About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2016/02/03

Resisting Unfair Taxation

Two enlarged FlatZach-s, decorated earlier,
come to Rutgers worship this Sunday 2/7. 
Unfair Taxation - for me it will always be associated with Margaret Thatcher and her poll tax.
    In 1989 I received an invitation from the Church of Scotland to study theology for a year at the New College in Edinburgh. Shortly after I came to Scotland, the Berlin Wall came down and soon the totalitarian Communism was no more. Back in home I used to be part of a Christian youth movement strongly opposed to the totalitarian system and Margaret Thatcher was our hero. While the Velvet Revolution was going on in Prague, I went through my own political revolution because in Scotland I experienced first-hand the rigid harshness of conservative ideologues.
    Year 1989 was exactly the year when Thatcher imposed on Scotland her poll tax (to finance the local councils and infrastructure). She treated the Scots like guinea pigs, testing the poll tax in Scotland before it was to be introduced to the rest of the kingdom. From my meager bursary (British word for a scholarship) I paid a substantial poll tax prorated to finance Edinburgh City Council. This was a proper capitation tax when every person had to pay the same amount regardless of age, income or employment status and it was patently unfair! In respect of social ethos it was an attempt to return to dark and unjust medieval times. Around the world you can actually use an abolition of capitation as a marker of socially sensitive modernity.
    Of course I was in Scotland to study theology and I thought about it and reflected this experience through the theological prism. Jesus in the well-known passage about Roman Head Tax (Matthew 22:15-22) famously pronounced, “Give to emperor what caries his image and give to God what caries God’s image!” It can be further paraphrased: Pay tax even if it is unfair, because open rebellion is exactly what the state bureaucratic, police and judicial machineries are waiting for and are prepared to suppress and punish, but dedicate your entire self (Remember - you are the images of God!) to undo injustice and work for divine kingdom of SHALOM (God’s peace and harmony).
    So as I have mentioned, I dutifully paid the Thatcher’s poll tax because I did not want to be deported, but I went through substantial change of my heart and social orientation. I left Communist Prague for Great Britain as an ardent anticommunist and after experiencing the rule of Iron Lady over Scotland, I returned to my home, quickly returning to capitalism, and I was a theological democratic socialist - standing on the side and defending the oppressed, the exploited, the poor.
    Come this Sunday to meet with a notorious New Testament tax collector Zacchaeus (FlatZach) who similarly turned around his life. We will learn from Jesus why Flat Tax (just like head tax) is unfair and what we can do about it.

2016/01/28

Proclaiming Jubilee

The oldest known account of a synagogue service is actually in the Gospel of Luke (4:16ff). And Jesus is preaching from the scroll of prophet Isaiah in Nazareth’s synagogue. Can there be any clearer example showing how common are Christian and Jewish roots?!
    And it matters little that theologians and archeologists have serious doubts about the historical accuracy of this story. Archeologists searched diligently for a first century synagogue in Nazareth and did not find any. In fact not a single synagogue from the first century or earlier has been found in the entire region of Galilee! It is also extremely unlikely that Nazareth, a rural village of about three hundred inhabitants would have owned any scrolls, not to mention a large scroll of the biblical prophet.
     All these facts point towards the Evangelist Luke as the one who created this story in order to capture and to outline the essence of the entire Jesus’ teaching. Luke simply used the cultural expectations of his Hellenistic city audience about fifty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. But even when this story is dated to the time of the composition of the Gospel of Luke, this story still remains the oldest account of a synagogal worship. Christianity indeed co-evolved with Rabbinic Judaism like two branches growing from the same stem of the first century Judaism.
     We share together more than we often admit or can imagine. Those shared deep roots certainly include Jesus’ message - the proclamation of the Jubilee; forgiveness of debts and release of debt slaves. When our faith leads us today, as it does at Rutgers, to call for and strive for social justice and protection of the poor and vulnerable, then we stand in an ancient and glorious tradition. That tradition preceded Jesus and also Isaiah. It goes back to the very beginnings of our civilization in the Bronze Age Middle East. Join us this Sunday radically expanding the circles of our love and care.

