Some time ago, a friend asked me a question that I couldn't answer (see, it does happen =). He set the stage by giving the scriptural definition of Zion--"The pure in heart" (Doc. & Cov. 97:21). Then he asked--if by "build Zion" the Lord just meant "be good people--be pure in heart," why couldn't He just have commanded us to be pure in heart? What is it about the command to build Zion that is new or different from the other commandments we've already been taught to obey? What is it about the concept of Zion that has inspired prophets throughout the ages? Simply put, Why Zion?
I didn't have a good answer at the time. But his question has occupied my mind a great deal this past year. I've thought a lot about Zion--what is Zion? How do we build it? And, most fundamentally, "Why Zion?"
Zion societies have been established a few times in scriptural history. Perhaps the earliest and most successful was the city of Enoch, which, because of great righteousness, was taken up into heaven. Of Enoch's city, Moses recorded, "And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them" (Moses 7:18). Similarly, the people of Fourth Nephi had no social classes, and held their goods in common with their neighbors (1:24-25).
The Lord's commandments regarding the establishment of Zion in our day often include references to the ordinances of the temple: "Therefore...your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead, and your solemn assemblies...in your most holy places...and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion...are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house" (Doc. & Cov. 124:39, emphasis added). The ordinances of the temple, He says, are necessary for the foundation of Zion.
Why is this? Perhaps because the ordinances of the temple draw us together as a people. They involve selfless service for the living and the dead. They unite us in ritual and in communion with the divine. They invite us to live more fully the law of consecration, a law whose stated purpose is the establishment of Zion.
Zion, in whatever age or land it has been established, has always been characterized by unity and the elimination of poverty. Its foundations are always undermined by pride, competition, and the seeking of power, title, and prestige above one's neighbors. Early church members were admonished for polluting their inheritances in Zion by their "jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires" (Doc. & Cov. 101:6). The unity required of the inhabitants of Zion was absent, and so it could not be established.
I think "unity" is the fundamental answer to the question, "Why Zion?" Simply put, the strength of Zion is in community--that is, Zion can only be established in concert with other people. I've always been more of a solitary person myself--it's not that I don't like people, it's just that it's easier to do things myself, because I can be sure I'll do them right. I'm naturally more focused on my own spirituality, growth, and priorities than on others'. But this isn't what God had in mind when He asked us to build Zion, because Zion isn't a collection of individuals--it's a cohesive society, built up of people who are holy individuals but are also united with their neighbors, and so have achieved a level of celestial living not possible to achieve in the solitary state to which they are most accustomed.
The commandments are easy to endorse in the abstract, but harder to obey with the people among whom we live. The commandment to build Zion is a sanctifying principle, because Zion is a consecrated people--not just a group of good people. Those who establish Zion are God's people--they are a holy people. Their covenants tie them, not only to God, but also to each other. They "impart of their substance," not just to God through their tithes, but also, "as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them." They are "united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom" (Doc. & Cov. 105:3-4).
They are true to their covenants and faithful in all things. And though they love imperfect people imperfectly, they are always striving together for God's perfect love. Christ wants us to be holy individuals, but He is not coming back to receive a collection of individuals--He is coming to receive Zion, a holy people, united in common purpose, dedicated to the service of God and of each other.
God wants us to come back to Him, but He's not content to have us do it alone. He wants us to come back to Him with those we love, and with those we have learned to love as we have taught each other and carried each other, as we have seen in each other's eyes and felt in each other's hearts supernal glimpses of the Divine.
The building of Zion is a hands-on activity. It is intimate. It is personal.
It involves loving our neighbors. But the sort of love it requires isn't just a lack of antipathy, a warm-fuzzy respect for all humanity, or a somewhat-distant good wishes directed at people you don't know. Zionic love is specific, and it means getting your hands dirty and your shoulders wet with another person's tears. You cannot truly say that you love your neighbor if you do not know his name, his needs, his struggles, and his triumphs. Zion is not built by declarations of universal love delivered from the pulpit. It is built by mourning and rejoicing with our neighbors. It is built with casseroles delivered and toilets cleaned for a family with an ailing parent, with bucket brigades hastily assembled when an elderly man's basement floods, with odd jobs offered to neighbors who are out of work by those who know their situation, with asphalt shingles hammered onto a widow's leaking roof on a Saturday morning by men and women with their own house projects constantly demanding their time.
It involves caring for the poor. But the sort of care it requires isn't just a general well-wishing towards those who are less well-off. It isn't just giving a check to the bishop for fast offering or donating to the Salvation Army. Zionic care is personal and specific. It involves getting your hands dirty and your wallet a lot lighter. At Judgment, the Lord will say to His ransomed children, "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in, [I was] naked, and ye clothed me" (Matt. 25:35-36), not "I was hungry and naked, and you gave money to the bishop, and he fed me and gave me vouchers to get castoff clothes at DI. And when I had no job, I went to LDS Employment Services, and they helped me with my resume and interviewing skills. And when I was homeless, I slept at a homeless shelter built with your tax dollars." All the programs, organization, and charities with which we are involved are good. But the care and love required by the "law of the celestial kingdom" go so much further. In order to care for the poor we must know the poor. How many "poor" people do you know? How many have eaten at your table? Zion is not built solely by those who mail checks to charities. It is built by ordinary people who go out of their way to help those in need, by those who realize the absurdity of having a spare bedroom in their house while there are people sleeping on the cold streets, by people who aren't content to keep the poor at a distance and speak disparagingly about the blight of "welfare moms," but who rather see all people, no matter their social class, situation, or choices, as children of the same God, as their literal brothers and sisters, and who let their newfound sight motivate them to truly Christian action.
Zion is built by drawing circles around ourselves that take others in rather than shutting them out. It is built by radically transforming the way we look at the world, by adopting the self-sacrificing love demonstrated by Jesus in Gethsemane, who gave literally everything He had for those who didn't deserve it, who poured out His life for broken, imperfect people, and then commanded His followers to "Go, and do thou likewise" (Luke 10:37).
It is within out power to heed this command. It is within our power, with God's grace, to build Zion in our homes, in our wards, in our neighborhoods and our communities. It will take a transformation of our hearts, a change in our very natures, a radical commitment to something much bigger than ourselves, a resolve to live the law of consecration completely. But, as with all commandments, the Lord will prepare a way for His children to accomplish what would otherwise be impossible (1 Nephi 3:7). He has given us Zion as a goal to work for, an ideal to strive for, a concrete plan for buiding a prototype heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, let us build Zion. Let us live so as to be worthy inhabitants of that Holy City. Let us pray for God's Spirit to transform us , to make us new creatures. Let us see our neighbors as God sees them. Let us allow that newfound sight to motivate consecrated, holy action. Let us put aside our differences and become a united people. Let us become God's people.
Let us build Zion.
"And righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth...and righteousness and truth will I cause to sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out mine elect from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare, an Holy City, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion, a New Jerusalem" (Moses 7:62).