Forgive us our debts

University of Chicago theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says that when Jesus told us to pray (in some translations) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling for the forgiveness of economic debts.  She also says how Occupy Wall Street is “operationalizing” Jesus’s economic teachings:

The folks who brought you Occupy Wall Street have launched what they call “Rolling Jubilee.” By donating to Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.

What Jesus taught as a prayer about forgiving debt (Matthew 6:12) has just been operationalized by Occupy.

Through prayer and deed, Jesus pursued an economic plan called the “Jubilee,” as I write in ‘#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,’ my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and what he did about economic issues in his own time that is just now launching as an e-book, and then in print.

It is critical that American Christians learn that Jesus really meant it when he asked us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Conservative Christians would like you to forget that Jesus really meant debt forgiveness. The Religious Right would like you to focus only on specific, individual “sins” like homosexuality (something that Jesus actually never mentions), and ignore that Jesus was really concerned about structured economic inequality in his own time. To Jesus, systemic economic inequality was the “Kingdom of Caesar,” not the “Kingdom of God.”

Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4:16-19) by standing up in the synagogue and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures on the biblical “Jubilee.” The biblical “Jubilee” is a time of debt forgiveness.

Rolling Jubilee is exactly what Jesus was talking about and doing something about throughout his whole ministry.

According to the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands, and from which he preached, the Jubilee is a special year of “liberty” where every 50 years there was a kind of “reboot” of Jewish economics and social relations. As described in Leviticus, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return every one of you to your property and every one of you to your family” (25:10). This 50th-year (or 49th-year) Jubilee followed seven “sabbatical cycles” where every seven years male slaves were released without debt, and land was allowed to lie fallow.

But that was millennia ago, some will say. How could the biblical Jubilee possibly be an economic plan in today’s economy, one that is far more complicated than in the first century CE?

It has never been more important to raise the issue of debt forgiveness and do something about it in concrete ways than it is in 21st century America.

via Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: Occupy Operationalizes the Lord’s Prayer on Debt.

This reminds me of a preacher I heard, back in my pre-Lutheran days when I belonged to a liberal denomination, who taught that because Jesus proclaimed “release to the captives,” we need to empty our prisons by letting all of the inmates go free, a gesture of grace that would surely reform them all.

What do you think of Dr. Thistlewhite’s exegesis?  If you disagree, how would you answer her?   OR, does she have a valid point somewhere in her teaching?  What is the principle behind the Jubilee year?

“In a struggle against all the musicians of the world”

The nation of Mali has Africa’s richest musical tradition and most vibrant musical talent.  But Muslim radicals have taken control of that country and are stamping out the music–destroying instruments, forbidding singing, and driving musicians out of the country.   The article, linked below, is worth reading in its entirety. But I was struck by this quotation:

“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

via In northern Mali, music silenced as Islamists drive out artists – The Washington Post.

Does anyone know where this attitude comes from?  Does the Koran specifically forbid music?  (I understand how its iconoclasm restricts visual art, but music is art without images.)  What is it in the radical Islamic worldview that sets it against music?   And, conversely, what is it in the Christian worldview that has made it so open to music–more than that, so creative and  influential musically?

He comes to us

advent (n.)

“important arrival,” 1742, an extended sense of Advent “season before Christmas” (Old English), from L. adventus “a coming, approach, arrival,” in Church Latin “the coming of the Savior,” from pp. stem of advenire “arrive, come to,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + venire “to come”

via Online Etymology Dictionary.

We are now in the season of Advent.  The word derives from the Latin venire (“to come”) + ad (“to”).  So the word can be rendered “He comes to.”  Advent is about Christ coming to us.

Luther said that it isn’t enough to believe that Christ died.  We need to believe that Christ died for us, for me, for you.  Christ rose from the dead for you.  When we realize the “for you,” we have gone from historical information to saving faith.

Similarly, God became Man for you.  Christ came for you, and He still comes to you, and He will come again for you.

May you have a blessed Advent!

Cutting charitable deductions

The Republican proposal to step away from the fiscal cliff is to raise revenue by cutting tax deductions while also lowering overall tax rates.  Democrats would keep rates higher for those who make over $250,000, and probably cap their tax deductions at $50,000.   So it looks like we have some agreement from both sides and that deductions for home mortgages, state taxes, and charitable giving will be cut, if not cut out entirely.  From Ezra Klein:

“Base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform.” It sounds so good, right? But what if you call it what it really is? Charity-destroying, home-shrinking, state-burdening tax reform.

