Saturday, September 24, 2016

Facing the Truth About Facebook

(This essay first appeared in Oregon Catholics, a private group from Facebook.)

It's not that I have anything against Facebook...  On second thought, maybe I do have a little something against it.  In many ways, I think it encourages some of the poorest dimensions of our culture: shallowness, pettiness, inauthenticity, and meaningless busyness--the antitheses of reflection and substantive work.  So much of Facebook to me really boils down to pettiness and silly acts of pointless reciprocation.  I'm friends with many who seem unaffected by its message, always upbeat and positive.  With me, though, it seems less than a positive influence, encouraging an unhealthy dynamic and distracting me from the important things, the eternal things.  For instance, why should we be encouraged to seek affirmations in the forms of “likes” or congratulatory observations?  If we are running the good race, what concern should we really have with what others think of us?  A young Catholic singer named Alanna Marie-Boudreau recently described social media with the following wise words. “We are fain not to admit that we've made God into a presence as vapid and illusory as the happy surge of emotion we feel when we see those little red notifications assuring us of our position in virtual society.”

If you examine social media as it may particularly relate to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to as “the formation of conscience,” it raises several serious concerns.  What influence may social media platforms like Facebook have upon the young, for instance?  In books like What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, the reader discovers some astonishing and frightening realities and statistics associated with the time spent within virtual reality; our minds, our very levels of concentration, are changing for the worse.  These changes may prove to be permanent in both a personal and cultural sense.  While the formation of one’s conscience is (probably) altogether different than our dwindling attention spans, it’s hard to imagine that the cause of social media, our virtual lives, won’t have an effect upon the way people interact and view each other.  Most of us have likely found ourselves sharing a particular item in hopes that its sharing would be well-received, eliciting those exciting “little red notifications.”  If this becomes a Pavlovian feature in any larger sense, then our very moral identities are at risk. 

The following Catechism passage, for instance, reminds us that “the education of conscience is a lifelong task.”

1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

It is instructive to briefly examine three particular dimensions of the social media phenomenon as it stands before the blazing light of Holy Scripture and tradition.  The first dimension is humility.  In Luke 14:10, Christ teaches us to seek the lowest place of honor at the table.  What kind of teaching could be more diametrically opposed to the “me first” mantra echoed across social media?  Look at what I have is at the root of its purpose: see me, and not see Him.

The second explored dimension of social media for readers’ consideration is the evidence of moral decay and sin: moral entropy, if you will.  Isaiah 5:20-21, for instance, puts the reality of good and evil in perfect clarity and perspective within our daily lives.

Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.

In how many different ways do we see good called evil and evil called good within today’s culture?  From churches to the media, books could be written about these examples alone.  It’s one of the many reasons that led my own family away from the Episcopal tradition and into the Catholic Church.  Even across Catholic institutions of higher education, however, we see an Orwellian Newspeak taking root and beginning to flourish.  If you disagree with the administrative powers that be, you are likely to be isolated and ostracized—placing even your livelihood at risk.  A particular Catholic professor and friend just recently voiced serious concerns along these lines, and he’s by no means alone.  In this sense in particular, there are a multitude of ways that social media may both encourage and enable the muzzling and silencing of those critical, free-thinking voices.  After all, as C.S. Lewis wrote within his essay entitled “Equality” from Present Concerns, “when equality is treated not as medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind that hates all superiority.”

