Tuesday, February 25, 2014

More on Ancient Taxes and Charity

Sunday the lectionary for thousands of Christian churches of many different denominations in America contained an Old Testament reading from the book of Leviticus, a book of laws of the ancient Hebrews that governed them between the exodus from Egypt and the founding of a nation in what is now Israel and Palestine, over 3000 years ago.

Our reading was edited to focus on those passages that dovetailed with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and loving your neighbor. 

The 19th chapter of Leviticus actually covers a dizzying array of issues.  It reiterates some frequent prescriptions (keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother) and prohibitions (no worshiping idols, do not steal or bear false witness, as well as do not wear garments made of two materials or cut one’s beard).  It offers some interesting redresses, too.  For instance, if a man has intercourse with a woman who is the slave of another man, they should NOT be put to death.  She receives no punishment, because she was not free.  His punishment is to provide a ram for a sacrifice of penitence.  Most of this is far more reasonable than the most punitive of the Old Testament laws that often get cited by modern progressives to point out the inconsistencies of those who use the Bible for modern political purposes. 

It also offers this, which I need to keep in mind:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.”   I don’t think that “the great” in our society need as much benefit of the doubt as the poor, but I do strive to be fair.

But there was also this:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

This appears to be a call to direct charity, over and above the commands elsewhere to “tithe” ten percent of their income in grain, oil, and livestock.   Since in ancient Israel the church and the state were effectively the same thing, the tithe was really much more of an income tax than a gift to charity. 

We get into dangerous territory here, since today almost everyone pays more than 10% in taxes – in sales, excise, state, and social security taxes, even if not in federal income tax.  But I’ve never heard anyone – even (or especially) my socially- and fiscally-conservative friends -- use that as an excuse to not give at all to charity or church. 

I have heard modern tax rates used as a reason why the 3000-year-old 10% tithe is an unrealistic goal for church budgeting purposes.  And, given that the average American gives 2% to charity, and a third of that to church, I don’t think 10% is realistic, either.  That’s not to say it’s not a worthy individual goal. 

Meanwhile, how about this:  “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”   Whoa!  Wouldn’t that complicate the lives of our payroll departments!  I wonder of the State of Indiana is still holding the first day’s pay of a new employee for four and a half weeks before they get their first paycheck? 

And, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Well, there’s a whole ‘nuther blog there …

I wrote this not because it is a major epiphany for me, but just because I’m trying to get into the habit of responding to and documenting what I learn every week.   The big lesson here is the extent to which themes of social justice in Judeo-Christian tradition predate the New Testament – and certainly our own modern politics. 

Just can’t help throwing in a couple of additional wise-guy remarks.

I can’t find any place in the Bible where it talks about tithing 10% of one’s income from labor, but only 5% of one’s income from investing.

I did find a reference in Exodus 27:32 concerning giving a tenth of one’s livestock.  It’s pretty easy to measure out a tenth of one’s grain no matter how little there is, but what happens when one has an odd number of sheep or cattle?  The instruction was to let them pass through a gate at their own random pace, and set aside every tenth one for the Lord.   So, it would seem, someone with only 17 sheep would only have to tithe one.  And someone with fewer than ten cows would get the equivalent of a standard deduction in today’s terms, and not pay a tithe on cattle.

I wonder how many ancient Hebrews had fewer than 10 head of cattle.  Perhaps 47%?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Private Work for Public Good (Part II)

On the heels of my recent discovery on the background of the word “liturgy”  as “private work for public good,” I made another observation while taking my son to school along 38th Street, one of the busiest roads in Indianapolis, and one of the few that sees a significant flow of city buses. 

Last week, after the snowfall that had set the local record for the most snow in a season, I watched an older woman trudging east in the far right-hand lane of the six-lane street, staying close to the dirty white ridge that hid the curb.   

We have very nice sidewalks on 38th Street, with landscaped right-of-ways between the sidewalks and the street.   But for a four-block stretch of that street – occupied largely by branch offices of banks – the walks have not been shoveled, apparently since the big storm in early January.

