Taxed

About a month ago, I started attending a multi-session seminar on public policy in Arizona, specifically focused on faith leaders and the role the church can play in creating a more just and equitable state. Yesterday, we had a session n the congresional budget, which inevitably led to a talk about the tax system. Which, if you didn’t know, is pretty terrible in Arizona.

Ok, I’ll admit: I knew it was bad, but after seeing the numbers presented by professional economists and budget people, even I was shocked.

Here’s the graph that really threw me off:

20131025-110216.jpg

(This graph is copied from this report: http://www.itep.org/pdf/whopaysreport.pdf It has a lot of information on all of the states!)

Arizona has a regressive tax system!!!! Meaning that the poorer you are, the larger a percentage of your income you pay in taxes. How does that happen?

Well, we do have a progressive income tax, meaning the more money you make the higher your income tax rate. Only, there have been pushes in the pat few decades to lower the personal income tax, andd even the talk off going to a “flat” tax rate, where everyone would have the same income tax rate. As the income tax rate on the upper tier of the income spectrum has gone down, there has also been an increase reliance on the state sales tax to make up for the revenue lost by the decrease in the income tax rate.

I guess the thinking is that everyone having the same tax rate means an equal society. There are even those who argue that there should be no income tax, that all state revenue (the little that’s needed) should come via the sales tax. It is, after all, the same rate for everyone. But of course, while the initial rate is the same for everyone, the actual amount paid as a percentage of income is way off. On a $100 purchase, I would pay the same dollar amount a someone making $100,000 a year, abut $8 (I think…I actually don’t know the rate). But of course, $8 is a much higher percentage of my personal income that for the person making six-figures.

Anyways, the part of this tax conversation that happened before my eyes glazed over (economics is not my best subject) led me to think about what this tax system says about our state as a society. How did we start viewing equality as measured not by the result of policy, but by artificial numbers that seemingly justify our position? (I mean, everyone does pay the same rate, and that’s pretty fair, right?) Does anyone actually understand the difference between a regressive and a progressive tax system? Or the difference between the income tax and the sales tax?

But the question that I can’t make go away: When did society stop seeing the tax system as a tool for the public good and instead as an assault on individual earners?

I can understand not wanting to pay more in taxes. It does cost more money. But I cannot understand the idea that we should be living in an “every person for themselves” world. What about community? What about social obligation? What about caring for the least of these, or loving your neighbor as yourself, or giving all you have to the poor? Have we traded these in for “well, I earned it?”

I’m not saying the government is the best way to provide for the needs of those in society. (But it’s probably the best one we have. Churches and charities, while admirable, do not have the reach or the resources to provide for everything the government is able to provide) I’m trying to get at what this regressive tax system says about our focus as a society.

Martin Luther King, jr. interpreted the acts of the Good Samaritan this way: while theLevite and the priest passed by the man and asked “what will happen to me if I stop and help him,” the Samaritan asked “what will happen to him if I don’t stop?”

Continuing to decrease the income tax and rely more on the sales tax does a great job answering the first question: what will happen to my wealth, to my earnings, to my things if the tax system doesn’t continue this trend? Christians should be asking the other question: what will happen to those in our society who have less, our neighbors struggling to get by on depreciating wages, who are also taking up a larger share of the tax burden in our state, if we don’t do something to change the system? What will happen to them if we don’t do something?

Advertisements

Why we should care that Millennials (me?) are leaving the church.

Last week, Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for CNN called Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church. And then, everyone read it and wrote their own opinions about it (I guess like I’m doing now).

These took a range of stances, from “Rachel is spot on,” to “Rachel is wrong and Millennials are lazy and self centered and need to come back to the church because it’s good for them,” to what I thought were more helpful discussions like “you know so called ‘church decline’ is mostly a white issue embedded in cultural privilege, right?”

I like this conversation, even as I don’t really like all the arguments involved. For instance, I don’t think the reason we need Millennials is to pay the bills and put people in the pews. Nor do I agree (at all, really) with Brett McCracken’s piece that we should be telling Millennials to sit down and shut up (keep trying that method, see what happens).

