Sunday, May 22, 2016

Extravagant love

Today's Gospel reading told the story of Mary, who anointed Jesus' feet with oil and washed them with her hair. This story of extravagant love has many lessons, and pastors go off in all directions in teaching on this story.

One part of the story is often overlooked. We are told in the Gospel of John that Judas,who in just a few days would hand Jesus over to the Romans, was present, and was critical that such an expensive perfume was wasted, instead of sold to support the poor. The Gospel writer goes on to say that Judas was a thief, the unofficial treasurer of the group, and was embezzling from the treasury.

In the past couple of weeks, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Oregon. While there, the delegates wrestled with whether certain people should be welcome in fellowship, even in positions of leadership, in our denomination. Some of the bigger questions include:
- How can we welcome all people without condoning behavior we believe to be sin?
- In a fellowship of believers, where all are sinners, is there a hierarchy of sin that should result in exclusion of some?

In that very first, most intimate collection of believers, we have a known thief. Jesus, knowing all things, certainly knew of Judas' thievery, down to the very penny. We can certainly argue that Jesus, knowing the ultimate plan, had to accept Judas with all his faults. But we can also argue that Jesus accepted Judas unconditionally, with all his faults, just as he accepted the doubting Thomas and the denying Peter.

Given this example, who are we to decide whether someone should be excluded from our fellowship?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why I’m a Democrat

It is sometimes said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That is certainly true in a physical science meaning, and metaphorically is said to be true as well. So if our goal as a society is to have a stronger chain, the question becomes, “What do we do with the weakest link?”

            There are those who say that the weakest link should be removed from the chain in order to strengthen the chain. That philosophy is akin to the law of the wild, where the weakest of the herd are removed by predators or through natural selection or from disease. In the natural world, weakness is well-defined, and can be quickly identified and cast off. As humans, however, what happens when some humans begin to decide that other humans are weaker? How is weakness defined?

            One political ideology has evolved around defining weakness. In this view, “weakness” is any difference, no matter its origin, and no matter whether the difference results in “weakness” at all. According to this ideology, those of a different color, or who speak a different language, or worship in a different way, or have a different sexual orientation, or live on another side of town, are weak links in the chain, and must be cast aside. “Only the strong survive, and we get to decide who the strong are.” This political ideology claims the name of “Christian” to describe its philosophy.

            But what exactly does Christ have to say about the chain imagery? When a lawyer asked him to name the greatest commandment of his faith, Christ is said to have answered, “The greatest is love…., and the second is love.” Another leader of the faith, the Apostle Paul, said that we should “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Loving and bearing one another’s burdens suggest that among those who are images of the Creator, there is no weak link. We don’t live by the law of nature. We should know better, because we have been taught better.

            I’m not so na├»ve as to believe that God takes sides in these human political battles. But I believe that God calls us to love and to take care of each other, to bear one another’s burdens, to look at every human being as the image of the Creator.

            And that’s why I’m a Democrat.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Car's in the Shop

My 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid is in the shop today for the annual safety/emissions inspection and routine oil change and servicing.

Like many North Carolinians, I will pay a bit more for these services as the labor for the service is now subject to state and local sales taxes, thanks to the General Assembly.

Also, my tax information is at the accountant this week, hopefully to get my income tax returns filed soon. When the General Assembly added services to things subject to the sales tax, they were very selective. My mechanic's labor, or the labor for the appliance repair technician, or the chimney sweep, will now have sales tax added. But when I pay the bill to my accountant, guess what! No sales tax.

There will be no sales tax on legal fees, or accountant fees, or brokerage fees. There will be no sales tax on greens fees at the country club or membership fees at the health club. But if you get tires installed and balanced, or have a watch repaired, or have cable or satellite TV installed, you now have to pay sales tax on that labor.

You have to give the General Assembly credit for coming up with creative ways to shift the tax burden off the wealthy and onto working class North Carolinians.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sales Tax in North Carolina

The Radical Republican General Assembly enacted another round of tax reforms in the 2015 session, reducing some income tax rates, while expanding the state's 6.75% sales tax to include "repair, maintenance, and installation services." This is on top of the 2014 reforms, that added sales tax to admission fees for entertainment and lots of other taxes and fees.

While the income tax rate reductions will reduce the personal income tax for a family with $30,000 annual income by about $50, the expanded sales taxes will result in a greater tax burden for low income families in our state.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the "revenue enhancements":

  • Increase on the sales tax on electricity and natural gas from 3% to 7%
  • Sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities (more about that below)
  • Increases in DMV fees, including driver's license fees and vehicle registration fees
  • Community college tuition increases
The sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities is really interesting. The tax applies to admission tickets to movies, concerts, museums and cultural sites, guided tours at such sites, and sporting events. Exceptions include payments for "the right to participate in sporting activities." That includes greens fees and gym memberships. Also excluded is a "charge for lifetime seat rights, lease, or rental of a suite or box for an entertainment activity." So, working stiffs have to pay sales tax on the ticket to the Panthers game, but the corporation doesn't have to pay sales tax on renting the luxury box, or for the PSL to have the right to have a seat. (

Seems like the General Assembly is going out of its way to stick it to working class North Carolinians.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Presidents and Umbrellas

There's a picture making it's rounds on the internet of President Obama standing under an umbrella held by a Marine, adjacent to a picture of Queen Elizabeth holding an umbrella. The caption is something like: "England's Queen can hold her own umbrella, our little queen cannot."

