Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Zion: Vision or Mirage
Many religious traditions talk about the doctrine of the two ways— the “Way of Life” and the “Way of Death.” To follow in the Way of Death is to maximize power and to seek gratification through control. It is to accept that the greatest mechanism of control is death and that the most efficient way to resolve the most intractable human problems is by taking human life—the way Cain resolved the problem of Abel (Moses 5:47-50). This has been an operative principle of the modern world, where, in the name of progress, tens of millions of political murders, assassinations, and terrorist killings have been committed in this century, more than in any other period of recorded history (Johnson, 184-86, 298-305, 413-22, 430-31, 481-84, 497-500, 548). To be in the Way of Death is to be in the heart of darkness, in the grip of fear, and to respond to others as objects to be subdued and superintended.
To follow in the Way of Life, on the other hand, is to tread the Via Dolorosa. It is to live outside oneself, to be vulnerable to others. It is to love one’s enemies rather than liquidate them, to celebrate and transcend differences rather than to eradicate them, to bear annoyances, discomforts, uncertainties, and risks rather than to pass them on to others. It is to take responsibility for pain caused, to forgive wrongs endured, and to accept forgiveness for wrongs committed. To be in the Way of Life is to have a heart purified by love and to accept others without condition.
Both as individuals and as societies we are called frequently to choose between these two ways: Are we to be the oppressors or the oppressed? Are we to bear affliction or afflict others? Sometimes this choice is clear, sometimes obscure. Sometimes it is dramatic, sometimes [p.222] commonplace. Usually we are not consistent in our choosing. For this reason, most of us are simultaneously the oppressors and the oppressed. The most powerful of us cannot maintain complete control and deflect all suffering at all times, and the weakest of us have some power over certain aspects of our lives, even if it is only the power to utter the eternal NO, to refuse to participate in what we believe to be evil.
On a societal level, those in the Way of Death are referred to scripturally as Babylon, while those in the Way of Life are called Zion. Our modern world, like most of us, partakes of both ways. As a culture, we—particularly in the West—are impressed with such self-centered values as competition, achievement, and success; but we are also deeply troubled by the plight of the impaired, the powerless, and the poor. Though for the most part we gauge our worth by our economic growth, our popularity, and our net worth, we also admire those, like Mother Teresa, who freely make personal sacrifices for the weak, the helpless, and the downtrodden. As for the technique of killing to get gain, we deplore it, but it is by no means alien to our culture. Of course, most people do not resort to outright murder to avoid suffering or to secure for themselves a comfortable life-style. There are more subtle ways of administering the blows of death. We can kill with achievement won at someone else’s loss, with success purchased with someone else’s failure, with empowerment paid for with someone else’s disenfranchisement, with preference attained by invidious discrimination, with wealth acquired at another’s cost, with hope arid joy secured with another’s despair. As citizens of the world, we learn to inflict death by a thousand humiliations, by “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It has ever been so.
For this reason, throughout history, philosophers, visionaries, and mystics of nearly all cultures have addressed the question of how society should be rightly ordered. This is the theme of Plato’s Republic, which contains his design for the just state. It lies at the heart of the Jews’ longing for their promised homeland. It fires our romantic infatuation with King Arthur’s Camelot. It illuminates the Christian vision of the New Jerusalem, prophesied in the Revelation of St. John.
Mormonism was meant to be a new revelation of the Way of Life, with both personal and societal ramifications. On a personal level, Mormonism is a revelation of the power and ordinances of God by which individuals might be spiritually healed and made holy. On a social level, Mormonism was to be the instrument by which Zion would [p.223] literally be established on the American continent (D&C 124:28-47). The failed Puritan hope of a city on a hill in New England was to find its fulfillment among the Mormons, in the mountain-valleys of the American west.
This concept of a literal kingdom of God on earth was the primary ideological force that shaped the consciousness of the Mormon pioneers. It was their avowed intent to create an actual kingdom in the Rocky Mountains. Its crown would penetrate north into Alberta, Canada. Its head and neck was to comprise Montana and Idaho. Its heart would be in Utah, and its trunk would consist of parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. One leg would reach down into old Mexico. The other would kick westward beyond Las Vegas to San Bernardino, stretching toward the coast for a toehold on the sea.
