“Bridge Leaper’s Cruel, Lonely Life In School” was a headline in a San Francisco newspaper that drew my attention. Suicides off the Golden Gate bridge have become so numerous that they are generally given little newspaper space. Three elements made this jump more newsworthy: the victim survived the 236-foot fall, he was just 16 years of age, and his despondency seemed to be rooted in rejection by his schoolmates.
Interviews revealed that he was an outcast as a sophomore in high school. He was condemned for carrying his books in front of him like a girl and for not showing interest in sports. These cues led to serious unfounded rumors. His classmates sang cruel songs about him in his presence, left the seat next to him vacant on the school bus, and laughed at him. It was not entirely surprising that he dropped out of school after his sophomore year and eventually made his way to the bridge.
There is a seldom-quoted scripture that applies to the kind of behavior that the young bridge leaper experienced from his peers: “… is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
“Woe unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!” (Alma 5:30–31.) This scripture was addressed to members of the church of Christ whose behavior belied their professions of discipleship. Like all scripture, it may be likened to our day “for our profit and learning.” (1 Ne. 19:23.) Just as God will not be mocked, so will he not have his children mock one another.
To mock is to humiliate, ridicule, insult, revile, make fun of, deride, sneer at, scorn, or hold in contempt. Teasing is a “mild” form of mockery that sometimes occurs without malice or intent to harm, but frequently results in strained interpersonal relations and a loss of self-esteem on the part of the object of laughter.
Some interpersonal mockery probably derives from thoughtless conformity to social pressures or an attempt to divert attention from personal imperfection to the alleged imperfections of others. In addition, pride seems to be a fundamental vice underlying much mockery of our brother. Pride embodies the spirit of condescension. C. S. Lewis said it well:
“A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Macmillan Paperbacks, New York, 1960, p. 96.)
The cost to ourselves and others in mocking our brother is so vast in both the this-worldly and other-worldly scheme of things that it may be well for us to examine some common contexts of mockery. Occasions for mockery usually occur in the context of real or imagined differences. Differences in beliefs, wealth, learning, social position, physical characteristics, group membership, and behavior may be used as pretexts for the justification of mockery.
“… And they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.” (Alma 4:8.)
Believers and disbelievers alike have been subjected to scorn by their detractors. Elder George A. Smith captured the irony of religious persecution by quoting an anonymous Irish poet: “Who can believe it? The cause is rather odd—they hate one another for the Love of God.” (Journal of Discourses 2:324.)
Joseph Smith reminded the Saints in an epistle “… to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves, and are so congenial to human nature, against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between them and their God.
“There is a love from God that should be exercised toward those of our faith, who walk uprightly, which is peculiar to itself, but it is without prejudice; it also gives scope to the mind, which enables us to conduct ourselves with greater liberality towards all that are not of our faith, than what they exercise towards one another. These principles approximate nearer to the mind of God, because it is like God, or Godlike.” (Documentary History of the Church 3:304.)
This letter was sent while Joseph Smith was unjustly detained as a prisoner in Liberty Jail because of his religious beliefs.
“Because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek.” (2 Ne. 9:30.)
“The people of the church began to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one toward another.” (Alma 4:8.)
“And preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.” (2 Ne. 26:20.)
“And the people began to be distinguished by ranks according to their riches and their chances for learning, yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.” (3 Ne. 6:12.)
These scriptures illustrate several principles. First, wealth and learning are sometimes used in the service of pride to demean. The scriptures are, of course, just as clear that riches and learning may be used in the service of goodness to bless. However, it is perhaps generally true, at least in our day, that the former use is more common than the latter. It is also the case that mockery is a two-edged sword. The poor and unlearned need to guard against succumbing to the temptation of mocking their brother because of his riches or learning.
Second, Church members are not immune from falling into the trap of interpersonal scorn based upon inequality of material possessions. Indeed, it was this lamentable condition in the church that led Alma to resign his office of chief judge to devote his time to the redemptive mission of bearing down in pure testimony against them.” (Alma 4:19.) Orson Pratt wrote:
“When do you see a rich man among the Latter-day Saints who, when he makes a great feast, invites the poor and the lame, the halt and the blind, and those who are in destitute circumstances? Such events are few and far between. The Savior has strictly commanded us that when we make our feasts, instead of inviting those who have abundance and roll in the good things and luxuries of life, we should invite the poorest among us, the lame, blind and infirm, and those who perhaps have not enough to eat.” (Journal of Discourses 15:355.)