This is an example of the kind of fake, manufactured outrage that so often floods our facebook timeliness and email inboxes. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do an image search on google to find images of Presidents from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan (yes, even the sainted Ronnie Raygun) to Bush I to Clinton to Bush II to, yes Obama under an umbrella held by a soldier or Marine or aide or assistant. And for every image showing someone else holding a President's umbrella, there are images of each of these Presidents holding their own umbrellas.

There are plenty of things to get worked up over, even to spark outrage. I'm outraged that it is easier to purchase a firearm than it is to vote. I'm outraged that tax and regulatory policies lead to huge increases in the numbers of working poor and non-working rich. I'm outraged that America is number 1 in the world in the percentage of our citizens that are in jail. I'm outraged that legal fictions called corporations, which enjoy immortality, are accorded the same rights as natural persons, meaning that they can spend billions of dollars to control the levers of government. I'm outraged at the entire concept of supply side economics, where large bank bailouts and agribusiness subsidies and "free trade" are deemed good policy, but helping people who lost their jobs because of large bank bailouts and agribusiness subsidies and "free trade" is called welfare for the unworthy. I'm outraged that "Christians" spend much of their time justifying their own behavior, because they are better than "those people."

I'm outraged that charities exist to take care of our veterans who are homeless and jobless, recovering from severe head trauma and amputations and PTSD. And I'm even more outraged that a former President of the United States, who sent those men and women off to war, collected a $200,000 speaking fee from one of those charities. I'm outraged that chickenhawks lie to Congress and the American people to send those young men and women off to fight a war of choice, and then cut taxes. And I'm outraged that those same chickenhawks then blame the next President for the deficits and the power vacuum that they created in Iraq.

I'm outraged that the CEO/owner of a truck stop chain and an NFL franchise, along with his brother/state Governor, bilked truck drivers out of tens of millions of dollars without having to go to jail, while a young kid selling a few untaxed cigarettes on a street corner is choked to death by police. (Look up Pilot/Flying J and Jimmy Haslam).

And I'm outraged that it took 50 years, and the deaths of 9 peaceful worshipers in a church to remove a symbol of segregation, Jim Crow, and racial violence from the property of the cradle of secession.

So there's plenty to be outraged about. Who's carrying the umbrella doesn't seem to be that much of a deal.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Final Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

I'm afraid that I have offended some of my friends with my strident language in recent days about the flag. I apologize to those who have taken offense. So let me explain my thinking in a less strident way.

For many South Carolinians, the stars-and-bars is a symbol of honorable men defending their homeland and their way of life. But for about one-third of South Carolina citizens, the flag also speaks to the experience of their ancestors. These forebears were ripped from their homes and their way of life, shackled and chained in the holds of ships. Those who survived the 6-week voyage across the Atlantic arrived in places like Charleston, and were auctioned off like livestock. That history is a stain on our nation, and that flag symbolizes for them the stain of slavery, the stain of lynchings, the stain of Jim Crow laws and segregation, and the stain of institutional racism that still exists.

As an American, we pledge our allegiance to a different flag, and the Republic that exists as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The flag of the confederacy stands in clear and direct opposition to the notion of liberty and justice for all. Its waving on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia celebrates nullification and secession, rather than one indivisible nation and liberty for everyone. It is an affront to justice for all.

Its flying at full mast, while the flag of the United States flew this week at half mast in remembrance of those massacred in Charleston, violated Federal law. Those images sent another message, that of indifference to the suffering of generations described above, and to the tragedy on Wednesday night. Many excuses have been offered to rationalize not lowering that flag, but each of them rings hollow.

As humans, we have the unique capacity to recognize and understand the feelings of our fellow humans, all created in the image of God. Not only that, we have the unique capacity for reconciliation. State Rep. Doug Brannon, a Republican from Spartanburg County, will file a bill to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds. I hope that South Carolinians of goodwill will support Rep. Brannon's bill. Let's hope that is a first step toward understanding and reconciliation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Industrial Ecology and Theology

We are just getting started in the new semester in my MS in Sustainability Studies program, and I'm taking SUS 529 - Industrial Ecology.

One of the definitions or models of industrial ecology is the notion that industrial/manufacturing processes should mimic that of natural processes. In the natural world, there is little, if any, waste, with the waste or remains of one life becoming the basic fuel of another organism. Organic matter (even our human body) decomposes, providing nutrients for plants, and carrion for scavengers. We exhale carbon dioxide, which plants "inhale" and produce, through photosynthesis, oxygen, which we then inhale. There is a nitrogen cycle and a water cycle, in addition to the oxygen cycle.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of this "circle of life," in the words "From dust you were formed, to dust you shall return." Physical and chemical processes, bordering on the supernatural (especially photosynthesis), are part of a creation that, at the end of sixth day, the Creator described as "very good." It would follow logically that such a very good creation, using such very good processes, would be the very model of how we should design our own processes to extract raw materials, process them, manufacture useful tools and items, and dispose of them. The goal would be to transform byproducts of the process, and the end of life of the item itself, into the beginning of a new cycle, rather than throwing that stuff "away."

Yet very few of our manufacturing and industrial processes consider even where "away" is, and even fewer consider that many of these waste byproducts are indeed useful as inputs in other processes. Perhaps it is seen as too costly or too much trouble to recover these waste byproducts, and transform them into a suitable input for other processes. Perhaps we fail at connecting the dots, because we fail to communicate or fail to establish the framework within which to connect those dots. Or perhaps we just don't really care, as the circle of life extends beyond our individual, and our generational, interest.

Anyway, this is going to be fun!