The third point to bear in mind is that we are not of this world (John 18:36).  We shouldn’t be endeavoring to be loved or admired, but to show the world what an authentic life lived for Christ looks like.  We’re all fallen creatures, requiring the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.  Yet, the social media mantra is that it’s all good; if it feels good, do it.  This suggests a person at ease with the world, rather than an individual moving on an entirely different course.  If our minds are set on the eternal, then we can’t be at peace with the world.   Christianity is not about bringing harmony between everyone, but about declaring the truth and salvation of Christ.  The tenth chapter of Matthew reminds us that the Gospel will pit father against son, family member against family member.  In a dizzying plethora of ways, Facebook reinforces the lie that belonging to the world is the most important thing, encouraging us to forget the price at which we were bought (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Facebook offers tremendously exciting ways to improve and facilitate communication, but it also comes with a unique set of potential dangers for the Christian.  While the mature follower of Christ may be able to successfully navigate this new moral territory, I am particularly concerned with the young users who rely daily upon social media platforms such as Facebook.  If the young person is not vigilant and informed, it may injure the education and formation of his conscience in profound ways.  If Facebook could be distilled to a moral code, the closest would seem to be moral relativism.  For this reason and others, I am seeking to disentangle my own personal life from social media one strand at a time, but this is easier said than done.  Rather than embrace the created, let’s endeavor to embrace the Creator with every word we say and…type. 

Links of interest:

Connection Illusion

Is Technology Making Us Rude

Living in the Present

What the Catholic Author Should to Know About #BooksGoSocial

When prospective writers enter the marketplace, they are often flooded with offers to promote, package, or represent their work...for a fee.  Sadly, the personal investment in creating a literary work sometimes makes it tempting to look for distribution and marketing shortcuts, and this often leads the author to scams of all shape and sizes.  You see, everyone knows how hard it is to sell one's work these days--unless you're someone like James Patterson--and that's why the marketers push so hard to have you purchase their particular brand of literary snake oil.  

Sometimes collections or groups of writers can be the exception.  I am one of the founders, for instance, of the Catholic Writers' Guild, and (until recently) I was a paid member of an online group called #BooksGoSocial.  Part of what ruined my relationship with the group was the copied tweet below.

As a family of fairly new Catholics, we've heard all of this before, you see; it's not new, and it's quite insulting--especially when used as nothing more as a technique to hawk wares online.  There's been much written about this topic, but below is a particularly powerful passage from the opening chapter of The Myth of Hitler's Pope: Pope Pious II and His Secret War Against Nazi Germany by Rabbi David G. Dalin.

...Indeed , in 1951, the eminent British writer (and liberal Catholic) Graham Greene could praise him as "a pope many of us believe will rank among the greatest," an assessment shared by many other Catholics and Jews who hailed the pope for his many efforts to save Jewish lives during World War II.

For your reading interest, here is one of this book's powerful reviews.

This is a stunning book. I wish I had known more of this material years ago. -- Michael Novak, George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

Other great works on this divisive period of history include The Pope's Jews: The Vatican's Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis by Gordon Thomas and Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling.  A movie entitled A Hand of Piece, Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust  has also been suggested as an excellent resource, and I look forward to watching it soon.
I would also draw your attention to Catholic saints such as Maximilian Kolbe: people who died trying to save others from the horrors of the Nazi death camps.  Saint Kolbe was certainly not alone in his fight; there are more than a hundred Catholic martyrs from this period.  (Of course, this doesn't even touch upon other religious persons outside of the Catholic Church--e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  That material is for another day's post, however.)

I am sick and tired of people hurling around their unsubstantiated bias and bigotry towards the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII worked tirelessly in a multitude of ways--from public to private--to save as many of the Jews (and others) as possible.  After all, if Christianity is seen as a fulfillment of Judaism, then the Jews are closely connected to our spiritual lives and journey home.  More importantly, however, they are human beings created in the image of God.

So, if you're a Catholic and you belong to this online group, I would urge you to leave it behind--at least until Laurence O'Bryan offers an apology.  Given the subject matter of his books, however...I won't hold my breath; vitriolic anti-Catholic drivel is likely one of his promotional avenues.

Fall Reflections

Fall Reflections

As a reader of this message today, you become an important part of our arts and writing community.  Thank you for this.  While the regular newsletter remains on hold at least for another year as I complete my degree at Marylhurst University, I did hope to share some news with you.

