Of Victory and Peace

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If it ever had any, the Russian government has no hope of victory in its war against the people of Ukraine.  When the Russian invasion first began, I wrote in wonder about what the people of Russia gain from this war.  So far, for them it has been all loss, and the prospect is not brighter. 

Thousands of soldiers dead and more wounded, thousands of civilians dead and more hurt and suffering, the Russian army, air force, and navy weakened, the economy rattled, decades of efforts of goodwill with neighbors squandered—no one comfortable sharing a border with Russia—what does all this do for the people of Russia?

British war historian and scholar—arguably with the greatest insight of any 20th century student of military affairs—B.H. Liddell Hart wrote this in his classic work, Strategy:

“Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, and of one’s people, is better after the war than before.  Victory in this sense is only possible if a quick result can be gained or if a long effort can be economically proportioned to the national resources.”  (B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 1967 edition, p.357)

A “quick result,” perhaps once envisioned, quickly disappeared.  The loss of national resources is already disproportionate to any chance of economic gain from the war.  The current question is, how long can the Russian economy endure the ongoing costs?  Genuine victory for the government of Russia and the people for whom that government has responsibility is no longer on the table.  As we once saw written on the side panel of a home repair truck, “Your Satisfaction Is Not an Option”.

Hart offered a rational next step for just such a situation:

“Peace through stalemate, based on a coincident recognition by each side of the opponent’s strength, is at least preferable to peace through common exhaustion—and has often provided a better foundation for lasting peace.”  (Strategy, p.357)

For the Russian government, that may not match its hopes for victory, but chances for victory are gone.  For the people on both sides of the border—soldiers and civilians—the current stalemate offers possibilities for peace.  For leadership made wiser by the war, peace—indeed, a foundation for a lasting peace—may be within reach.  Is further plumbing of the prospects for mutual exhaustion necessary to get there?

Hart’s studies offer this hope:

“. . . past experience leads to the conclusion that nations might often have come nearer to their object by taking advantage of a lull in the struggle to discuss a settlement than by pursuing the war with the aim of ‘victory’.”  (Strategy, p.358)

This is not a game where there must be a winner.  This is life and death.  May the people of Russia and Ukraine be allowed to return to the tasks of living.

Of Living and Dying

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“Why will ye die?”  So asked the ancient prophet of the Jews, Jeremiah, of his unwise king, Zedekiah (Jeremiah 27:13).  God knew what Zedekiah knew but what the king did not want to believe, that the Babylonians were ready and able to conquer all the lands about them.  Since Zedekiah and his people had chosen evil and rejected the Lord, the Lord could not help them.  So, through His prophet, the Lord gave Zedekiah the next best advice:  do not fight the Babylonians, but submit to them and live.

Zedekiah rejected the Lord’s counsel again, and so he died, blinded physically as much as he had blinded himself spiritually.  Jerusalem was captured and laid waste, its walls leveled.  The Temple of the Lord, built by Solomon, was destroyed.  Most of the people were transported captive to Babylon.

To the people of the Jews in captivity, the Lord asked the question by another prophet, Ezekiel.  “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . . turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?” (Ezekiel 33:11)

In ancient America, to a people once free and prosperous, but whose social corruption put their government in the hands of gang leaders, the Lord again by His prophet asked, “Why will ye die?”  The prophet, Nephi, diagnosed their malady:  “ye have set your hearts upon riches and the vain things of this world, for which ye do murder, and plunder, and steal, and bear false witness against your neighbor, and do all manner of iniquity.” (Helaman 7:17, 21)

The Lord did not want them poor, having blessed them with prosperity, material and spiritual.  Yet they turned their focus to the perishable things of the world, its vanities, turning against each other in a spiral of death and destruction instead of triumph of kindness and life.

Now, in more modern times—and we always live in modern times—the Lord has both blessed and warned us.  In the summer of 1859, the Lord’s prophet, Brigham Young, warned that, “The Lord will sift the people, and the time is not far distant when he will sift the nations with a sieve of vanity, and the time is at your doors when he will hold a controversy with the nations and will plead with all flesh, and it will be known who is for God, and who is not.  (Brigham Young, July 31, 1859, Journal of Discourses, Vol.7, p.204).  It was not a new prophetic warning, but it was one about to be fulfilled, which sifting began within two years of the prophet’s words.

