In a classic speech, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, recently addressed the graduating class at Stanford University and reminded them about the “conspiracy of love” that has enabled them to be at this particular point in their lives. What he wanted to convey was simply that every person’s opportunities and fortunate circumstances do not emerge in a vacuum and, much less, do not exist merely as a result of an individual earning or deserving them. Instead, he insisted that these circumstances—whether it be shelter, good health, schooling, employment, supportive relationships, peace and safety—result from the labor of love of many others. These people are usually parents, grandparents, and teachers, but they are also the civic-minded among us: community leaders and those who labor on behalf of the health and vitality of institutions. He offered his own family experience as an example, describing how his parents and grandparents grew up in a segregated America and yet managed to arrive at a point where Booker could have a shot at getting into Stanford at the age of 18.
Whenever Booker was found acting just a little too oblivious to or ungrateful for the conspiracy of love that behind the scenes had provided the fortunate circumstances of his life, his father would chide him: “Son, don’t you go walking around this house like you just hit a triple, when you were born on third base!”
It would seem to follow that if positive circumstances are the product of a collective conspiracy of love and that achievement is never merely individual, failure is also never merely individual. This is because above and beyond all my good and bad decisions are the collective effects of good and bad decisions of a myriad of others. Evil does not triumph through individual disobedience to God’s will alone; “And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers (Doctrine and Covenants 93:39). Tragedy, suffering, and loss, in other words, are to be collectively mourned in part because they are collectively created through erroneous or insufficient structures in society. The best evidence of this is the fact that we are so inadequate in the face of collective problems like endemic poverty, human trafficking, or climate change. Our ethics needs a deeper and more collective evolution. We cannot imagine that our morality is determined by individual agency in a small sphere of influence alone since we are not only parents, children, siblings and neighbors but also citizens, consumers, employees, users of public goods, members of a culture and participants in traditions that are collectively generated.
Perhaps some will say I am sounding too much like a socialist, since I seem to want to subvert individual agency by an appeal to the collective good. But the very fact that we so easily assume that any discussion of collective good and collective sin mutually excludes individual agency is merely a signal failure of American society to appreciate the various conspiracies of love and of selfish hate that have shaped our circumstances, to pay penance for collective failure, and to conscript new conspirators for future generations. In recent years it seems that we have spent far more time celebrating and defending freedom than we have spent expressing gratitude, acknowledging our inadequacies, or describing and promoting responsibility to others. Education does not seemed aimed any longer at the collective whole but at the ultimate goal of self-realization, as if any self could be fully realized without others who help or need help. We have become addicted to the memoir, the individual tale of self-fulfillment, as if being a self, for its own sake, were its own end. It seems hard to believe that the original purpose of Thanksgiving, as instituted by President Lincoln on the heels of the Civil War, was to collectively recognize the undeserved mercies of God, the need for collective penance, and the plight of those who had suffered the greatest losses.
In the Book of Mormon, Korihor announces his apostate teachings by declaring that there was no atonement for sins because “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore that every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30: 17). The conclusion Korihor wishes us to come to is a simple tautology. We always get what we deserve and what we deserve is what we get. This, of course, makes us radically free from everyone and from all contingencies; it is a pretense of complete autonomy. The uneven, unequal, complex, and seemingly irrational events of life that beset society at every turn, however—those events that place some people on third base while others are still at bat— are precisely what make us answerable to one another. That certainly seems to be King Benjamin’s message: to blame someone for their unfortunate circumstances is the same thing as believing we deserve our own good fortune. It is to forget that before the Creator we are all beggars. Wealth and opportunity are like a hot potato: if you worry how it might harm the poor to be too generous in helping them, you are failing to worry about how it might canker your own soul to hold on to what was never deservedly yours to begin with. Korihor’s teachings, not unlike the radical individualism we hear so much of these days, directly contrasts what we learn from the experience of Job or from Ecclesiastes which declares that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). What binds us together—time, biology, chance—is also what makes for such great disparities in life. This bond is cause for great and collective penance, for a proper humility, and for commitment to live for higher purposes than self-interest.
Recent events in my own family have brought these thoughts to mind. In my own extended family I can see that despite our common heritage and biology, there are many cultural and structural differences and traditions that have emerged that account for a great many advantages and disadvantages that each of us enjoys. If it is hard to imagine how we can have so much wealth and opportunity in this country alongside so much deprivation and disadvantage, it is even harder for me to see such disparity in one family, let alone to see how easy it is for those on third base to imagine they just hit a triple.