Wednesday, September 20, 2006

IRS strikes ASPas again

If you haven't heard, the IRS is at All Saints' Pasadena's throat again (just in time for the election season!). You can read all about it on their website:
http://www.allsaints-pas.org/all_saints_church.htm

I recommend reading the rector's sermon from this past Sunday, "Neighbor Love is Never Neutral." But you can also read the actual letters from the IRS, and the original sermon that caused the fuss.

Even though I'm interning there I'm pretty much outside the loop on this one, so I don't have any special insider info for you. I can say what most others are saying: that if we cannot preach against war, that if we cannot use our pulpits to proclaim our morality, then we are pretty much muzzled entirely. If you can't preach against war, then you can't preach against abortion either. Or gay people. Or unjust economic policies. I suppose they'd have us all going back to the days of hellfire and brimstone preaching, because at least then, sermons had nothing to do with the here and now.

Too bad. From the prophets on to us, we are a people that seeks justice and calls our own to work towards a better world. And we can't do that unless we speak truth to power, speak out against that which we believe Jesus would stand against. Which we know our saints have stood against.

But in doing so, we must adopt Jesus' attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. We can stand up against the powers, but if they need to hurt or kill us, then so be it. As long as there are more of us waiting to speak and act, we needn't worry about our own life.

The only way there are more waiting in the wings to stand up for justice is if they have learned what is right and wrong from their church, and that happens, among other ways, through preachers who are unafraid to boldly declare the hard truths of scripture - the beautiful, all-encompassing love of God, which desires none to suffer or be left behind or left out. When we see pain and worse, cause it, we must speak against it.

As a preacher, that is what I know I have to do. So I can't blame Regas for his sermon, and I don't want the precedent set that the government can meddle in what the church teaches. This is why we had separation of church and state in the first place (which, incidentally, I think is a very good thing, for precisely this reason).

Or maybe we should all give up our tax-exempt status so that we can say whatever we want. I dunno. How would that work?

7 comments:

Chris T. said...

I dunno. When this story first broke, I read the sermon and found it pretty blatantly partisan. Throwing in a few "Senator Kerry"s in the mix didn't change the essential tone of the piece, which was "WWJD? He would vote for anybody but President Bush." (Given that our faith was born out of complete powerlessness in the Roman Empire, I'm not sure Scripture gives us very clear ideas about how to vote at all in such an imperfect system.)

Hugo blogged about it when the sermon was actually given and also found it inappropriately partisan:

http://hugoboy.typepad.com/hugo_schwyzer/2004/11/election_eve_th.html

That's not to say I think All Saints Pasadena is somehow alone in this or whatever. I can think of any number of churches on the right that have crossed the line.

I do think the church should consider the question of tax-exemption a little more seriously, though. Why do we get a tax exemption? Is it appropriate? Does it shackle our ministry in ways that we shouldn't accept? I'm not sure I know the answers, but I don't know that the status quo is good for the church or the state.

AK said...

Interestingly this injunction by the IRS is under the 501 c3 tax designation, which prohibits advocating for one candidate or another. A c3 designation does allow you to lobby or advocate for policy, however - and spend up to a set amount of total funds/time on that (I believe the number to be 40%). The text of the message (delivered in 2004), although clearly anti Bush, was not the typical campaign advertisement or "pro-" Kerry.

In fact the preacher does not present the "vote for Kerry" or "don't vote for Bush" scenario as such - but rather focuses on a series of "vote for the best peacemaker/caretaker of the poor" which clearly falls within a c3 designation. However, if the church makes a "habit" of this they should also get a 501c4 designation which allows them to specifically target certain thornier political topics.

Partisanship is not technically a concern with a c3 designation - nor is advocacy of issues. Read in one way the sermon can be interpreted as a values message - and obviously anti Bush - but not pro anyone. The assumption that it is advocating for a candidate relies on a purely two party/candidate assumption, which with the option of writing in candidates is never the case.