The Lord frequently cautions and invites us to life.  His prophet of today, Russell M. Nelson, recently reminded that God is not a God of contention.  He called for us to be followers of Christ, “the Prince of Peace.  Now more than ever, we need the peace only He can bring.  How can we expect peace to exist in the world when we are not individually seeking peace and harmony?”  The prophet encouraged us to build momentum in personally doing good, in laying aside contention.  “None of us can control nations or the actions of others . . . But we can control ourselves.”

The sifting of the world with a sieve of vanity is on.  We see it.  Let the sieve sift out the vanity, as we focus on the stuff of life that Christ offers to us.  In the words of the ancient American prophet-king Benjamin, in his last address, “I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual . . .” (Mosiah 2:41)  Otherwise, why will ye die?

Of Stagflation and Recovery

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Governments create inflation.  Since governments maintain a monopoly on money creation and exercise it constantly, the results of their policies are their own, whether they wish to own them or not.  Having said that, though government got us into this inflationary mess, more government is not going to get us out.  Yet, less government might.

The current administration—including the Federal Reserve—is in a tight spot.  Many repeatedly predicted that the unwholesome monetary and fiscal policies to respond to the equally unwholesome policies of dramatic economic shutdown of the 2020 Great Cessation would eventually lead to inflation.  So they have, even worse than what we saw in the 1970s.  The incoming Biden Administration persisted in blowing air into the inflationary balloon distended the year before.

This is not a partisan statement.  We have seen two Republican administrations doom themselves at the polls by engaging in ruinous economic policies because it was an election year.  Within memory of 2020 policymakers, the outgoing Bush Administration in 2008 mishandled the sure-to-be recession coming from the bursting of the housing bubble by panicking Congress into passing the TARP legislation, which fright drove investors to the sidelines.

True, the price rise from the 2020 massive fiscal and monetary stimulus did not appear as quickly as worriers, like me, expected.  Recipients of government largesse were not spurred to spend it as spontaneously as predicted.  Neither did negative real interest rates prod much borrowing, but it did punish savers.  While economic activity remained suppressed, people for a time sat on their money with little to do.  Eventually, puzzles all finished, people started coming out as 2021 wore on.  Congressional leadership called for more stimulus whilst the flood of funds from earlier stimulus at last began to flow.

The tight spot for the current administration is how to bring down inflation without bringing down the economy.  Of course, the economy will come down if they do not, because inflation eats away at the insides of economic activity.  Current White House leaders are sensitive about comparisons with the Carter Administration, yet there is talk of following the failed Carter example of trying to drive the economic car with one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator.  That is the program for Carteresque stagflation, a stalled economy wrapped in continued high prices.

What we should have learned—and many have—is that the way to end inflation without getting into stagflation is not more government stimulus.  It is to end disincentives to business activity.  Reduce regulatory burdens and people will find ways to solve problems and get things done.  Inflation is caused by too much money chasing too few goods and services, stagflation impeding production of goods and services.  Reducing regulatory burdens and barriers to business activity addresses both problems by promoting productivity, innovation, and expansion, which increase supply at lower costs, reward creativity, and encourage new ideas in a virtuous economic circle.  It worked in the 1980s.  It can work 40 years later.

Of Christmas and Easter

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Christmas, in all its depth, is marvelous.  It gathers together a world, nay, a universe of goodness.  It also attracts that which may not be so good, but in this world that can be said of nearly all good things.  Love, which is the greatest virtue of all, attracts a plethora of counterfeits, some of which are cheapened varieties of love, too many of which undermine love.  Many broken marriages so teach us.

I love Christmas, because I love Easter.  It is from Easter that Christmas derives its profound meaning and joy.  The depth of meaning and joy involved in Easter is unfathomable, yet there is joy in seeking to fathom it.

All goodness and happiness in life and this world are founded upon what Jesus Christ suffered and accomplished in those last few days of His mortal life, His brief experience in the world of the dead, and His resurrecting entrance into eternal life.  The ancient prophet Lehi taught that everything has its opposite.  To his son, Jacob, he said, “there is an opposition in all things,” nothing excepted, “neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” (2 Nephi 2:11)  Christ plumbed the absolute depths of evil, suffering all of the pain, sorrow, and the effects of evil for all, and then overcame it all.

