Friday, August 17, 2012

Money, Religion, and Politics

What Romney’s Money Tells Me about his Values

You know that old saw: Families and other communities tend to eschew conversation about sex, money, politics, and religion.  I’m going to violate three of those taboos here.

If you’re in the U.S. and haven’t been living under a rock, I assume you’ve seen the ongoing news reports, commentary, and harangues about Governor Romney and his tax returns.  You know that the Democrats are calling for him to release more than just last year’s returns, and you know he has refused.

You may be appalled, as I am, by this utter hypocrisy: The Romney campaign staff required that VP nominee Ryan share with them several years of tax returns, while both Romney and Ryan decline to make them public. Apparently, Romney thinks Ryan should share his tax returns with the Romney staff, but neither of them feels the public has the right to any of that information. Ironic, isn’t it?

So that’s the politics of the thing. Now let me talk about money and religion.

Money and Religion

Romney went under his invisibility cloak and looked at his tax returns from the past several years. He emerged, proudly declaring that he’s paid about 13% of his gross income in taxes, and a total of “about 20%” when including charitable contributions.

Romney’s paying a lot lower tax rate than I am. I’m a lowly 1040EZ filer – owning no home, claiming no special deductions – and my rate is generally about 18%. But, of course, that’s only fair, for I have a lot more disposable income than he has. NOT! I have a tiny margin of “disposable income." He has millions.

I earn my income through working for a living. All news media (from the left and the right) have explained that Romney’s income comes mostly from capital gains … which are taxed at a much lower rate than wages. I work for a living and pay 15-18% to the IRS. Romney plays the stock market and pays about 13% to the IRS. Does something about that strike you as just a wee bit unfair?

Romney claims to be a Christian, right? So how does he square his financial situation with Luke 12:48? It says:
"From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
In the Romney/Ryan vision of the world, those who make the most money should pay the lowest tax rate. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, those who profit most should give most. I wonder how these oh-so-“religious” men square their policy decisions with the words of Jesus Christ. I wonder what Jesus would say to them.

But enough about politics. Let’s talk about religion and money.

Getting Personal

Explaining the tax returns that we have not seen, Romney says he paid about 13% in taxes to the IRS, but he added that charitable contributions bring the total to about 20%. He said that as if charitable contributions should count toward his “giving” or “offering” to the IRS. What do “charitable contributions” have to do with what he paid in taxes??

But never mind that. Let’s just deal with the facts he gave us.

Romney tells us he gave about 7% of his income in charitable contributions. Seven percent. Not quite the biblical standard of 10%, is it? The man reaps millions each year, and he expects us to applaud his giving 7% out of his abundance?
"From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." Luke 12:48
Romney’s proud declaration sent me to my financial spreadsheet.

Personal revelation: A few years back, I got serious about the biblical standard of the 10% “tithe,” and I began working toward it, increasing my church pledge each year, even though I’ve had no salary increase in three [or has it been four?] years. I kept increasing my giving in all those years of no pay increases. My pledge to my church is now beyond 10% of my net income, and I’m increasing it every year, working toward a tithe on my gross income. This year, I’m at 8.7% of my gross income in giving to my parish. Governor Romney, that's 8.7% of my gross! -- while you brag about giving 7% of your millions.

This year hasn’t been different than most years in my financial life. Between my contributions to my parish, other parishes and ministries of the Episcopal Church, and other non-profits, so far this year I have given 9.1% of my gross income in charitable contributions. Governor Romney, that's 9.1% of my gross!  With an annual income just under $45k, I can manage to give over 9% of my income to the church and other benevolent causes. But Governor Romney – making millions each year – can only afford to give about 7%. What’s up with that? Is his budget a lot tighter than mine? Bless his heart. Could he afford to give more if he didn't make so much money in outsourcing jobs to China?

In my parish, we talk about “proportional giving.” So far, I can give 9% to my church and charitable organizations. Governor Romney – bless his heart – can only afford to give 7% to his church and similar causes. Maybe he could “afford” to give more money if he didn’t make so much money. Poor dear.

I wonder if Governor Romney has ever heard Jesus’ parable about the widow’s mite. I have, and it challenges me to give more sacrificially to the Kingdom of God because I am so grateful for the blessings God has showered on me.

You want to talk about "Christian values," Governor Romney? Bring it on!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

College Bound ... and the Gift of Parents

Some of my friends are in the position of taking their sons and daughters to college around this time. I've heard some of them talking about what a difficult time this is—the joy of seeing a young adult child stepping out into the larger world balanced with the loss of having that child leaving home. I offer this blog post in tribute to those parents and to share a bit of my early history.