2016/01/22

Taxes in the time of Jesus and our times



REPUTATION OF TAX COLLECTORS

Read the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town and suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He kept trying to see which Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
This is not the only instance when the Gospels are telling us about Jesus interacting with tax collectors.

Read Luke 7:33-34
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'
And  Luke 15:1-3
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: (a parable of a lost sheep follows)

Why were tax collectors this widely and deeply despised?
Roman tax collection could be described as a form of franchise. A tax collector “purchased” from a city or a province the right to collect taxes from a certain territory for a certain period of time. State authority received this advanced payment and it was the tax collectors’ responsibility to cover the cost and make profit.
How easy was it to abuse this tax collection system under Roman rule with efficient policing power and few rules to curtail overreach?

- - - - - - - -

ABUSIVE EXTORTION OF TAXES
Read this short quotation from Philo of Alexandria (Laws 3.159) describing a situation in the early first century:
Recently a certain collector of taxes was appointed in our area. When some of the men who apparently were in arrears because of poverty fled in fear of unbearable punishment, he laid violent hands on their wives, children, parents, and other relatives, beating and trampling and visiting every outrage upon them to get them either betray their fugitive or pay up on his behalf.

How does this contemporary testimony help us understand the Parable of the unforgiving servant?
Matthew 18:23-34
       "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
       But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
Keep in mind that silver money in rural areas were used exclusively for calculating and collecting taxes and taxes were primary cause of bankruptcies.
 
- - - - - - - -

INJUSTICE OF PROPORTIONAL TAXATION (sometimes called flat taxation)
Read Mark 12:41-44
Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
How does it change your understanding of this story when you learn that this story actually might be about the compulsory religious tax (an enforceable tithe).

Think about this thought experiment about proportional taxation of 30%
Person A makes a minimal full time weekly income of $420 and after tax has $294
Person B has a nice professional weekly income of $1,500 and after tax is left with $1,050
Person C makes yearly about a million, weekly it is $19,000 and after tax still has $13,300
All people paid the same percentage of their income, but is it just? How easily can each one live with this supposedly just proportional tax?

Here is a very basic example of progressive taxation:
Person A does not pay any taxes and keeps $420.
Person B pays the same tax as above and is left with $1,050.
Person C pays 10% more and is still left with $11,400!
The extra 10% paid by person C would actually compensate for 15 persons A not having to pay any taxes.
Based on the gospel story, would Jesus support proportional taxation (all pay the same percentage) or progressive tax (the poor might not pay anything, the middle class their share and the rich a little more)?

- - - - - - - -

FOR SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION OR FURTHER THINKING:

"Thinking about Zacchaeus' transformation, where do you see examples of conversions (people, both rich and poor,  getting liberated from unjust systems)?"

"Thinking about the Roman system of taxation, where do you see examples of institutionalized exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society today?"

"Thinking about the widow with the two coins, where do you see examples of people giving more than their fair share today?"

2016/01/21

Faith and Fair Taxation

On behalf of our Peace and Social Justice Network I want to invite you to our Sunday worship which will be a little special this time. We hope to include more fully all generations into our worship and at the same time to integrate our worship with the social justice activism (letter writing). We want to connect more fully our worship, the core of our faith as community, and with our lives in society.
  It is my conviction that faith and spirituality cannot be separated from our daily social and political lives. Children in our Sunday school understand it very well. I found out when I worshiped with them several Sundays ago. The lesson that Sunday was about the Widow’s gift (Mark 12:41-44) and we were counting buttons in place of coins, yet all kids instantly recognized the injustice inherent in the system where the rich and the poor are asked to contribute the same percentage of their income.
  Kids in Sunday school instantly understand it. Adult Christians tend to have greater problems. The traditional Church overwhelmingly divorced faith from social justice. For centuries, the church over-spiritualized Jesus.
  We need to reconnect Jesus with social and political issues which were dear to him. What were they? Just read the Gospels without a religious/spiritual prism!
  • Jesus healed people, especially those who did not receive proper care and attention because of the religious, national and social scruples and prejudices of those around them. And isn’t it a burning issue even in our, especially American, society, where so many loudly call for egocentric healthcare and scream against socially responsible care?
  • Jesus also fed people because there were so many among them who could not have a basic sustenance even for a one day trip and were so seriously undernourished that they could hardly skip a day without a meal and without getting into serious problems. And aren’t we aware of similar situations around the world and even on our own American doorsteps?
  • Jesus often taught in parables which open to us new insights if we are prepared to hear them anew. Take for instance the one about a hidden treasure in the field. Clearly something like that happened at that time, as it occasionally happens even today. But what does it tell us about the society, where the only or predominant hope in life for many is associated with an event as rare as that? Don’t we know it in our own society with lotteries, casinos and slot-machines, where especially the poor people lose their hard-earned money for a false promise of hope? 
Social justice is indeed permeating the Gospels; we only need to open our minds to these new possibilities. Almost every gospel passage contains in some way Jesus’ concern for the poor, exploited, marginalized and his personal invitation to all of us to join him in changing our world as God would like to have it. Let us come together and worship in the spirit of Jesus.

