Don't Be a Slave
June 2008 Commencement Address Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii
June 21, 2008
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Brothers and sisters, Aloha.
President Wheelwright, distinguished administrators, faculty, graduates, parents and friends. I enjoy commencement exercises. These are happy times for graduates, for parents, for friends, for teachers, and for leaders. These are times to acknowledge the accomplishments of the past and to anticipate the achievements of the future. I am pleased to participate with you on this happy occasion.
As we honor graduates for their gaining of knowledge, we also anticipate how that knowledge will be used. For that reason, addresses to graduates commonly give advice for the future. This has already been done superbly by Pres Wheelwright, by Sister Guzman and by Brother Christensen.
The subject I have chosen is "Don't Be a Slave." Most of you will think this a strange subject, but bear with me while I explain its application to this promising group of graduates.
SLAVERY IN THE WORLD
We all know that slavery was abolished in the British Empire and in the United States over 150 years ago. But I have been astonished to read that there are still about 27 million slaves in today's world (Bales, "How We Can End Slavery," National Geographic Magazine, 2003). Laws against slavery exist in every country, but so far these laws have not prevented evil people from finding ways to enslave others, even in the United States.
A few months ago I read about a 12-year-old Egyptian girl held in slavery in a gated community in Irvine, California. When she was 10, her impoverished parents sold her to a wealthy Egyptian couple who were moving to the United States. For 2 years she was a slave, doing long hours of menial labor in her masters' home. She was given no education, she was beaten, and she was locked in a tiny room in the family's garage when not working. Finally, a neighbor reported something unusual, and she was rescued by California's Child Protective Services. Her story ended happily with adoption by a loving family in California (Fischer, "The Slave in the Garage," Reader's Digest, May, 2008, pp. 176-83). But there is no such happy ending for millions of other slaves.
A recent official report of the U.S. Department of State estimates that "50,000 people are trafficked into or transited through the United States annually as sex slaves, domestic servants, garment slaves and agricultural laborers" (quoted in Kralis, "Modern Day Slavery Flourishes," www.renewamerica.us/columns).Most of these victims have been kidnapped from their poor families or, like the Egyptian girl, sold by desperate parents for small sums to help feed other family members. Fortunately, many escape their slavery after some terrible years of oppression. The average time these slaves remain in servitude is estimated at from 3 to 15 years (Kralis, cited above).
The slavery of these tragic victims is involuntary. They are victims of someone else's decisions, motivated by greed or other wickedness.
SLAVERY IN OUR LIVES
So what do these shocking facts have to do with you graduates? Fortunately you are not likely to be victims of involuntary slavery. But if you are not careful, you can be imprisoned by another form of slavery, whose duration can be life-long. This evil has existed since the beginning, when Satan proposed the ultimate slavery. He would have taken away our power of choice, making us robots to his will (see Moses 4:3). The Father's plan of salvation rejected that proposal, but since His plan was based on our power to choose, we each have the power to give ourselves over into many lesser forms of slavery. I call this voluntary slavery.
The Savior taught that "whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin" (John 8:34). The Apostle Paul wrote: "Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or obedience unto righteousness?" (Rom. 6:16). Father Lehi, in his last recorded discourse to his sons, pleaded with them to "shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe" (2 Nephi 1:1).
2. Drug Addictions.
Many of our Church leaders have referred to other kinds of personal choices as leading to "slavery." About 12 years ago President Hinckley used that word to give this warning:
"Stay away from alcohol, my brethren... Do not get entrapped with illegal drugs. They could destroy you. They could make of you a slave and the craving that would follow would impoverish you" (Ensign, May 1996, 48).
Similarly, Elder Carlos Asay declared that "a person with a cigarette or alcoholic beverage in hand is... nothing more than a slave to a destructive substance" (Ensign, May 1992, 40).
The Apostle Paul taught the principle that all things are lawful for man, but not all things are expedient (1 Cor. 6:12). "All things are lawful for me," he declared, "but I will not be brought under the power of any" (Ibid.).
