Saturday, May 26, 2007

On why I enjoy paying my taxes:

I was listening to the news yesterday and I heard that the citizens of very wealthy Milton, Massachusetts have declined to pass an override that would increase their taxes in order to balance the town’s school budget. The alternative may be shutting down all sports programs or raising the fee for participation in a sport to over $700! They may have to excess 30-some teachers and make other cuts. But Milton residents so dislike paying taxes that they are willing to allow the quality of public education suffer rather than pay a little more. Maybe some of them think having to pay for shared community services is unfair. Maybe some of them consider paying taxes "throwing money down a hole." Maybe they don’t trust government to spend the money wisely.

People want everything but they don’t want to pay anything for it. They want better public transportation, better roads, cheap gas and cleaner air. They want infallible homeland security, a big bad standing military, and (though many may have changed their minds since) during the last election, a majority apparently wanted to pursue the suicidal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. They want American students to pass high stakes tests, to be well-rounded, to go to college, and to be able to compete in a world market.

In the last few years, conservatives have gotten very good at controlling the language of the debate in the American political arena. Like “liberal,” they have made “taxes” a bad word. But taxes are really good for us all and for our community. Rampant individualism has made us forget about the benefits of living in community even as we continue to receive them-- for now.

I don’t know about you but I want my trash picked up so my neighborhood doesn’t smell like a dump and the streets repaired so I don’t lose a hubcap or break an axle in a pothole. I want good quality free public education for all children because it’s only fair, but also because when we don’t educate all children well, we, as a society, have to deal with the consequences. I even want the government to provide help to people who are struggling to get by, because I know there will always be people who need help. Equal access benefits from the government seem more fair and more effective than relying on individuals to notice people in need and invite them into their homes or churches for a meal, a bath or a place to sleep. I believe these necessities need to be provided on the community level and that they are worth paying for.

As for the argument that government can’t be trusted to spend money wisely... um, this is a democracy and we choose the people who run the government and, through them, what its laws and policies are. Yeah, sometimes elected officials don’t do what we want. There’s a remedy: vote them out! (Actually there are two. If we need to get someone out quick, before he starts World War III, we can impeach him!)

Maybe we should drop the term “taxes” and call them “dues” instead, or a “membership fee.” That’s basically what they are. You want to belong to this club? You want to get the benefits of driving on roads, of public services, of the national defense? Then you have to pay your dues.

Don’t let rich conservative republicans like George Bush (whose real agenda is for themselves and their cronies to make more money and pay fewer taxes) tell you that “taxes” is a four letter word. Taxes are the life’s blood of our society. I’m happy to pay mine to keep its heart pumping.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On God, Jesus and gay marriage:

Most of the opposition to the extension of the basic civil right to marry to all people comes from so-called Christians. I hate to rain on the religious right’s parade, but their stance in these matters isn’t remotely Christian. Not in my interpretation-- and I’m a Christian too.

God made everything. God doesn’t make mistakes so he must have made the boundless diversity of living things on purpose-- including gay people.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them… (Genesis 1:27 -28) God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1: 31)

Though the Bible doesn’t state specifically that God gave people free will, it is widely accepted that he did since Adam and Eve were able to disregard God’s warning about the fruit of the tree of knowledge. There are many credible and persuasive arguments against sexuality being a choice, but even if you believe it is, choice seems to be something God granted humans.

Who are we to judge another human?

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to [Jesus] “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:3 - 11)

If it is the case that gay people are doing something against God’s law, which-- as we have seen-- is not for us to judge, intolerance and punishment through legal limits to their rights are not a Christian response.

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. (Romans 14:10)

Would anyone who is not gay, but who is black or who lives with a disability or whatever other difference, want others in society to make laws that treat him or her differently?

In everything, do to others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12)

What about laws that limit the rights of rich people? In a passage that is apparently subject to the selective amnesia of televangelists, George Bush and others, Jesus says to a man who tells him he has followed all the commandments, “You lack one thing; go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

Christianity was, of course, named for Jesus Christ. I understand that many people who are very excited about their faith wear t-shirts these days that read WWJD?—what would Jesus do? So, what did Jesus do when faced with people who weren’t perfect? Jesus kneeled down and washed sinners’ feet. He cared for lepers no one else would touch. He gave people like the adulterous woman another chance and a choice. No matter how imperfect he believed others to be, he gave them the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t just tolerate them, he didn’t just accept them, he loved them.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13.8 -10)

Should we grant all people in our society the same rights under the law? WWJD?

It is unlikely that the Bible is the unmodified word of God. It was written over centuries by many different authors in 4 different languages. The parts of the Bible as we know it were chosen and “stabilized” in a process of canonization that took place over the course of more than 6 centuries in various cultures and denominations across the world. (Until they were stabilized, the content was “flexible” or changing.) There is no original manuscript. Among the surviving ancient documents there are differences ranging from probable “typos” to substantive differences which change the meaning of passages. Scholars have to make decisions about what was meant by the original authors. And then there is the translation from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Words and expressions don’t always translate directly from language to language (hence the expression “lost in translation”). Our understanding of how meanings have changed over time is still developing—therefore every new translation attributes new meanings. There is almost certainly cultural, worldly influence lent by the individuals who put the word on paper, or rewrote or printed it, or included or excluded it from the canon, or translated it. How else can God’s supposed endorsement of slavery be explained? That is only one example of many Biblical ideas we find difficult to reconcile with even a conservative interpretation of our current values. (Essay “The Canons of the Bible”, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 2001, page 453)

We can’t know exactly what was meant by the authors of the Bible as we know it never mind what was meant by God himself. I think we can understand the spirit of the book (and therefore the Word), however. The Bible is allegory and parable, meant to teach us broad brush lessons. Is The Boy Who Cried Wolf applicable only to sheep herders? We are looking for the moral of the story, not the details. (What is it they say about the details?) To me the spirit of Jesus’ story is beyond laws or rules or exhortations to sin no more. It’s in the way he treated the sinners. And be assured, we are all sinners. Jesus, Prince of Heaven and Earth, got down on his knees and washed their feet.

Maybe gay people are sinners (why should they be different from anyone else?). That is for God to decide. If we are really Christian, here on Earth, we should do as Jesus did and taught: judge not, treat others as you expect to be treated, love your neighbor as yourself.

Source: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, 2001