You can learn more about #FlatZach project by visiting our website or dedicated facebookpage

2016/01/14

Ancient Atonement Now!

Australians instituted the National Sorry Day on May 26th when they annually ask forgiveness for sins against the Australian aboriginal population. Christians observe Ash Wednesday and Lent - five weeks of self examination. Jewish tradition observes Yom Kippur, a day of Teshuva - repentance and return. I want to take you as far as we can see, to the oldest preserved records of such practices. Among three thousand year old Canaanite Late Bronze cuneiform tablets from Ugarit are two tablets (KTU 1.40 and 1.84) with an interesting and eye opening liturgy for the Day of Atonement.
   
         (Liturgy includes all, citizens and resident foreigners.)
     Now we present an ox of purification,
     purification of the sons of Ugarit
     and atonement for the foreigners
     within the walls of Ugarit.
            (It includes all parts/representatives of the kingdom.)     

     Atonement for Jaman,
     and atonement for Sharmat
     Atonement for Ugarit,
     and atonement for (king) Niqmadu.
           (List of different ethnic and social groups.) 

     Whatever injured your integrity
     as towards the Qatians,
     as towards the Dadmians,
     as towards the Hurrians,
     as towards the Cypriots,
     as towards the Hebrews,
     as towards your oppressed,
     as towards your destitute,
     as towards the Krzbils,
           (List of offenses.)     

     Whatever injured your integrity;
     either through your anger,
     or through your impatience,
     or any evil which you have done.
     Whatever injured your integrity
     during your sacrifices and offerings:
            (Sacrificial dedication.)

      We sacrifice this sacrifice,
     this is the offering we offer,
     this is the victim we immolate.
     Let it ascend to the father of the divine sons,
     let it ascend to the generation of divine sons,
     to Thukamun and Shanim
     Here is the ox!


This section is followed with an almost identical liturgy for the daughters of Ugarit.
(And all the appropriate pronouns throughout this part are also in the female gender.)
     Now we present an ox of purification,
     purification of the daughters of Ugarit
     and atonement for the wives of foreigners
     within the walls of Ugarit.
     Whatever injured your integrity
     as towards the Qatians,
     as towards the Dadmians,
     ...
 

     This was the first round with an offering of two oxen (unfortunately the exact identity of the offering is not certain because the text is damaged; oxen are our best guess). The first round was followed with a verbatim liturgy and litany offering a ram on behalf of the sons of Ugarit and again identical liturgy and litany on behalf of the daughters of Ugarit. And the entire liturgy was repeated one more time with another offering; this time it was most likely a donkey for men and another one for women. At the end of the day all participants certainly knew the litany by heart and there was enough meat to celebrate a community-wide feast.
 
      Now imagine if we took this ancient liturgy and translated it to our times and, say, for our country. In Washington DC, in every state capital, in every county seat even in every town and even village on the designated date and at the designated time all the inhabitants would gather and participate in and recite together a litany offering an apology to the Native Americans and the African Americans, the Hispanics and the Japanese, the Hawaiians and the Filipinos, the Afghans and the Iraqis, all our oppressed and all our homeless, all the victims of police violence and the victims of gun violence, simply all those whom we have knowingly and even unknowingly wronged, all those whom we have directly and indirectly hurt. Imagine in our times if we added the extinct and endangered species, damaged and exploited habitats and environment; eroded soil, poisoned rivers, and polluted air. Now imagine that with this liturgy we would also pledge sacrifices - in our times we would designate sizable budget resources to compensate for our wrongs. 

