They asked Jesus, "Teacher, ...is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor’s." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." ~Luke 20
One of the most cryptic mysteries in the scriptures is the question of what, exactly, Jesus meant by his answer to the tax question (see above). It is certainly open to a variety of interpretations, but I am persuaded by this one: “Jesus flips the coin back into the crowd, shrugs, and says, ‘If you use Caesar’s roads, then pay Caesar’s taxes.’” An interpretation, yes (as is all reading of scripture), but one that seems to follow logically from Jesus’ observation about whose face is on the coin.
Taxes, for a Christian in a representative democracy, are tied to the idea of stewardship in two ways: 1) They are an expression of the Christian-ethics idea of devoting one’s life beyond oneself – to the greater good, and 2) they are the social equivalent of tossing a coin into the poor-box at the back of the church. (If your response is, “I already do that in church,” I say, OK, but let me see the verification of your 10% tithe. If you are one of the average 1.8% givers, I won’t buy it; you’re barely keeping your own church lights on.)
And if we worship at the altar of Adam Smith (the “father of capitalism”), we are reminded (by Smith) that “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” None of this (Christian stewardship or Adam Smith), makes any sense if the driving principle is simply selfishness. Both a capitalist economy and a representative government will decay at the roots with the drought of selfishness.
The conservative commentator George Will makes this observation: “The government we have did not come about overnight, or by accident, or by conspiracy. Middle-class Americans who are the articulate complainers about it are the principle benefiters from it. They have no intention of dismantling it, so they had better pipe down and pay up.”
Former South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings says much the same thing in this oft-quoted reflection:
A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill; bought his house with an FHA loan; saw his kids born in a VA hospital; started a business with an SBA loan; got electricity from the TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents retired to a farm on Social Security, got electricity from the REA and soil testing from USDA. When the father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and his father’s life was saved with a drug developed through the NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went through college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington, D.C., to apply for disaster relief, and, while there, spent some time visiting the Smithsonian museums. Then one day, he wrote his congressman an angry letter asking the government to get off his back and complaining about paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people.
If I want to start dismantling the programs described in the paragraph above can I do so without regard to my own self-interest? And if I am wealthy enough that I don't need these programs, then Saint Adam Smith reminds me that It is up to me to provide them for others. (Jesus goes farther, of course: My entire wealth is to be given to the poor. Another post for another time.)
I acknowledge that well-meaning Christians can arrive at a variety of positions on many issues, including tax policy. It seems, however, that we should be able to agree on this as a starting point: that it is a matter of stewardship and not selfishness.
I will be gratified and surprised if anyone notices that this is based on an earlier post, offered here as a contribution to the current national conversation.