The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
Silver and Gold Have I None
“Silver and Gold Have I None” was originally a presentation given at the Sunstone Theological Symposium in August 1991 as part of a panel given in response to a series of articles on church finances published in the Arizona Republic.
[p.99]Recently the Arizona Republic ran a series of investigative reports on the LDS church’s financial holdings and operations. As I read them, an uneasiness grew inside me. At first I did not know why.
The articles made it clear that no scandals, illegalities, or improprieties in the management of the church’s finances had been uncovered. And they confirmed to me what I had already suspected: the church takes in a great deal of money; its asset base is large; its investments are prudently made and managed; and, because the church’s policy is to avoid debt, the majority of its assets are free and clear of encumbrances. There is nothing in any of this to cause alarm. If anything, this information should have been to me what it was to many Latter-day Saints—a source of gratitude and even pride.
That the church should have a temporal dimension has never troubled me. One contribution that Mormonism makes to Christianity is the revelation of the balance of [p.100]physical and spiritual. Where traditional Christianity has long viewed the physical world as weakening and disabling, Joseph Smith’s teachings link embodiment with spiritual empowerment. Embodiment manifests itself in various ways, including the legal and economic arrangements by which a society maintains itself and prospers. These societal structures comprise the body politic, the body of the community. In Mormonism the temporal stands on an equal footing with the spiritual. Both are equally important in the development and sanctification of individuals and of communities. For this reason, we Mormons have always believed that wealth can be a great blessing.
In spite of my acceptance of these ideas, the uneasiness I felt about the Arizona Republic articles persisted for two reasons: First, Mormonism’s gentle view of materiality was never meant to serve as a justification for economic non-disclosure. Nevertheless, non-disclosure is one of the pillars of the church’s financial management policy. This policy can be stated as a paraphrase of the 9th Article of Faith: When it comes to matters of money, the church has revealed very little, it does now reveal very little, and it will yet refuse to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the economics of the kingdom of God.
The news articles are noteworthy precisely because they confound this policy by presenting information about the church’s finances that is so difficult to acquire. But why? Why as members of the church aren’t we informed about these things by our leaders? Why must we always learn these things, harmless as they are, in the streets?
The usual response is that the payment of tithing is an act of faith. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. To pay tithing is to render to God what is God’s. His servants, the church leaders, hold the tithing funds and all other [p.101]church property in trust—not for the Saints—but for the Lord. Once we pay our donations, the money is out of our hands. We have no right to inquire into its disposition. It falls within the exclusive province of the Brethren. Those of us who are inclined to raise questions about the management of the church’s wealth are said to be in spiritual jeopardy, for our questioning will inevitably lead to sadness, inactivity, transgression, and apostasy.
I accept that the wealth of the church, like the Sabbath day, is consecrated to God. But I also believe that, like the Sabbath, this wealth was meant for our benefit. Church members are the beneficiaries of the trust between God (the trustor) and the leaders of the church (the trustees). As such, church members have certain rights and entitlements that are expressed or implied in various scriptural narratives.
The Old Testament story of Samuel and Saul suggests that God disfavors closed hierarchical rule as typified by a monarchy and favors instead more open participatory government as typified by the system of judges. This preference is reinforced in the New Testament where both leaders and members are depicted as participating in the most sacred and most important business of the church: the calling of the apostle Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot and the resolution by the council of Jerusalem of the “gentile question.” The Doctrine and Covenants explicitly states that “all things [are to] be done in order and by common consent in the Church” (22:13) and that church leaders are forbidden to exercise unrighteous dominion, including, certainly, the suppression of information, which is, in the modern world, one of the chief ways to maintain control. Jesus commands open disclosure when he requires his followers neither to cover their sins nor to hide their light under a bushel.
These narratives and revelations imply a divine prefer-[p.102]ence for open and participatory church governance on the basis of the informed common consent of the members. This makes sense. If, as section 105, states, the Saints must grow in knowledge and in experience, then, for the sake of our spiritual growth, we must be informed of its temporal and spiritual affairs and be included at some meaningful level in its governance. Less than this is to reduce the governance of the church from a democratic theocracy to an oligarchy.