It was late summer in 1973. I was getting ready for college. 
That in itself was something of a miracle. No one in my familial line had ever gone to college.  Only those in my parent’s generation had even finished high school. 
In my little graduating class of about 100, few were going to college. Of those few, virtually all were going to state colleges within a hundred miles of our small town.  Most were going to remain on their family farms or find jobs in the banks and small businesses of our small town.
I had been a very odd valedictorian. I’m sure it grieved the administration to give me that award, but my GPA had earned it – despite my frequent battles against that administration, my scofflaw attitude, my smart-mouth relationship with underqualified teachers (in a poverty-riddled school district). I may be the only valedictorian who had been barred from the National Honor Society. I was not an egghead or a geek. I was a good athlete (in those days before Title IX), an “A” student without needing to work at it, and quite outspoken in expressing my convictions and acting on them. I did not suffer fools gladly – among my classmates or in the faculty and administration. My sassy attitude had earned me the reputation as a discipline problem. Unable to handle me, by my senior year, most teachers had banished me to “independent study” – which meant that, instead of being in the classroom, I spent most of my time in the school library preparing papers on topics they had assigned to me.
With a good GPA and having scored well in the SAT and ACT tests – as well as being a National Merit finalist – I received a lot of literature from a lot of colleges.   I made my initial sort on two criteria.  First, I would not attend a college that had sororities and fraternities.  I had observed the tyranny of social cliques in my small town and didn’t want to enter an academic community that mirrored that.  Second, I would not attend a college that engaged in serious intercollegiate athletics.  I had seen what a focus on athletics did to academics. I had seen the jocks slide by and suffered through history courses taught by coaches who had no grasp of the subject matter.  No more of that for me.  Those two criteria made it easy for me to toss most of the college promotional materials into the trash.
But one day I received a simple tri-folded postcard from the University of Dallas.  I don’t remember the details. I just remember it spoke of the value of learning for its own sake, the life of the mind, the joy of intellectual curiosity, a belief that truth is a thing to be sought.  I was hooked.  After many twists and turns, I was accepted and awarded a scholarship and work-study that would cover all my tuition and other costs. I had never even visited the campus, which was 600 miles away in an era where few people flew, and had only spoken with the Dean of Admissions. But the vision of that university matched my own longing. 
Throughout my search for a college, I had believed I was destined for something different (and, better, I believed) than most of my classmates.  I was sick of my narrow-minded little town.  I was going to “break the mold” and “make something of myself.”  Such is the hubris of an 18-year-old.
I vaguely remember the week before my departure for Dallas.  I remember spending much time visiting with my few close friends. …  I visited with a couple of fine teachers who had inspired and encouraged me, and expressed my deep thanks.  [Jim McInturff, I hope someday you Google yourself and find this posting. Your English classes gave me hope and inspiration.] … My parents had separated in early summer, but I had a rather amazing conversation with my father.
To get me and my few belongings to Dallas, my mother borrowed a van.  She, my grandmother, my younger sister, and I set out for Dallas.  We drove and drove and drove.  
Eventually, we reached the Texas state line.  I was astonished to see the highway sign declaring it was still another 200 miles to Dallas.
And that’s when I lost it.  The enormity of what I was doing finally struck me.
We had taken family vacations to visit relatives as far away as Florida or Mississippi.  But suddenly, the enormity of living 600 miles from home, far away from any friends or family – far from anyone I knew – hit me like a ton of bricks. 
I remember my mother was driving the van.  And I remember asking her (or was it telling her?)  to stop, turn around and go home. I said I would be really, really happy getting a job as a bank teller back home or maybe working in the public library. I didn’t want to go to college. I could find a job I would love at home.  That’s what I said, as the enormity of this journey struck me.
Today, I imagine she must have set her jaw and clenched the steering wheel more tightly.  She didn’t even look back to me.  She just said “no” and kept driving.  Surely she said something more than “no.”  But I don’t remember any details.  I just remember that I began rattling out how happy I would be in our little town in some little job … and that she said "no" and kept driving. 
My mother, sister, and grandmother helped move me into my dormitory room that day.  I remember seeing them driving off, and I remember feeling as alone as if I had been deposited alone on the planet Mars. 
That first semester was difficult. No.  “Difficult” isn’t the right word.  I was desperately, miserably homesick.  But I also became engaged with my classes, stimulated by my new classmates.  I found people with whom I could talk into the wee hours about literature and philosophy – thinking “deep thoughts” and dreaming great dreams.  At the University of Dallas I found a community like I had never had.  I ended up feeling “at home” and finding there a community I never could have imagined. I loved that place!  It formed me in lasting ways and launched me into the life and career I now have.
I don’t recall how many years it took for me to remember and realize what my mother did for me on that day as we drove toward Dallas. But I’ve known it for a long time now.  I can just imagine how much she must have wanted to say “yes” when I asked her to stop, turn around, and take me back to my small town and what would have been its small existence for me.  But she didn’t.  She – the daughter of sharecroppers – insisted on taking me to that university far from home. She must have had dreams for me – dreams that were strong enough to keep driving instead of capitulating to my fervent request and taking me back home.
I can’t ask her those questions, for she died a few years ago.  We had a “complicated” relationship in the last years of her life. But I will forever be grateful that – when I asked to back off of my dreams – she said “no.” She said “no” even though it was probably against her own selfish wishes. She said “no” because she had better hopes and dreams for me.  I will be forever in her debt.
Some of you are now in the position of my mother – though you are very different than she.  You are sending or taking your children to college. I salute you. I recognize the sacrifice you are making: Sending your children to their dreams, while your heart may be breaking as you send your child into the wider world.  God bless you. I hold you in my prayers, and I trust your children will be as grateful as I am to my mother. 