I think the church could fight this along the lines that the speaker was:
- advocating healthy governmental behavior in-line with it's view of the Gospel - and advocating change, whether through current or future leadership is irrelevant.
- denouncing behavior that it considers unscriptural - even within it's own peer group (Religious orgs.)
- and that in the constitutional context amendments protecting free speach and separation of church and state clearly trump that section of the tax code.

The non-participation stance of my predecessor in these comments is difficult for me. Being Mennonite, that tradition, almost dogmatic in it's approach, is one I am familiar with - and truly despise. Unfortunately Christianity and our current empire are linked in the eyes of the world. That connection must either be cut, or the empire must be reformed if there is to be any postive change. Not participating is attempting to surrender a responsibility to our global neighbors that cannot be abandoned. The Bible is full of prophets and shepards going before kings to denounce their ways, if anything that sort of accountability is longed for here in D.C.

As to faith being born out of powerlessness - I'm not sure that's historically accurate. Sure, Christians were a small minority of people generally ignored or considered as a sect of Judiasm by Rome. But their powerlessness was in fact their power. Like Ghandi and King, it was through the moral message, and furthermore moral acts of the believers that drew in further converts. Their, and our, doctrine was evolved from both the Jewish tradition but also the Stoic, epicurean and other traditions of Greece. These traditions, coupled with a legitimate and holy martyr, enabled many Romans to enact the values of their education through the life of a new faith. The work of the Apostles was strategic, not merely spiritual. Christianity became the way to live a belief with a strong intellectual component. The fact that Christians did not compromise this moral code - or intellectual consistency before Rome was their greatest strength.

Until of course Christianity was co-opted by Constantine and Christianity and Empire first became linked. Once that happened the intellectual impetus and consistency was no longer necessary - except to those few who we now call Saints.

Anonymous said...

The congregation in Pasadena is in an interesting dilemma. It is admirable that the priest is willing to speak truth (or at least his version of it) to power. A priest needs to be able to speak out to the degree that his/her hierarchy of bishop will allow. At the same time tax exempt status is a huge incentive to shut up and toe the line. Again we face the dilemma of being in the world without being of the world.

Rachel said...

Somehow I hadn't realized you were at All Saints Pasadena. How cool; I've been reading Hugo's blog for a long while now, and it's neat to think of your paths crossing in this way.

Chris T. said...

"The non-participation stance of my predecessor in these comments is difficult for me."

Huh? I advocated no such stance. However, during the several times I read the sermon (a year ago and yesterday), I found it the pro-Kerry advocacy pretty thinly veiled. I voted for Sen. Kerry and think Pres. Bush is a war criminal. But I don't think worship is the place for comments like the ones Fr Regas made. Not to mention, as Hugo points out in his post from two years ago, Fr Regas' certitude about just how Jesus would vote is inappropriate. The tactics are identical to the religious right's.

Christians absolutely should participate in the political process. If our tax exemption is keeping us from living out our calling, we should give up that exemption. But just because the religious right has largely given up the idea of working out their faith "in fear and trembling" to play a role in the GOP doesn't mean the Christian left ought to.

AK said...

hmm - yes, good points - you are right..I think. Certainly I agree with your wanting to avoid aligning with a party at all costs - and also wanting to avoid the fear policts that have been so rampant recently. I'm not sure of the correct approach for left leaning x-tians, but I'm pretty sure that isn't it.

Sorry I read too much into your previous post. I'm not sure that clergy advocating for one party or even person over another is necessarily wrong though. But the tax law complicates things too much, and putting words in Christ's mouth, or assuming to know the mind of God, is always questionable.
- Aaron

Anonymous said...

Until the difference between church, which is tax-exempt, and religious organization, which is taxable, is made clear, the story about IRS / (church) relations will be cloudy and unclear.

A religious organization is a corporation, owing its allegiance to its creator – the state. A church is a group of people, getting together to worship God. One is idolatry and the other, a church.

When a church incorporates, it puts itself under the rules of the state. It has turned its back on the God of the universe and accepted another as the highest authority.