The story of Korihor in Alma 30 contains many lessons for the modern audience. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting part of the chapter to me is the discussion of law in verses 7-11. In particular, this discussion is bookended by the concept of equality:
7. “Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.”
12. “… Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.”
In an earlier post, Jim Faulconer asked a question that I would like to revisit here: What does it mean to be “on equal grounds”?
We learn from the other verses in this section that punishing people for their actions did not violate the principle of equality. Verse 10 and the first part of verse 11 state: “But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes.” Clearly, the author is distinguishing action (punishment justified) from belief (punishment unjustified). Perhaps some wish to quibble with this distinction or to demonstrate the difficulty of drawing bright lines between the two, but that is not my target.
Instead, I am interested in the role of equality in this system. Not punishing beliefs is essential to fulfilling the condition of equality, but equality survives when specified actions lead to punishment. Verses 8-9, which follow the initial reference to “unequal grounds,” may offer some assistance in resolving this puzzle:
For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.
Notice that verse 8 begins with “for” as a conjunction, suggesting that what follows explains the prior conclusion. This is my interpretation: punishing belief would violate the notion of equality because each person needs to choose God, rather than having God chosen for him or her. It’s Lucifer’s plan versus God’s plan all over again. Under this view, “equality” means laboring for exaltation under the similar conditions.
While we can find some scriptural support for this view, it is at first blush a rather strange basis for regulation. Surely criminalizing conduct disrupts equality in the same way as criminalizing belief. Why not construct a system in which all people would be free to choose murder or adultery? The obvious concern here is with third-party effects, namely, harm to person or property. We criminalize certain actions because they have third-party effects that we would like to discourage. On the other hand, we refrain from criminalizing beliefs because they do not have such effects, at least directly.
Once beliefs are expressed, of course, they may lead others to choose harmful paths. This seems to have been the main concern with Korihor: he was “leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.” Alma 30:18. Nevertheless, for purposes of criminal law, we can distinguish between Korihor the preacher and his congregation (though we might, in some instances, be inclined to punish the preacher, too). Accordingly, Korihor was not punished under the Nephite criminal code, but rather by the wrath of God.
But we have gone astray, offering a different rationale for the Nephite system (third-party effects) than the one proferred in the Book of Mormon (equality). The only way I can come close to making sense of the emphasis on “equal grounds” in Alma is to appeal to the famous “lust” scripture in Matthew 5:27-28: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” If the “heart” is the domain of the spirit, then we might achieve equality by refraining for regulation of thought or belief while still discouraging harmful third-party effects by regulating actions. The problem here should be obvious: this view discounts the spiritual effects of actions (why do we have a body if not to develop our spirits?).
Thus we return to Jim’s still not adequately answered question: What does it mean to be “on equal grounds”?