Taxes and Tithes

My husband and I both feel ill at ease in the churches we have been attending. His has become more evangelical, more charismatic. That is the wave of the present and it is likely to evoke in congregants a more passionate belief. But it is not his way. Even less is it mine. Mine is bloodless in its Christianity, dismissive of the church’s role in shaping values we hold dear. And politicized. My husband and I like and respect the people in the congregations. And we have a loyalty – his people were around in the Battle of White Mountain and my people arrived in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century from Wales and Scotland, Protestants to the core. He’s related by blood to many in his small congregation; I’m related in spirit – the church is like the church of my youth.

I’m not religious, as my friends and regular readers here know. But a few years ago my youngest daughter wanted to seek out a church “home” in which she might feel more comfortable than the church of her father. I remain in an ambiguous position: when we fill out the membership record each Sunday I follow the example of an older couple who described themselves as “regular visitors.” They’ve joined but I haven’t.

As is true of most of the old mainline denominations, the membership is older. The women are stylish – they retain that strong discipline that straightens hose, polishes shoes, sits upright. Coming out of that great sea change of the sixties, our generation has seldom disciplined ourselves as they did – men in suits and women “put together.” I hate to think we will be represented by the older people at San Francisco demonstrations – 75-year-olds in t-shirts and sloppy sweats, thin hair blowing in the wind. Going to church, I remembered the Sundays of my youth, my grandparents erect and carefully groomed, attentive and polite. And I saw it again in this church – and I wanted to follow these models – ones I had forgotten for most of my adult life. They might be appalled and certainly would not have run a business, as I often did, bare-footed nor blindly grab something from a closet on the way to work.

This sounds superficial. It isn’t – it is the outward show of self-discipline and respect for self, for society, for the church itself. It signals a quiet personal dignity. These aren’t flashy dressers; they are just adults and I really can no longer pretend I’m not an adult, as my last child sets out in the world and Social Security gives me dates – last year, next, down the road five or so – when I can start collecting.

My Sunday School class is more engaging than church – it is a classroom, which, after all, is my natural home. My rhythms are those of the school year; even in the 13 years I was neither student nor teacher, my business was dependent upon the waxing and waning that characterize the school calendar. And I’m used to thinking about words. So a class that emphasized the word felt good – challenging and interesting and I became at ease much faster than I would have thought.

And what a class it is! I’ve spoken here before of the remarkable World War II heroes in our midst. Coming from the strongly ethnic church of my husband’s faith and family, I looked at the Presbyterians in a new way – they, too, were ethnic. And the names in the directory were from the various strains that melded into my family. And a more gracious, loving group of people is hard to imagine. The member with whom I am most in disagreement has thanked me for coming; he and his wife have gone out of their way to welcome me – and, let’s face it, I’m not gracious; I persistently argue and criticize their opinions. The older couple –the “regular visitors” – turned out to be a charming analyst who warmly announced one Sunday that decades of listening to patients had led him to recognize love kept people sane, made marriages, was the message of the Bible, and the great good in this world. He returns to that observation, week after week. (Two members of the class were rigorously trained in psychology, but all bring a lifetime of observing, analyzing, and in most cases I would venture to say, loving human nature.)

But the class is riven – quietly, below the surface forcefully calmed by the strong hand of our teacher. The murmured disagreements are the usual ones – the extent (and truth) of global warming, the role of the government, Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes, the legitimacy of Palestinian complaints and Israel claims, the culpability of the church in slavery, the problems of the minimum wage. Always, he takes us back to the word and a Biblical context for it – and it alone. Some worry about how others use their land, others about how others use their money. Back we go to the verses and the millennia ago when they were written. I’m always struck by the certainty of some at the proper use of others’ resources – and how they might better control them. But our attention is drawn again to the beautiful old words and the great old narratives.

The minister, however, has taken to speaking from the pulpit about social issues – and in the tradition of so many of the mainline churches. Not too many weeks ago, he developed a strained and rather unenlightening comparison between Martin Luther and that great thinker, Cornel West. A friend’s daughter had heard the sermon and been shocked; I had been irritated but not paid sufficient attention. Reading it over (in the tradition of our denomination, the word of the sermon is treated with respect, copies are available to follow during the sermon itself and it is on the website) I found her wiser than I, despite my years. Quoting Cornel West at length is not likely to lead to a lucid message.

A couple of weeks ago, the last sermon I heard (and perhaps the last one I will hear) condemned the heartlessness of those who would vote not to extend unemployment insurance – holding the unemployed hostage for the sake of the wealthy. Members of the church developed an ad for Chet Edwards’ campaign and many in the church were quite active in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign. In his years in the House he had brought home considerable pork to this region. The argument in their ad – and one widely held in the congregation – was that he should be re-elected because he was good for the big school and the big school was good for our community. They argued that Flores, who replaced him, just didn’t care about the school. Of course this was not true since he, too, was a fervent former student. (Anyone not one would begin the race from pretty far back of the starting line.) Still Flores had a position more aligned with the Tea Party candidates. Of course, Edwards had seniority and this was not an argument without merit. We are pretty much a one-industry town and that industry is the university. Many of its projects are funded by the government; much of this is good – the green revolution came out of here and places like this one. People are alive today because of such research. But surely the best of these can be defended on their own merits.

More importantly, we might ask, who do we care about? Whose sense of proportion is humanitarian: The person who equates minimum wage with slavery? He who encourages others to find the self-sufficiency and pleasure of productive work or, he who, ignoring all the studies to the contrary, provides the honey pot trap of long-term unemployment compensation? Generosity with other’s money is not virtuous. And, perhaps most importantly, who is most interested in “fairness” – the person who, knowing full well the costs will hit somewhere – across the country or across time, prefers that others (almost surely in more desperate straits than those in our time and our place) should be taxed to make our lives easier, simply because our local rep had more seniority?

