May 13

The Kingdom

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Petition Caesar to redistribute wealth, institute health insurance and welfare programs, and abolish swords, for it is through the government that one loves one’s neighbor.'”

Oh, wait, no he didn’t. He fed the poor, healed the sick, comforted the brokenhearted, and taught us to do likewise– and the government killed him for it.

 

April 30

Why Should I Vote Democrat?

The email from the DNC says, “Say You’re Ready to Elect Democrats.” I don’t know how they got my email address. I’ve never registered as a Democrat in my life. For the record, I’ve never registered as a Republican, either.

My real problem with the email is not that it’s spam. I get tons of that every day, and at least they’re not questioning my manhood.

My problem is this: Why should I commit to electing a Democrat before I see the candidate?

Maybe you’re thinking, “But we need a Democrat!”

This is where I alienate both parties. Democrats hated George W. Bush because he fought wars in two countries, wiretapped phones without warrants, doubled the national debt, rolled back civil liberties, and failed to give us a national health care system. Democrats like to ignore that Obama did all of those same things. And he lifted the ban on offshore oil drilling and suspended habeus corpus for American citizens. But because he was a Democrat, the left was silent. And because he was a Democrat, the right roasted him for doing the same things as Bush.

And Hillary the Hawk? Not the best choice, especially in the face of a possible Trump presidency. It makes me wonder what a Democrat is anymore. Does the DNC actually stand for something besides “I wanna get elected”?

I’ll root for the Red Sox no matter how bad a team they field. But contrary to what some might believe in Boston, the Red Sox don’t determine the fate of the world.

Democrats, if you want me to vote for your candidate, you’ve got to do better than, “She’s not a Republican.” Heck, Trump wasn’t a Republican… until he suddenly was. And there are Republicans I might vote for. Olympia Snowe, John Huntsman, and Susan Collins spring to mind– all moderates with decades of experience, any of whom are less likely to get us into a war than the two choices we faced in 2016.

You want me to vote for your candidate? Show me the platform. And show me a history of support for that platform. Seriously, when Bernie got traction on one of his long-time goals, and two weeks later Hillary said, “Me, too,” that’s not very convincing. Come on, you’re Democrats. There’s got to be someone of principle in your party that you’re willing to put on the ticket.

I met a Democrat of principle recently. He was running for state representative. And he actually had a platform. It included such bizarre things as national health care, stopping our aggressive foreign policy so we stop making enemies, and reducing fossil fuel use. (Remember that one? Obama made promises about it, then said nothing as Bush’s solar tax credits got repealed. Hillary barely mentioned it.) Those are the things a Democrat used to stand for. This particular candidate didn’t win, but he sure got my vote.

Call me old-fashioned, but before you ask me to support your candidate, would you please tell me who that candidate is and what she (or he) stands for. This isn’t a sports team we’re talking about. It’s the future of our nation– and the world.

December 7

Minister’s Housing Allowance Under Fire

Pastor Matthew Bucher stands outside Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. This small, socially conscious church is one of thousands that faces hardships if the housing allowance for ministers is eliminated. (News Leader photo.)

It’s not often that my past career as a tax accountant intersects with my future career as a minister, but the recent 7th Circuit Court decision does exactly that. An anti-religious group challenged the minister’s housing allowance, and won. That won’t be the end of the story. The decision will be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. In the mean time, while ministers will suffer in the 7th Circuit, which covers IL, IN and WI, it’s unlikely the IRS will change the rules for the rest of the country until the matter is resolved by the courts.

The problem is, there’s a world of misunderstanding behind the suit and the decision. As one opponent of the decision said,

“This tax provision ensures that faith leaders like South Side, Chicago-based pastor Chris Butler receive the same tax treatment as other employees who must live in the communities they serve-like military service members, teachers, and overseas workers.”

And there’s the rub: secular employees who are required to be on-call, on-site are entitled to tax-free housing allowances. This includes not only teachers and emergency workers, but dairy farmers, factory specialists, and others. The key is the requirement is that they are on-call on-site, 24 hours a day.