In addition to these scriptural statements, there are certain legal requirements that come into play. Is not the church a non-profit corporation sole? Are not the leaders of the church its trustees? Do they not, therefore, have a fiduciary duty to make regular detailed public accountings of the trust? In a recent general priesthood meeting President Gordon B. Hinckley admitted that such an accounting was owed. But a proper accounting has yet to be made. The failure to make this accounting is usually excused on grounds that church business is private business. But is the church a private organization? Are the scriptures, the doctrines, the blessings of the gospel, and the spiritual mission of the church private property? Is the kingdom of God the private possession of any man or group of men? Do we not all share an interest in it? And though we may not all have an equal say in its management, is there any good reason why a proper public accounting cannot regularly be provided? Would not such an accounting tend to assure circumspection in our dealings and remove any suggestion of impropriety or self-dealing?
Of course, in response to all this we are likely to be told that if we believe our leaders are called of God then why don’t we trust them with the church’s wealth? This question, however, can be turned around: If we are the people of God, why can’t we be trusted with an accounting? Trust, I suspect, is [p.103]not the real issue here. The issue is control. Church leaders are like many of our parents and their generation who believe that their children should know little or nothing about the family’s finances. The problem with this view is that our leaders are not our parents. We have heavenly parents. Our leaders are our elder siblings, who, it seems, are tempted to generate policies that tend to lull many of their more compliant brothers and sisters into complacency, inexperience, and unhealthy dependency.
Another reason why these articles make me uneasy is because of the extent of the church’s wealth. Though this may have been overstated in the articles, the truth is that the church is rich. Why must the church have so much money? Especially since it has been acquired by the sacrifice of so many of its members. I believe in sacrifice. Our religion is founded upon a sacrifice. Jesus asks us to imitate him and to bear one another’s burden’s that they may be light. This is the point of the parable of the good Samaritan. What troubles me is that, in spite of its affluence, the institutional church seems unwilling to sacrifice or to bear the burdens of others.
One of the most grievous burdens which Latter-day Saints are required to bear is caused by the tithing system, which is so sacrosanct that rarely do we read or hear any discussions or evaluations of it. Doctrine and Covenants 119 contains the revelation which serves as the source of the requirement that members pay to the church one tenth of all our “interest” or “surplus.” “Interest” refers to money or property in excess of principal. “Surplus” refers to what is left over after necessary expenses are paid. A tithe on interest or surplus is fair because necessaries are first paid for, then the surplus becomes the basis on which the tithing is calculated. The greater one’s surplus the greater her or his tithe.
[p.104]But the church general handbook, the guidebook for church administrators, states that “interest” and “surplus” are interpreted by modern church leaders to mean income. Income refers either to gross income, which is the value of all money or property earned within a given period, without deductions of any kind, or to net income (also called disposable income), which is the value of all money or property earned after taxes are deducted. A tithe based on income, gross or net, is regressive; in other words, it is more burdensome for the poor than the rich. The rich can pay a tithe on a substantial income out of discretionary funds and continue to afford both necessaries and luxuries. The poor, in many instances, can pay tithing on income only if they sacrifice not mere luxuries, but necessities.
I don’t mean to suggest that those who pay tithing at a sacrifice are not blessed or that sacrifice is not required of us by God. I mean only to point out that because we are required to tithe our income instead of our interest or surplus, our tithing requirement systematically disfavors the poor and favors the rich. This system is even less acceptable in light of the information contained in the Arizona Republic. For it is clear that many faithful Saints are scrimping and sacrificing to pay tithing to assist not a poor, floundering, economically troubled church, but a very rich church. Many Mormons sustain multiple employment and many leave young children at home to supplement their earnings so that they can continue to pay a full tithing on income in order to hold temple recommends and to remain qualified for church administrative callings. Other members borrow to pay their tithing, thus becoming debtors so that the church may continue to avoid debt. They mortgage their property so that the church may hold its properties without mortgages. Can it be the will of a God, who freely sacrificed his eternal life, that [p.105]the church that bears his name, while flush with wealth, continues to deflect its liabilities to the Saints, many of whom cannot readily bear such a burden? Doesn’t this amount to the activity condemned by Jesus, the sin of binding heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and laying them on people’s shoulders and refusing to lift them?
