Sunday, February 12, 2017

We become what we focus on


The severest punishment God ever lays upon us is to let us have what we want.
"Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he."
Proverbs 29.18, King James Version

This is probably the most well known rendering of that short verse, but it poorly communicates what the verse is trying to say. The KJV was done in the very early 1600s and for today, it just is not a good translation.

"Vision" refers to spiritual sight, more properly, spiritual insight. The verse, properly understood in its context and intention, is actually one of the most important warnings and assurances in the entire Bible.

Try this: When the people lose sight of God’s will, they go astray, but they prosper when they keep God’s law.

"The people" in the verse does not refer just to a worshiping congregation, but in the context of its time, a national people, the people of ancient Israel. The verse is talking about national consequences of ignoring God and the benefits of cleaving to God's commandments.

Bible Gateway has a long list of different translations and renderings. The ERV's translation is probably the best: "If a nation is not guided by God, the people will lose self-control, but the nation that obeys God’s law will be happy."

One Hebrew word study I read said that the real thrust of the verse is that when the nation loses sight of godliness, it descends into anarchy. We become what we focus on. When we lose sight of God and God's will for our lives, we become ungodly. That never ends well, either for individuals, churches or nations.

Here is a key point: God commandments were revealed to humanity. We did not make them up. We are so far removed from their revelation that we think that morality, as we understand it, is the natural way that people live together. In fact, the societies around the ancient Jews and early Christians were brutal. The Romans considered mercy, charity and forgiveness to be vices, not virtues. Roman parents beat their children for the showing weakness of mercy. Human morality absent divine commandment is base and as Proverbs says, descends finally into anarchy. We will either rule our passions or be ruled by them. As St Paul put it, "God can't be disregarded" -- note well, not "should not be" or "must not be," but cannot be disregarded; it is not possible. He continued, "You will harvest what you plant."

Morally, our capacities are weighted toward the negative side of the scale. People intend greater good than they achieve. Treaties, alliances, aid organizations, political parties, civic groups, even churches – all begun for good reasons to accomplish good things, and all fall short of what their founders intended.

 Hence the necessity of God giving the moral law. My friend and former co-author Rabbi Daniel Jackson wrote, "There are obvious logical elements of the Law of Sinai that might be deduced logically (or rationally). Yet, much of the Scriptures is based on directives and rules that [we] would not have known if the Scriptures did not tell [us] so."

God's Law frees us from the baser demons of our being so that we may discover the better angels of our nature. Every choice to depart from God's Law chips away at our integrity as persons belonging to Jesus. Integrity matters!

During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt and one of his cowpunchers lassoed a maverick steer, lit a fire, and put a branding iron in it to heat. The part of the range they were on was actually owned by Gregor Lang, one of Roosevelt's neighbors. According to the cattleman's rule, the steer therefore belonged to Lang. Roosevelt saw his employee, the cowboy, raise the glowing branding iron toward the steer, but it was Roosevelt's brand. "Wait, it should be Lang's brand," he said.

"That's all right, boss," said the cowboy. "Lang will never know."

"Drop that iron," Roosevelt demanded, "go back to the ranch, get your things and get out." Roosevelt later explained, "A man who will steal for me will steal from me."

Integrity, says Webster's, is "adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty." And that takes the willingness and ability to cleave to a standard, whether you call it the law or a code or something else. Choices matter, and the choices we make are not isolated from one another.

The issue is more acute for young people than for me or those older than me. It sounds trite to say but it's nonetheless true that we grew up in a different time than you. The advice to "do your own thing" was unknown to us and we would never have even thought of agreeing that something may be right for you and wrong for me, or vice-versa, depending on our own inclinations, points of view and what we simply want to believe.

The problem is that to be a modern man or woman is to believe in nothing. Or more accurately, to believe in nothing in particular. Americans have come to prize personal autonomy so much that the spirit of this age gleefully embraces that nothing underlies fundamental reality, making, in the words of David Hart, "a fertile void in which all things are [claimed] possible, from which arises no impediment" to our desires and therefore we may decide for ourselves what is right or wrong and what we choose.



Which is to say that modern America as a whole no longer believes that there are objective criteria by which to judge our choices because being able to choose in the first place is the highest good there is. Therefore, all judgment, whether divine or human, infringes on choosing – and being able to choose according to one's own standards exercises "an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns."