The Kingdom of God loomed large in the minds of nineteenth-century Mormons, who, after having been driven out of state after state, were determined to build a city that would serve as a refuge for the saints and an ensign to all people. It was to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. The mountain of the Lord’s house would be the ensign to which all nations would flow. And the nations would say, let us fear Zion, for she is as clear as the sun, as fair as the moon, and as terrible as an army with banners. In Zion there would be no rich and poor, no bond and free. For, there, all would be free, everything would be held in common, and all would be partakers of the heavenly gift (4 Ne. 1:3). Zion would be the community of the pure in heart, the body of Christ. Every citizen would seek “the interest of his neighbor” and would do “all things with an eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 82:19). In due course, the boundaries of Zion would increase beyond the Great Basin until they embraced the whole of the United States. Then we Mormons would reclaim our abandoned lands in Jackson County, Missouri. There we would build the center stake of Zion, the templed City of the New Jerusalem. Eventually, Zion would grow to encompass all of North and South America and, in time, would reach beyond the seas. In the end, Old Jerusalem would be redeemed, the wicked would be destroyed, and Christ would return to usher in the millennium of peace.
This vision, so elegant and inspiring, has stirred the hearts and captured the minds of Latter-day Saints for over 150 years, with each generation longing, perhaps expecting, to enter the promised land. And when we and many others of our generation were young, and [p.224] energetic, and students in college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we too nourished this same hope, this same expectation. Back then, the nation was in the throes of anti-war protest and counter-cultural idealism. Most young Mormons did not participate much in these movements. But many of us shared in the national fervor in another form. We believed in Zion. We believed we were part of that chosen generation whom the prophets had foreseen and, perhaps, envied—the generation that would usher in Zion in preparation for the second coming of Christ. We had reassurances from many of our leaders that this was so. It would happen, we were told, if we were worthy and loyal, if we held to the iron rod, remained on the straight and narrow, and avoided the corruption of the world. The possibilities were thrilling. The future seemed bright. Some of us took as our motto the catchphrase proclaimed by LDS church president John Taylor, “The Kingdom of God or Nothing!”
Of course, except for the correlation program that was intended to bring all the departments and functions of the church under direct priesthood control in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, Zion has never been an official goal or program of the twentieth-century church. There has not been a call to return to Jackson County, Missouri. In the late 1960s, Alvin R. Dyer, an ordained apostle and member of the First Presidency, was called to be “the watchman over the land of Zion”— an event that caused some stir when it was announced. But nothing came of it.
The unwillingness of the modern church to marshall and commit its resources to the building of Zion was not particularly discouraging to the zealous of our generation because we understood that Zion was not for everyone. Not all were worthy. Not all were pure in heart. Our leaders had to provide milk before meat. But many of our generation were hungry for meat. And the call of Zion was strong. So, like knights in search of the holy grail, we set out in pursuit of the City of God, each in his and her own way.
Some of us prolonged our educations, putting off the inevitable day when we must choose careers. We did this not because we were lazy or afraid, but because we were waiting for opportunities that would accord with our dream. We did not want to go into business or pursue professions. We wanted to become more spiritual, to draw closer to God. On Sunday mornings many of us could be found sitting in our singles-ward or student-ward chapels, singing fervently with our peers the words of the hymn (n. 114): [p.225]
More purity give me,
More strength to o’er come,
More freedom from earthstains,
More longing for home;
More fit for the kingdom,
More used would I be,
More blessed and holy,
More, Savior, like thee.
Building Zion would not be easy. We knew that. It would require personal effort, wisdom, and sacrifice. It would require humility and suffering perhaps. Not all of us would endure. But we wanted to endure. We had faith. We had youth. We had leaders to show us the way.
Time marched on.
Some of us became writers and artists to avoid the taint of the world. We gardened, grew our own herbs, canned our own fruit, and ground our own wheat. We made bread with our own hands. And some of us wove our own cloth. Others of us kept our children in home schools and engaged in home industry. We worried about the acid rain, the strength of the dollar, the menace of shortages, the growing nuclear arsenal, the Mid-East. We saw signs everywhere. Would we be ready? Were we pure? Were we prepared? Would we be chosen?
