29 October 2011

Imagine I Am Running for Congress - 7

Back to Taxes.  SInce the dueling tubas of the Republican Party (Cain and Perry) are making much noise about taxes again – reviving the flat tax notion (does this make it a zombie tax?  And does this mean their taxes will eat all the other taxes?  I am thinking yes to both) it seems I must once again inject some reason into the system.  Beware, though.  As someone who finds neither ideological camps to be wholly wise, even my progressive/liberal friends may find this strange.

Start with this conversation between two very young pundits.  Bloggingheads: Tax the Poor! - Video Library - The New York Times  Forget that I am jealous of their precocious fame (even if I can’t) and ask whether or not so many people in the country should not be paying income tax. 

I believe this is a bad state of affairs, that half the country is not paying income taxes.  For two reasons. 

One, is that it means too many people are making too little.  A recent study reported that half the wage earners in the country make $26k or less.  When the federal poverty level for 1-3 people is between $10k - $18K (allowing for a single wager earner who has up to two dependents) that means the median income is about twice the poverty level.  I take this to mean that half the wage earners in the country live just barely above poverty wages.  Ok, that’s a bit strong, but it helps explain why so few are paying income taxes.  They simply do not have a lot of income to tax. 

Two, is that so many not paying income taxes means those who do pay income taxes can rationally feel they are ‘carrying’ the rest of the country, paying more than their share.  Perversely, forgiving income tax altogether at the bottom actually preserves income inequality by

- relieving our guilt over poverty by forgiving their tax burden (how charitable of us!)

- and allowing those with more to feel they are supporting them by paying more taxes.

The best policy would be to have everyone pay in, even if those at the bottom (meaning those ‘technically’ above the poverty line) pay a very small amount. 

Conservative politicians always talk about making taxes fairer and flatter, but I say make them fairer but not flatter.  That would mean, using information from UC Santa Cruz, that the top 1% should pay 21.3% of the income taxes, the next 19% would pay 40.1% and the the remaining 80% would pay 38.6%. 

Now, spread that 38.6% of taxes proportionally over the 80%, and I think those at the bottom would not pay very much.  And no one could claim they were not paying their share. 

Yes, everyone can and should pay income tax, and we should pay as pay as we reap, to turn a phrase. 

26 October 2011

Deja You

So, I went to my 40th high school reunion last week. That meant traveling back to where my wife and I grew up, because we were classmates. (To be precise, we go back to grade school years, but our romance waited until college).

We went to the 30th back in 2001, and I expected this to be like that. Boy, was I wrong.

That time, back in 2001, we were in our late forties, old youngsters. Even with added weight and grayer/lesser hair, the faces and forms were that of our youth. This time, we were verging on sixty, making us young oldsters. In those ten years we were not just a little heavier still, or more bald, or even more wrinkled, we looked less like who we were in the past and more like who will will be in the future.

Now, I could go on about how the fifties are when all our misdeeds show up. Those who had loved the sun or smoked or did both looked far older than others. Lord knows that menopause changes women in all sorts of ways. And some just got a set of genes that put them on the fast track to geezerdom.

But what struck me is that we are done with youth. In some ways that is a bit sad, but in fact it is a great gift. The cliques and claques that were so important back then are gone now. The girls who would never have looked at me forty years ago were delighted to see me this time, and the boys who strutted and smirked now lumbered and smiled.

A tenderness pervaded the place, as we all tried to recognize faces we once adored or feared, cupped our ears against the din of the DJ, adjusted our glasses, or otherwise accommodated our age. No one had any advantage over another. No status or prestige was at stake. For four hours we forgave what we had not already forgot.

We think life a struggle, and in some ways it is - from finding a mate, to finding a job, to climbing the economic ladder as far as we can. But like boxers who finally tire out, we eventually stop punching at life and find ourselves clinging to it just to stand up. The adversary becomes the intimate.

We leaned upon each other that night, remembering our youth and bidding it farewell. We realized these were the only ones left who knew us then, in all our glory and shame. And without words, we fell in love with who we are more than who we were.

