Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Government’ Category

1 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am
Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece. Site of...

Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece.

Read 1 Thessalonians and follow along.

Most Bible scholars believe this to be the oldest of the New Testament books (although James has its supporters as well). It was written to the people of Thessaloniki, a city that exists to this day in northern Greece. In Paul’s day, it was a key trading city that lay on an important overland route from Rome to the gateway of Asia. Paul, Silas, and Timothy started a church here around 50 CE, but were forced leave in a hurry, as their lives were in danger. Later, Timothy returned to find the church doing well, and Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians upon hearing the good news. So, this letter would have been written 54-56 CE, making it the very first Christian writing that we know of today.

Now you might ask why the earliest known Christian writing occurs a full 25 years or so after the death of Christ. Well, this dating is not the work of some liberal scholar trying to convince us that the whole of Christianity is a myth created long after Jesus’ death. In fact, conservative scholars pretty much agree with this date as well. There are a couple of reasons why the early church leaders waited so long to write anything down.

We have to remember that Jesus and his disciples were pretty much a rough and tumble bunch of carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, which means they may not have known how to write – we do have the story of Jesus writing something in the sand, but we don’t have any information other than that. Remember that Palestine at the time of Christ was the backwater of the Roman empire, not a bastion of learning and education – sort of the Alabama of the empire. Paul of Tarsus, on the other hand, was educated in both the Hebrew and Classical forms of education, according to tradition, which made him well-qualified to present the ideas of a religion steeped in Jewish history to the masses of the Roman state. But why wait so long?

The consensus seems to be that the original followers of Jesus were so sure that he was coming back any day, that they didn’t see any need to make any written records of their ideas. All of Jesus’ followers were fervently preaching the ‘good news’ as hard and fast as they could – before Jesus returned. If Jesus was coming back within their lifetimes, there wasn’t much time to worry about all the intricacies of doctrine – they simply wanted as many converts as possible. Only after time had passed – and the prospect that Jesus may not return as soon as they hoped began to loom large in their minds – only then did his followers began to feel the need to write down a few important ideas for the faithful who might outlive them. We’ll see the writers of the NT address some of these concerns as we move through the different letters and gospels.

Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1, there isn’t anything that will surprise you if you’ve ever attended a church service. Believers already refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even at this early date. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by is also mentioned in this chapter; from a Christian point of view, I think it’s critical to see this belief as evident from the very first Christian writing in existence.

In verse 10, however, there is an idea that causes me some real concern – waiting for Jesus to return from heaven and save believers from some sort of ‘coming wrath’. I can try to understand why Paul and others living in the first century might expect Jesus to come back from heaven; nearly 2000 years later, I don’t understand why many folks are still waiting. Why can’t we admit, after all these years and hundreds of calamities from which Christians have not been spared, that perhaps Paul was mistaken? He never met Jesus face to face, having only encountered him in a powerful vision. Is it possible – just for the sake of argument – that the church is incorrect in this aspect?

I remember listening to sermons about the rapture when I was a teenager, and feeling a little bit guilty that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want it to happen right away. I wanted to go to heaven, for sure, and missing out on any future calamity seemed pretty good too. I just wanted God to wait and let me enjoy life here for at least a little while first. I wanted to fall in love, get married, see some of the world, maybe enjoy a few earthly luxuries – then it would be alright for him to come back. The fear of the ‘coming calamity’ certainly kept me on my toes, but inside, I hoped it wasn’t true.

Whether or not you believe in the imminent return of Christ, the rapture of the church, or other related pre-determined futures, take a minute to at least see the dangers these ideas present to our current society. Many churches preach that the world is going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back to fix everything himself. Don’t worry if you’re a Christian – you won’t be subjected to the worst of it. In fact, you’ll live a happy, healthy and wealthy life until just before all hell breaks loose (literally), at which time you’ll be snatched away to heaven.

I’d say this ideology does a lot of damage to our democracy. If Jesus is coming back any day now, what need do we have to try to make sure American society continues to progress 20-30 years into the future? No need to cooperate with anyone else to make the world a better place – Jesus is coming back to fix all that anyway. Peak oil? Not a problem – Jesus will come back before we run out of oil; in fact, maybe a global war for oil is just what is needed to hasten his appearance! The world’s political systems have to be broken so that Jesus can reign as king on Earth. Scary stuff, unless you think you’re going to be raptured – what’s to worry about?

