Driving westward into Los Angeles some years ago, I was suddenly awestruck — perhaps because my family has been in the construction business since before I was born — at the vast amount of human labor that had gone into creating the scene before me.
Hundreds of thousands of workers, most long gone and forgotten, had devoted many millions of hours to building those structures, roads, freeways and interchanges. (The Los Angeles City Hall, an icon of my childhood, was completed in 1928; almost nobody remains alive today who remembers its construction.) Certainly I don’t know their names; probably few, if any, who enter the city on a typical day give them any thought.
The same is surely true of cities and towns and hamlets around the world. We sing songs we didn’t compose; worship in temples, mosques, churches and synagogues we didn’t build; read books we didn’t write; watch movies created by thousands of people whose names flash briefly by in credits we ignore; and consume crops we didn’t plant or harvest. Most importantly, on a holiday such as today (Independence Day in the United States), we enjoy freedoms for which others fought, sacrificed and died. We Americans live under a Constitution created for us by men long gone, to whom we owe an enormous debt that we cannot repay.
Some years ago, controversy erupted about a book that took its title from the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In my judgment, there were legitimate reasons to object to the book, but I don’t want to revisit that controversy. The proverb itself seems, to me, manifestly true. Ideally, mothers and fathers rearing a child will have a supportive community around them to help — school teachers, Scoutmasters, coaches, Sunday school teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, church leaders or clergymen, band directors, dance instructors, mentors, employers — and a society that reinforces the values that the parents wish to instill in their child. Tragically, much of this supportive network seems to be breaking down, but the fact remains that most of us have benefited from such assistance. We didn’t get to where we are on our own. In a sense that John Donne didn’t intend but that, I think, he would have accepted, “No man is an island.”
To contemplate all of this should inspire us to piety. That’s not a term that we use much these days — if anything, we tend to deploy the adjective “pious” as a sneering put-down, a synonym for sanctimonious hypocrisy — but it’s an important word that shouldn’t be lost. In traditional Roman usage, “pietas” was a highly valued complex of Roman virtues. A man of “pietas” faithfully fulfilled his responsibilities to the gods, his country, his parents and his kin. Most fundamentally, perhaps, “pietas” expressed the filial love of a son for his father.
In this context, we recall King Benjamin’s description of the saint as someone who “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
Piety is, after all, a religious virtue, too. None of us can repay the debt that we owe to those who’ve gone before, to our country, or to God. “For behold,” says King Benjamin, “are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19). No matter how hard we try, we will remain “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). God, in particular, will never, ever, be in our debt. Our crops depend upon rain that we don’t control. Our buildings are constructed from substances we can’t create. Our lives depend, ultimately, on factors before which medical science is powerless. We live in a universe that we barely comprehend, subject to laws that we’re still discovering.
Thus, humility is at the heart of both patriotism and religion. “Believe in God,” continues Benjamin. “Believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).
How should we respond? With piety, gratitude, humility and a determination to “pay it forward.” Moreover, Latter-day Saints believe that we can at least partially repay those who are gone by serving on their behalf in the temple — a good resolution, curiously, to consider on Independence Day.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits MormonScholarsTestify.org and BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/, and speaks for himself.