Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tax Law, Exemptions, and Discerning the Body Politic


You've heard last week's news already: a federal district judge (my federal district judge) found the clergy housing allowance tax exemption, established in 1954, unconstitutional. I'll let others cover the legal bases. In sum: no action until the appeals process plays out, though each level of the appeals process raises the jurisdictional stakes of the outcome. Lots of reactions from anger to joy to resignation, depending on whom you talk to. 

Some individuals have wondered out loud if the vocal level of response to the decision, among clergy, isn't telling of the Church's true priorities, but I do not think clergy should feel embarrassed by their interest in this decision. The majority of clergy I know do not prioritize, or obsess over, the accumulation of wealth. Like most wage-earners, clergy simply want clarity as to if/how they can care for their families, given this potentially drastic change in real income.  

At least as significantly, however, clergy should not allow themselves to be shamed away from making theological observations about something so mundane as tax law. 

At this point I should add that I am not at all sure churches should have, and/or rely on, tax exemptions - fully realizing that the Church as it exists would go underground without them. Indeed, the practical effect of tax exemptions probably compromises the Church's witness far more than the integrity of our nation's civil political order. But I also think it is either deceptive or delusional to say that many of the "secular" causes subsidized by tax breaks and/or exemptions do not involve objects of popular worship. (I'm looking at you, NFL - amazingly, a government-recognized non-profit, Monsanto, and the American civil religion of patriotism.)

The truly interesting question raised by the judge's decision has to do with what counts as religion. Indeed, the name of the plaintiff organization - "Freedom From Religion" - at the same time raises the question of what counts as religion and presumes to have identified a clear answer for what I am not at all sure is clear. 

Moreover, the answer to the question, "What counts as religion?" has everything to do with what we understand to be political and, by extension, worthy of presence and discourse in the public sphere, because the State of civil politics is widely (and, I would argue, uncritically) understood to be legitimized by its ability to protect the public peace from the destructive impulses of things like religion. (1) In other words, to be counted as religion is to be counted out of politics, which is to jettison de facto any understanding of politics involving God. 

The jettisoning of God from politics is problematic for Christians, but not for the reason many Christians think. That is, a truly theo-political imagination does not lead to more Christian politicians, but to an understanding of the Church - the body of Christ - as the basic unit of politics. On this point, Rowan Williams writes that Augustine "engaged in a redefinition of the public itself, designed show that it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political." To this, William Cavanaugh adds that 
what is crucial for a true politics, Augustine argues, is that a commonwealth must be based on justice, and justice depends on giving each his or her due, but that is impossible where God is not given God's due in sacrifice. A true social order is based on sacrifice to God, for only when God is loved can there by love of others, and the common acknowledgement of right. The true story of the world as revealed in the Scriptures is not one of the restraint of a primordial violence, but of a peaceful creation fallen and restored in Christ's self-sacrifice. A true social order is based not on defeat of enemies but on an identification with victims through participation in Christ's reconciling sacrifice. According to Augustine, then, the true sacrifice on which a true politics is based is the Eucharist: 
"This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God" (Cavanaugh, 10-11).
I confess that remembering that politics begins with the Eucharist probably does little to change the reality that changing tax policy could, in the (perhaps near) future, create financial duress sufficient to force the Church underground. But I believe that remembering that politics begins with the Eucharist is to remember that "[to] participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God's imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ" (Ibid., 279).

And I believe that to be so caught is enough.

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(1) Helpful here is William Cavanaugh's astounding Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (with which many readers of my blog, being nerds, will already be familiar). In it, Cavanaugh details how "[the] rise of the modern centralized state is predicated...on the transfer of authority from particular associations to the state, and the establishment of a direct relationship between the state and the individual" (10), and how
In modernity, we have been scripted into a drama in which state coercion is seen as necessary to subdue a prior violence already inherent internally in civil society and externally in the form of other nation-states. Given that the state arises in conjunction with the atomization of civil society and the creation of national borders, however, it can be said that the state defends us from threats which it itself creates. The church buys into this performance by acknowledging the state's monopoly on coercion, handing over the bodies of Christians to the armed forces, and agreeing to stay out of the fabricated realm of the "political" (9).

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