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Friday, August 03, 2012

“Hate X, Love Y”

I don’t know Kirk Masden, but today he posted a comment on my January 2008 blogpost, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin,” in which I railed against that temporizing tagline.  He wrote:
My basic argument is that saying "Hate the sin, love the sinner" in regard to gay marriage is no less offensive than saying "Hate the delusion, love the deluded person" in regard to those who oppose gay marriage for religious reasons.
He directed me to his further comment at his Facebook page. There, he writes:
It is of offensive in the same way that gratuitously calling a person's religious belief a "delusion" would be offensive. I think, though, that the argument that the religious beliefs that undergird opposition to gay marriage are a form of "delusion" is at least as strong as the argument that maintaining a same-sex relationship is a kind of "sin." Here's psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers' three-part definition of "delusion": 1) certainty (held with absolute conviction); 2) incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary); 3) impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue). I'm not so sure about the third criterion but the first two seem to fit pretty neatly. My intent in writing this is not to offend my religious friends and relatives (though I'm afraid some will take offense). Rather, I would like to encourage those who use the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner" as they denigrate same-sex relationships to think twice about it. How "loved" would they feel if they were constantly confronted with "hate the delusion, love the deluded person" in reference to their faith?
His comment helped me get in touch with some other analogies.  How would you feel if you heard some of these comments from supposed people of faith?

     “Hate Judaism, but love the Jew.”
     “Hate African-Americans, but love the African American.”
     “Hate Mexicans, but love Juanita.”

I know people like that.  They declare their “hatred” of a whole class of despised people, but then declare their affection for a particular subset or maybe a particular person.

Didn’t we see that in the bad old days of racism? Racists spewed hate against “niggers,” while they vowed fondness toward their laundress or gardener or baby-sitter who was black. 

Hate is hate.  And God did not tell us to hate anyone or anything in God’s created order. And love is love. And God is love. 

I could as easily say:
“Love the Christians. Hate the Christianists.”
“Love the Bible. Hate the biblicans.”

Looking at today’s Pharisees within Christianity, I could as easily say I “hate their sin, but love them anyway.”

But God calls me to love them all and to hate none of them.  Of course, sometimes that’s a challenge. But it’s what Christ calls me to do.

That’s the problem with the “hate the sin” crowd.  God did not give any of us permission to hate anyone else.  My Bible tells me that anyone who hates is not of the Spirit.  My Bible tells me God is going to judge us all eventually. God’s going to separate the wheat from the weeds, the sheep from the goats. Many parables remind me that it’s not my job to decide who – if anyone – God hates or loves. I think the people who spew “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” should stand trembling … as they make the judgment that God reserves as God’s own judgment to make. 

In all of Scripture, I can’t find an instance where God smiled upon people who hate.  I find many instances in which God showed mercy upon those who were hated.  So the haters should probably take a bit of care.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Biblical Marriage?

If you're on Facebook, I bet you've seen this graphic.  The Christianists want to pretend that God instituted a 20th-century understanding of marriage at the dawn of creation. But God did no such thing.  The uber-evangelicals are creating a myth.  The current understanding of marriage dates from the Victorian era.  The "biblical" understanding is more brutal toward women. 

This graphic is pretty good. Click on it to see it larger.