Here’s where a strong dose of secularism is needed. I’m not going to ask you to surrender your faith, but as an American, it is your civic duty prepare for our future as if Jesus were not coming back, soon or otherwise. It is your duty to elect officials that will strive to improve our lives – not morally, that’s the work of the pastor, teacher, or philosopher – but in real, measurable and observable ways.

We Americans must stop pretending there will be no tomorrow, or that someone or something other than our own intellect can make a better tomorrow – or start preparing to be servants to those not hindered by such ideas.

What Constitutes Charity?

In Religion and Government, Religion and Money on May 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA....

Your Tax Dollars at Work?

If I give a thousand dollars to my local opera company, and you give the same amount to Meals on Wheels, assuming we’re in the same tax bracket of say, 20% – we both get the same charitable deduction on our taxes. Opera is my hobby; feeding the poor and infirm is yours. Both organizations are non-profit, so we both deprive Uncle Sam of a couple hundred bucks. (Sounds like one of those 21st Century Insurance commercials.) Is this really the way things should work?

This is the issue Bill Maher raises this week on Real Time with Bill Maher – the nonsensical idea that all charitable contributions are created equal. In his trademark irreverent style, Mr. Maher ridicules the current system that shelters millions of dollars of much-needed revenue from the nation’s coffers.  (Read the transcript of his New Rules segment here. It sometimes takes a few days after the show’s initial airing for transcripts to appear.)

What exactly should constitute a charitable deduction? Perhaps a dozen years ago, when the government was running a surplus, it wasn’t a pertinent question. Today, however, with huge deficits, a staggering national debt, and no agreement in Congress about how to fix these problems, it’s time to have a look at what sort of activities the rest of us are subsidizing.

Last year, Mitt Romney made around 20 million dollars. If he paid his tithes, that means that 2 million went to the Church of Latter Day Saints. We know Mr. Romney paid an actual tax rate of 14%. This means that he didn’t pay the IRS around $280,000 that he would have otherwise owed. Since the US Treasury Department is not currently running a surplus, but a deficit, this means that someone – or a lot of someones – is going to have to make up that loss. What do we as Americans get in return for that loss of a quarter of a million dollars? I suppose that LDS might spend some of that 2 million dollars on feeding the poor and infirm; but I know for sure that they spend a lot of it sending young men in short-sleeve dress shirts out to neighborhoods all over America and the world in an effort to win converts. And in essence, you and I are subsidizing that activity.

It’s time to end this nonsense. If I give thousands of dollars to my church so they can have a swimming pool in the their new gymnasium, and you give thousands of dollars to the local homeless shelter, our contribution to society is not equal, and the IRS should stop subsidizing both activities equally. We can argue over the many other subsidies in our tax system – and we should – but certainly all of us can agree that food and shelter for the homeless and new swimming pools for upper-middle class Christians are entities that should not enjoy the same margin of entitlement. I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t be allowed to build whatever they want – I’m simply saying that I don’t want to foot part of the bill.

In fact, in a secular society, the government has no business encouraging the building of churches, mosques and synagogues or any other activity that is purely religious in nature; therefore, contributions that go in large part to that activity should not qualify for a tax deduction. However, curing drug addicts, giving job skills to the unemployed, finding new cures for illnesses – these are activities that benefit society as a whole, and should continue to qualify.

Government should neither encourage religious activity nor dissuade its citizens from participating in any way they see fit. All American citizens should financially support causes they wish to see thrive; only those causes that have positive benefits to the general populace – in this life – should be tax exempt.

Do you think your tithes should be tax deductible? Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.


150 Million Non-Adherents Can’t Be Wrong

In Religion and Government on May 6, 2012 at 2:32 am

Well, the numbers are in. This week, the results of the 2010 Religious Census were released to the public – and there are a few interesting surprises. Catholics are still the number one group, followed by the Baptists – no surprises here. But, for the very first time, the census has included ‘non-denominational evangelical’  congregations in the count, and taken together, this is the third largest group in America.