In this conversation, I’m actually a lot less interested in the Millennials themselves. They’ll come to church when they feel they need it, and hopefully the church will continue to try to figure out how to reach more people (like we in the church should be doing at all times anyways). What I’m much more interested in is the way the conversation challenges the status quo in the church.

Take, for instance, the common assertion (for comfort, maybe) that people who leave the church is their 20’s will come back when they have kids. This, along the trend that Millenials are putting off marriage longer, means that all the church has to do is wait a few extra years, and we’ll get people back.

For me, there are two problems with this that are intricately related:

First, this implies that church is for those who have settled down, who have found the ‘one,’ who are ready to enter into the part of their lives in which they are ‘productive’ members of society. At least the way I (a millennial myself) hear it, church exists as another symbol in the American dream, participation in the middle class. Which I don’t find anywhere in the bible. Even when I look at the household codes (you know, the terrible “women submit to your husbands” nonsense) they come in the midst of communities not integrated into some perfect Roman society, but forming resistance and facing persecution. It’s like the church took the part where we’re supposed to live in perfect little family units (which I’m not convinced the bible actually says) integrated into society and left out the part about resistance and struggle against injustice.

Second, the idea that the church will be OK because Millennials will come back when they have kids implies that Christianity has nothing to say to people in arguably the most formative years of their lives. A religion founded on resistance to an unjust social order, that preaches peace, compassion, love, forgiveness, and on and on, has nothing to teach someone figuring out how they are going to participate in the world, what they are going to study in school, or how they should view their place in their first job? When I was in college I was introduced to great ideas of meaning and justice through the church. I learned that rather than compete in the rat race that is the job market, I should seek out ways to dedicate my life to service, to peace, to justice. It was the church the taught me that instead of seeking a well paying job, I should look for joy (which may or may not pay well). This isn’t stuff we should be starting to teach people after they have kids.

All of this is to say that I don’t want this blog to be taken as advice on what we should do to attract Millennials, or an opinion on how the church should change. It’s to say that even if we can live without Millennials for a while, we should still engage in the questions their exodus brings up. Because the church is in constant need of critiquing. We get complacent if everything is always in its ‘right’ place, and if the gospel is anything, it’s the emergence of something new, something more just, something more open. If we need this whole Millennial conversation to identify places to grow, then so be it. We’ll be better for it if we throw ourselves into the conversation.

(note: I didn’t mention my two favorite responses to Evan’s post. First, this article by Meghan Florian about how she got pulled into a lifelong struggle with the church. Second, this blog by a friend writing about her experience with the church, with community, with members caring for each other, with concrete acts of service and love that come when you fully participate in the church (perhaps the best kept secret the church has).)

Stand: Reflections of the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and GA-13-27

Last night I arrived home after a week in Orlando Florida at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Basically, all of our congregations get together once every 2 years, worship, learn and decide on the business of our Church. It’s an exciting week, minus, I guess, the part where we sit in a room and listen to a moderator strictly enforce a “Roberts Rules” like order.

There was a lot of controversy heading into this week, in part because of one resolution, GA-1327, “Becoming a People of Grace and Welcoming,” which included a statement affirming folks identifying as lgbt. The resolution, which eventually passed, was received by some as an exciting step towards acceptance, while others viewed it as the Church imposing a controversial view. In particular the Hispanic National Board of Directors published a statement in January against the resolution, stating that it threatened the unity, writing that developing a “definite
conclusion to the subject of sexual orientation harms an inclusive church and its effort to include.” The way in which many Disciples read this statement led to the worry that passing the resolution might lead to a split in the church, and so leading up to assembly there was uncertainty about what was going to happen.

