The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.

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Gervais has an opinion about something

Ricky Gervais recently penned a little Christmas message in the Wall Street Journal.  He’s the creator of the show “The Office” and a talented comedian. I’m a fan.

In it, he declares he’s an atheist.   And Merry Christmas.

It’s the holidays.  We want to sell a few papers, and everyone wants to know what celebrities think about God.  For every Christmas, the culture wars get a little heated up, fundamentalists and atheists slogging mud at each other, pained at each other’s existence, and the conflict is, in itself, entertaining.  Even recently, atheists have organized to buy advertising on buses and conservative Christians have gotten offended.

I’m for more atheism in the public sphere.  Most of my friends outside of the church are non-believers.  A few of my friends IN the church are non-believers. Few have a deep historical and theological understanding, but for most of them, church is not where they are, or where they’re friends are.

At one time there was greater public dialogue.  Our founding fathers were far more open about religious faith.  They were generally not believers in the sense most atheists critique “belief.”  They had far more honest conversations about the role of religion and religious institutions in society.   In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some atheists had great popularity.   And religion was not aways a part of political conversation.  It was not always demanded of our presidents before Jimmy Carter.  It may have been the language of civil society, but only a few of our presidents have been religious in any serious sense of the word.  Atheists were rarely persecuted in any serious sense; but they may have joined churches.

And granted, I’m embarrassed just considering conversations between Christians and Atheists. I pity the Christian, eager to please and convert; I empathize with the atheist, surrounded by idiots and hypocrites, insisting on using an obscure language created somewhere on the Alien Planet of the Past.   I think there are plenty of different ways to have conversations about religion and faith, but usually they end up being variations of “you’re an idiot” vs “you have no soul.”

Nonetheless, I was disappointed.  It wasn’t that Gervais had once loved Jesus and then abandoned him at the age of at eight.  Hell, I first gave him up when I was four.  The bible itself for me was a weird, incomprehensible document,  confused on the number of animals in the ark or where Jesus was really from.   When I asked my father about God and Jesus, he gave me a book about Greek myths.   At nine, I confronted a Methodist pastor, a friend of my Atheist father, about dinosaurs.  “Do you really believe that the earth was created in six days?”  After all, I knew better.  The pastor, by the nature of his profession, an idiot.   He came back with “It’s a story,” he said.  “I believe in Dinosaurs also….  It’s a story that we interpret.”  But there he was – a living breathing thinking Christian.

I didn’t give up my atheism there, but realized that I was doing a grave disservice to myself if I thought that religious people were as simple as Gervais presumes.

In plenty of churches, people don’t believe in a God that looks like the God he describes.   So when Gervais argues we’re more like atheists, I wonder if he has read the pagans who accused Christians of precisely this:  our God was more like no-God than the imperial God.    Who are the clergy and lay people who believe in an anthropomorphic God?  No clergy I know; and my unscientific internal polls of my own lay people indicate they’re much more skeptical than your average Ayn Rand reader.

God made him an atheist?  Well, yes.  That’s actually the way Christians have typically described faith – as a “gift.”   It’s the challenge inherited from both Calvinism and the idea of the “invisible church.” His funny retort has been a theological response to understand unbelief.

He compares science’s gifts over the comforts of religion; identifies of cultural taboo with religious creed.  All trite; and all ignorant.  Not even a passing understanding of the church’s contribution to astronomy; or it’s doctrinal antagonism toward folk superstitions.   I don’t need every atheist to get the history right, but it remains disappointing when someone who loves truth can’t get his own facts straight and seems to believe that the content of religion is found mainly in the propositions people make about their faith.  Most clergy would cheer his brief proclamation of the beauties of truth.

Religious people do not oppose evolution.  We enjoy “imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza.”    A few of us are unimaginitive puppets without heart or joy who won’t watch a Lions game at the local pub.  But Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a place in our imagination that refers to a particular understanding of relationships; we haven’t given up on free will as a way of explaining evil; and we’ve got some pretty great music.   Our heaven is like a wedding feast.  We also had something to do with making beer and wine. Just a little homework, Ricky, and you’ll find that boozing and Godding have a long, intimate history.  Some would argue that without religious institutions, we’d be far more sober than we’d enjoy.

His pedestrian confusion of faith and the afterlife confirms he knows only one sort of believer.  How many mainline Christians actually believe in fire and brimstone?   I asked my senior posse that question a couple years ago.   Not one of them did, although they did express a wish that some people would go there.   They were much closer to the traditional annihilationist conception of hell without any formal classes in theology.  They had just spent probably 10 minutes more time thinking about the question than Gervais.