This is a purely modern idea. In centuries past, even before Jesus was born, true human freedom was understood as liberation "from whatever constrains us from living a life of rational virtue" and that led to our intellectual and spiritual flourishing. Freedom was the ability to overcome "our willful surrender to momentary impulses, [including] our own foolish or wicked choices."
"In this view of things [said Hart], we are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented ... and whatever separates us from that end -- even if it comes from our own wills -- is a form of bondage. We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well."
For to choose poorly is to enslave ourselves to the impermanent, the irrational and eventually the destructive. Simply choosing, unconnected from divine guidance and godly standards, is to choose ultimately to reject freedom and to be enslaved to what Paul called the body of death and finally to choose to perish rather than attain everlasting life.

God's law enables human beings to be freed from the shackles of spiritual and mental bondage that prevent us from being saved in this life and the next. Paul's advice of Romans 12 holds true: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

Even Jesus understood that a life of choosing rightly is not easy. "Enter through the narrow gate," he said, "for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."

What to do and how? Paul tells us that in Philippians 4:8: “… Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It's not easy to live rightly to remain free. It is bondage to death and sin that is easy. But we can break those chains if we keep focused on God. Then we will be free indeed.

See also, "How Jesus invented individual liberty."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Churches, taxation, and the Johnson Amendment

President Trump recently said he wanted to revoke the Johnson Amendment, under which churches and other religious organizations may gain tax-exempt status as long as they remain apolitical. This arrangement dates only to 1954 and the issue has come up before. I wrote this post about it in 2004, reposted here. 


Some debate has come up recently about legal restrictions on political activities by churches. For example, I linked, without comment, to Paul Greenberg's recent op-ed in which he claimed,
Now a Baptist minister in little ol' Springdale, Ark., has been accused of crossing the line. How did he get into trouble? Well, it seems that over the years a vague and mischievous distinction has been drawn between politics and partisan politics in the law — that is, churches may address political issues but not explicitly endorse a party or its candidate if they want to keep their tax-exempt status.
La Shawn Barber writes that a "group of conservative Christians" is "sending spies into liberal churches to find out if they advocate a particular politician while preaching in the pulpit." And if they do, "the group has said it will report that church to the Internal Revenue Service, which could revoke their tax-exempt status." La Shawn inexplicably seems to think this is a good thing. 

 
Both Greenberg and Barber misunderstand what the real situation is. They both think, erroneously, that the government's granting of tax-exempt status depends on preachers never being involved in partisan politics. 

 
I became deeply involved in Tennessee's political process as part of a formally-organized United Methodist group campaigning to defeat a ballot measure allowing a state-sponsored lottery in 2002 (we failed). I did a lot of research about what the IRS code actually has to say about this issue. So here's the deal. 

 
Partisan politics deals with the election of a particular candidate or slate of candidates for elective office. Issue politics deal with ballot matters, such as the lottery issue in Tennessee, that don't elect a candidate to an office. 

 
A common belief is that the latter are permitted to churches and the former are forbidden. No so. Remember that the only issue here is a church's tax exempt status, and as far as the IRS is concerned, there is no difference between a church's partisan political activities and its issue activities. 

 
The issue, you should be unsurprised to learn, is money, not speech (or not speech per se ). Overtly political organizations are not tax-exempt. Charitable organizations can apply for and receive tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code. This exemption means the organization or church does not pay a corporate income tax on funds it earns or receives to do the charitable work. Likewise, it is much easier for churches to furnish donors with the certifications the IRS requires them to have in order to deduct their donations from their personal income taxes. 

 
The reason a church's political activities are related to tax code is to prevent a purely political organization from chartering itself as a religious organization, gaining tax exemption, and then doing nothing but campaigning, perhaps dressed up with some religious language now and then. Think about it: if your business could describe itself as a "charitable organization" and so gain tax exemption, why wouldn't it do so? 

 
If it were that simple, the DNC and the RNC and MicroSoft and General Motors would all call themselves churches or charities, file for 501(c)(3) and merrily oppress the working class even more! 
  Section 504 of the IRS code says that exempted organizations can lose their 501(c)(3) status by “carrying on propaganda” or attempting in influence legislation or elections. But the IRS has never described clearly (surprise) how it may decide that a church is doing so. The test seems to be (I say seems because with the IRS little is ever certain) how much money the exempted organization is spending on political activities. If a "substantial part" (the IRS's expression) of the organization's activities "consists of carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation," then tax-exempt-status can be either denied or revoked. 