18 October 2011

Too Much about Too Few Who Have Too Much

Well, it turns out I was hardly alone in talking about the Occupy folks this past Sunday. So just for the record, below is what I said. Or more accurately, here is the written version of my message from October 16th. (You can listen to it as well, but probably tomorrow. So here's the Youtube Channel if you want to find it: http://www.youtube.com/user/fountainstreetchurch)

Which Deeds?


from Leviticus, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”

“You ask me why I do not write something… I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results.” - Florence Nightingale

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” - Shirley Chisholm

“Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.” - Barbara Jordan

“What the people want is very simple - they want an America as good as its promise.” - Barbara Jordan

“Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.” - Barbara Jordan

Summer finally gave up. Like the Spartan defensive line, autumn charged over the line and sacked the summer like weather. Even those who love fall were enjoying its delayed appearance. Now it is all business, with wind and leaves and deadlines looming. The reality show of electoral politics is already deafening and dumbing, and yet experts ridicule the Occupy movement for being naïve. Who is naïve - those who believe things can be better or those who think things are fine? I look forward to my 40th high reunion next weekend, though I wrap that in ‘quotes.’ It will be good, and sad, and everything that makes us wise. I pray this time we share can be wise as well. May the words of my mouth…

Occupy Grand Rapids happened this past week. Or let’s say it began, for it continues like others around the country. We are giving them sanctuary of a sort. They need a place to camp out, because that’s what occupying means, after all. The law prohibits sleeping in parks, so we are donating our parking lot during nighttime hours. Doing that took effort because they are not well defined. There was lots of talk, and little clarity despite all that.

That made me think of two clichés:

- ‘Talk is cheap,’ which is perhaps why there so much of it.

- And ‘actions speak louder than words,’ even when those actions are not flattering.

We know the truth of both these sayings, and that it indicts organized religion as much as anyone. Religion does like to talk – with its creeds, doctrine, books, synods and councils. But liberal religion does too. We came into being because we disagreed with their words, and our worship is mostly words and what do we stand for but the power of words and ideas.

A famous joke about Unitarians applies equally to us. A religious liberal walks down a road and comes to a fork. The left side is marked, “to heaven,” the right “to a discussion about heaven” and so the liberal turns right. We say deeds mean more than creeds, but somehow we still talk more than act.

Then I remembered something attributed to St. Francis - “Always preach the gospel. When necessary use words.” Maybe the gospel, good news, is not abstract ideas, but concrete actions. Maybe the truth is not something we hear in words that then leads to action, but that truth is actions that lead us to describe it in words.

I know this sounds esoteric, so let me tell some stories that might help.

All this fall I am sharing Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky, and I invite you eagerly to find it and read it yourself. (I am also proud that he was here in person, speaking from this chancel.) It is about women’s issues today but they also referred something in US History, the Shepherd-Towner Act of 1921. I did a little research, which is the story I am telling.

In 1918 the United States was eleventh in infant mortality, and seventeenth in maternal deaths, among industrialized nations. Eighty percent of all pregnant women received no prenatal advice or trained care. About 20% of children in the United States died in their first year and about 33% in their first five years. Efforts to do something were small, despite a US Children’s Bureau which was created in 1912 to study and report on such things.

Then the 20th amendment happened. Women got the vote, and despite cries of communism and socialized medicine, the Shepherd-Towner act passed in 1921 which funded nurses and clinics and other forms of prenatal education. And it worked, but opposition continued, chiefly from the AMA for intruding on the doctor-patient relationship, with continued implications of socialism and socialized medicine, so that by 1929 the law was not renewed.

Looking at our times, just as women demanded the vote not just for themselves but for their families – we sang “Bread and Roses” last week, remember – the Occupy Wall Street movement is not about those in the street but about the great majority who have paid for the economic slump with lost homes, lost investments, and especially lost jobs. They are saying, in essence “Too few have too much, and too many have too little.”

Like women a century ago who marched in the streets for the vote, or the Bonus Marchers of 1932, or the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City of 1968, they use their presence to say - quoting Arthur Miller now - “attention must be paid.” Their presence is their power. That’s why they camp out. After all, when you do not have enough money or status to get political attention, what you have is your body, your presence.

The power of people massed together is very old. A lovely coincidence is that Sukkoth is happening this week – the ancient feast of booths or huts. Jews today create a shelter in which they live part of each day, to re-enact the commandment to come to the temple for seven days. Over time the act of camping out there reminded them also of the time in the wilderness. Now, one part of this ancient ritual was to bring an etrog, which is a lemon like fruit, as an offering.

Once, during the corrupt reign of the Hasmoneans, something happened after the writing of the Torah. The high priest and king showed contempt for the people assembled by pouring a sacred libation of water onto the ground instead of into a golden flagon. They people were so incensed at this insult that they pelted him with citrons. Sadly, this was precisely what the king Alexander Yannai wanted, and used the reaction as a reason to order in the troops to stop the riot, slaughtering 6000 Judeans. Ultimately, it started a civil war.