The clergy housing allowance actually applies not only to “ministers of the Gospel,” as indicated in the original law, but to clergy of any religion. Why do they require a special law? Because their’s is a special case. Unlike most employees, IRS regulations specify that most ministers are to be paid as self-employed workers–sort of. They receive a W-2 from their church (not a 1099), but the church does not withhold taxes (including social security) from the minister’s check. The minister pays these taxes on Schedule C, just like a self-employed person. Presumably this is because IRS knows the part-time, probably volunteer church treasurer has no idea how to figure payroll taxes, and hiring a professional can be burdensome.

Like a self-employed person, a minister gets to deduct his or her business expenses. Oddly, though, if a minister makes extra money from performing weddings and funerals, for example, these must be reported on a separate Schedule C, along with their related expenses. Yet this extra income and expense is combined with their primary Schedule C to calculate the tax.

Unlike most self-employed people, but like an employee, a minister is allowed a housing allowance that is exempt from income tax (but not FICA taxes) if they are on-site on-call. And on their Schedule C, they are required to reduce their business expenses by the proportion of their income that comes from the housing allowance (so long as that housing allowance was actually used for housing)– but only for income tax purposes, since the housing allowance is taxed for social security.

For example, let’s say a minister earns $10,000 in a year, and she gets an additional $5,000 for housing. She has $750 of expenses. For self-employment (FICA) tax purposes, she earned $15,000 and gets to deduct $750. Her taxable income is $14,250. But for income tax purposes, 33.3% of her income came from housing allowance which is exempt from income tax, so she has to reduce her expenses by 33% and can only deduct $500 in expenses. Her taxable income is $9,500.

If this sounds complicated, it is. This is one of the most difficult calculations I’ve encountered in the arena of individual and small business taxes. And it gets worse once the minister is semi-retired and has pensions and other sources of income.

Moreover, it’s up to the church (or other employer) to determine whether the minister will even get a housing allowance. This differs from an employee, in which circumstances (i.e. on-call on-site) dictate whether a housing allowance is involved.

So, are ministers getting a benefit denied to secular employees–or are they burdened in a way secular employees aren’t for the same benefit? It’s hard to tell. There are some benefits to clergy, such as deducting their business expenses without having them subject to the 2% haircut on Schedule A. On the other hand, they pay both parts of their FICA (social security) taxes, twice as much as an employee. And they’re going to pay as much as 3 times more to have their tax return prepared!

The judge in this case recommended simplifying the law so that employees of any 501(c) organization are subject to the same laws. I concur. They will still have to address the status of ministers as statutory employees taxed as self-employed persons. But at least the system would be consistent.

Back to the original argument: The issue here is not that secular employees are denied this benefit–it’s that ministers by their nature are a special case.

 

Further reading: “5 Takeaways from the Clergy Housing Allowance Ruling

September 28

Just Sayin’

Note to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA):

Hillary Clinton’s support is not something you should advertise. I received her email from your server. I have unsubscribed from your emails. So long as you represent the business-as-usual Democratic Party, I won’t vote for you. “We’re not Trump” is not a valid platform. Please take a lesson from the campaign of would-be state delegate Brent Finnegan and offer something more than what gave us Trump in the first place.

September 26

ACA – When Politics Kills

For eight years I’ve heard ACA– Obamacare– trumpeted as the Democrats’ crowning achievement in healthcare. In my former rural community peopled with farmers and self-employed people, it wasn’t very popular because it screwed people. But it seemed to be working in urban areas.

Now I live in a small urban area, and it doesn’t seem to be working any better.

Here’s a case in point.

My friend Sue is married and has three children. Her husband was fired for allegedly speaking disrespectfully to a supervisor subcontracted in from a job service. He’s fighting his termination, but since his employment was at-will, I don;t see that he has much chance of winning. After all, they don’t need a reason t terminate someone. In any case, his health insurance plan was terminated as of the date he was fired.