I don’t want to write about some meta-narrative of the assembly, about how the assembly “felt,” or what was going through the minds of those present. Instead, I want to write about my own process, because I was really worried about this resolution. I joked (maybe a little insensitively) that I was going to argue for the resolution and vote against it. I voted for it, and even gave my support by standing amongst the witness at the microphone as they told their stories of why this resolution mattered to them. What follows are my own reflections on how I came to vote the way I did:

First of all, I worried about the threat to unity, but not in and of itself. Rather, I worried that one social issue (the fight for acceptance of lgbt people) would trump that of another (primarily the members of the hispanic community, especially as I live in a place where their rights are constantly in jeopardy). The point of unity, as I understand it, is to keep as many people at the table so that our view of who belongs and who does not can be expanded exponentially. That a marginalized group might leave the table over this issue concerned me.

Further, I worried that this resolution did indeed project a paternalistic, “we know better” attitude. In their letter, the Hispanic National Board of Directors concludes with a series of questions which read : “Who speaks for the church, to whom on what? Why? How? Given differences in moral
judgments we are concerned with how Christian moral teachings could and should both respect
differences in moral judgments and identify the limits to such differences.” This is a legitimate set of questions, especially as Disciples come together to make statements which speak for the whole of the General Assembly. The argument can be made that we celebrate autonomy of belief, but the resolutions still read as unified theological statements, and while an individual can surely believe outside of what is decided, I understand when someone is frustrated when they are on the other side of a controversial vote.

Finally, I worried a lot about misrepresentation. If we are as divided on issues of acceptance and sexuality as we seem, then passing a resolution makes possible misunderstanding about the ability of our church to be truly welcoming. Even more concerning is the possibility that we have presented ourselves as a safe space, a place where vulnerable lgbt people can come and be supported. In my mind, this worry goes something like this: a young person begins questioning their sexuality in a conservative church, and so, to try to find out if they are ok/loved/sinners/etc, they search for churches that have openly stated they accept lgbt peoples. They find our denominations statement and take it as a sign that all Disciples churches are welcoming and walk into a pastors office seeking help and encouragement, and instead find hostility and rejection.

And so, with all of this on my mind leading into assembly, I wondered how I would vote, and what was the best action my denomination could take as it prepared to move forward.

And yet, after several days present in Orlando at the Assembly, I chose decisively to stand with and vote on the side of the resolution. Why?

I hold an incredibly privileged place in society. As a straight, white male, no one every questions my sexuality, nor my citizenship, nor my right to be anywhere. No one will ever vote on my right to love who I’m with, nor will there be resolutions regarding my status in society. And so, in relation to the resolution, the fact that I get a choice in which group’s favor I will stand already reveals a great deal of power on my part.

I also know (and often forget) that power, in a patriarchal sense, often gets acted out in the favor of order. It enforces social orders through the production of proper roles in society, and is threatened by any form of disorder. Feminism can be read as the movement to make men and women equal in society, but I prefer to think of it as a movement against patriarchy. While it’s great to see women’s power in society rising, if it comes with the enforcement of patriarchal policies and social roles (see: Sarah Palin and Jan Brewer) then there’s still work to be done.

All of this is to say that so much of my worry regarding this resolution came out of my own position of power and privilege in society. It took me until the GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples) banquet on Monday night to realize this. As I listened to Mark Johnston tell the story of GLAD, initially living in the shadows of the denomination, being threatened and told that they don’t belong in the church, I realized that my position in these issues cannot be maintaining order. I don’t get to chose for other people whether or not they should be standing up for rights and recognition in the denomination, even if it means possible disorder and disunity. The idea that in this debate I might find the “right” position furthers the idea that I have the power to determine for other people what is the most acceptable, what is most productive, and what is most right. The truth is there is no one correct answer, and so we stand as a denomination with many truths, with many perspectives, and with many possibilities of different unities.

What I realize after my week at General Assembly is that my position in society, with all of its privilege and power, means that I will never be voting on my own rights. And so, rather than exercise my own power by choosing the side of order and status quo in a controversial and contentious debate, I will always choose to stand with those fighting for further recognition and an expansion of their rights, even if it leads to disorder and disunity within my denomination. And this past week, in Orlando I stood with GLAD, and all of the lgbt members of my Church.

During the vote, several dozen people, including me, stood behind those speaking in favor of the resolutions, which eventually passed.