Doesn’t sound as good, does it?

But that’s really what we’re talking about. The term ”base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform” has the advantage of vagueness: No one knows what it means. But the practical definition, at least the one that’s emerging in the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations, is tax reform that limits itemized deductions among high-income taxpayers. And as former OMB director Peter Orszag points out, 90 percent of the value of those deductions comes from just three categories: “taxes paid (mostly state and local taxes), home-mortgage interest and charitable contributions.”

So when we say “base-broading, rate-lowering tax reform,” here’s what we’re really saying: Tax reform that’s paid for by cutting tax breaks for charities, homes, and state and local taxes.

Most economists will tell you that cutting the home-mortgage interest deduction, particularly for high-income taxpayers, is a good idea. There’s no real reason the tax code should be subsidizing McMansions. But cutting the break for charities is more complicated. As Orszag writes:

In 2009, households with incomes of more than $200,000 claimed almost $60 billion in charitable deductions — or about 20 percent of total charitable giving in the U.S. that year. Households with incomes of more than $10 million claimed an average of $1.75 million each in charitable donations in 2009, and they accounted for roughly 5 percent of all giving.

Charitable giving reacts to tax incentives, and in response to any limits on deductions it could even fall by about the same amount as the increase in the tax bill, according to John List of the University of Chicago, who recently reviewed the literature on this subject. Other studies have suggested an effect about half as large. Even that smaller estimate, though, suggests that limiting deductions to $50,000 a year could easily reduce giving by tens of billions of dollars.

via The reality of tax reform: Less charity, smaller homes, higher state taxes.

As Klein says, “limiting itemized deductions in order to raise revenues is a tax increase.”  So the Republican plan to eliminate or cut back on these deductions as a way to raise revenue is a tax increase, even if other rates are lowered.

People complain about “the rich,” but whenever there is a capital campaign for a museum, a college, an arts group, a charity, or a church, the wealthy are wooed and generally come up with most of the money.  Conservatives want “the private sector” instead of the government to bear more of the responsibility to help the poor, support the arts, and do other good works.  That means those worthy causes would need the support of wealthy donors.  Do you think that donors would be as generous as they are without the incentive of a large tax deduction?   I am convinced many of them would, but I worry about the practical effect on non-profit organizations (which incorporate for that status precisely so they can become tax  deductible).

What impact do you think cutting deductions for charitable giving might have on churches?  Specifically, on your congregation?  Probably most of your members come nowhere near the high-income level that would trigger the limits.  And yet a total limit of $50,000–including home mortgage, state taxes, charitable giving, and everything else–would hit people who don’t consider themselves all that wealthy.  [Tote up how much you deducted last year.]   And yet, very often a big chunk of a congregation’s revenue comes from a few families.  Again, one would hope that they give because the Lord loves a cheerful giver, because they believe in tithing, because they see themselves as stewards of the Lord’s gifts, etc., etc.  But a tax deduction is surely an incentive to generosity.  What would happen if all deductions for giving to the church were eliminated for everybody?

Perhaps this would become liberating in the long run.  No more would churches or other organizations have to operate under the regulations for non-profits.  They could express political opinions and endorse candidates without  the threat of losing their tax-exempt status.

At any rate, we need to consider the consequences–including especially the unintended consequences–of these proposed changes.  (And remember, these ideas aren’t coming primarily from liberals but from Republicans.)

The world’s most emotional countries

According to an on-going Gallup study, Americans and Spanish-speakers are the world’s most emotional people.  Not only that, they are happy to the point of exuberance.  Not so with Middle Easterners and former Communists.  From Max Fischer of the Washington Post, who goes so far as to provide a color-coded map of the world’s emotions:

Singapore is the least emotional country in the world. ”Singaporeans recognize they have a problem,” Bloomberg Businessweek writes of the country’s “emotional deficit,” citing a culture in which schools “discourage students from thinking of themselves as individuals.” They also point to low work satisfaction, competitiveness, and the urban experience: “Staying emotionally neutral could be a way of coping with the stress of urban life in a place where 82 percent of the population lives in government-built housing.”

The Philippines is the world’s most emotional country. It’s not even close; the heavily Catholic, Southeast Asian nation, a former colony of Spain and the U.S., scores well above second-ranked El Salvador.