Monday, I decided to traverse that stretch on foot to go to the nearest drug store.   In the 29 degree temperatures, the single-file path blazed by previous pedestrians was turning into a trench filled with ankle-deep slush.   The trails ended in knee-high gray roadblocks at the crosswalks where the snowplows have cleared streets.

Over an eight-block walk (there on one side, and back on the other), only two property owners had attempted to clear the sidewalks – the landlord of an un-named apartment building at 38th and Penn, and North United Methodist Church. 

Who is responsible for keeping sidewalks cleared?   On my street, everyone does a pretty good job of keeping their walks shoveled, if only so our neighbors can walk their dogs without getting snow over the tops of their boots.   What happened to businesses having that sense of responsibility? 

It was the sidewalks in front of the banks that irked me the most.  I suspect these banks know who their customers are and are not.   The sizable parking lots behind the banks are plowed, and the walkways around from the lot to the front door are clear.  Apparently few pedestrians patronize these banks; perhaps not even many of the people in the neighborhood who use public transportation (when they can avoid being run over by it).   Or maybe the pedestrians are just so used to trudging through knee-deep snow that it doesn’t occur to them to say anything.

I’ve also been reading about the U.S. Postal Service’s idea of becoming an outlet for financial services such as prepaid credit cards and even payday loans.  Apparently a growing number of Americans don’t have bank accounts – not only the unemployed and the disabled and those supposedly-ubiquitous welfare cheats, but also a lot of people who take public transportation to their minimum-wage jobs. 

I just watched my son perform in Les Miserables twice, so I’m still feeling like a revolutionary.  I couldn’t help seeing the little old lady trudging past the offices of the multinational corporation and thinking,

Look down, and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the streets
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man!

Or, for that matter,

Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave...

Man the barricades!   Occupy!

Whew.  Okay, I got that out of my system.

Actually, I did consider doing something about it (instead of just writing about it).  I thought about going and shoveling it myself.   And notifying some friends in the media to come photograph and interview me doing it, to publicly shame and humiliate the property owners.   Luckily, it’s been thawing all week, and so I didn’t act on my passive-aggressive impulse.

But I did think, if I had noticed this was going on earlier in the winter, it could have been a great opportunity to approach those business owners about putting young people to work shoveling these  “public  thoroughfares” which cross “private property.” 

So I’m talking to a couple of people in the area about gearing up for that effort in the future.   It might be best in this day and age if the property owners were approached by an adult on behalf of an organization that was supervising the young people who could use the work, the direction, and the small amount of money.   We wouldn’t be asking residents and businesses to support one more charity.  We would be providing them the means to fulfill their erstwhile  obligation to do private work for public good.  It would be a liturgy.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Private Work for Public Good (Part I)

Last week I got a little history lesson when Cate Waynick, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, joined us for Sunday worship.  As part of her interactive homily, she told us that the word "liturgy," while often synonymous with "service," actually comes from a Greek word that referred to a form of "service" different from "ceremony."

Bishop Cate told us that the Greek word leitourgia is sometimes interpreted as "private work for public good."  The example she gave was of a merchant who built a bridge to get his goods to market ... and then left it for anyone else to use.

Intrigued, I did a little more research.   It seems that leitourgia -- literally, "work of the people" or "work for the people" -- originated with the ancient Greeks in the years 800-500 B.C., when the Romans were still clustered in central Italy and the Hebrews were in the Babylonian captivity.   The Greeks funded their civic enterprises -- temples, the military, and even gymnasia and theatrical productions -- by asking the wealthiest citizens to volunteer for the privilege of underwriting them.  There was great prestige in being named the "sponsor" of the costliest items.  Often this came with the benefit of serving as master of ceremonies at a related festival or feast.   Not unlike modern philanthropy, in a lot of respects.

Except this wasn't philanthropy in the modern sense.  It appears to have been much closer to their version of taxation.   A tax paid exclusively by the rich.   Has anyone told Mitt Romney about this?

It seems the ancient Greeks did have other forms of government revenue, that everyone paid, even if only indirectly -- primarily what we could call sales taxes and tariffs.  But at this point in history there was, apparently, no attempt to tax the income or "wealth" of the poor.  The Greeks didn't look beyond the wealthy. Like Willie Sutton's rationale for robbing banks, that's where the money is.