Should Christians Want to Pay More Taxes?

Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday for Catholics and the first Sunday after Easter for Protestants, the Lectionary presents us with a challenging reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32-35)

This is a challenging reading because it smacks in the face of typical American economic sentiments that are based on the rights to private property and capitalism and a strong aversion to anything that smacks even remotely of communism. Moreover, this passage goes against sheer pragmatism. How could society function if this is the ideal?

The type of sermon you might hear on this passage depends heavily on what type of church you attend. Many choose not to preach on it, especially since the Doubting Thomas gospel passage offers an opportunity for a more irenic message from the pulpit. But this passage also presents the opportunity to give a heavy-handed political message, a message that is especially relevant in light of the dire state of the economy right now, and followed so closely on the heels of tax day. What I am referring to is an argument akin to the one Diana Butler Bass makes in this piece for Sojourners Magazine.

<blockquoteWednesday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I took my tax payment to the local post office. When I handed it to the clerk, she said, “I hate tax day.” I replied, “Not me. I don’t love parting with the money, but I kinda like it. That check is a bargain — roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world. It is patriotism by checkbook. Why should I hate it?” She replied, “Why, I’ve never heard anybody say that! It isn’t such a bad deal when you put it that way.”

No, taxes aren’t such a bad deal. Nor are they, as might have been heard at the ersatz “tea parties” around the country, at odds with Christianity. Indeed, tax day is a day that progressives should celebrate — as we participate in one of the greatest social reforms of the 20th century: the progressive income tax.

Her argument is essentially that a progressive tax is an expression of Christian love and a fulfillment of the economic demands of Jesus. Moreover, a progressive tax is a way of taking care of the poor, of providing relief to the suffering, of instituting reform that all Christians should be on board with, like universal health care, welfare reform, and education. What true Christian would not want to pay more taxes?

The problem with Bass’ argument on this point is that she has a view of the government which is thoroughly unscriptural. As I heard so aptly expressed today in church by someone who I am sure will not mind me borrowing his words, people like Bass want to “separate Jesus’ ethics from his apocalypticism.” Jesus’ ethics were beyond progressive. They were radical, even if for Christians they are so familiar as to be paradoxically comfortable.

• “Go, give everything you have to the poor.”
• “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
• “Blessed are you that are poor for yours is the kingdom of god, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort.”
• “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

But Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little harder to swallow. Apocalypticism is a way of explaining the state of the world and why so much suffering seems to exist. According to the apocalyptic worldview, God had temporarily relinquished the world to the evil forces that opposed him, a situation which would in some future eschatological battle be reversed and God’s sovereignty restored. Apocalypticism is closely associated with dualism, with the division of the world into light and darkness, good and evil, the realm of Satan and the realm of God, the present age of wickedness and suffering and the age to come of glory. In this apocalyptic worldview, there is no middle ground, no neutral territory. People are either on the side of the Good, or they are opposed to it. If you are on the wrong side of things, you had best repent and turn your attention to walking in the light, or else be vanquished in the coming eschatological battle where God’s kingdom will be restored.

Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little hard to swallow because it makes him out to be a little less nice, a little less civilized, a little less progressive than we typically think of him:

• “Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 10:32-33
• “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous” Matt. 13:49
• “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I choose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” John 15:19

Jesus thought the world was under the dominion of evil. His coming was not only to usher in the Kingdom of God, but also to set apart some who would be “children of the light.” Jesus’ ministry was not about changing the structure of the government or about initiating a political revolution. If anything, Jesus expected the governments to be a source of persecution for his followers, not a source of godly support. He says to his disciples in Matthew: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. . . You will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-22).

So let’s return to this passage in Acts and the question of a progressive tax. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers sold all they had and gave it to the emperor. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers put the welfare of the poor into the hands of the government. It says that the community of believers would sell their property or houses and bring the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. The community of believers was not clamoring for government reform. Rather, with “one heart and mind . . . [they] bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” The community of believers is at odds with the government, not collaborating with it. Earlier in this chapter of Acts, we read that they are citing Psalm 2 which in no way indicates that the apostles or their burgeoning community think that Christian reform either starts or ends with the government: “the kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.”

So what about taxes? If the government is wicked, should Christians just stop paying taxes? Jesus seemed to think the question of taxes was secondary. “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21). The government uses our tax dollars in a lot of good ways that, of course, Christians can and should support. It is through tax dollars that our roads get built, our public schools get funded, our poor and homeless and handicapped get helped. But our tax dollars get put toward funding an awful lot of wickedness as well. The biggest chunk of the federal government’s budget goes to the military. We have bases all over the world, and two wars (maybe three) raging in the Middle East, wars which Christians have good arguments for thinking are unjust. President Obama’s administration has just bailed out the flailing General Motors with billions of dollars of loans that may never be paid back and a CEO making 1.3 million dollars. And earlier this year, Obama allotted 10 billion federal dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research, which he does not think of as a matter of ideology, even though millions of Americans do.

The point is, Christians have to come to terms with the fact that our tax dollars go to both good and evil things. There is no way to reconcile this fact by saying that your tax dollars go to support only the initiatives that you support—welfare reform, for example, but not the war. No, your tax dollars are sullied by all of the many unethical things that government gets involved in, financed by you, the American people. This does not mean that you should stop paying taxes, but only that you should realize that you do so with dirty hands.