Current projects of mine include an article exploring the potential effect of social media upon the formation of conscience.  If you sail by my Facebook author page and heave a heavy "like" off the side, you can catch future updates.  (Yes, I realize there is some irony in sharing an article like this on social media, but we live in the time in which we are placed, right?)  In other news, Kimberly Erickson's new studio is setup now as part of our new home in Monmouth--situated just a few blocks away from Western Oregon University.  In addition to working on an amazing piece of glass-work, she's also busy re-designing her website.  She is also busy seeking a new gallery to showcase her art.

Last Monday, three of us did a 17-mile (round-trip) hike to Hank's Lake in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness; it was breathtaking in more ways than one.  When I returned, I created a short video collection of my nature photography for this year.  As you can probably tell, I am fascinated with water in all of its forms, as well as the nature of time in relation to how we see the world.  Of particular interest to me, for instance, is how our eyes and our very awareness are set at a precise speed.  As a photographer, I can adjust shutter speed from slower to faster, allowing the viewer to see the world as it lies hidden all around us.

I also invite you to stop by my Flickr collection of nearly 23,000 photographs: mostly public at this time.  Generally speaking, everything but photographs of people can be explored by the casual visitor.  Last entries include two trips to Mt. Jefferson and our first visit to Crater Lake.  Bear in mind, however, that not each shot is a work of wonder; this also serves as an important photo backup.  While visitors no longer can download or use photos here, I invite you to visit my Bigstock page for image purchases.  If another image is desired, please also feel free to contact me directly.  If you're on Twitter, by the way, be sure to check out my new tag: #KarlsOregon .  (In a related vein, here is also an article I wrote about a Mt. Jefferson hike from several years ago.)

Starting a week from today, my son will be starting his collegiate career at Oregon State University, my daughter is also beginning her final year at Western Oregon University, and I am, of course, still attending Marylhurst for about one more year.  (I hope just one more year!)  With three out of the four of us working as busy college students--and all of us working hard--these newsletters will be few and far between.  I do hope, though, that you will continue to hang around.  More great stuff to come--just out of sight and on the horizon!

Best Regards,

Karl & Kimberly Erickson
Monmouth, Oregon

Starting an LLC in Oregon?

Have you been thinking of starting an LLC in Oregon, but you didn't know quite where to start? This is my first small business themed post, but I hope you find the information offered helpful. Please note that this post is my personal work only, and it does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of my employer. Visitor statistics and feedback will be reviewed later to see whether, or not, this series will continue. None of this information should replace the professional advice received from a reputable attorney or CPA.

As soon as you have met with your CPA and/or attorney, it's time for you to register your business name(s). This registration is done through the Oregon Secretary of State Corporation Division's Business Information Center. Besides registering your business name, you can also register at this same time for your Business Identification Number--used for state tax reporting. Alternatively, you can also use the paper form of the Combined Employer Registration and fax the completed form in as instructed. Bear in mind, though, that using the paper form will create a significant processing delay for you. Completing the online form will result in you obtaining your Business Identification Number (BIN) much more efficiently, but the decision is yours. The Oregon Department of Revenue (DOR) will issue the BIN, and the Oregon Employment Department (OED) will review and send a Notice of Determination (NOD) some time later. This explains how and when your company becomes subject to Oregon Unemployment Tax program. You don't need to wait for the NOD, however. As long as you have your BIN, you can file and pay your quarterly taxes. If you don't want to send checks, you can also pay using the DOR's EFT System.

You're already likely familiar with the federal taxes, but what about state taxes? What do you need to know? There are several different of categories of payroll taxes in Oregon, and it's possible that they won't all apply to you: Oregon State Withholding, Unemployment Tax, Workers Compensation, Tri-Met (Portland Metro), Lane Transit (Eugene Metro), and Canby Transit. Today, we're going to focus more on Unemployment Tax than the other tax programs. This may also be a good time to read the Oregon Business Guide.

Oregon LLCs

Did you know that, unless they elect to be covered, LLC members are excluded from Unemployment Tax by default? (See ORS 657.044(c) and Corporations and Limited Liability Companies flyer.) This means, of course, that if it's only llc members working, you should not be reporting or paying Unemployment Tax. Leave column A blank; don't include zeros, or this will delay return processing at OED. Reporting correctly as an llc will save you a considerable amount of money each year, and it will also ensure that your reports are processed much more quickly and efficiently, because manual corrections won't be required.  