Consider what it means when Jesus Christ’s perfect love for all the Father’s children meets with His omniscience, His knowledge of everything, before, then, and since.  Consider all your sorrows, and comprehensively combine them with the sorrows of all who ever lived and all who will ever live.  To Christ that whole weight was fully and completely revealed.  Christ considered and knew and experienced.  In so doing, He earned in the balance of justice an infinite supply of mercy that he offers to you and me.

Thereby consider the opposite to the sorrow, a fullness of joy that overwhelms that weight.  No wonder when, shortly after His resurrection that guaranteed the resurrection of all, Christ met with a multitude of disciples who loved Him as much as those who wanted Him crucified hated Him.  Beholding these disciples, Jesus blessed their sick, one by one.  Surround by their children, He said, “And now behold, my joy is full.”  How much would it mean for the Creator of the world, to experience fullness of joy

Filled with that joy, Christ “wept, and the multitude bare record of it”.  Then Jesus “took their little children, one by one, and blessed them . . . And when he had done this he wept again . . . and said unto them:  Behold your little ones.” (3 Nephi 17)

Christmas is a delight, because Easter is a joy, and Christmas points us to it.

I have heard that before the days of Lenin, it was customary for Russians to greet each other on Easter with the words, “Khristos voskres!” To which the reply would be “Voistinu voskres!”  Christ is risen!  Indeed, He is risen!  I understand that many in Russia have resumed that Easter greeting.  There is rejoicing that can lead to a fullness of joy for each of us, everywhere.

Of the Federal Reserve and Dreams of Success

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It may be easy, but I think unfair, to fault the Governors of the Federal Reserve System.  Their task is more than they can handle, and yet they are required to do it.  More accurately, I should say that their tasks are more than they can handle, and yet they are required to do them.

When the Fed was created, more than a century ago, a big concern was that it would be dominated by the financiers of New York and the politicians of Washington.  Hence, rather than a central bank, it was born as a system of a dozen regional banks, with a limited focus, to offset the liquidity risk inherent in banking.

Over time the Fed has not stayed that way.  Today, the Federal Reserve is effectively the biggest bank in the world.  Financiers in New York have an outsized influence, but the influence of the politicians in Washington may be greater.  Otherwise, how could a federal republic tolerate a handful of people at a single agency having so much sway over the daily lives and future prosperity of the individuals, families, communities, and businesses in the 50 States of the Union?  Accountability to the elected cannot long be withheld.

A great problem has been that the elected do not refrain from giving the Fed more things to do.  Its one first task has lost its focus by becoming three.  By law, the members of the Board, joined by the presidents of the 12 Fed banks, are to conduct themselves “so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”

What if they cannot succeed?  Then we fault them for failures while still pretending that they can.  We hide the goal posts in fog.  What is “maximum employment”?  Can it be today’s 62% of the adult population when we began the 21st Century at 67%?  What are “stable prices”?  Does “stable” mean that the price of food tomorrow will be the same price it is today, or is “stable” the Fed’s official goal that things will cost 2% more each year, so that my young son’s retirement will require nearly twice as much as mine does?  Then there is the third, often forgotten requirement, that interest rates be “moderate.”  For 10 years the Fed kept quiet about that legal mandate, keeping interest rates very close to zero, a huge transfer of wealth from savers to borrowers, Uncle Sam being the world’s biggest borrower.  Is it surprising that the federal government’s debt grew during those 10 years to $30 trillion and still swelling?

What is the Fed to do?  We cannot reproach its current team, because they cannot succeed.  No government agency, regardless of excellent economists and the best computers, can manage it all.  If you read the statements, they carefully admit, essentially, “we don’t know how to succeed, but the law says we have to do something, so we will try this and that and see how it goes.” Meanwhile, it has not been going so well.  To paraphrase liberally from psychiatrist Anthony Daniels, we should not be so beguiled by the dreamy tasks we have placed on the Fed that we cannot bear to lighten the load merely because it is not working.

Of Hostile Invasions and Their Burdens

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It is hard to see what Russians gain from their government’s invasion of its neighbors.  Certainly neither Russian nor Ukrainian soldiers benefit.  That, however, is also true of the people of both nations, now and in the days to come.  How are the leaders of Russia, by recourse to bloody war, serving the people whom they govern?

