The word “honor” is in a weird place right now. Our culture’s managed to provide workarounds for many of the problems that honor was a life-and-death matter about in ages past, what with credit scores and police forensics and reporters trawling the social media accounts of political candidates. It’s a propaganda word we use to try to polish a personality, just another perfect head of hair or twinkle from the corner of the mouth. An “honor system” is when you take the exhilarating, risky decision to trust people to tell the truth. An “honor code” is when you take on the mantle of an authoritarian, the iron fist of the kings of old, to tell college kids to act like adults until very recently used to just act.
To many people, honor is an anachronism, a social technology for establishing trust that is no longer needed in an age when we don’t even trust nature and our senses without a peer-reviewed, replicated study to prove that dreams are in fact real. In some parts of the world, the credit systems we’ve developed to determine mathematically if a borrower is honest enough to pay back what is owed has been adapted to cover all aspects of life, and if the social credit system works over there you can look forward to a similar system being established here, outsourcing personal integrity to the guardian angels of a computer system, their silent notes taking stock of your character with a margin of error in the bottom quartile of the industry, and then nobody will need to get to know you to see if they should trust you.
Ancient Israel got to field-test the old EMP-proof version of honor. Our Gospel Doctrine lesson today divides the story of Samuel’s career into four things honored, or loved, or trusted. Eli’s sons honored themselves. Eli honored other people. Samuel honored the Lord. Israel honored the world.
This is pure selfishness, not anything anyone would refer to as “honor,” except in the sense of “worship.” Its use here is semi-ironic. Samuel’s sons defiled the holy things they were trusted with. They used their official position to encourage sin in others. Our modern church has locked down the stereotypical hedonistic cardinal cliche pretty tightly, so our sons of Eli are the unofficial types, the ones that present themselves as more caring and sensitive than the cruel official clergy, more soft-edged and feminine, more willing to meet you where you are, and with soft voices as a talisman against wrath they lay with the women assembled at the door. There’s always a market for priestcraft. Not to mention good old-fashioned disobedience. If you let your habit of doing what you said you’d do get overwhelmed by your desire to do what you want to do, you don’t have honor, no matter what your credit score is.
Eli left his sons in place. He knew they were doing wrong, he knew they were abusing their authority, but he just didn’t do anything. This is a very fast way to gain condemnation; when a good man encourages evil by doing nothing, he is in effect outsourcing that evil to other people, he’s spreading it, he’s subordinating his authority to theirs.
When we see others flaunting the laws of God and man, and do nothing, are we complicit? It’s probably complicated. We’ll probably see a lot of variation on it come Judgment Day. For now, do you really want to risk it? Do you really want to value the souls of those who lead God’s children astray more than the souls they’re destroying?
Well, Eli did, and the effects resonated for millennia. Don’t be like Eli.
Honoring the Lord
Samuel’s call is a wonderful story, the sort of thing you hear from people about old spiritual experiences, the whisper of the Holy Ghost in the night. He did not have an easy life. He had honor.
Honoring The World
It’s easy to condemn Israel for their monarchy from the standpoint of our democratic federation. We see the reign of the judges as a time of freedom, and it was, but it was a time of chaos. If they had honored the Lord and not honored themselves, they might have been free, might have been prosperous, might have been happy, but as it was they had no king to lead them, to take the responsibility if they went astray.
The next time you read Mosiah II’s defense of the Nephite reign of the judges before he establishes it, take note of the sorts of things he warns against, the sorts of things he hopes to ward off, and the sorts of things that actually happened. There were wars about the succession of judges as savage as wars over the succession of kings. They regularly handed the office to their sons, and we have no record of any chief judge being impeached. The point Mormon makes by sharing this story, I believe, isn’t about good governance but responsibility.
Israel didn’t want it either. They wanted a king to represent them, as the nations had, in another step away from Sinai, and with a king they were no less oppressed than under the anarchy of the judges, but at least there was someone to blame.
And a handful of times, their store-brand Christ turned out to be an honorable man. More on the kings next week.