ACA guarantees COBRA to employees who have lost their jobs. They get the same health plan they had before, if they pay 102% of the cost out of pocket. So Sue’s family, whose major breadwinner isn’t earning right now, has to come up with almost $1,800 for the first two months of coverage. They have 45 days to do so.

They don’t tell you that COBRA won’t actually pay for anything until they’ve paid the premium. That’s fine for doctors, who can bill retroactively. But it’s not so good for pharmacies and medical suppliers who demand payment when goods are provided.

Sue has Type 1 diabetes. Like 3 million other Americans, she has to monitor her glucose levels closely. Her levels fluctuate wildly, so she uses a constant glucose monitor to keep her from going into a coma and dying. That’s not an exaggeration.

Sue is now out of supplies. Her glucose monitor is out of service. She doesn’t even have test strips to test the old fashioned way. She spent four hours on the phone yesterday and was able to find a way for the supplies to be shipped–in a week or two.

So let’s recap: We live in a country in which a person who just lost their job has to spend a month’s pay for health insurance coverage. And where until that money is paid, a diabetic can’t check her glucose levels.

I’m afraid for Sue. She may die this week. And the only reason is that our politicians can’t get their act together on health care.

In the industrialized world, that makes us the dysfunctional family member. Every other industrialized nation has universal healthcare. Even some poor nations like Sri Lanka have universal healthcare! And yes, they all complain about it. But have you noticed that when Brits or Canadians need major medical attention, they get on a plane home?

But not us. We still think keeping people alive should be a profit-making enterprise. And it’s killing people.

August 21

Violence Left and Right– Or, Why I Quit Facebook

I’m tired of violence. I’m tired of hate speech. And I’m especially tired of it from people who deny they’re doing it.

Let me start with a proposition: When American young people spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam, that was an act of violent hatred. It didn’t physically injure them. But as we now know, some of the worst wounds a person can endure are not physical. Denying a person their self-respect and pride is an act of violence.

Let’s fast forward this principle to today, in which we look back at those veterans as men and women who did their best in a war that never should have happened and was poorly managed by our government. If I might be so bold, the U.S. fought on the wrong side, and lost. Yet the veterans who answered the call of their government deserve their pride, and they definitely should not be denied self-respect.

As we acknowledge this fact, there’s a movement afoot to take away the pride and self-respect of the descendants of those who fought in another war 150 years ago. That, too, was a war that didn’t need to happen. They fought on the wrong side, and they lost. Their leader, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned for two years, until northern liberals posted his bail and he was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, along with all others who supported the Confederacy.

It should be noted that there were no trials for treason, in part because there was no judicial precedent that secession was in fact treason– that wouldn’t come until 1869. So some folks now look back and judge the Confederates as treasonous based on law that hadn’t been written at the time of the war.

This has become a pattern for us here in America. Slavery was legal throughout the colonies, with the exception of the Republic of Vermont which joined the Union as the first free state in 1777. Massachusetts became the first state to ban slavery in 1783. It wasn’t banned throughout the northern states until 1820, just 40 years before the war. And the general consensus among northern liberals–including Abraham Lincoln– was that slaves should be freed and shipped back to Africa. Here’s a quote from Lincoln:

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Do we really want to judge the South or the North at the time of the Civil War by our current, post-modern standards?

But that’s not the point. The Civil War was rooted in complex causes, like any war. One of those was the economic impact of abolition on the South, especially in the face of lopsided industrialization favoring the North. Yet this was but one facet of how far the federal government could intrude on states’ rights– a battle still being fought today. And at the time, there was nothing in the Constitution that had definitively prohibited secession. That was the ultimate issue on which the South stood: the right to remove themselves from the Union.

They lost. We know this. And they paid. Their leaders were jailed and barred from holding elected office.

But what do we make of the soldiers who fought for them? Does winning or losing change the dedication, the sacrifice, or the amount of blood spilled?

It didn’t to the people of the United States when they dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial 75 years after the war.