Vladimir Putin apparently forgot why a prior Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, took Russia out of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Yeltsin knew, as even Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev knew, that the rest of the USSR was a burden and economic drain on Russia.  Supporting and controlling the other Socialist Republics cost more than they returned.  So Yeltsin did what had been until then unthinkable (or unspeakable)—until he did it.  As President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Yeltsin considered what was best for the people of Russia and exercised the nation’s right under the Soviet Constitution to withdraw from the USSR.  It did not take Gorbachev long to recognize that he could do little about it.  Friendless and no longer fed by Russia, the USSR peacefully dissolved.

Today’s Russian economy is noticeably better than the heavy Soviet socialism.  Yet it continues to strain under weighty government control, corruption, and crony favoritism.  Ask the people in far eastern Ukraine—the part dominated by Russia for the last several years—how well Russian economic policies and promises are working for them?  They will not tell you, because they are not allowed to say.  Ask their neighboring Russians how much they have benefited from Russian control of those eastern provinces.  Take your answer from the looks on their faces.

Are those eastern Ukrainian provinces, with their boarded up windows, idle workplaces, unrepaired buildings and streets, and shortages of much of everything, a model for what Putin intends for the rest of Ukraine?  Ukraine has its economic troubles and corruption and cronyism, too, but the Ukrainians who have voted with their feet show why they have been leaving the Russian “liberated zones” and moving west.

Whatever the Russian government may declare to be success by its invasion, I cannot but think that it will be for naught.  Any bloody ground they seize, any unwilling people they capture, will be a constant drain on Russia, indeed the more the worse.  That is the hostile invaders’ burden and curse. 

After so many are killed and so much is destroyed, how long will Russians think that their government’s adventure was worth it?  What weights will Putin’s escapade be laying upon his people to carry? The longer it goes on, the worse it gets for all concerned.  From the perspective of the people of Russia and Ukraine, I do not see how this ends well.

Of Rule by Experts and Rule by Law

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In the 1990s I was part of a congressional delegation to Argentina, when the Argentine economy was growing strongly and steadily, and inflation was low, the currency convertible 1-for-1 with the dollar.  Trade barriers were being lowered, commerce was booming.  I recall asking Argentines what could possibly darken what seemed to be a bright future.  They were quick to reply:  “Here in Argentina we have no rule of law.  You can have no confidence in getting justice from the courts.”  Not long after, political shenanigans to reward one part of the electorate by a transfer of wealth from others threw the Argentine economy into turmoil.  Momentary good policy is a tough path to walk across bogs of inadequate legal safeguards.  Freedom has rested upon rule by law rather than rule by men.

Fundamentally, the American Revolution was an assertion of the rule of law.  Most of the Declaration of Independence is a litany of abuse by the English rulers.  The Revolution was intended to take power away from man and men and rest it upon laws and rights, soon to be secured by the world’s first written Constitution.

The Progressive Movement, which thrived over a century ago, was a retreat, aggressively stepping backwards to the rule of men as an impatient alternative to the rule of law:  the Rule of Experts.  Their new view—really a very old view dressed up in modern rhetoric—was that there are benevolent experts, to whom we can safely yield our governance, for such understand the process of modern government better than ordinary people do.

It sounds akin to the ancient theory of Divine Right of Kings, that the worldly monarchs are chosen by God and invested with greater wisdom and perspective than the average man and woman.  To their benevolent expertise and fatherly care was entrusted the governance of the rest of us.

Today’s benevolent experts are invested by their colleagues with varieties of credentials certifying their expertise.  Not very democratic, they make no secret of their impatience with the Congress and other constitutional brakes on arbitrary authority.

Just as not all men are always just, not all men are reliably wise.  The American Founders thought to address this problem by the separation of powers, dividing political authority among three branches in the Federal Government and the States.

The current regulatory program rests heavily on the notion that benevolent experts should be entrusted with authority for the big questions and increasingly smaller questions, too.  It has evolved by progressively engulfing the constitutional separation of powers, merging legislative and executive—and often judicial—authority in “independent” regulatory agencies headed by unelected officials.  The unelected federal regulator writes the details of mandatory regulations, charges violators, assesses guilt, and applies penalties.

Professedly efficient, it does not work well in practice.  First, the regulators are not dispassionate umpires, limited to calling the balls and strikes.  They are also players in the game, having their own set of particular interests and incentives that they take care of first.