Twenty years passed.
We are older now. Married and single. Some surrounded by children. Some alone. Others alienated. All burdened with the daily task. Our energy reserves are low or spent. We are, perhaps, wiser, or sadder, or angry, or confused. For us, as for our progenitors before us, Zion hovers, in the distance, out of reach—a shimmering mirage in the desert.
Like so many heroes and heroines in Mormon fiction, we “came to realize.” And what we realized was that there is no escaping the world. It had seeped into everything long ago. We realized that the university, though exciting, is no less corrupt than the marketplace and that the arts, though inspiring, are no less materialistic than the professions. Teaching, we realized, is absorbing and enriching, but it is no purer than other work and for the most part subsists on the support of those who earn their money by competition and acquisitiveness. Some of us retired to communes where we found a temporary peace, but where we also discovered that we could exist only if we had something to sell to the world outside. Like the Mormons of the nineteenth century, we realized that we had to trade with the Gentiles and that, even if we thought [p.226] we could not live with them, we certainly could not survive without them. Yes, we grew some of our own food and baked our own bread. It was good. But we had to rely on the real world for water, seeds, land, for heat and light, for books, and for money. Some of us refused to eat meat out of respect for animal life only to discover that, in order to live, we had to kill plants for food, for fiber, and for shelter. We tried not to abuse the environment, but we went on using it. We loved our children and tried to protect them; but every night they went to bed a bit older and a bit more messy with the world; and every morning they woke to their own dreams—not ours. Some, in desperation, opted for extreme solutions: separatism, survivalism, fundamentalism—anything that promised purity, superiority, spiritual election—and realized, perhaps too late, the heartlessness of those who prize their certainty and rectitude above love, above family, above friends.
Mostly, what we realized was this: We are part of the world, part of the environment, part of the food chain, part of the problem. We are called to endure the crosses of the world, and despise the shame of it (2 Ne. 9:18).
Perhaps, most disillusioning of all was the realization that our dream of Zion itself was flawed. The city of God, like the Way of Life it springs from, can be wrongly understood. It can be seen in a narcissistic and elitist way. It can create in believers a “we-they” mentality, a judgmental puritanism, an arrogance that inevitably breeds jarring, contention, envy, and strife. The City of God, we realized, cannot be founded on simple-minded notions of idealism and naive concepts of election. Unfortunately, too many of these sentiments contaminated our dream. Some of us confused Zion with the capitalist quest for material success. Others, with the socialist agenda of a closed and protected community. Somehow, we managed to combine some of the worst of the West with some of the worst of the East.
On reconsideration, it seemed to some of us that, perhaps, the failure of nineteenth-century Mormons to create the political Kingdom of God in the State of Deseret was a blessing rather than the curse we had been taught it was. Because of that failure, we twentieth-century Mormons have been forced to accommodate, to participate in the secular American culture, to accept for ourselves and to accord to others certain guarantees of individual freedom, and to abide by the nation’s commitment to the rule of law, to civil rights, and to the separation of powers. We had to learn to live in harmony with a people suspicious of [p.227] religious zeal. In sum, what many of us realized is that though the brightness of Zion is peace, the shadow of Zion is tyranny.
This was not a pleasant insight. For us it had been “The Kingdom of God or Nothing.” We were not adequately prepared for something worse than nothing, for a rude awakening from a beautiful dream, to a cold, grey, imprisoning reality, where every light casts a shadow and nothing is ideal. Everywhere, it seems, even in our most cherished causes, we find self-delusion, corruption and failed hope. We thought the resolution of our problems and dilemmas was in our ideal of Zion. But that ideal was unreal. What we embraced as Zion was an unachievable purity, an unreachable holiness, and an impossible dream. We were willing, but blind; determined, but proud; certain, but wrong. Now some of us feel deceived. Others are silent. Many wear faces haunted by a vague sense of loss. And in our hearts we can hear the distant echo of that doleful scripture: “Zion is fled” (Moses 7:69).