“The community of believers was of one heart and mind . . . with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them.” Christians cannot expect the government to provide for the poor, to cure the sick, to offer succor to the suffering. This is the task that has been given the Christian community, which, in a sinful world under the control of forces of evil (what Walter Wink called “the Powers that be”) can only be accomplished through the powerful grace of Christ. It is the power of Christ that heals, and the power of Christ that knocks down the sinful and oppressive structures of the world that cause innocent people to suffer. It is the power of Christ that enables sinful and selfish human beings to give all that they have to the poor because it is in doing so that we realize our freedom to follow our Lord.

The Christian should pay their taxes with a heavy heart, not because of money lost, but because of how that money is spent. And with new zeal, the Christian should offer everything else they have—their heart, mind, soul, and possessions to the Christian community, laying all this at the feet of the apostles, and “bearing witness to the resurrection of the Lord . . . [and] distributing to each according to their need.”

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6 comments so far

  1. WiND05 on

    Everyday Thomist,

    You make a very good point that “the community” is not “the government.” Within the passage from Acts itself, the community presumes the structures of private ownership when it engages in selling (and buying) to support its needier members. Indeed, if the purpose of the community is to help the government, then the Catholic Church should not be running hospitals and schools: it should be founding them and handing them over to the government once they become sufficiently established.

    The importance of the private sphere operating public services, which is what Christian investment in schools and health services represents, is that the private sphere can do things which the government cannot. Using its own resources, a Christian institution can justly show mercy in a way that a government institution cannot, in justice, show mercy. A government institution is bound to follow the due process of paper trails and apply all policies equally under the law. It would be unjust to the broader public to make exception for the particular individual. The Church, however, can, even ought, to be merciful (and personal) where the government can and should not be.

  2. pacer521 on

    Great, great post.

    “That check is a bargain — roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world.”

    The above quote is my favorite part — this proves that there still is hope left. I just wrote a similar piece on the topic of tax day tea parties, you would find it interesting.

    pacer521
    http://politicsdecoded.com/2009/04/20/opinion-piece-tax-day-tea-parties-the-wrong-step-in-every-direction/

  3. everydaythomist on

    Christian economics is about a radical change in the way you live your life, not about economic theories or political ideologies.

    The point of this slightly irate post was not to argue for one form of tax policy over another. What I was trying to do was argue against the idea of using the scriptures to argue for a progressive tax in large part because Jesus’ apocalyptic message and the way of life of the early church teaches us to be skeptical of the “powers that be.” Christians are called to live out Jesus’ radical ethic, but this takes place in the life of the individual and the community primarily and only secondarily in the political realm. The Acts of the Apostles show us a way of life for the community of believers that will not be realized today by writing a larger check to the government and talking about how bad capitalism is. Christians should know that of course capitalism is bad, just like every other economic system which allows powerful people to profit at the expense of the less powerful.

    It seems that Saint Bono in today’s New York Times Op-Ed takes a different approach. The lead singer of U2 and recently converted financial expert and global do-gooder decries the effects of capitalism and globalism, but from a distinctly secular perspective: “It’s not alms, it’s investment. It’s not charity, it’s justice,” the pop-star tycoon writes. But what is most striking is his conclusion:

    “Strangely, as we file out of the small stone church into the cruel sun, I think of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, whose now combined fortune is dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty. Agnostics both, I believe. I think of Nelson Mandela, who has spent his life upholding the rights of others. A spiritual man — no doubt. Religious? I’m told he would not describe himself that way.”

    “Not all soul music comes from the church.”

    Well, maybe, but let’s back up a bit. First of all, Bono is the poster boy of capitalism and globalism. There would be no Bono and no U2 if it weren’t for overpriced global ticket sales that bring in over $100 million per year for the band. But let’s not forget the band/business’ relocation to Holland in order to evade taxes (or become more “tax efficient” as the band justified their actions). Nor let us forget about the billion dollar business venture Bono embarked on in 2006 that is predicted to double his current worth of $400 million. And where does Bono lay his head at night? He’s got his pick of his $15 million penthouse in Manhattan, his villa in France, or his palazzo in Dublin.

    But even if we can look past all this to his anti-poverty message, he holds up Bill Gates, who made his fortune off of unscrupulous business practices (brought to you by none other than the capitalist system), and has so much money that even if he gave away 98% of it would still have millions. This is supposed to be our moral exemplar?

    I am not saying that Bono and Gates and Buffett aren’t doing something good with their wealth, but Christians are called to something much different. Jesus calls Christians to a radical change of life, which we see illustrated in the beautiful depictions of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. Christians are not called to a political campaign or a specific economic ideology but are primarily called to stand in opposition to the ways of the world by the ways they live out the good news of the gospel within the Christian community. Christians are meant to be salt for the earth and light to the world because they don’t have lavish Manhattan mansions, but rather, a modest house church. Christians shouldn’t have to worry too much about taxes because they shouldn’t have that much money in the first place. It is the way of life that matters for Christians, and that way of life begins with the community of believers, united in one heart and mind, who go about doing good in the only way possible in our sinful, fallen world—through the power of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

  4. Cody Garrison on

    It is amazing that the Bible gets it, our founders understood it and the people at the Tea Parties got it but our leaders at every level of government still don’t understand it. If America is a free nation, why does it cost so much to live here. This is a clip from the Southern Avenger. He is not a racist or a white supremacist. He is just a man who believes in “change” like many of us.

  5. Charles on

    Is Everyday Thomist as puzzled as I am by what possible connection the Southern Avenger has with the point of her essay?

  6. I do not beleive it is in God’s plan for us to over pay taxes.

    God only asks for 10%. Why would he expect the government to ask for any more.

    If the government is outside the will of God it is our duty to make the correction.


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