Second, reliance on benevolent experts assumes what is an unproven, undemonstrated level of knowledge, insight, and forecasting skills.  Regulators are not dumber than the rest of the population, but they are no smarter either.  It is just that life is too complex and the society of the living is proving too much to be run by any designated group of humans and their computers.

A third flaw is mission creep.  Even if the tasks are too great or require too much knowledge, insight, foresight, and other skills in unachievable degree, the regulators still take them on, with each failure met with calls to increase resources and power of the agency.  

An example is the Federal Reserve (commonly called the “Fed”), created with a specific and rather narrow purpose, to make enough funding available for the banking system in times of financial stress.  Before long, the Fed gained control of monetary policy and the practice of controlling interest rates.  Later, it was tasked with promoting maximum employment.  In 2010 the Fed’s role in supervising banks was enlarged to supervising any financial business considered to be systemically significant.  Each augmentation has drawn the Fed away from its narrow, objective task. 

This expansion of authority affects every business and every home.  The Federal Reserve is the world’s biggest rigger of interest rates.  Its prolonged policy of keeping short-term rates at or slightly above zero has resulted in penalizing all savers and those who live off of their savings, transferring trillions of dollars of wealth to borrowers, the biggest borrower being the Federal Government.

A partial but simple solution toward strengthening the rule of law and reducing exposure to the caprice of men would be returning to elected representatives the making of laws.  It is a messy process, exactly the messy process that the Founders intended to preserve freedom from the encroachment of arbitrary and oppressive government.  The regulators, which are theoretically part of the executive branch, should be limited to the duty of implementing the laws that the elected and accountable representatives make. 

If Congress were required to write the rules and mandates, and delegate only the implementation, the mandates of government would be circumscribed by the exposure of a legislative body held directly accountable for what it has wrought.  It is easy for legislators to complain about bad regulatory decisions, but too often, these are decisions that Congress never should have delegated to regulators in the first place.

Of Marx and His Side of History

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Karl Marx was a bad prophet.  His record is abysmal.  Reality paved a road moving opposite to the predictions of Marx.  That is a serious problem for someone whose theories of economics, life, and the future boastfully rest upon assertions of inevitable fulfillment clothed in scientific jargon.

My friend, Alex Pollock, has frequently said to me that predicting the future is easy; having the predictions come true is the hard part.  Richard M. Ebeling, a professor at The Citadel, has done what many have not.  He has studied what Karl Marx foretold in comparison with what happened.  The differences are stark.  Ebeling reports, “Being blunt, every one of Marx’s ‘predictions’ has failed to come true.” (See Richard M. Ebeling, “How Marx Got on the Wrong Side of History,” June 16, 2017, Foundation for Economic Education.) To begin, Marx’s forecast of the progressive immiseration of the general population was exploded by the greatest increase in standard of living in the shortest period of time for the largest number of people in history. 

His prediction that mass production would render labor skills ever simpler and homogenous, rewarded with mere subsistence wages, compares poorly with the dramatic expansion of the complexity, variety, sophistication, and compensation of employment and employees in the nearly two centuries since.  I admit that I am not comparing Marx’s predictions with the reality in Marxist societies, where Marx’s predictions of employee drudgery and subsistence living have come too painfully close to fulfillment.

Indeed, perhaps only in such a view, where Marxist experiments have been tried, can one find any relevance of the Marxist concept of being on the “wrong side of history.”  The once oppressed residents of the former Soviet bloc are still trying to get caught up with their neighbors who did not spend decades living Karl Marx’s utopian nightmare.  That is to say, the idea that the Marxist conception of history having “sides” has only been demonstrated in the negative by regimes who have imposed Marxist prescriptions on what they call their “masses,” often within walls to keep them on the inside.

What history has shown is that no one controls it, other than God.  From time to time God provides His prophets visions of future history, usually with invitations and cautions, invitations to actions that will bring progress and happiness, and cautions that if ignored yield destruction and sorrow.  Those prophecies have always come true.  In that sense, and that sense alone, to be “on the right side of history” is to be on the right side of God and His encouragements and warnings.

God our Father loves us and our freedom so much that He gives us room for our exercise of choice in creating our own history, disinclined to force what He wants or to prevent what He hates, ever offering counsel and eager to help when asked in faith.  History is littered with the ruins of societies that acted otherwise, when they reached a point described in scripture as being “fully ripe in iniquity.”