 
But - and there is always a "but" with the tax code - there is an expenditure ceiling for political activities in effect, below which political propagandizing is quite okay. Good luck trying to determine what the ceiling is. 

 
The point is that while churches do give up some measure of political influence to accept tax exemption, it is not what people think. The IRS doesn't care how political a preacher's sermon is; its concern seems to be how much money the church spends on political activities rather than religious and charitable ones. 

 
And again, the issue is also whether churches are "attempting to influence" legislation or other political matters (by extension).  Problem is, as Servant News explains,
The Internal Revenue Service enforces Code sections at its own discretion—sometimes doing nothing for decades, then slowly beginning to enforce them. From 1956 through the 1960’s, very few churches lost their 501(c)(3) status for any reason. A landmark case occurred in Christian Echoes National Ministry, Inc. v. United States, 470 F.2d 849 (10th Cir. 1972); cert. denied, 414 U.S. 864 (1973). This description comes from the IRS web site (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/topic-p.pdf), an article entitled “Lobbying issues”:
Christian Echoes National Ministry published articles and produced radio and television broadcasts that urged recipients to become involved in politics and to write to their representatives in Congress to urge that they support prayer in public schools and oppose foreign aid. The organization argued that attempts to influence legislation would occur only if legislation were actually pending. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the regulation properly interpreted the statute, and that the organization was engaged in attempting to influence legislation, even if legislation was not pending.
There are Christian ministries that do the same things today, and, for whatever reason, have not had the 501(c)(3) status removed. Nevertheless, this case did establish that obtaining section 501(c)(3) status is a privilege for which churches trade their constitutional rights Quoting from the Court opinion of Christian Echoes v. United States:
In light of the fact that tax exemption is a privilege, a matter of grace rather than right, we hold that the limitations contained in section 501(c)(3) withholding exemption from nonprofit corporations do not deprive Christian Echoes of its constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of speech.
To show the arbitrariness of enforcement of section 501(c)(3), we include the following from the Charities and Non-Profits article from the IRS web site: www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=96099,00.html, [bolding ours]:
An IRC Section 501(c)(3) organization may not engage in carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities. Whether an organization has attempted to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities is determined based upon all relevant facts and circumstances. However, most IRC Section 501(c)(3) organizations may use Form 5768, Election/Revocation of Election by an Eligible Section 501(c)(3) Organization to Make Expenditures to Influence Legislation, to make an election under IRC Section 501(h) to be subject to an objectively measured expenditure test with respect to lobbying activities rather than the less precise “substantial activity” test.
Churches do not have the option to use form 5768 (which is a paperwork nightmare anyway), so they are evaluated by the “less precise ‘substantial activity test’” that is “based upon all relevant facts and circumstances”—in other words, the IRS has no openly available standard that it must follow and can therefore do whatever it wants. There may be a more codified procedure in the future, or there may not be. It may be more or less restrictive. The IRS has free reign, since all 501(c)(3) status churches have already agreed that no substantial part of their activity will be “carrying on propaganda” (propagating information) about anything.
Yeah, that's clear. My overall point, though, is that the IRS is full of auditors, not speech critics, and when its auditors want to determine what a church is "substantially" doing, it will follow the money trail. 

 
There are nonpolitical things that can cause a church to lose its tax exemption. I knew of one church that leased land to a communications company for towers and relay stations. The IRS considered this - rightly - a commercial enterprise. Because the lease payments amounted to a majority of the church's income (it was a small church) the IRS said that the church had become a for-profit business, and yanked the exemption. 

 
My very large church in Virginia operated a bookstore inside the building. It didn't have to pay taxes on the profit because there was no exterior entrance to the bookstore. But if a church runs a bookstore with an exterior entrance, it has to pay taxes on the profit. That's how complex this issue can be. 

 
Church's that want to become deeply involved in politics may do so, but they have to be willing to be taxed just like any political organization. That means the congregants' tithes won't be tax deductible on personal income tax returns, too. Guess how many churches want to be political so much they'll accept a 30-50 percent reduction in offerings? Not mine, buddy.

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