Friday, October 27, 2006

Neither could they blush.

(I have not included hyperlinks because of my own sensibilities).

"Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them that fall: in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down, saith the LORD." Jeremiah 8:12.

"And said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens." Ezr 9:6.

The people of Jeremiah's day faced a tremendous crisis but did not know it. It wasn't for lack of Jeremiah's crying. They were dulled by their deep apostasy. They worshiped idols. Their false prophets cried "Peace, peace" when there was no peace. Abominations abounded, yet they could not blush.

Similarly, our prevailing ethic discounts shame. We dare not blush in public. In the City (a rather uninspired imitation of Vanity Fair), images and self-images routinely assault the senses. Yet to exhibit sensibilities would be to admit weakness. Or worse, it would peg you as a prude.

Which brings me to the billboards, the bus-banners, and the radio advertisements. We are exhorted to pay $24.50 a head to see a traveling cadaver show.

"Bodies: The Exhibition", is a traveling exhibit of human corpses. We are assured that it is educational. The bodies have been preserved by a plasticizing method developed by a German doctor, Dr. Gunther von Hagens. He figures that some 20 million people have seen other similar exhibits he has put on.

The cadavers are placed in various poses and in various degrees of dissection for our edification and awe. Some of them are shown playing tennis or throwing balls. Some are on skateboards.

We are not to worry about the provenance of the corpses. They are "on loan" from an institution in China. We are assured that none of them were executed political prisoners. Instead, they were unidentified, and probably homeless, people who died on the street or in the hospital. We are told to trust the Chinese medical school in Dalian, considered the "hub of the corpse-processing industry."

They weren't always so careful. Back in 2004, Dr. von Hagens was forced to send seven corpses back to China from an exhibition in Germany because it was found that two of the "highest quality" specimens had been killed by shots to the head. The bodies had also come from a Chinese medical school. It is apparently located just down the street from a prison.

The notorious Oscar Wilde once said, "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." He may have been right. Europe, for all its decadence, seems to have put up a greater fuss about these exhibits than any city in our country. Some people there still have the capacity for shame and outrage.

I have only run across two local news stories critical of the exhibition. One is a web-based news site run by a self-described Gnostic. The other is an article in the homosexually-oriented local weekly the Stranger (sic). The author of that article concluded his piece this way:

"I feel ashamed of myself when I look on his dead body. And when I think about the strategic location of his body—at the end of the tour and beside a sign that says "To See Is to Know"—I feel heartsick. The truth is, we don't know. We will never know. Only that man knows how he died. We can only wonder.

And gape."

Unrest in Pieces, Dan Ruisi, Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2006, the Stranger.

Millions of people have spent more than $20 each to gape. Tremendous profit is there for those who traffic in the fruits of death. Only a few leftwing souls seem to be outraged and ashamed.

Lest we forget, Death is an outrage. Mocking it will not mitigate its impact. The remains of creatures made in the image of God should not be hawked for entertainment value or to produce a sense of awe. Here, commercial return on investment is a blatant form of sin's wages.

"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Matthew 10:16.

". . . but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil." Romans 16:19.

Being harmless is not to be silent. Being simple is not to be ignorant. We are called to blush and to be outraged at abominations. Let not our minds be dulled to the point that we cannot proclaim the need for repentance and faith in Christ.


All laid bare in "Bodies" exhibit. Seattle Times, Aug. 20, 2006.

Von Hagens forced to return controversial corpses to China. The Guardian ,January 23, 2004.,2763,1129261,00.html

"Bodies: The Exhibition": an Ethical Nightmare, Oct. 19, 2006.

Unrest in Pieces, Dan Ruisi, Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2006, the Stranger.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More Tax Stuff

One of the jobs of the IRS, and the courts, is to "protect the fisc." What that means, generally, is that the IRS Commissioner can interpret the rules and "restructure" transactions in such a way so as to prevent tax avoidance. Federal Bulk Carriers, Inc. v. Commissioner, 558 F.2d 128, 130 (2nd Cir 1977). This also has been stretched to mean that even if a statute allows you to do something, you may not necessarily really be allowed to do it. The case of Albertson's v. Commissioner jumps out as an example of "there are many ways to do it wrong."