Of Vanity and Measureless Worth

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Millions who were recently fully employed today choose to remain off the market.  The unemployment rate, measured by the number seeking work who have not landed a job, is therefore approaching record lows.  Available jobs outnumber those looking for them.  The total of all employed remains fewer than it was two years ago.  Too many have stopped looking.  With generous government benefits for doing nothing, more than a few have concluded, what is the point?

That is bad for the economy, but it is worse for those who have taken a pass at gainful employment.  It is the ancient attitude of personal desuetude.  Solomon, the King of Israel of antiquity, wrote, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)  Has the spiritual wind that brings value to life gone out of people’s sails?  Or have many stopped unfurling their sails?  Giving up on work, are they giving up on living?

Having seen it all, and explored and pondered life, Solomon, the richest and wisest of kings, ruled Israel at its peak in wealth and sway.  Observing “all things that are done under heaven,” he concluded, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.  What profit hath a man of all his labour . . .?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 3)  Solomon presented a powerful case.  He described the profound emptiness of the ephemeral existence he perceived.  Generations of people come and go, forgotten.  People’s eyes are not satisfied with seeing nor their ears with hearing.  There is little remembrance of what was done in the past, and what will come will be little recalled by those who come after.  Man’s search for wisdom finds grief and his increase in knowledge increases his sorrow.  “There is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9ff.)

A cursory reading of Solomon’s Biblical book, Ecclesiastes, has led some to regard Solomon’s wisdom as having soured on existence.  A more careful reading reveals an inspired wisdom that reaches beyond the world.  Solomon recognized, and hoped to cause others to recognize, that lasting value is not to be found in the perishable things of mortality.  He declared, “I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.” (Ecclesiastes 2:13)  He taught that wisdom was not to be found in a focus on things under heaven, but in the things from heaven, the eternal things.  God gave us the world as the school for us to prepare for heaven.  A focus on the world itself is folly, nothing but dust in the end.  A focus on the eternal, however, can enrich life now and to come.

What are the eternal things?  The scriptures resonate with counsel to make our life bountiful.  In modern times, Jesus Christ offered an exemplary list of things that give us joy and meaning today and endow us for heaven.  “Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.” (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

The temporary and transient are provided to be harnessed by us as we secure now and take with us what can be never ending.  What is that?  It is all that can go with us beyond the temporary grave, such as our family relations and the virtues that are developed in a family better than anywhere else.  I recently heard my daughter say that being a mother is the hardest work she has ever done, and she loves it.

Solomon urged a rearrangement of our priorities from an attraction to what would become inevitable vanity under heaven, to the use of what the Creator has given us to prepare for living in heaven.  “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.”  This is what Solomon called, “the conclusion of the whole matter . . .” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

The gift from Jesus Christ is to guide, preserve, magnify, and hold to every good thing which, if we will accept His gift, “without compulsory means . . . shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:46)

Of Christmas and More than an Infant

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This Christmas many people will sing and speak praises of a baby born in Bethlehem 2021 years ago.  Unfortunately, too many people never get past that story of the “Babe of Bethlehem.”  It is sweet, it is joyful, but it is not enough. 

The birth of Jesus, the Son of God, was miraculous.  Unlike the birth of anyone else, his birth was prophesied over thousands of years, with prophecies fulfilled in every particular, and prophecies that are continuing and accelerating in their fulfillment today.  What does that mean for us?  It means that this is all part of a very big deal.  It is what the prophet Alma said “is of more importance than” all (Alma 7:7).

We love to sing Christmas carols.  The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children.  In my younger years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective.  “The first Noel the angel did say/ Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. . . ”  In my young mind “certain” described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds.  The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.

Today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb.  The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to become witnesses of something extremely important.  The angel explained what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally.  Immediately afterward they shared with others what they knew.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger.  And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” (Luke 2:8-17, emphasis added)

Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.

The Father and the Son want us to know so that we might understand—actually, so that we might not misunderstand.  They appeared to Joseph Smith, such that Joseph’s knowledge was, from the first, certain.  He then could testify, “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me . . .” (Joseph Smith History 1:25)

I have gained my own witness that Joseph’s certainty was true.  I, too, have been certained by the power of the Holy Ghost.  I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Savior of the world.  God has given certain witness to Joseph Smith and the prophets since then, including the prophet today, Russell M. Nelson.  Many have believed and had belief confirmed into certainty by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.

