The Olive Branch Or The Sword?

great-sealTo commemorate its newly established nationhood, the continental congress adopted a coat of arms known today as the Great Seal. This emblem portrays a bald eagle holding arrows (symbolizing a readiness for war) with one talon and an olive branch (symbolizing peace) in the other. The eagle’s head points towards the olive branch, symbolizing the nation’s preference for peace. The significance of this allegory, while meaningful for a people, also carries an important application for individuals seeking to follow the Savior.

The Savior taught in word and deed the importance of holding the olive branch of love and mercy. During his sermon on the mount, Christ taught: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. This teaching came in rebuttal to the philosophy “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy”. It’s easy to hate our enemies and retaliate against those who have done us wrong when our predisposition is to react to wrongdoing with the proverbial sword. Mercy is a harder choice than justice.

“May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Thomas S. Monson (Choices)

The parable of the King and the servant reiterates the importance of being merciful. The king, who was rightfully owed a return for a large sum of money, forgave (olive branch) the pleading servant’s debt. Once forgiven, the servant went and imprisoned (sword) one of his debtors when he was unable to pay back his small amount. The principle of receiving the level of judgement that we resort to in life is depicted in the tragic ending of the parable. The king discovers the servant’s lack of mercy and imposes that same level of judgement on him by casting him into prison.

When presented with the adulteress to be stoned; while in the act of being unjustly arrested; and even during his wrongful execution, Christ held the Olive branch by rescuing and defending the very sinners that we probably would have fought and condemned. While admonishing the early elders of the church to overcome the world, Christ taught: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men”. Christ, the eternal judge, whose right it is to fix and wave punishments, chose not to condemn but to liberate and heal. Conversely, we take it upon ourselves to vigilant around with our sword of “justice” by seeking to right the wrongs committed against us and remove the motes from other people’s eyes.

When presented with the heavy or seemingly insignificant scenarios of life, the question can be asked: are we holding an olive branch or a sword…

  • when someone is driving in a manner we disapprove of?
  • when someone close to us says or does something thoughtless or hurtful?
  • when a co-worker, roommate or associate lives by different rules than we do?
  • when we’re communicating a difference of opinion with someone else?
  • when someone else is communicating a difference of opinion with us?
  • when someone isn’t pulling their weight?
  • when someone broke their commitment?
  • when a neighbor is in need of help and we have other things we’d rather do?
  • when an ecclesiastic or secular leader doesn’t meet our expectations?
  • when someone is dressing in a manner that we don’t approve of?
  • when our prejudices seem to be vindicated?
  • when a child is being rambunctious?
  • when we find out our parents aren’t perfect?
  • when someone’s pride shows through?
  • when we see the poor as deserving of their condition?
  • when we covet what the rich have?
  • when we want the youth to experience the hardships that we’ve experienced?
  • when we see the worth of souls as greater within one boundary than another?
  • when someone holds a differing worldview than us?

Are any of these condoning adultery, aggression, dishonesty or any other form of wrongdoing? Of course not. Being merciful towards people doesn’t mean that we reject God’s law in the process. Also, we can’t control the thoughts and actions of other people. All we can control are our own thoughts and actions. Preferring the olive branch over the sword will make our responses to life’s tests become easier to endure and will fill our souls with peace and love.

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George Albert Smith: Loving Persuasion Over Force

Disclaimer: the following post contains the author’s opinion and may not necessarily reflect the complete views of George Albert Smith.

A year after being called to be an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and at the age of 34, George Albert Smith wrote his personal creed—11 values by which he wanted to live by.  The creed emphasized his desires for peaceful living, service, love of mankind, faith in God and using loving persuasion.  His creed is as follows:

“I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor.

I would visit the sick and the afflicted and inspire in them a desire for faith to be healed.

I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind.

I would seek out the erring and try to win him back to a righteous and a happy life.

I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.

I would live with the masses and help solve their problems that their earth life may be happy.

I would avoid the publicity of high positions and discourage the flattery of thoughtless friends.

I would not knowingly hurt the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend.

I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the success of all the children of my Heavenly Father.

I would not be an enemy to any living soul.

Knowing that the Redeemer of mankind has offered to the world the only plan that will fully develop us and make us really happy here and hereafter I feel it not only a duty but a blessed privilege to disseminate this truth.”

Many who knew George Albert Smith exclaimed that his creed was not just what he believed but the manner in which he lived. When one carefully reads each point they will realize Elder Smith’s understanding of truth and his attitude towards his relationship with God and fellow man far surpasses most of that age. It’s interesting to note that all of those values are selfless. Paradoxically, those few who live this creed (sometimes unaware) are the happiest, fearless, peaceful people on Earth even though they seek little for themselves.