Albertson's developed a deferred compensation plan for its employees. Although the facts are a little complicated, the essence was that Albertson's promised to pay employees in the future as part of their compensation. It also promised to pay interest on the amount deferred. It then wanted to deduct the interest on its tax return.

At first, the IRS agreed with the scheme. Then it changed its mind and charged Albertson's with a tax deficiency. The lower tax court was badly divided over the whole thing, but decided against the deduction. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, after first deciding in favor of Albertson's, changed its mind and reversed itself.

The reason for the change is remarkable. It agreed that Albertson's had a strong argument under the plain meaning of the statute. But that wasn't enough. Here is a key quote:

"Albertson's argument as to the plain language of the statute is a strong one. We certainly agree that the additional payments resemble "interest" and that, under a literal reading of the statutory language, the deduction of interest is not affected . . . .

In the end we are forced . . . to reject Albertson's approach. We may not adopt a plain language interpretation of a statutory provision that directly undercuts the clear purpose of the statute. . . . (T)he 'court must look beyond the express language of a statute where a literal interpretation 'would thwart the purpose of the overall statutory scheme or lead to an absurd or futile result.'" (citation omitted).

Albertson's Inc. v. Commissioner, 42 F.3d 537, 545 (1994)(Emphasis added).

The argument was fairly technical. In a nutshell, Albertson's plan was a non-qualified (but perfectly legal) deferred compensation plan. The IRS argued that Congress had developed a scheme for "qualified" plans. It further argued that even though Alberston's was not violating any law, and in fact was operating squarely within the statutory scheme, Albertson's should still lose because this would tend to negate Congress's goal of promoting qualified plans. In other words, Albertson's loses because Congress was not clear enough.

The moral of the story is not only do you have to know the law as passed by Congress, you have to know what Congress really meant when it passed the law. Should be easy enough as long as you are clairvoyant.

Of course, the idea of a standard, as in something to measure by, is obscured by that process.

"Divers weights and divers measures, both of them are alike abomination to the LORD." Proverbs 20:10.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Federal Income Tax and the Doctrines of Grace

Spend a little time reading tax cases or commentary upon tax law and you are likely to run across a phrase such as this:

"Deductions are a matter of grace and Congress can, of course, disallow them as it chooses." Commissioner v. Sullivan, 356 U.S. 27, 28 (1958).

Such a statement jars the ear of a Christian remade by God. Who is it that administers grace? Our old 1928 Webster's had it right:

1. (theology) a. The divine unmerited favor toward man; the mercy of God, as distinguished from His justice; also, any benefits His mercy imparts; divine love or pardon. "And if by grace, then is it no more of works." Rom. Vi.6.

Webster's New Int'l Dictionary of the English Language, G&C Merriam Co. 1928.

I first happened across the doctrines of tax grace in law school in 1990. My tax professor had been raised Catholic. He often intoned another truism: "The IRS has awesome powers."

Back then I was a full-bore pagan. Even so, I was familiar with the Bible. The idea of Congressional grace seemed a quaint way of saying what was unquestioned truth to modern citizens: "The government giveth and the government taketh away, blessed be the name of the government." It was sort of a sick joke that we tossed about in our class discussions. We'd imagine the IRS as the avenging angel of the State. None of us dared to really explore the implications. We had finals to prepare for.

In case you think that "grace" might have a special legal meaning, consider this definition of grace in a common legal dictionary: "a favor or indulgence as distinguished from a right."

Black's Law Dictionary, 5th Edition (West Publishing Co. 1979).

Grace, then, is administered by God, or at least by a sovereign. It is unmerited. Nobody has a right to it. Without the administration of grace, justice demands a harsher outcome.

Our federal income tax system (and, by extension, our whole system of federal laws) presupposes that whatever you have belongs to the government. Justice demands relinquishment. It is by grace (alone?) that you are allowed to keep some of it. The courts defer to Congress's awesome power. Lawmakers have taken upon themselves the former role of the Catholic Church. Indulgences are dispensed at whim.