I am not playing the grim prophet here as much as saying that actions – rituals and protests and such – can and do speak more loudly than words.

When multitudes act, we want to know what they mean, or we dismiss the actions as meaningless when there are no words. I think of Melville’s innocent hero Billy Budd who reacted to the cruel and evil words of Claggart by striking him. When asked why he cannot find words to explain it.

What do we do that is louder than words? Last week I asked how many of us could be ‘convicted’ of being religious liberals based on the evidence, on our deeds. I ask myself that question, often. What do I do that lives and proclaims my faith?

Black Americans used their churches to organize boycotted Montgomery Alabama buses for a year. The Roman Catholic mothers of the plaza major marched in Buenos Aires every week for ten years and brought down a government. Others act, why not us? In the Christian lectionary this week, Paul says, “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.” (I Thess.) What can we do that speaks so loudly and clearly that no one has to explain it?

Yes, it is pledge time and you can give money, for we certainly need it to sustain this church. Yes, we need members to lead and serve because that is how we get things done around here. But I am asking a deeper, harder question: which deeds should we be doing that preach our gospel?

Here’s a hint. James Luther Adams, a fundamentalist turned Unitarian taught generations of seminarians including me. He coined something called The Tmperature Test of Faith. Whenever your moral heat rises in resistance or protest, something sacred to you is at stake. When you do it for others and not yourself, it is even more likely. American women did it in 1920 to save their children’s lives. The women in Half The Sky did it as much for their children as themselves. Occupy Grand Rapids and Occupy Wall Street is doing it to demand attention for those who are being left out in the grand debates about debts and deficits and taxes.

When Occupy Grand Rapids came to me for help I felt my moral temperature rising. I knew it was right, even if I could not explain it at that moment. I have since reflected on what I felt was at stake.

It is not that they are right, but what they say needs to be said because it is not being heard as loud as the more powerful voices that have the ear of power. My duty was and is to lend my support to those who are overlooked or ignored or dismissed by those in power. You and I are among those who have much. Not all of us, but many of us. We have power that the poor, dark, female, gay, immigrant, infant, old, the unemployed and the disabled do not have. We also know that liberty and justice belong to everyone in equal measure because that’s what democracy means; and it is religious because we know that all of us are precious, everyone, for we are all needed to save this world.

Closing the distance between what is now and what ought to be is our duty, our mission, our task, the work we must do. Whenever we witness power being used to suppress, deny, ignore, exploit, we cannot remain silent or still. Whenever we see people demanding their voice and place, we cannot remain silent or still. Because it violates our core belief in spiritual, moral, and political equality.

Every week our welcome says, “we seek to be what Isaiah called ‘a house of prayer for all people,’” something Jesus quoted when he chased the corrupt money changers in the temple. Occupy Wall Street is saying the same thing. They are challenging the corruption of the public temple of justice, the universal temple of equality, by those who wish to be more equal than others. Their presence - Occupy - is a scourge and a thorn, a rain of etrogim.

They are doing what we should do, and our duty is to stand up with them as well as we can. This is our gospel, after all, and when others preach it we should do so with them, with our lives more than our words.

15 October 2011

Becoming the Bogeyman

As you can tell by reading Around the World, Protests Against Economic Policies - NYTimes.com, a few million people are a little annoyed.

I spent time last Saturday and this with our local Occupy outpost. They are far from the size or shape or impact of the Wall Street bunch, but the assortment ranges from Young Adults who can’t get decent work to Seniors who see their retirement dissolving, to aging denizens of the 1960’s, and those who just cannot shake the sense that the status quo is just wrong.

While it is loose and shaggy and anything but coherent in form, it is not what some of those on Wall Street think. There is an article about what the bankers and such are saying when no one is taking names.. Click on the photo (I hope).

For a lot of years you could call someone a socialist or communist and that would scare others and them. I think that may be changing. The disparity of wealth and power, and the arrogance of those on the powerful side (note how one of those quoted in the article chided senators for not listening to their ‘constituents’ meaning contributors) may make the label socialist or communist less odious than capitalist.

Some years ago, the late John Rechy reported on a bunch of homophobes who decided to scare some gay men by riding by calling them F**s and Queers. It was after Stonewall though. The men looked back and sneered, “Yeah’ we’re queers. So what?”

If things keep going the way they are, the bankers and their followers may one day find out that socialist and communist are no longer scary names. “Yeah we’re commies. So what?” And that, rich friends, will really be scary.