Third, wealth and learning may interact to increase and perpetuate class distinction. George Q. Cannon elaborated on the dynamics of the interaction:
“When wealth multiplies the people get lifted up in the pride of their hearts, and they look down on their poor brethren and despise them, because they are better educated, have better manners, and speak better language—in a word, because they have advantages which their poor brethren and sisters have not. There is sin in this, and God is angry with a people who take this course. He wants us to be equal in earthly things, as we are in heavenly. He wants no poor among his people; he does not want the cry of the oppressed to ascend from the midst of the Latter-day Saints, and God forbid that it ever should!” (Journal of Discourses 15:156.)
We are not yet “equal in earthly things” and, therefore, we are more prone to live below the standard of the gospel. Nevertheless, each Latter-day Saint is enjoined to abide by an interpersonal standard capable of eliminating mocking behavior due to economic or educational disparities; namely, “Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God?” (D&C 82:19.)
Some of us may mock our brother because he has a “lesser” occupational, civic, or ecclesiastical standing. King Benjamin got to the core of the matter when he observed: “And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust.” (Mosiah 2:26.)
If King Benjamin were clear with respect to the occupational and civic areas, Joseph Smith was crystal clear about ecclesiastical condescension:
“If a high priest comes along, and goes to snub either of them in their presidency, because they are Seventies, let them knock the man’s teeth down his throat—I mean spiritually.” (Documentary History of the Church 5:368.)
He even applied the same standard to himself:
“Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else. Suppose I would condescend—yes, I will call it condescend, to be a great deal better than any of you, I would be raised up to the highest heaven; and who should I have to accompany me? …
“I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not. God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them.” (Documentary History of the Church 5:401.)
It is sobering to note that when the Savior was called Good Master, he replied, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.” (Matt. 19:17.)
The apostles in Joseph Smith’s time were reminded that they were not more precious in the sight of the Lord than those they served:
“With regard to superiority, I must make a few remarks. The ancient apostles sought to be great; but lest the seeds of discord be sown in this matter; understand particularly the voice of the Spirit on this occasion. God does not love you better or more than others.” (Documentary History of the Church 2:196.)
The allusion to greatness among the ancient apostles may have been the incident involving the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. She loved her sons and was proud of their apostolic calling and so asked the Savior if her sons could stand at the right and left hand of him in the Kingdom of God. The other ten apostles were disturbed at the presumptuous request. The Savior used the episode to teach them that the world sought recognition and prestige, but the gospel taught men “not to be ministered unto but to minister.” Men are not chosen for privilege but for their capacity to bless others. The Spirit moved President John Taylor to write:
“Our Heavenly Father is desirous to promote the happiness and welfare of the whole of the human family; and if we, any of us, hold any Priesthood, it is simply for that same purpose, and not for our personal aggrandizement, or for our own honor, or pomp, or position; but we hold it in the interest of God and for the salvation of the people, that through it we may promote their happiness, blessing and prosperity, temporal and spiritual, both here and in the world to come.” (Journal of Discourses 22:230.)
The prophets have always been unequivocal about the folly of mocking our brother because of position:
“And the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal.” (Alma 1:26.)
Sometimes people are ridiculed because they don’t belong to the “right” group. Nationality, race, age, sex, religion, or contrived outgroups may be used as categories of exclusion. Miriam and Aaron were unhappy with Moses because Moses had earlier “married an Ethiopian woman.” (Num. 1:12.) One of the reasons the Nephites sought to cast out Samuel was “because I am a Lamanite.” (Hel. 14:10.) Anne Frank wrote in her diary: “Surely the time will come when we are people again, and not just Jews.”
Mockery because of group membership is usually much more subtle than severe persecution. Condescension and exclusion vis-a-vis outsiders are the marks of the clique. The insidious rejection of the young bridge jumper was not as blatant nor systematic as the Jewish pogroms but, in its own way, was almost as effective. The damage of rejection is more frequently psychological than physical, but psychological scars are sometimes more disfiguring than the remnants of physical abuse. Most of us may believe ourselves to be above this temptation. And yet C. S. Lewis observed:
“People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different ring which renders them immune from the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communist coterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and cabinet ministers that he wants; it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, the Macmillan Company, New York, 1949, pp. 58–59.)
Nephi reminded us that the covenant people are defined not by genealogy but by goodness. (2 Ne. 30:1–2.) And goodness is neither exclusive in spirit nor condescending in nature.
Acne, obesity, skin color, physical handicaps, mental retardation, and other physical problems frequently elicit unkind remarks or misunderstandings. Occasionally we convey unintentional impressions of rejection by our discomfort or lack of information. A young man afflicted with cerebral palsy observed that it usually took his roommates a semester to realize that there is a sound mind within his body.