The Lord taught us to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But how can the church utter this prayer? It has no debts. Perhaps for this reason it finds it difficult to forgive the debts of others. Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you,” and then he himself carried on his accounts the entire debt of mortal sin and imperfection. But the church does not seem willing to put up with sin, imperfection, or debt.
Jesus said, you cannot be equal in heavenly things until you are first equal in earthly things. But in the church are we equal in earthly things? Are we equal in the knowledge of the church’s accumulated wealth?
The church, it seems, wants our obedience not our desires. It wants our compliance, not our concerns. It wants us to line up, quietly, on the asset side of its ledgers. Those who oppose it, even in loyal opposition, become liabilities and are, publicly or privately, written off its books.
In one dire prophesy of the Book of Mormon we read: “Your churches, yea every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts. For behold, ye do love money and your substance and your fine apparel and the adoring of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, and the sick and the afflicted. O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (Morm. 8:36-37) Why is it so difficult for us to remember not to trust in the arm of flesh, not to lay up for ourselves [p.106]treasures upon earth, where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break through and steal?
There are reasons. And I would be unfair and uncompromising in my criticisms not to mention them. I think the chief reason why the church manages its finances without disclosure, without participation, without liberality, is fear. This reason should not be underestimated: The church has been persecuted. It was driven from its property. Its property was escheated. It was disincorporated. It was once deeply in debt. To this day it continues to be shamed and ridiculed, not for its sins, but for its spirituality, for its beliefs, for its allegiance to sacral but politically incorrect teachings. Fear is a powerful motive. Perhaps as a church we see wealth as a means to insulate us from pain, to make sure that the persecutions and rejections of the past will not deeply wound us again. This is understandable. It explains in part our secretive ways, our need for power, wealth, and a good public image. But this has not given rise to wise policy.
The tragic flaw in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was that Timon was never able to shake his obsession with wealth, his addiction to gold, “yellow, glittering, precious gold,” which
… will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant …
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappened widow wed again— …
… —this embalms and spices
To the April day again (Timon of Athens, IV, iii, 26-41).
[p.107]”This yellow slave will knit and break religions …” The question is, will gold knit or break Mormonism? I do not know. But I do not believe that Zion will be redeemed by gold. Zion will be redeemed, like we are redeemed, by blood—the blood of Jesus Christ, which blood is the token of his unconditional love for us. Moroni’s warning was, I think, not just to Joseph Smith but to the whole church he was yet to establish: the treasure is not gold, but the word of God that is written in gold. We seem not to have understood this warning. The church and its best and brightest are not immune from the lust to have more and more and from the fear of poverty and powerlessness. The apostles of old worried that there would not be enough—only a few fishes and a few loaves for so many—but when the multitude had been fed, there were twelve baskets of bread and twelve baskets of fish, enough for the twelve, and the seventy, and to spare. Later they came to accept that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, that the riches of the kingdom are the mysteries of God, that the treasures of the church are its faithful adherents. Somehow we must resist the temptation to administer the church by calculation, rather than compassion, by fear rather than love. If we seek the love of God and impart it to others, we will be able to freely give as we have freely received, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the wretched, give to the needy—and all without worrying if there will be enough. The truth is there isn’t enough of anything but love. It is only through love that we can resist the temptation to put our trust in silver and gold and the safety net of net worth.
I say all this shamefaced. For I must confess that I find it much easier to believe in money than in miracles and to retreat into selfishness rather than to make myself vulnerable for the sake of others. I have never found it easy to make [p.108]money, but I have found it much easier than to say, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk,” and with those words to heal the lame, the halt, the blind, the feeble, the sick, and the broken-hearted. But though we are all imperfect, should we not as a church and a people distinguish ourselves from other earthly institutions by relying less on riches and more on the grace and spirit of Christ Jesus?
I will close with a tale that sums up my point: In the sixth century Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, was censured by the Catholic church for his heretical views on the holiness of poverty. In due course he was summoned before the Pope. Though in fear for his life Benedict obeyed. The Pope was gracious and, to put the monk at ease, showed him the treasures of the church. When the tour was over, the Pope announced, “Peter can no longer say, Silver and gold have I none.” “Yes,” replied Benedict sadly, “but neither can he say, arise and walk.”