20130718-112424.jpg

No Control

A few weeks ago, I sat at a conference where a young pastor in his first year expressed frustration about his job, and subsequently his calling. I believe his exact words were “What’s the point of church?” That’s a rough place to be in, working you first “call” or “appointment,” or, in our case, “residency,” and suddenly have a crisis of faith, not necessarily in God, but in the work you’ve dedicated quite a bit of time (and school) to. My response to this question was something like “our society needs a social fabric…and the church brings people together…and blah blah blah.

I do believe in that answer (and that might be a post for another day) but not because I think it’s the absolute right answer in all cases. Actually, I think it’s the answer that I come up with when I can’t figure out why the church is worth it. There are those times when it feels like the work I’m doing is a waste of time, that it’s just putting off the death of a dying institution. (of course, there are also many, many times when the work I’m doing feels like the most important thing I could ever be doing)

A few of the other participants in our group took a route similar to mine, speaking of the need to determine some kind of “theological grounding,” a reason why the church ought to exist. Before we can start doing ministry it seems, we first have to come up with some predetermined objective, some reason we’re doing church.

If I could go back to that moment at that conference, sitting at the table during that small group time, I’d give a completely different answer: I don’t know why we do church. But we do, and we shouldn’t stop.

Fast forward to this morning. Today I sat with a spiritual director, something I’ve been looking forward to for a while. This person, Rene, is trained in directing people on their spiritual journey. We will be meeting once a month together to discuss my own spiritual practices, my discernment in life, my ability to listen to the spirit, etc. This morning, when he asked my why I was seeking spiritual guidance, I started in on describing my scattered feelings, about how I’m beginning discernment on my own ministry and calling, and how my spiritual life feels out of control at times. And then we sat and talked for an hour.

I was expecting him to talk about discipline and practice. Or, I wanted him to talk about discipline and practice. I wanted him to give me a schedule, to assign practices, to keep me accountable. And in some ways he did. I’m supposed to work on daily practice, and keep a journal. But that part of our meeting took about 3 minutes towards the end.

Instead of focusing on the practices I should be doing, Rene pulled the one word he felt was important about what I had said at the beginning of our meeting: control.

There’s a dichotomy I place on my life: those times when I am ordered and in control, and those times when I am scattered and out of control. In the first of these times, I feel like I am closer to God, that I am more spiritual grounded. In the latter, I feel the opposite, like I lose grip on my own spiritual life, like I have drifted further from God.

His advice to me: accept that even when I’m busy, God is near. And even when it feels as though I’m not giving time to my spiritual life, accept that God loves me. God is not absent in the scattered and out of control parts of my life.

Why does this have anything to do with why the church exists? Because like me waiting for the quiet and controlled times to hear and experience God, so too I sometimes expect the church to have a clear mission, a clear focus, and a clear reason for existing. I expect it to be ordered and always present. I expect it to be in my control. I build up intricate systems of meanings in my own mind, speak of social fabrics and transformation and encountering the spirit. And the truth is that those things do happen, just not always when we expect it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t belong to us, and to place boundaries on how and where God will work in the life of the church attempts to restrict that which will always defy our expectations.

Sometimes the church exists to create a community which reflects the gospel. Sometimes it functions as an agent of social change. Sometimes it exists to challenge people to be more loving. Sometimes it provides a hand to hold during a difficult period in life, or to provide community during stressful times, or to feed the hungry, or to cloth the naked. Sometimes it even works against justice, furthering sexism or homophobia or racism (though I think when this happens, the church is reflecting/being used to enforce larger social, cultural and political power).

But whatever it’s doing, the church exists. And whether we know it or not, whether we can grasp it or not, whether it’s in our control or not, the Spirit is working in the church. Things are growing and changing and happening, things that we’ll probably never be able to control, and that we’ll seldom understand. We might not see it all the time, but I know that the church is growing into something different, something powerful, something meaningful, both because of our work and despite it. And, as long as we’re willing to let go of our need to control how that happens, that change and growth might be the best part of working in the church right now.