     Later, throughout the Bible and Jewish and Christian theological tradition, those Canaanites gained a reputation for being religious, moral and social perverts. But when I read the texts they had written by their own hand I think that their religion and their lives made better sense than what we live in our modern society with our transformed and watered-down days of repentance. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to reintroduce today some modernized version of their liturgy and observances for the Day of Atonement? 





2016/01/07

“Ambrose Bishop!”

In the year 374 a north Italian city of Milan entered the Church History books.
     After bishop Auxentius died, Milanese people gathered in their cathedral and elected their new bishop. Nothing special about it, bishops were still elected at that time. But this time their newly elected bishop was not a priest, neither had he any formal theological training, and at the time of his election, their new bishop was not even baptized! His name was Aurelius Ambrosius and he was a lawyer and secular administrator of the province of Liguria and Emilia with the capital in Milan.
     As a responsible and caring civil servant, Ambrose came to the cathedral just to make sure that the contested election of a new bishop did not turn into any uproar or fracas. He gave a speech appealing for civility and calm. In the midst of his remarks, we are told, a child in audience loudly exclaimed “Ambrose Bishop!”, and thus, Ambrose became bishop. He was baptized, started to learn theology and never stopped. He became an influential church leader and teacher and is counted among the big Fathers and Doctors of the Church Universal and spiritual father and teacher of another church great - Augustin of Hippo.
     The unique way in which Ambrosius became a bishop did not mean that Church started to elect unbaptized bishops or from that moment on tasked children with their nominations. This unique election only demonstrated a gracious openness of that church at that time towards the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
     This Sunday we will celebrate the ordination and installation of our new church officers. We will take a moment to consider our administrative structures, their strengths but also their limits. As much as we Presbyterians trust our democratic process, we need to remind ourselves constantly that democracy together with any of our human rules and customs are not the ultimate goal but only a way towards Theocracy - a state when church is open enough to be governed by God godself.

This column was written about an interesting event in the church history and not as an unqualified praise of Aurelius Ambrosius. His faith and theology had clear streaks of fanaticism, superstition (veneration of relics), dark intolerance and persecution of other confessions (Arians) and faiths (especially Jews). Even his election as bishop highlighted the emerging danger of the unholy union between political power and imperial Church. To discuss these darker aspects would require a different approach and genre.
  

For those curious - at the top of the picture is written Urim & Thummim in old Hebrew script.
Urim & Thummim were old Hebrew priestly divination lots - traditionally perceived as white and black small pebbles.

2015/12/30

Creative ΛΟΓΟΣ (Word)

How to better welcome the New Year but with the Creation Story!
    This time we will read and rejoice in the creation story from the Gospel of John - the opening hymn about the divine Word which formed and shaped, created and saved the world.
    Almost everyone is familiar with the creation in six days while ignoring a wide and wild variety of biblical creation stories (by fight, procreation, craft...). Probably most neglected and least recognized as such are the New Testament creation stories.
    The opening hymn of the Gospel of John (1:1-16) is just one of them. Then there is Luke’s summary of Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:22-29), another Early-Christian hymn in the epistle to Colossians (Col. 1:15-20) or an apocalyptic vision of the new Creation at the end of the book of Revelation (Rev.21).
    These Early Christian Creation Stories are mutually quite diverse, but they have one in common: they take seriously their contemporary intellectual and social milieu, and they express their Christian faith in their current idioms.
    I just wonder whether and how would they be inspired and how would they incorporate our current expanding world-view? How would they integrate faith and for instance the Star Nursery LH95 from the Large Magellanic Cloud or the ever growing number of planets orbiting other stars and growing certainty of other worlds with extraterrestrial life?
    We will welcome the New Year 2016 by asking, celebrating and rejoicing in these great questions of the ongoing, unfolding, Creation/Salvation Story.

On this picture is the stars-birthing part (a stellar nursery LH95) of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
And the word on the bottom of the picture is λογος ("a word" in Greek)
in handwriting roughly resembling the Codex Sinaiticus.