Post-Soviet countries are consistently among the most stoic. Other than Singapore (and, for some reason, Madagascar and Nepal), the least emotional countries in the world are all former members of the Soviet Union. They are also the greatest consumers of cigarettes and alcohol. This could be what you call and chicken-or-egg problem: if the two trends are related, which one came first? Europe appears almost like a gradient here, with emotions increasing as you move West.

People in the Americas are just exuberant. Every nation on the North and South American continents ranked highly on the survey. Americans and Canadians are both among the 15 most emotional countries in the world, as well as ten Latin countries. The only non-American countries in the top 15, other than the Philippines, are the Arab nations of Oman and Bahrain, both of which rank very highly.

English- and Spanish-speaking societies tend to be highly emotional and happy. Though the Anglophone nations of the world retain deep cultural links, it’s not clear if Spain’s emotional depth has anything to do with Latin America’s. According to Gallup, “Latin America leads the world when it comes to positive emotions, with Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela at the top of that list.” Yes, even Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is apparently filled with happy people.

Africans are generally stoic, with some significant exceptions. The continent is among the world’s least emotional, though there is wide variation, which serves as a non-definitive but interesting reminder of Africa’s cultural diversity. Each could be its own captivating case study. It’s possible that South Africa’s high rating has to do with its cultural ties to Western Europe, for example, and Nigeria’s may have to do with the recent protest movement in the south and sectarian violence in the north.

The Middle East is not happy. Gallup notes, “Negative emotions are highest in the Middle East and North Africa, with Iraq, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Territories leading the world in negative daily experiences.” Still, that doesn’t quite fully explain the high emotions in the Levant and on the Arabian peninsula, compared to the lower emotions in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Perhaps this hints at how people in these countries are being affected by the still-ongoing political turmoil of the Arab Spring.

via A color-coded map of the world’s most and least emotional countries.

A president’s prayer

Uganda has long been one of the most messed-up countries on earth, ruled by murderous buffoons such as Idi Amin.  But the current president, Yoweri Museveni, is trying to change all of that.  On the 50th anniversary of Uganda’s independence from Great Britain, he publicly prayed this prayer:

Father God in heaven, today we stand here as Ugandans, to thank you for Uganda. We are proud that we are Ugandans and Africans. We thank you for all your goodness to us. I stand here today to close the evil past and especially in the last 50 years of our national leadership history and at the threshold of a new dispensation in the life of this nation. I stand here on my own behalf and on behalf of my predecessors to repent. We ask for your forgiveness. We confess these sins, which have greatly hampered our national cohesion and delayed our political, social and economic transformation.

We confess sins of idolatry and witchcraft which are rampant in our land. We confess sins of shedding innocent blood, sins of political hypocrisy, dishonesty, intrigue and betrayal. Forgive us of sins of pride, tribalism and sectarianism; sins of laziness, indifference and irresponsibility; sins of corruption and bribery that have eroded our national resources; sins of sexual immorality, drunkenness and debauchery; sins of unforgiveness, bitterness, hatred and revenge; sins of injustice, oppression and exploitation; sins of rebellion, insubordination, strife and conflict. These sins and many others have characterized our past leadership, especially the last 50 years of our history. Lord, forgive us and give us a new beginning. Give us a heart to love you, to fear you and to seek you. Take away from us all the above sins.

We pray for national unity. Unite us as Ugandans and eliminate all forms of conflict, sectarianism and tribalism. Help us to see that we are all your children, children of the same Father. Help us to love and respect one another and to appreciate unity in diversity. We pray for prosperity and transformation. Deliver us from ignorance, poverty and disease. As leaders, give us wisdom to help lead our people into political, social and economic transformation.

We want to dedicate this nation to you so that you will be our God and guide. We want Uganda to be known as a nation that fears God and as a nation whose foundations are firmly rooted in righteousness and justice to fulfill what the Bible says in Psalm 33:12: Blessed is the nation, whose God is the Lord. A people you have chosen as your own.

I renounce all the evil foundations and covenants that were laid in idolatry and witchcraft. I renounce all the satanic influence on this nation. And I hereby covenant Uganda to you, to walk in your ways and experience all your blessings forever. I pray for all these in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

via Michael Avramovich, Should Ugandan President Museveni Lead the Way? – Mere Comments.

Does this suggest theocracy or at least a “state church”?  Or is it a good example of a leader praying for himself and interceding for his people?


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