We should have known better. We should have seen this coming. Not because Zion is too good to be true, but because the failure of Zion had been predicted plainly by no less an authority than Joseph Smith and in a text no more obscure than the Doctrine and Covenants. In Section 101 a parable is related regarding “the redemption of Zion.” In the parable a nobleman instructs his servants to cultivate a plot of land with olive trees, surrounded by a protective hedge and guarded by watchmen in a tower. But the servants cannot see the need for the tower and dispute whether or not to proceed with its construction, concluding they can better invest the money with exchangers. They become “slothful” and disobedient until one night an enemy breaks through the hedge and destroys the vineyard. When the nobleman learns what has happened he vows to avenge himself and reestablish the fortified vineyard, although at a future date when he can muster sufficiently loyal troops to accomplish the task.
How is this parable to be interpreted? Why is Zion represented by the symbol of a tower? Does this symbol have any connection to the tower of Babel? If so, what can we learn from the positive and negative applications of this symbol? And what is the meaning of the watchman on the tower? Is it a reference to Joseph Smith? To some later church president or leader? Or does the watchman represent something quite different, such as the priesthood, the Holy Order, the body of men and women who have trod the path of spiritual maturity and received the fullness of the priesthood? And who are the Lord’s servants? The [p.228] leaders of the church? The members? Both? Why were they at variance one with the other? Is this a reference to a dispute over doctrine? Church governance? Church practice? Or was it a dispute resulting from the attempts of some to impose an orthodoxy unacceptable to others? How did the servants become slothful? Did they cease doing good works? Did they stop searching the scriptures? Or did they become spiritually indolent and retreat into the comfort of a secularized religious organization? In what sense did these servants give the money for Zion to the changers? Does this symbolize an actual misuse of church funds? Or does it represent the acquisition of beliefs and values alien to the central purpose of the restoration? What is the hedge that was broken down? The church? The nation? The protecting spirit of the Lord? What is the nature of the enemy? Is it a person? A people? An ideology? How is the enemy to be routed? By force? By persuasion? By love? And finally, how is Zion to be redeemed and when?
We do not have definitive answers to these questions. Nor can we provide a description of what Zion will be. However, we can say that, as Mormons, our failure to realize Zion resulted, in large part, because, our dream was contaminated. In the words of the parable, with no watchman on the tower to alert us, we were invaded by enemies—not by gentiles, unbelievers, or apostates, but by a predisposition toward elitism, narcissism, self-righteousness, authoritarianism, and—perhaps worst of all—by a blindness to the reality that Zion must be a paradox of liberty and order, rather than just another Mormon town.
We seem always to have visualized Zion as our city: a Mormon fantasy land, built on our assumptions, brimming with our values, dedicated to our aspirations. For us Zion was always the land of the pure and the home of the pure, a place open only to the righteous—a city of the Mormons, by the Mormons, and for the Mormons that would not perish from the earth. For us, Zion meant us: “the only true and living Church on the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). In asserting this position, we ignored the Book of Mormon’s insight that in Mormon usage the word “church” should refer to the “saints” who hold membership in the ecclesiastical structure, and also to “the covenant people of the Lord—scattered upon all the face of the earth” (1 Ne. 14:14). The City of God must include more than the inner circle, for the foundation of Zion is not moral rigidity, but charity—the love of God. We forget that God could not be love if God were unmerciful; and God could not be love if God were unjust. The message of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God burns with love for humanity and pursues our [p.229] salvation with a passion brighter and fiercer than any desert sun, a passion that is a searing paradox of justice and mercy. As mortals, we can never be good enough to satisfy God’s desire for righteousness. As mortals, we can never be bad enough to dampen God’s unquenchable ardor to be reunited with us. The purity of Zion, then, is not purchased with achievement, nor is it fashioned out of self-righteousness. This means that the citizens of Zion are pure not because they have excluded the impure, but because they have recognized their impurities, have been forgiven of their sins, have forgiven others, have received the love of God, have stood ready to impart love without partiality or condition, and have received the imputation of holiness through the grace of Christ Jesus. Because we have not understood these things, we have failed to see that Zion is not only a city of justice, but a city of refuge, an open city, a city of mercy.