Young people probably suffer more from the rejection implicit in this form of mockery than any other age group. The memory of the experience of an acquaintance illustrates this point.
Some of the young men derisively called him Ichabod in athletic competition during physical education in high school. His arms took curious shapes from the ravages of a childhood disease and his coordination was affected thereby. His enthusiasm for sports, though, was not dampened by the handicap, and he participated with all his strength and with unusual skill. He might have been an outstanding athlete except for his disability. Some chided him and others ignored him; some resented the calloused remarks, but said nothing, and others came to his defense, ignored his physical handicap, and befriended him. Doubtless, there were moments of loneliness and discouragement when the label “Ichabod” pierced the air.
Saint and sinner alike have been ridiculed for their behavior. Joseph Smith warned the Relief Society sisters in Nauvoo against self-righteousness. He then swept away any justification for mockery of the sinner by observing:
“The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” (Documentary History of the Church 5:24.)
The objects of persecution have occasionally been in error; the perpetrators of persecution have always been in error.
Christ was mocked “because of the things which he testified of them.” (1 Ne. 1:19.) Joseph of Egypt, Lehi, and Nephi were all demeaned because they were visionary men. The sons of Mosiah recalled after their successful missionary labors that some of their brethren “laughed us to scorn” when they told them of their plans to labor as missionaries among the Lamanites. (Alma 26:23–24.)
Frequently the causes of derision are trivial. The experience of Willard Richards is an excellent illustration:
“From the time that Elder Willard Richards was called to the apostleship, in July, 1838, the devil seemed to take a great dislike to him, and strove to stir up the minds of many against him. Elder Richards was afflicted with sickness, and several times was brought to the borders of the grave, and many were tempted to believe that he was under transgression, or he would not be thus afflicted. Some were tried and tempted because Elder Richards took to himself a wife; they thought he should have given himself wholly to the ministry, and followed Paul’s advice to the letter. Some were tried because his wife wore a veil, and others because she carried a muff to keep herself warm when she walked out in cold weather; and even the [mission president in England] thought ‘she had better done without it’; she had nothing ever purchased by the Church; and to gratify their feelings, wore the poorest clothes she had, and they were too good, so hard was it to buffet the storm of feeling that arose from such foolish causes. Sister Richards was very sick for some time, and some were dissatisfied because her husband did not neglect her entirely and go out preaching; and others, that she did not go to meeting when she was not able to go so far.” (Documentary History of the Church 3:276–277.)
Even though derision may result from a trivial cause, such as was listed above, the temptation to mockery because of someone else’s behavior is most severe when it seems justified. Perceived justification generally occurs when we have been abused, reviled against, or injured and we feel like retaliating. It is the spirit of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
The behavior of the Savior on the cross represented the ultimate of restraint when he refrained from responding to mockery. There was no show of power by the marshalling of angels nor eloquence of words in his defense. Pride was consumed by charity. His quiet demeanor in suffering testified of his divine sonship.
Joseph Smith also rejected an opportunity to vent his anger against two men, Reynolds and Wilson, who had beaten him, attempted to kidnap him, threatened his life, and taken him unlawfully from his loved ones. When the tables were turned Joseph did not respond in kind. The prophet described their treatment:
“Friends that were raised up unto me would have spilt their life’s blood to have torn me from the hands of Reynolds and Wilson, if I had asked them; but I told them no, I would be delivered by the power of God and generalship; and I have brought these men to Nauvoo, and committed them to her from whom I was torn, not as prisoners in chains, but as prisoners of kindness. I have treated them kindly. I have had the privilege of rewarding them good for evil. They took me unlawfully, treated me rigorously, strove to deprive me of my rights, and would have run with me into Missouri to have been murdered, if Providence had not interposed. But now they are in my hands; and I have taken them into my house, set them at the head of my table, and placed before them the best which my house afforded; and they were waited upon by my wife, whom they deprived of seeing me when I was taken.” (Documentary History of the Church 5:467.)
Mockery costs our brother or sister severe physical and/or psychological pain. It also jeopardizes our hope of eternal life. Moreover, it is especially debilitating to those who have been called to serve. We cannot serve those for whom we have contempt. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant martyr, wrote from prison:
“… There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know full that it would be very wrong, and that it would lead to a sterile relationship with our fellow men … the man who despises others can never hope to do anything with them.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press LTD, London, 1967. Italics added.)
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Savior specified that love was a necessary condition of discipleship.
The questions that Alma posed to his fellow members to encourage self-examination were pointed and embarrassing. They are no less pointed and embarrassing to many of us. “Have we walked blameless before God?”
“Are we stripped of pride and envy?”
“… Is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
“Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!” (Alma 5:27–31.)