Clearly, some in the congregation see in these positions cognitive dissonance; others don’t. Sometimes we forget real people with real lives and real desires are taxed to support our projects. “I listen to NPR and I vote” may not seem absurd if you believe all have (or should have) your taste in music or politics or drama. But, I listen to CMT and I vote – does a Frank Sinatra fan need to pay for my love of Alan Jackson? Should I have to pay for a program of rap? When I listened to NPR for several hours a day, I did give – for years. And my business “donated” in exchange for on-air recognition. The church can make its choices and request help from its congregants, but I’m not impressed with its belief that its choices should be to take money from some other congregation to give to members of a third, and even less impressed with the argument others should be forced to support our congregants’ projects so they can fill the plates on Sunday. This doesn’t arise from the love about which the psychiatrist in our class speaks so eloquently. And it does remind me of a commandment we (including me, of course) too often forget – our natural tendency to covet doesn’t need encouragement.

7 thoughts on “Taxes and Tithes”

  1. Very nice post Ginny. I don’t think I have ever seen Martin Luther and Cornel West in the same sentence. I would have left then and there, and commend you for taking the high road.

  2. Your Sunday School teacher sounds like a gem. Gently guiding discussions back to Scripture is an art. To do so to political discussions shows tremendous skill.

    Before you leave your church please consider speaking directly to the governing body, be it a Session or a group of elders. Too many churches lose their way and wither because congregants won’t speak up (and suggest solutions) about problems. A politicied sermon is a disinvitation, and you can quote James all day long.

    Merry Christmas and best of luck.

  3. I church-shopped a few years ago and was appalled by the low quality of the sermons. I could do a better job.

    Actually the best sermon was a peyote ceremony where the road man, at 4 am in a teepee in a winter rain storm, gave excellent guidence to his flock on living a better life.

  4. Regarding your take on your church members’ Sunday best and your Sunday School teacher:

    “This sounds superficial. It isn’t – it is the outward show of self-discipline and respect for self, for society, for the church itself. It signals a quiet personal dignity. These aren’t flashy dressers; they are just adults and I really can no longer pretend I’m not an adult…”

    The outward show of self-discipline and respect is first and foremost by all the “born-again” (to use the Biblical, evangelical phrase) **for God** Who is their Lord, and Who you left out of your possible motivations. Maybe it comes with a thought of a specific person of the triune God (Father, Son, or Spirit), but it is to honor God.

    Dressing up is not done to earn His love; we have that. It is done to please the One who loves us without cause on our part, and so done in some mix of awe/fear/mystery and responsive love and reverence. For those who love and fear Him, it doesn’t matter what you wear, or how it looks, as long as you are doing the best you can to honor God, and to reflect His character in all you do. That following after Him, reflecting His character, is shown forth in self-discipline because He is self-disciplined, in humility (not standing out from your peers in your attire) because He is humble, in respect because He is deserving, and in love to our neighbors, because He loves us and them, even when we/they are His enemies.

    I recommend, when analyzing worshippers or yourself in worship, whether Christians, tree-huggers, or whoever, start by knowing Who or what their God is. The reason the class teacher keeps going to the Bible for answers is because of Who his God is, and His God has told him that the Bible is sufficient. There is a moral diminsion to every question (Even if only, “What is the wisest thing to do right now?) And God has given us a fully sufficient “Human Moral Users’ Guide” with His Word. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

    In reference to your porking congressperson, God lays down moral principals for choosing our leaders and how they are to lead and serve. There is a lot of scripture on this, but the two that come to mind right now are Exodus 18:21 and Luke 3:14. Basically, choose those who fear God, hate dishonest gain, and do not use their authority to extort from anyone, even from taxpayers for themselves and/or their voters.

    I enjoyed your article, and wish you and all the Boyz’ readers the very best in the coming year, in coming to know the God of the Bible, and in living to please and glorify Him. Happy Holidays! -Craig

  5. Your analyst friend might agree with Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”, with its ending
    “Our almost-instinct almost true:
    What will survive of us is love.”

  6. thanks, Dearieme,
    I don’t read poetry often; Thanks so much for this. I think others would like it as well. So different from the bitterness I usually associate with Larkin (which may well come from the few I’ve read – all of them wonderful, I must agree). Here’s a web version:

    An Arundel Tomb

    Side by side, their faces blurred,
    The earl and countess lie in stone,
    Their proper habits vaguely shown
    As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
    And that faint hint of the absurd –
    The little dogs under their feet.

    Such plainness of the pre-baroque
    Hardly involves the eye, until
    It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
    Clasped empty in the other; and
    One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
    His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

    They would not think to lie so long.
    Such faithfulness in effigy
    Was just a detail friends would see:
    A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
    Thrown off in helping to prolong
    The Latin names around the base.

    They would no guess how early in
    Their supine stationary voyage
    The air would change to soundless damage,
    Turn the old tenantry away;
    How soon succeeding eyes begin
    To look, not read. Rigidly they

    Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
    Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
    Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
    Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
    Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
    The endless altered people came,

    Washing at their identity.
    Now, helpless in the hollow of
    An unarmorial age, a trough
    Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
    Above their scrap of history,
    Only an attitude remains:

    Time has transfigured them into
    Untruth. The stone fidelity
    They hardly meant has come to be
    Their final blazon, and to prove
    Our almost-instinct almost true:
    What will survive of us is love.

    Philip Larkin

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