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” (Luke 9:24)

The most notable goal Elder Smith brought up, as it pertains to liberty, was his desire to use persuasion rather than force: “I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.”  If parents, teachers, businesses and governments were to follow this simple principle authoritarians would turn to loving parents, disciplinarians to mentors, despots to developers, and tyrants to statesmen. Persuasion rather than force is also more likely to turn offspring to family, student to learner, staff to equals, and serfs to freemen.

While those who act in accordance with persuasion instead of force are guiltless of any wrong doing in that particular thing, there is no guarantee that those who are acted upon through loving persuasion will actually repent of their wrong doing. But, as it pertains practically, persuasion has a much higher success rate than force in the long-term. While force might yield temporary results it is the nature of the human spirit to resist force and thus force ultimately fails. On the other hand, when persuasion and truth are paired the results are everlasting. As it pertains morally, persuasion is the only just method of using power and influence that are positive in nature. Force is only justified when it is negative—as an act of defense of last resort.

Mark Skousen (author, professor and statesman) wrote a pamphlet titled Persuasion vs. Force in which he argued that persuasion is the morally justified use of power. President Hinckley received this pamphlet and replied in letter:

Dear Brother Skousen, I have read with appreciation your pamphlet, “Persuasion vs. Force.” Would that the world and its leaders might follow the philosophies set forth therein. As I read it I thought of the 121 Section of the Doctrine and Covenants verses 39–44. Keep speaking along these lines. It is a message that needs constant repetition.

Sincerely,

Gordon B. Hinckley

The moral use of power through persuasion also passes the Benson Test—that is that we can only delegate to government the powers which we have as individuals. If a person doesn’t have the moral authority to force their neighbor to live by their dietary code then they are not morally justified in delegating that authority to government. That is why legislating vices is wrong. A person would not be justified barging into their neighbor’s home, confiscating their mind altering substances, destroying their contraceptives, and taking their money to pay for someone else’s education and retirement. Yet, there are many who feel justified in imposing their moral codes under the banner of government, in the name of morality but in the reality of mob-rule. Though their intentions are usually pure—to rid the world of evil—they unintentionally perpetuate the very thing they aim to annihilate. How are their methods any more justified than the crusaders who wished to bring people to Christ? Whose plan was it to force all mankind to be righteous? Conversely, whose plan was it to allow man their agency and to use love and persuasion to win them back? (Moses 4:1-2)

Not only is it immoral to make laws forbidding vices, it doesn’t make practical sense either. Prohibition in the 1920’s and the war on drugs since the 1970’s serve as sufficient examples of why punishing vices through force is expensive, impractical, and unsustainable.

There are a myriad of reasons why people support liberty or freedom of choice. Some are good and some are bad. George Albert Smith taught many important lessons in his creed. One of them being that loving persuasion ought to be used instead of force (D&C 121:39-42). Freedom is an empty vessel. With what freedom we have we should fill it with good things. The more freedom- the greater our capacity to do good. The more good we do- the fuller our joy.

Know this, that ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.
He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love, and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.
(Know This, That Every Soul Is Free)

Ambition: Virtue or Vice?

Before this world was there was a war between opposing ideologies.  One person presented his own plan of salvation before God—“Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.”  Another Person testified in word and deed—“Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”  The first person, Satan, referred to himself six times to this ambitious endeavor to save all mankind while the second, Christ, didn’t mention Himself once, but rather glorified His Father. (Moses 4:1-2)

Ambition has permeated much of our society.  Striving for one’s own power, status or wealth are often seen as worthy and virtuous endeavors by the world.  Letting these goals go unchecked, though, can destroy a person’s life along with many around them.  In D&C 121 we learn that “many are called but few are chosen”.  The first reason listed for this catastrophe is because “their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men (v. 35).”  Two verses later ambition is mentioned again, “when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man (v. 37).”

Vanity, that nasty ingredient, when added to ambition produces a recipe for spiritual disaster.  Ambition and her close cousin vanity become tantamount when one’s motives are strictly selfish.  Charity seeketh not her own (1 Cor 13:5) but ambition does.  Ambition and charity are both verbs yet one points a person inward and often fails them.  The other points a person upward and it never faileth (1 Cor 13:8).

When ambition ceases to be about our own work and glory but is replaced with an eye single to God’s glory we are endowed with greater power, honor or wealth than the world could ever provide.  Though flesh and Babylon disguise ambition as an investment, its dividends are temporary and shallow.  Charity, on the other hand, pays dividends for eternity.

Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)