The words to the carol, “What Child Is This?” are a soul-deep meditation on why the birth of this Baby is so important.  The musings lead to an answer found in what this Child would later do

I fear that many modern renditions of the carol miss—or perhaps even avoid—the point. Among the dozen or so recordings of that carol in my possession, I discovered to my surprise that all but maybe four leave out the second of three verses written by William C. Dix, the one that holds a central place explaining why this birth was important.  Some repeat, again and again, the true declaration that this Child is “Christ the King.” Recognition of that reality is essential, but how far does it get you?  Even Herod believed and feared that prophecy, a belief that goaded him to destroy all the babes of Bethlehem that his soldiers could find.

Why did Christ the King find it necessary to lower Himself to be born among men?  That is the central question, the answer to which converts our attitude toward Christ from reverence for a Divine Monarch into deeply felt love born of joy and boundless gratitude.  The second verse, too often skipped, explains what is at the heart of Christmas.  Here are the words.

Why lies He in such mean estate,

Where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christians, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

The babe, the Son of Mary.

This little Child would be pierced by nails and spear when He was older but no less innocent.  Why would He submit to that?  Why would the King submit to that?

Among the beautiful carols of Christmas there is one that surely seems odd and out of place. The haunting melody is in significant measure responsible for its lasting popularity, but the words are anything but joyful for a joyful celebration. Rather than recount the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the song expresses the inconsolable sorrow of a mother of Bethlehem mourning the cruel murder of her little child. Popularly known as “The Coventry Carol,” it includes these words:

O sisters, too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day;

This poor Youngling for whom we sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day;

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young, to slay.

The song helps retell when jealous King Herod, fearful of even rumors of potential rivals for his throne, ordered the slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem of two years old and younger. Herod had been advised by the wise men of the birth of the future King of the Jews, in fulfillment of prophecy.  Herod missed his mark, for Jesus was no longer there. Joseph, warned by an angel, had taken his little family away to Egypt.

Among those who take it upon themselves to second guess God there are those who would question why God would save His Son, while allowing all those other children in Bethlehem to be slain. Again, these critics miss the mark. They get it wrong by failing to consider the whole picture.

God the Father did not spare His Son from the slaying of the children at Bethlehem. The unfair and cruel carnage begun in David’s city was finished on Calvary. Jesus’ life was spared only momentarily so that it could be offered as the last sacrifice for all. That seemingly doleful song points us to the full meaning of Christmas as part of a story that winds through Bethlehem and leads through sorrow in Gethsemane to death on Calvary.

Importantly, the story continues on from there to a glorious resurrection morning on the third day. Christ was born to save us, in spite of the evils of the world that He most of all could not escape, a salvation that extends especially to the children of Bethlehem and to all the little children of the world.

I conceive of a day, a moment, when those very men who pounded the nails into the Savior’s hands and feet come personally to realize, come face-to-face with what they have done.  What depth of grief that this knowledge will cause to the hearts of those men—when they become certain of the meaning of those moments in that day—I can imagine in only the smallest degree.  They will be the only men, among the billions who have trod the earth, who with hammers in their fists drove nails into the hands and feet of the Creator and their Savior.  What will that certainty mean to them?

Perhaps the Savior’s plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34) will be the beginning of some healing solace when they do know what they personally did.  I suspect that this is not the limit of the mercy that the Savior will extend to these, His brothers, who were so close to the Son of God in this horrible way.

Then I am drawn to consider, how will we feel when our day comes, and it surely will, when we stand face-to-face and see those wounds in His hands and feet?  How will we feel when we come to understand perfectly, as we will, that our own, personal sins made those wounds necessary, that because of what we knowingly have done there was no other way, that we helped to make those nails unavoidable?  More, how will we feel, looking in the Savior’s eyes, when we fully understand that depending on our repentance the suffering that we personally caused was entirely and eternally worth it, or in absence of our repentance for us for naught?  At that moment our joy and our love or our grief and pain will be without measure.

Let us decide now, for we may, to let our loving hearts enthrone Him.  May we decide now, today, that we, when brought into the personal presence of the Savior, will be like the ancient Nephites, who did “bow down at his feet . . . and worship him; and . . . kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears.” (3 Nephi 17:10)

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