LLCs and the Federal Election

One other thing to remember concerns the federal election of the llc, since the limited liability company is a disregarded entity for IRS purposes.  This federal election has no bearing on how the OED recognizes your company.  In other words, it's like the IRS looks at the llc and sees a corporation, partnership, etc. (whatever you have elected), but Oregon looks at the llc...and sees an llc.  Since corporate officers are reportable employees in Oregon, this is a really important distinction for you to clearly understand.  The LLC is always an LLC with regards to the UI Tax program.  (DOR will recognize the entity the same as the IRS.)

A Few Word About Independent Contractors

One of the most confusing areas for new businesses is making the distinction between employee/employer or independent contractor. Making a mistake here can be expensive and time-consuming to correct. In order for someone to be correctly classified as an independent contractor in Oregon, the person must represent an independent and established business within the same industry in which they are providing services. If the potential "independent contractor," is just a fellow off the street, then you're likely looking at a relationship better categorized as employer/employee.

Ministers and Oregon Independent Contractor Law

Because of this being an area of special interest, I am adding it here. As religious organizations would not usually be llcs, this may appear again if this series continues.

A Quick History Lesson

Before the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 (See Newport Church of the Nazarene v. Gordon Hensley and the Oregon Employment Department.), ministers were excluded from Unemployment Tax, making ministers ineligible for unemployment benefits. A key part of the court’s decision is provided below.

In sum, we conclude that, in purporting to draw a distinction between church ministers and leaders of other religious organizations, ORS 657.072(1)(b) violates Article I, sections 2, 3, and 20, of the Oregon Constitution. In light of that conclusion, and in accordance with Salem College and Rogue Valley, we construe the statute consistently with OAR 471-031-0090 (1996) to include both ministers and leaders of other religious organizations in Oregon's unemployment compensation program…

Are Ministers Independent Contractors?

Since the above court decision, there’s frequently confusion when it comes to reporting ministers. The first thing to bear in mind is that ministers are no longer automatically excluded; that’s the result of the Oregon Supreme Court decision. If their compensation is to be excluded from unemployment tax at all, it would hinge on whether, or not, they are indeed independent contractors in accordance to ORS 670.600.

When it comes to ministers, however, it may prove difficult to establish that they are truly independent and free from direction and control in the services they perform. While the independent contractor flyer is an excellent reference, these services often require a more detailed review. Frequently, for example, most churches and religious organizations have doctrinal positions that are defined and established. The pastor who decides on a whim to preach counter to the established doctrinal beliefs of his denomination may risk censure or termination.

On the other end of the religious spectrum, some denominations may assert that their ministers are free to preach any teaching at all. Even for universalists, however, the acceptance of all pathways leading to the same spiritual end is a position which excludes other religious beliefs and positions. In other words, even if an organization were to make the argument that they have no particular set of core beliefs, that they’re open to considering all other faiths and religions, this lack of adherence to a central doctrine becomes (in effect) their doctrine. It’s also difficult to say that you are accepting of everything, because many faiths and traditions are inherently contradictory in nature. In short, then, it’s not an easy thing to establish complete freedom from direction and control for ministers. It may not be readily apparent, but there are almost always either defined or undefined expectations to consider.

What about housing allowances, stipends, and reimbursements?

For UI Tax purposes, housing allowance payments will always be subject. Even if the parsonage was owned by the church and the minister was simply allowed to live there rent free, the fair market value of the rent should be reported as wages for UI Tax.

Stipends are considered subject wages and should always be reported. Honorariums paid to the minister directly are subject if paid by the church or employing enterprise.

Actual reimbursements are excluded as long as there is a valid and written accountable plan, which is consistently followed.

The IRS’ Minister Audit Technique Guide may be of some use, but bear in mind that federal income tax rules often are different from state unemployment tax rules.

Has this post helped you? If so, I'd appreciate hearing from you!