And last, I just wish he were funny.  But perhaps this is an improvement.  Atheist comedians can now be as unfunny and thoughtless as all the other pundits.  I guess I’m going to have to lower my standards.

But until then, I’m sticking with Woody Allen.

No Labels

As someone who has often claimed unusual monikers to describe my political persuasion, I’m fascinated by this week’s gathering of a number of politicians and thinkers I respect.  I respect them not because I agree with their political ideology, but because most of them are effective leaders.   They understand power, are committed to the common good, and recognize that ideology isn’t the way to get work done.

But I admit a little puzzlement.   Our current president comes from this set of people.  He compromises.   He takes ideas from different groups.  There seems to be some serious misinformation that President Obama is a partisan, a socialist, a “left winger.” The opposite seems to be the case:  he is a moderate who works with organized power, caught in the middle of a policy fights where there is no serious organized “left-wing.”

I am also confused by the complaint we need a new moderate party.    But moderation seems to be less a set of ideas than a description of a certain sort of person.  Radicals can become practical when necessary; Reactionaries can accept modest changes.    If were actually looking for moderate ideas, our current president embodies it, to everyone’s dissatisfaction.

What we really need is a party that represents the interests – the real interests – of the working and middle class.   Unfortunately, the Democrats have abdicated this role by taking money from Wall Street.  And their supporters – trial lawyers, teachers, unions, African Americans and Latinos – are poor at relationship based organizing.

There is a multi-million dollar industry of not-for-profits, churches, social welfare institutions and schools that have lost their independence from both governments and large corporations.  Progressives who might work for a more responsive democracy entered these institutions, losing their ability to actually build long-term power organizations that could put pressure on the government or businesses.   They do good work, but they are fragmented and ineffective.

The institutions that did not want effective government, who found environmental, civil rights, and workplace regulations arduous have funded, for the last 40 years, a highly sophisticated network that has diminished the power of smaller democratic, people led institutions such as the church.

We may need another party.  But it needs to be a party that is responsive to the great majority of people, and isn’t too timid to defend those interests.   It may look like a labor or socialist party in another country, but I suspect it would be different because Americans have less instinctive class resentment and tend to prize individualism.   But we do have an interest in good schools, a reliable infrastructure, and insurance programs that mitigate the precarity of everyday life.

We definitely need more people who care about the common good.  But we also need organizers who can build relationships with institutions apart from government or business, and a party that can truly represent those interests in the halls of congress.

But if this movement can identify those Republicans and Conservatives who seek to serve the common good rather than destroy it, may it thrive.

Nun Embezzles

Every now and again one of my “anti-” religious friends sends me an article of some priest doing wrong.  In conversation they are usually polite, but inevitably the link has to do with bad clergy, bad religion, or an atheist insight they guess I’ve never heard.

Recently a nun was charged with embezzling at a local Catholic college.

Of course, I’m always disappointed, frustrated and saddened whenever this happens.  Not just because it’s bad for the institution and the individuals who are hurt, but because it affects me.

Whenever a priest or a nun is accused of a crime, of any denomination or tradition, it wears off a little.  I become embarrassed and ashamed, even though I did nothing wrong.  A conviction of one priest, and we’re all convicted.  One accusation, and we’re all accused.

I don’t think that one’s religion or faith has much to do with why or when a crime is committed.  It may be that, as churches are fundamentally trust-based institutions- it’s easier to commit crimes without being detected.  It’s easier to avoid the normal controls that businesses have.

Plenty of churches operate more responsibly.  The Episcopal church, by and large, has systems to encourage churches to monitor their money.  The priest in my church, for example, doesn’t count the money – in fact, the entire vestry is trained to do the work instead.  We have two, not one, treasurers, so that power isn’t in the hands of one person.  My discretionary account isn’t separated from the main account, and is easily tracked by the wardens.  Churches are required to have audits.

And when someone gives me cash, I remind them of a simple rule:  never give a priest cash.  I remind them that the $20 will either sit on my dresser, or be a part of my clergy beer fund, to which I buy rounds of drinks for anyone who joins me.

Priests often feel that they work hard, and are undercompensated.  When they are disconnected from their own congregations, they justify to themselves taking a couple dollars here and there.   It’s an insidious cycle.

It is one reason dioceses encourage churches to compensate parish priests enough so that they do not have to be stressed, worried or resentful.  Nobody becomes rich when they decide to enter the ministry – we are fully aware that we won’t have a Mercedes, send our children to Switzerland for skiing trips, and routinely go to fancy restaurants.  It is enough to have a wage that is just, that allows a priest to have a family without being afraid of what the next day brings.

Jesus sacrificed his life, so that we would not have to.