How not to start your first junior pastorate...

You don't walk in and assert that people are going to start doing things your way, on the strength of the portion of the congregation that liked you for the job. You don't threaten to break the system because it continues to work the way it has for decades. You don't hold meetings where you voice your opinions to the congregation in a manner antagonistic to the council, the elders, and the senior pastors, accusing and attacking them in their absence. You don't walk into your first call expecting to "win" in some way.

And yet this is exactly what I see from the Tea Party freshmen in Congress, especially as they have involved themselves with the debt-ceiling deal.

A lot of things that I see said lately are true. We are in this situation because we redistributed the government surpluses from the Clinton era, and then instituted long-term tax cuts that prevented the government from getting to a situation where it could ever have such surpluses again. We are in this situation because we then borrowed ridiculous sums of money in order to wage international wars and enhance domestic security. Money we continue to borrow in order to spend. We are in this situation because then the economy collapsed, due to unsound fiscal practices in multiple sectors. At which point the federal government acted, across the transition from Bush to Obama, to compensate for the loss of money in the system rather than to simply let life be nasty, brutish and short.

We are in this situation because the citizens of this country, over many decades, have asked for and received from their government promises of ongoing civil aid programs worth paying taxes for. Promises of civil aid upon which large portions of our population rely, because they paid taxes for decades. Relatedly, we are in this situation because the name of the game in representative government is to secure benefits for the citizens one represents. To help make local priorities known at the national level, and to secure federal government assistance in meeting those local needs. And collectively, to pursue national interests that are of benefit to many localities. All of which involves the (more- or less-)savvy application of money. For which purposes the government is entitled to secure revenue from its citizens, on the basic stipulation that it use that money for their benefit.

I hear a lot of talk about American civil religion, but maybe it's time we extended that analogy. Let's start talking about the American civil church. Let's start talking about its intra-denominational politics that are threatening schism. Let's start talking about offerings and responsibility. Stewardship of gifts -- which isn't just something you tell the taxpayers, it's about how the government handles the taxes for the benefit of the citizens. How it responsibly uses its revenue for the lives for which it is responsible. Let's talk about the dysfunction by which money flows into the Temple coffers, and then out of them in accordance with the dictum "to those who have, more will be given them; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away."

And then let's start talking about Libertarianism, and what it has become today. Let's talk about the haves convincing people that what they have belongs to them, because they earned it. That their freedom is the freedom to ignore their neighbor. To engage in charity only as noblesse oblige, not because someone tells you you must. This plays well among a broad sector of the have-nots, who need every last cent they have, and also the assistance they get from the government, and form a very nice dependent class hanging on for that noblesse oblige from on high. Who come to believe that the bureaucracy that receives their offerings is not giving back -- because for every dollar it gives back, how much more goes to someone else? Truth makes for the best disingenuity. "Pay us, and we'll shut down government entitlement spending for good." We'll see that government never meets your needs again.

I give you the relevant sections of Jesus' teaching in the Temple, in Mark 12:
Then they sent to him some from the Pharisees and the Herodians in order to trap him in what he said. And having come, they said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are honest, and do not concern yourself with anyone; for you do not observe the positions people take, but honestly teach the way of God. So: is it right to pay Caesar's tribute, or not? Should we pay, or should we not pay?" But knowing that they were simply taking a position, he said to them, "Why do you test me? Fetch me a denarius so I may discern." So they brought one. Then he said to them, "This image: whose is it? And the inscription?" So they said to him, "Caesar's." So Jesus said to them, "What is from Caesar, pay to Caesar, and what is from God, pay to God." And they were amazed at him.
And one from the scribes, having come near, heard them disputing with one another. Knowing that he answered them well, he asked him, "What is the foremost commandment of all?" Jesus answered, "Foremost is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you will love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your life, with all your understanding, and with all your strength.' Second is this, 'You will love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "Well and honestly said, Teacher, because God is one and there is no other beside Him; and loving him with all one's mind, with all one's intellect, and with all one's strength, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, is far superior to all of the whole burnt-offerings and the sacrifices." And when Jesus discerned that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And after that no one ventured to ask him anything.
And while he taught, he said, "Observe from among the scribes: the ones who like to walk around in professional dress, and to be saluted in the public square, and to have pride of place in front of the assemblies and at banquets -- the ones who devour widows' houses and then show their piety by making extended prayers: these will receive a far superior condemnation." And he sat down across from the Temple treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the collection. Many of the wealthy threw in much, and one poor widow came and threw in two bits, which make a quarter. And he summoned his students and said to them, "Indeed I tell you that this widow, this poor person, has put in more than everything thrown in by those contributors to the treasury -- for they all put in from their superiority; but she, from her deficiency, has put in everything she had: 'all of her life.'"
The government, just like the church, is a charitable trust. The "full faith and credit" of its legislative authority is based upon the faith and credit extended to it by the whole body of the people. That it is credible is due to the fact that the citizens credit it -- which they do, as even (and especially) the least of them contribute to the Treasury. The widow credits the Temple because she trusts God, and because the Temple acts in fulfillment of her trust to secure the lives of these least among God's people. Except when it officiously devours her house. Her devotion is commendable, because in God's name she credits the Temple apparatus with following God's priorities. From that money, she and her neighbors expect to receive what will meet their needs. And this is the criterion by which the institution stands under judgment.

Now, the federal government's money, which bears the federal government's imprint, doesn't come from the fiat of Caesar, much less the president. No; it comes from the fiat of the people who extend faith and credit to the state. My dollar does not belong to me. My dollar is the government's compensation for my labor, received through intermediaries who have in turn been compensated. It is, in fact, all of my neighbors paying me. It is to be used, not enjoyed. It is to circulate. It is a means of meeting a variety of tangible needs. It is to pay bills with, which is another way of saying the same thing. It is even to be reserved for later use, because bills and needs don't all wait for you to get paid. That is responsible use. It is even to be pooled and loaned out to others who need it, though it must then be repaid.

And the job of the pastors and elders and council of this church is to see to it that these needs are met -- which they do by reserving money, and giving out money, and also borrowing and repaying money, in order to fulfill their mandate as stewards over the church. And over its long life the administration of this church has gotten very complicated, has developed factions and systems to deal with them, ways of compromising and seeing that the mandate is fulfilled. Crises have come up, and the church has adapted to meet them. Pastors and elders and council members come and go, and the makeup of the congregation shifts, as do its ministries. And right now we're in a pretty deep hole, made from a history of gradual digging. We've done all sorts of things that made sense at the time, for the sake of the mandate and for the sake of crises, and we don't all agree on them. But to have junior pastors and first-year council members who just moved into the area stand up and declare that they want to see the doors close and ministries get cut, and that they won't stand for anyone asking for more offering in the offering plate -- or for cutting the expenses incurred by the last two crises -- is risible. We can't afford programs that feed widows and orphans because we're busy refusing to take money away from the businessmen in the church. So cut the programs, because the businessmen and their personal priorities are more valuable. "And don't you dare borrow another penny to pay the people's expenses until you figure out how to balance the budget on our priorities."

Babylonian captivity, anyone? Or am I overstepping my limits as a theologian, by bridging into political and social ethics?


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