Moreover, as Mormons, we have traditionally pictured Zion as a city of order. Rarely do we speak of it as a city of freedom. Because we think Zion’s natural state is one of social harmony, we rarely consider that, in such a place, men and women must have both the longitude for growth and the latitude to err. Our experiences should have informed us that if, in Zion, law, order, and harmony were to be imposed by force, it would be a prison, not a sanctuary. If we are to be happy in Zion, we must be free with a freedom that embraces the liberty of conscience, of religion, of speech, of assembly, of participation in the governance of the community, the freedom from arbitrary compulsion, the freedom to hold property apart from the community for the maintenance of the personal power to act beyond the scrutiny of government to explore, develop, and disseminate ideas and to engage in criticism and dissent.
Because we think of Zion as a venue beyond corruption, we rarely consider how political power will be managed there. But our experiences should have taught us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In Zion, as elsewhere, political power must be limited, divided, and balanced, subjected to checks and counter-checks, and exercised only with the consent of the governed. If Zion is to be a refuge for the oppressed, we as its inhabitants cannot be subject to the arbitrary dictates of leaders regardless of their political, social, economic, ecclesiastical, or spiritual standing. Zion must be governed by the rule of law. There, we should be required to obey only fixed, pre-published, properly legislated rules of conduct that apply equally to all and invidiously discriminate against none—laws whose effect, for good [p.230] or ill, on specific individuals cannot be determined at the time of enactment. The power of the majority must be further limited by the deep and abiding commitment of the entire community to the concept of unalienable, sacrosanct personal rights that vest in each individual and that may in no wise be abridged, even by democratic processes. Furthermore, in Zion individual freedoms may not be curtailed by the technique of making crimes out of behaviors that are disapproved by the majority. The list of crimes must be limited to deliberate or criminally negligent actions that can be shown to involve the use of arbitrary force, or to have been committed with intent to do damage to or with a reckless disregard for person or property, or to have been perpetrated through the misrepresentation of facts. Thus, it would not be possible, in Zion, to outlaw a race, an alienage, a religion, a political affiliation, or mere membership in a particular class or group. We should have learned that, if tyranny is to be avoided in Zion, its citizens must be committed to the principle that no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without a public hearing, an opportunity to make a defense, to call and cross-examine witnesses, and to receive a judgment predicated on proper evidence and mandated by law. To avoid oppression in Zion, we, as its citizens, must demand and obtain open government, free access to all information bearing upon the public welfare, and the prohibition of excessive influence upon the organs of government by power cliques, factions, and special interest groups.
Unfortunately, our failure to understand Zion as a city of freedom has prevented us from understanding Zion as a city of order. We have not seriously examined the principles around which the community of Zion would cohere. What would constitute the minimum requirements for citizenship in Zion? Faith? Repentance? Baptism? Rebaptism? A demonstration of the gifts and fruits of the spirit? Birth in the covenant? Ownership of property within the geographical boundaries of Zion? A family connection to one or more of its citizens? Economic ties? Consecration? Covenant? And what would constitute grounds for expulsion or exclusion from the group? Apostasy? Lack of valiance? Immorality? Disinterestedness in the religious aspects of the community? Laziness and indolence? Upon expulsion from the community, what would become of family ties, property, cultural connections? Who would make the decision to expel or exclude? How would that decision be made and in what forum? What guarantees would there be against arbitrary or even malicious uses of authority? How would community [p.231] values be protected from powerful individuals? How would individual dignity and freedom be protected against the power of the group?
And what would the economics of Zion be? How would the expectation of private wealth be balanced against the expectation of community prosperity? What would prevent the citizens of Zion from becoming slaves to a cult of acquisitiveness and greed? Would Zion be simply market driven? Would private property be discouraged in favor of communal ownership? How would such rights be defined and by whom? What would prevent social planning and control of community resources by the powerful? How is disclosure and accountability to be ensured? How would the activities of government, banks, large corporations, trusts, and holding companies be aligned with the goals of the community? How would individual gifts be protected against the aspirations of potent enclaves within the society?
We Mormons appear to have no clear answers to these questions. This is understandable. Less defensible, however, is our apathy in seeking and sorting out answers. We seem static, frozen almost in our own arrogance. We are not flexible and dynamic. We move, but slowly. We change, but as little as possible. As a people, we are not famous for our eagerness to reevaluate, reassess, repent, forgive, grow, and learn from our own spiritual, intellectual, emotional, political, economic, cultural, and domestic experiences. If ever we were such a people, we are not that now.