3. Passions and Excessive Preoccupations.
When we allow ourselves to be brought under the power of anything or anyone, we become a slave to that person or that thing. President Brigham Young echoed that reality when he taught that "the man who suffers his passions to lead him becomes a slave to them" (quoted by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin in "Fruits of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ," Ensign, Nov. 1991, 16).
Two years ago President H. Ross Workman, now your temple president here in Hawaii, talked of the "spiritual captivity [that] results from personal choice as one yields to uncontrolled desires and passions." He said:
"One can be in captivity to sin or to the pursuit of worldly honors, such as fame, wealth, political power, or social standing. One can also be in captivity through obsessive preoccupation with activities such as sports, music, or entertainment" (Ensign, July 2006, 52-55).
He told of a young man who "had become addicted to pornography, which he accessed via his home computer." He had become, as Elder Workman said, "a slave to the computer screen" (Ibid.). Another enslaving addiction worthy of special warning is gambling, which can be addictive and is always spiritually destructive.
4. Wealth and Debt.
President Hinckley even used the metaphor of slavery to the extremes of economic circumstances-excessive debt and excessive wealth. In a conference address a decade ago he warned that "there is nothing that will cause greater tensions in marriage than grinding debt, which will make of you a slave to your creditors" (Ensign, May 1998, 50). That seemingly innocent plastic credit card-if not carefully controlled and sparingly used-can be an instrument of slavery no less confining than the slave-master's chains.
President Hinckley also used the metaphor of slavery to warn against wrong priorities in acquiring wealth. He said:
"Income is important, but you do not need to be a multimillionaire to be happy. In fact, you are more likely to be unhappy if wealth becomes your only objective. You will become a slave to it. It will color all your decisions" (Ensign, February 1999, 2).
SLAVERY AFTER DEATH
About 30 years ago I read something I have not been able to forget. It portrays the evil slavery of addiction and how it potentially extends beyond mortality and into the world of spirits.
This account is in the book Return from Tomorrow (Spire Books, 1978), authored by Dr. George G. Ritchie, a Virginia psychiatrist. Dr. Ritchie describes an experience he had as a young soldier during World War II. He tells of his dying in a hospital in Texas, having experiences in the spirit world, and returning to his body nine minutes later with the vivid recollections he recorded in his book. Dr. Ritchie's experiences so affected Dr. Raymond A. Moody that Moody later wrote the bestseller Life After Life.
I emphasize at the outset that I do not endorse the truth of either of these books. We know so little about the spirit world. I share some excerpts from Dr. Ritchie's book because I have been unable to forget them, because they seem consistent with what we do know about the spirit world, and because they serve as a significant warning to avoid the kind of slavery they describe.
After Ritchie left his body in the Army hospital in Texas, he was met by a personage of light who escorted him to different places on earth. There he saw mortals in various circumstances. All were surrounded by disembodied spirits like himself. These spirits-invisible to the mortals-were frantically clutching at things the mortals were having, like cigarettes or alcoholic drinks, which the spirits obviously wanted but could not touch in their disembodied state (pages 59-60). Ritchie supposed that these spirits had developed a dependence on these things when in mortality and that this dependence survived the loss of their bodies. In his words, "they would be cut off for all eternity from the thing they could never stop craving... To want most, to burn with most desire, when you were most powerless-that would be hell indeed" (p. 61). Then, Ritchie says, he realized with a start the significance of what he was observing: "This was hell" (p. 62).
Next the personage of light took Ritchie to another scene, a setting he described as "crowded, even jammed with hordes of ghostly discarnate beings... the most frustrated, the angriest, the most completely miserable beings I had ever laid eyes on..." He continues:
"At first I thought we were looking at some great battlefield: everywhere people were locked in what looked like fights to the death, writhing, punching, gouging. It couldn't be a present day war because there were no tanks or guns. No weapons of any sort, I saw as I looked closer, only bare hands and feet and teeth. And then I noticed that no one was apparently injured. There was no blood, no bodies strewed the ground; a blow that ought to have eliminated an opponent would leave him exactly as before.
