we see grace manifested in our lives, namely, through the work and fulfilled responsibilities of other people. God's hand is seen most easily through the hands of his servants." And to that, I say AMEN!

In conclusion (I know this is long, but I'm passionate about this), we must remember that the poor will always be with us. When they receive aid, they are experiencing and learning God as Provider. It's a spiritual Mazlow's hierarchy of needs to some degree. Those who experience God as Provider learn to trust Him, which we hope leads to them wanting to trust God with their spiritual needs. In the end, the "stuff" we give away is just "stuff" that brings them to the mission. The real purpose is to build relationships of trust with those in need, and to be Christ to them.

Peace and blessings...

Jeff Lindsay said...

Jack, those are wonderful comments. Google had them on hold as potential spam for some odd reason, but fortunately I noticed and was able to release them.

Jack, I love the points you are making here and the attitude you show. You'd make a terrific bishop, if you weren't one previously. What great blessings can flow when those with access to resources use them as stewards of God to lift others.

jackg said...

Jeff,

I am so glad that I have divorced myself from my previously anti-Mormon stance. You played a role in that, Jeff, as well as others here on this blog.

FYI: we were running low on food in our pantry when we got a call from a man representing the LDS Church. He runs a warehouse here in the Springs, and they had extra cereal that was barely outdated that they wanted to get rid of. So, he thought of us. It was a great boon to our ministry, and evidence that God works in and through all of us despite our differences in theology. It was a wonderful feeling to partner with the LDS Church!

Peace...

PS I was never a bishop, but a 2nd counselor.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Jackg, the dialog with you has been a valuable part of this blogging experience and your goodwill has been greatly appreciated.Thanks for reminding us of the benefits of listening even when we disagree.

John Jackson said...

Jeff, it has been awhile since I checked in on your blog, and as I check in today, I find your second post down is on Connor Boyack. I thought of Connor when I posted the following just this week on my own blog site:

These Latter-day Saints (and, aye, that includes me) have scriptures, and I'm reflecting on one from the Sunday School lesson today, and on ones that relate to it. If you are LDS, depending on where your ward is at, you might have studied Helaman 13-16 today, also.

Samuel the Lamanite, you know. Samuel the Lamanite chastened the Nephites for trusting those who said, Do this thing, for it is not wicked, and do that thing, for you will have no suffering for doing it. Indeed, do whatever thing your little hearts desire. ("Do whatsover your heart desireth," are the exact words in that scripture.)

Now, dear reader of this blog (supposing at least someone might read it), this is very much like what we read in a more famous passage. If you will be so kind, turn all the way back to 2 Nephi 28:7-8, where it says, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us. . . . there is no harm in this; and do all these things . . . ."

Another scripture I should like to tie into all this is Helaman 5:2-3. We are told the government was established by the voice of the people, and that more people were choosing evil than good, and, as a result, their laws had become corrupted. Then, it says, "They were a stiffnecked people, insomuch that they could not be governed by the law."

Could not be governed by the law? Hmmm. Well, with apologies, that does sound familiar to what I see today. I believe in much of the sentiment of, That government is best that governs least. But, perhaps it can be taken too far.

One more tidbit from these scriptures before we reflect more on them all. Helaman 13:26 says if someone testified of their wickedness, they were angry with him, and called that person a sinner, and said he was of the devil.

Being a political-minded person, I wonder about such scriptures in a political context. I think of those who say, You cannot legislate morality. I think of those who decry what they call the morality police. I think of those who get mad at drugs being illegal, or prostitution, or pornography being illegal. I think of those who say, Let us do what we want. Let us do as our hearts desire. There is no sin in these things, in what we are doing. Who gave you the right to force your morals on us? Government should not be in the business of telling us what to do with own lives, and in their own bedrooms, and with our own bodies. We are not harming anyone, so we should not be made to suffer for these things. You are wicked beyond wicked to take an innocent person off the streets, and jail them for things that cause no harm. You are taking away our rights and freedoms, and are wicked, wicked for doing these things.

They refuse to be governed, even as in the days we read about in the Book of Mormon, where there were more people choosing evil than good. It was a day in which, "they could not be governed by the law."

And, as I look around, at the world I am living in, we are becoming more and more like that today.

Well, this is just my take on these scriptures. Doesn't mean I'm right. It is definitely what I find, though. It is what I see, as I try applying these scriptures to the world around me. But, perhaps those who think differently are right and I am wrong.

-- John Jackson

Anonymous said...

I think of those who say, You cannot legislate morality.... I think of those who say, Let us do what we want. Let us do as our hearts desire. There is no sin in these things....

John, you seem to be suggesting that people who oppose drug prohibition are motivated by their own fondness for drugs. That might be true in some cases, but certainly not all. (I for one do not do drugs, but nonetheless feel that drug prohibition does more harm than good--overloading the prisons, creating a black market, empowering organized crime, etc.).

In any event, the phrase You cannot legislate morality is not an assertion that drugs or pornography are immoral. Rather, it says that these things are indeed immoral, but beyond the proper purview of government.

-- Eveningsun