Monday, September 24, 2007

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's

As an ironic headline to follow up my last post, the IRS has officially dropped its investigation of a Pasadena Episcopal church while the church wants a formal apology. What was the IRS investigating? A sermon a couple of weeks before the 2004 election that was against the war in Iraq. Huh? The IRS investigating a church about a political sermon, how does that work?

A little background on what this is about. Churches file with the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations, or a "tax-exempt non-profits." This designation prohibits churches, and other non-profit groups, from explicitly participating in political campaigns or implicitly endorsing one particular candidate over another. This rule stems from Lyndon B Johnson's 1954 Senate campaign that was facing opposition from non-profit groups. At the time, churches were already tax-exempt and this amendment to the tax code wasn't directed towards churches but rather politically active non-profit groups (think the historical equivalent of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth or MoveOn.org). Yet because churches fell under the same tax code as those groups the political restriction applied to them as well. But, despite the growing entanglement between churches and politics, rarely does the IRS actually cite a particular church. But while one could quickly side with a church, regardless of the topic preached, it is a little known fact that a church does not have to file as a 501(c)(3). The only real impact not having "non profit" status would have would be that parishioners wouldn't be able to deduct church contributions on their tax forms. For megachurches with very large incomes, it would also be a significant tax burden. But for a local church, it wouldn't make much difference.

Despite this, there was a bit of an uproar when this investigation first became public. And the sermon in question was a hot topic: The Iraq War. It did seem like the IRS came at this from out of the blue with a biased political agenda, despite being a non-partisan government bureaucracy. So I do think the IRS was poking its head where it didn't belong.

On the other hand, I question whether such preaching is really edifying. Does preaching on political issues build up "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God [to] become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13)? In other words, would preaching about the Iraq war help someone in attendance to become more Christlike if already a Christian or lead one to Christ if not? Not to mention that the purpose of meeting as an assembly of believers is to worship. Is this worship, or is it just grandstanding?

As for the topic itself, there are two main camps with most people falling somewhere in between. One camp is across the board pacifist, not just opposing war but also opposing military service. That side can look back in history to Roman soldiers who were required to serve in the Roman army but would not pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some would refuse to be crowned with laurels, a homage to Ares, the god of war. The other camp looks at what is happening in the Middle East and reads Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and concludes that war, especially in the Middle East, will hasten Jesus' return. Never mind that the same was preached up to two decades ago about Russia. Nevertheless, I was quite nervous when Syria and Israel were trading rockets a year ago and one of the regions affected was Megiddo (where we get the word "Armageddon").

So what would be acceptable? To me, a sermon on the above differences in opinion, with scriptures to support both, would certainly be relevant to a church service. But pontificating on an increasingly unpopular war on the other hand, would not. We need to be careful as Christ's body to use our worship to encourage one another, grow in faith, become more Christlike and to glorify God. Our religion should inform our politics, not the other way around.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What was old is new again

Ok, it's been another three-ish weeks since my last post. At least I'm consistent. The problem I run into is that I see a headline or something comes to me and the wheels in my head start turning. I spend a lot of time doing research, I get distracted, I don't get online for a long time, and when I finally do get a minute either I've forgotten what had me so riled up in the first place or the headline that caught my attention is no longer relevant. And then here we are, three weeks later.

Most recently, I was wanting to post about Elvira Arellano and the use of churches as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. I was studying my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. Then time flies, and while the illegal immigration debate is still going on (and likely will so long as it continues to be politicized without any desire from either side for a real solution) this story kinda went away. Well, other than the president of Mexico offering to send her to the US to be an ambassador and would therefore be afforded all the rights and privileges of a Mexican citizen in the United States. But the post wasn't going to be about her, but about what role should our churches play in this debate? And that issue has come up again.

This week, the city of Simi Valley sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since their actions, by allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

If this holds up, it sets a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? Fortunately, from what I've read most agree that this is an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.

But that's not really the point of this either. Is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kinda like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?

When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?

Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.

But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They're here for a reason, after all; the economy in Mexico is an absolute mess. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic de jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to enable the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Are you just seeking headlines?

Yes, families are affected and depending on where you live, chances are there's someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.