"Although they appeared to be literally on top of each other, it was as though each man was boxing the air; at last I realized that of course, having no substance, they could not actually touch one another. They could not kill, though they clearly wanted to, because their intended victims were already dead, and so they hurled themselves at each other in a frenzy of impotent rage."
Dr. Ritchie continues:
"If I suspected before that I was seeing hell, now I was sure of it. Up to this moment the misery I had watched consisted in being chained to a physical world of which we were no longer part. Now I saw that there were other kinds of chains. Here were no solid objects or people to enthrall the soul. These creatures seemed locked into habits of mind and emotion, into hatred, lust, destructive thought-patterns.
"Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us. It was impossible to tell if the howls of frustration which reached us were actual sounds or only the transference of despairing thoughts. Indeed in this disembodied world it didn't seem to matter. Whatever anyone thought, however fleetingly or unwillingly, was instantly apparent to all around him, more completely than words could have expressed it, faster than sound waves could have carried it" (pp. 63-64).
Hideous though it is, Ritchie's account has a warning of eternal significance. The ultimate hell must include slavery that permanently enslaves its occupants to desires that cannot be satisfied. The scriptures describe such a state for the evil spirits of the wicked, saying that "the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house." They are "cast into outer darkness" where there is "weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth... being led captive by the will of the devil" (Alma 40:13).
Gratefully, I now leave Dr. Ritchie's unhappy story. I have shared it only as a warning against the voluntary slavery that will beckon you throughout your lives. Shun it. Prize your power of choice. Protect it against every surrender, every dilution, every threat. Hold to the values you have been taught by your worthy parents, by righteous teachers in these classrooms and others, and by the Holy Ghost whom our Father in Heaven has given to teach us and to protect us.
The opposite of the slavery we have described up to this point is freedom. One of the greatest passages in the Bible, recorded in the Gospel of John, is our Savior's teaching about freedom. The setting was the temple at Jerusalem. The audience included the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with taunting and challenging questions. Also in the audience were "those Jews which believed on him." In the passage I will quote Jesus addressed these believers.
"If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32).
This audience could not understand. We are Abraham's seed, they said. We were never in bondage to any man, so how can you say we will be made free?
"Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.
"And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.
"If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:34-36).
True freedom is to know the truth, to act upon that truth to avoid sin, and then to claim the promise of Him who suffered for sin and can therefore make us "free indeed."
The Apostle Paul understood that teaching. As he wrote to the saints in Galatia:
"Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1).
Similarly, King Benjamin taught that through faith on the name and work of Christ, we are "made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh..." (Mosiah 5:8). The atoning mission of the Savior of the world is the source of the ultimate freedom and the only way we can avoid slavery to the evil one.
When we know the truth and act upon that truth, we can avoid the slavery of which I have spoken. Each of us has the precious gift of the Holy Ghost, whose function is to "guide [us] into all truth" (John 16:13). By keeping our covenants we can have the assurance that we will always have that Spirit to be with us. If we do that, the Savior assures us that we will always be free.
A TRUTH ABOUT FAMILY CONNECTIONS
I conclude with a truth most appropriate for this audience of graduates. It was spoken by a former First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush. Speaking to some young women graduates, she counseled them to cherish their human connections, their relationships with friends and family. She said:
"For several years, you have had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication. This is true, but as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer, or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections-with spouses, with children, with friends-are the most important investments you will ever make.
"At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not writing one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent...
"Whatever the times, one thing will never change: fathers and mothers, if you have children...they must come first. You must read to your children, you must hug your children; you must love your children.
"Your success as a family...our success as a society...depends not on what happens at the White House, but on what happens inside your house."
Our continued existence as a Church, as a people, and as nations depends on those men and women who are willing to sacrifice their own pleasures for the benefit of others. This includes, most importantly, parents who are willing to subordinate their own pleasures and comforts to bear children and raise them as faithful members of this Church and as responsible citizens of our free nations.
My dear brothers and sisters, the things you have been taught today are true. I testify of Jesus Christ, who is the Light and Life of the world, and the source of the only true freedom on this-the creation of His Father, by the Savior, our Redeemer, the light and life of the world. As his servant, I invoke His blessings upon you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.