But that was a different time, when there was still some level of cooperation between disagreeing perspectives. We no longer live in that America. These days, it’s “We won, so you can suck an egg.” I’m not speaking of just Donald Trump. The same attitude accompanied Barrack Obama and George W. Bush to the White House. Maybe it began under Clinton, when conservatives basically declared all-out war on his presidency. Maybe its roots go back further, to Nixon, when the government was considered by some liberals to be the enemy.

In any case, we’ve become a nation of violence– violent speech and violent action. It’s most obvious among conservatives because they don’t try to hide it. But the not-so-subtle images put forward by too many liberals about gun-toting, ignorant, racist rednecks is equally violent. As I’ve posted before, there are reasons people voted for Trump, and they have nothing to do with race. Just as there are reasons people voted for Clinton, and they have little to do with LGBTQ issues.

But I digress. We have a movement to take away the pride of a group of states. The proponents may see it as a way to address racism, but that’s not how the recipients view it. And if you tell someone that their great-grandfather was a racist piece of trash, how do you think they’re going to react? Are you making friends? Convincing people of your message? If anything, you’re pushing them to the other side.

Enter the white supremacists. They’ve now been given a platform for their own brand of violent speech that they think will gain them sympathy. “Y’all have been told that your ancestors were racist trash!” And maybe they do gain some sympathy. But obviously not among the proponents of removing the symbols of Southern history.

The proponents show up and counter-demonstrate, shouting slogans to drown out the slogans of the white supremacists. Now we have a news event! And the temptation to violence is never far away. Let’s be clear about this: shouting slogans is not a conversation, it’s a battle. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators were already engaged in violence. Mick Jagger was right: bloodshed is just a shot away.

But that’s what our culture has become. We don’t really care about solutions. We say we do, but our actions say something different. We care about winning; we care about being right. No matter what. And if we inflame our enemies in the process, so much the better– we get to shout that much louder.

Here’s a hint: You don’t end a conflict by engaging in or inflaming the conflict. You end a conflict by finding out what the other side really wants, and you won’t learn that in a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. Nor will you convince them of your position with a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. You don’t get your point across by calling someone an idiot. Does being called an idiot make you want to improve yourself–or lash out at the person who said it? You won’t win friends with insults or attacks on their long-established culture. You win friends by sitting down and talking, even sharing a meal together.

One of my most meaningful friendships is with a couple who are very conservative. They call me a liberal, which I’m not (as my liberal friends will attest), but I don’t hold that against them. Yet we are able to sit and have long, meaningful discussions about politics and other matters. I remember the day I told the gentleman that George W. Bush spent money like a drunken Democrat. His face turned red for a moment. Then he thought about it and said, “You know, if Teddy Kennedy stood up and said that on the floor of the Senate, I’d respect him for it.”

Which brings me to why I quit Facebook. I’ve always struggled with the false sense of community it creates. It doesn’t encourage truthful, meaningful interaction. It encourages soundbites, slogans, and trolls. Over the years, I’ve done my best to be a voice of moderation and reconciliation. But let’s face it: Facebook is a venue for speaking, not listening. Few people bold enough to post a political opinion on Facebook are interested in reconciliation. In that sense, Facebook itself is a medium for violence.

I’ve sought reconciliation for almost all of my adult life. I helped bring about a cease-fire in a civil war. I know a little about bringing people together. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. It doesn’t happen nearly enough in society at large.

My friend and fellow peace-worker, Shariff Abdullah, predicts that we’re on the verge of a civil war. He may be right. But I think we’re already at war, we just haven’t started shooting yet.

P.S. My posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook, as they are to Twitter and Goodreads, but I’ve stopped checking my Facebook page. If you want to contact me, comment or use the contact form on my blog page.

August 17

Charlottesville and the Lessons of Gettysburg

The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.

The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.

That’s unfortunate.

As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.

There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.

Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.

As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.

Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.

In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”

Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.

What happened?

In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.

Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).

Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.

We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?

It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, History.com says,

Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.

Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.

It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)

But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?

Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.

I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.

Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.

But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.

Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.

I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?

I pray we will not.