Paradoxically, however, there is a positive side to our failures. The scriptures, including the above-quoted parable of the redemption of Zion, seem to say that the City of God is to arise out of the ashes of failure. This is not so far-fetched. As contemporary psychotherapist Scott Peck has observed, true community can flourish only among those who have matured beyond pseudo-community, who have seen the error of their ways, who have been humbled by the reality of their limitations (Peck).
We Mormons have wrongly assumed that Zion would either be thrust upon us or else constructed by us. We have not yet considered the possibility that Zion might flower among us only to the extent that we pursue the Way of Life, the way of spiritual growth and development. The revelations suggest this alternative when they tell us that Zion will not be redeemed until we have been “taught more perfectly, and have experience” (D&C 105:10). We believe that Zion is not to be realized by imposition—not even divine imposition. It is to be realized [p.232] as our relationship with God develops and matures. It is to be realized by a process of growth from inchoation, through differentiation, to integration.
An observation about the development of the priesthood may make this process clear. In the earliest days of Mormonism, priesthood was perceived in inchoate terms, as the authority of God bestowed upon the first Mormons. No one then seemed concerned with the nature of priesthood, its parts, its limitations, its functions, its operating principles. After a number of years, however, the growth of the church and the demands of ecclesiastical administration required a clarification of these points. As a result of experience and revelation, the priesthood began to be differentiated into degrees, orders, callings, and offices with enumerated functions, operations, and limitations. The result was a complex, male-identified priesthood structure. Later, in the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods, this highly articulated organization began to be integrated into a single concept of authority that eventually culminated in the anointing of men and women to the fullness of the priesthood, which was intended to embrace and, therefore, supercede all the extant priesthoods and their departments. Unfortunately, this later concept was largely abandoned after the death of Joseph Smith, and the church retreated back to the more familiar concept of a differentiated priesthood.
The establishment of Zion, too, is apparently to follow this pattern. For the earliest Mormons, Zion was envisioned inchoately. It was simply the earthly analog of heaven. Later, the Mormon pioneers attempted to force Zion without, perhaps, a clear understanding of how Zion should be constituted. They failed. Since then, attempts to achieve Zion privately have also failed. As a result, we, as a church, have accepted the tradition of Zion postponed, while refusing to admit, revisit, or learn from our failures. We have not yet differentiated. We have not yet extracted from our experiences the revelations that God has hidden in the ruins of our mistaken concept of the holy city. We have never moved beyond our inchoate dream of Zion. We have not yet discovered, examined, or understood the principles by which a true community of saints may cohere and endure. We have not yet accepted the fact that the call to Zion was meant to lead us first to a discovery of our weaknesses, then to repentance, and finally to spiritual growth, maturity, and community.
Many of us who have felt the call to Zion in our blood and in our bones wrongly thought we had been called to be “a marvelous work [p.233] and a wonder,” to realize the fulfillment of all the promises. But this was too great an expectation. God has made too many promises. We should have known we could not see with the eyes nor speak with the tongues of angels. We unwisely let our expectations inflate; and then, perhaps, we lost faith and became cynical when faced with the meagerness of our contributions and the puniness of their results.
In our youth, we were tempted to believe that we could build the holy city. Our temptation now is to believe that our alienation is the only reality and that life is no more than survival in a cold world, where cruelty hides behind masks of indifferent courtesies and where the meaning of our cities is to make and vend our merchandise. This, however, is also a temptation, not an insight. We were too blind in youth to see the coming darkness, but we need not be too blind in age to see the coming light. True community is possible. The Way of Life is real. “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Al. 37:6).
We must come to accept that the redemption of Zion, like our personal redemption, is not a matter of achievement, but of grace, and of spiritual growth. If we, as a people, do not have this vision, then we are bound to perish—in a kaleidoscope of mirages. There will be no Zion for us until we grow from grace to grace, until we accept and trust the revelations God has given to us through our own experiences, until we acknowledge to ourselves and others that the concept of community we have heretofore so persistently pursued neither was nor could have been the City of God. We must come to accept that Zion is no mirage and that the mirage we saw was not Zion. [p.237]