Anyone who’s familiar with American life wouldn’t find this too surprising at all – pretty much every preacher on television belongs to this group, and almost all of those super huge castles you see from the main highways have signs that boast their non-denominational credentials. In fact, I would suggest that suburban life – outside of the former Confederate states – revolves around one of these kinds of churches. When you think of the soccer mom, NASCAR dad, Jerry Falwell, Tea Party, love Jesus, hate Obama crowd, I think you have to also think mega-church in the suburbs preaching the prosperity gospel, the Republican party, and American exceptionalism.

All of this holds true in the South as well, but the Southern Baptist convention holds sway there – think less speaking in tongues, a little more guilt – but with the benefit of eternal security. The Mormons are the fastest growing group in the US. This is intriguing to me, since most everything Mormons believe is based on the only decades-old teachings of Joseph Smith – clearly an Elmer Gantry before his time. At least the non-denominational evangelicals can boast roots going back to the Great Awakening.

The Census recognizes that some of the numbers could be skewed, as the information comes from the churches themselves, not from individuals. The thinking is that if you ask an individual if they belong to a church, they might say ‘yes’ even if they haven’t been in years. Churches were asked to estimate the number of ‘adherents’ they counted – and I’m not sure if any guidelines were placed on them, such as if said adherents were regular attendees or if they contributed financial support to the organization.

Growing up in the Assemblies of God, we paid a lot of attention to the average attendance – in fact, many AG churches have the attendance board posted prominently near the front of the church, with numbers updated weekly. If other evangelical churches are similarly fixated on attendance, then I’d say the numbers from non-denominational evangelical groups are a reasonably fair assessment of who ‘belongs’ to the church. This doesn’t even take into consideration the folks who agree with the ideas of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Robert Schuller, and other evangelicals – but have chosen for one reason or another to stay with their denomination. (Schuller is Dutch Reformed, a Calvinist belief with roots going back to Revolutionary times – Martin Van Buren and Teddy Roosevelt were both members; but many evangelicals proscribe to Schuller’s positive-thinking doctrine).

From my limited knowledge of how Catholics and Baptists count their membership, I’d think those numbers might be overestimated; Catholics tend to put your name down when you’re christened as a little baby, and don’t take it off the record until you die and have your funeral in a Catholic church, even if you don’t show up much in between. Baptists tend to do the same thing – once you join, you’re counted in the membership until you ‘move your letter’ or die. I’m not sure about Mormons – but I know there’s a big controversy about them baptizing people posthumously – don’t know if this pads their numbers or not.

Bread of Life Central Church's Worship Gatheri...

I say all this to get to the number that I think is really important – the 150 million ‘non-adherents’ in American society. These are the people who either don’t believe in God, or don’t think he’s important enough to show up for any kind of Sunday (or Saturday) service or to offer any kind of financial support to a religious institution. How is it, then, that we are supposed to be a Christian nation?

Out of our 300 million citizens, fully one-half adhere to nothing. Out of the 150 million remaining, one has to subtract those of the Jewish faith, the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Daoists, etc., etc., etc. Then, take into account that many denominations may be giving us over-blown numbers – someone may have been christened, but never darkened the door of a church since then. And speaking of christening – how many children are included in those numbers? Is it really fair to call toddlers and pre-schoolers ‘Catholic’ or ‘Evangelical’? If a church has a thousand people attending a Sunday morning service, how many of those would not be old enough to make decisions about eternity for themselves?

Could we only be looking at perhaps 75 million adult Christians in America? And perhaps only a third of them actively anti-secular? This would mean that a group comprising less than ten percent of the country are wielding enormous power when it comes to trying to inject religion into our schools and into our laws.

It’s time to stand up and be counted.  Are you non-Christian? Your senator, congressman, school superintendent, and others need to hear your views – the fundamentalists have had their ear for too long – and their political power is disproportionate to their true numbers. It’s exciting to think that – given the right information and the opportunity to use it – four or five out of six Americans could  be persuaded to a secularist approach to education and government.