People these days fear theocracy. What they miss is that we already live under a theocracy. The theos of our day is named demos. It claims everything. We are told to at least be grateful for the grace it has so far shown. Perhaps we should be careful, lest it be angry.

November elections approach. We are starting to hear advertisements from the government and others to exercise our "sacred" right to vote. As Rushdoony pointed out: "the source of a society's law is its god." In exercising this secular sacrament, we should seriously reflect that demos (the will of the people), deserves no worship and has no claim to being gracious. Rather, it is better to acknowledge it for what it is: a usurper.

Even so, it is a wise idea to pay your taxes. Just because a usurper is wrong doesn't mean he can't hurt you.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Spinning for Secrets, Reflections from a Lord's Day Journey

Gnosticism (nŏs'tĭsĭz-m), dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. A.D.; they all promised salvation through an occult knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them alone. . . .

(The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.)

Although many definitions can be found for Gnosticism, the basic idea is that there is some sort of secret knowledge that will lead to a better state. The prospect entices. We, as fallen beings, want to get ahead of the other guy. We mitigate our competitiveness by convincing ourselves that we would bring everyone else along after we have figured it out. But we do want to be first.

The mystery religions rehash an old story. Satan offered the mystery knowledge to Eve in the Garden. "You will not surely die" was as plain a lie as any ever was. Yet it was accepted, and is accepted in our day, on the ungrounded and greedy belief that we can bootstrap ourselves to the better place. Adam and Eve did not die immediately for their disobedience. But they did surely die. We do too.

I once calculated that a typical undergraduate curriculum requires approximately 1,600 actual hours of lecture time. I recall that during the Reformation, and on through the history of the Protestant church up to the 19th century, it was common for church members to hear three hours or more of tight and logical sermons every Lord's Day. They'd then spend the rest of the day talking about the sermons. Not counting catechism as children, most church goers had the equivalent of two undergraduate degrees of lecture time by their late-twenties. Unlike today's courses, the content was solid. People knew how to think. It shouldn't be so surprising that statesmen from the colonial and revolutionary war period were smart. The pool of thoughtful people was relatively large in those days. Some no doubt were not Christians, but they still had deep wells to draw from.

Even so, that old enemy, self-absorbed Gnosticism, lay in wait. Perhaps the shock of the industrial revolution and the accompanying explosion in scientific knowledge distracted people from their lessons. It became easier to tinker than to think. The improvement in the standard of living was very good. Yet the decline in thinking, in no small part due to the decline in good preaching, opened the door for old and well-crafted deception.

Gnosticism now pops up in strange places: conspiracy theories about sinister people in the know who control things; New Age meditation techniques to heal the world from disharmony; human potential, biofeedback, genetically modified intelligence, etc. All of these things have a ring of plausibility, but only if we are naïve enough to trust our instincts or our feelings.

Of course there are conspiracies, but the ones made up by foolish men with secret knowledge are vanity. Of course the world needs supernatural healing, but our will-power is utterly powerless to accomplish this. And of course humans had potential, but sin snuffed that out. As with a car stuck in the mud, the faster the wheels spin, the deeper goes the rut.

A professor I knew reportedly once said, "there are many ways to do it wrong." Being a Gnostic herself, she probably has not yet realized the import of her observation. The real conspiracy is in how man is distracted from the truth by the mad pursuit of the secret.

Our church's own Lord's Day worship took about three hours yesterday. We considered the total conflict of worldviews, the futility of disbelief, the epistemology of true knowledge, and the glorious sovereignty of God. None of this information is secret knowledge. It is revealed plainly in Scripture. Gnostics hate plain knowledge because it doesn't give them a private advantage.

"Thus saith the LORD: Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." Jer. 6:16.

Lord, I pray to be kept on your old paths.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Another Bumpersticker

"Motherhood by Choice, Not by Chance."

Apparently some people are convinced that chance causes pregnancy. No matter how careful you are, chance, more fickel than instant karma, will trip you up. If only we had a choice to not take chances.