Some Christians view taxes and government spending as being part of our duty of compassion to our neighbors. We are told that to oppose high levels of taxation and government spending is to disobey Jesus himself, because paying taxes and voting to spend government money are ways that we love our neighbor.
(If it is an idolatrous mistake to create a Jesus who is a flag-waving Republican, certainly it is equally a mistake to make Jesus into Nancy Pelosi in sandals.)
To speak of compassion by compulsion, at government gunpoint, would appear to be a contradiction in terms.
Both Jim Wallis, and the man in the White House, quote the Bible to support taxation and government spending as compassion: “I am my brother’s [sic] keeper.” This misquote, from the mouth of Cain in Genesis 4:9 rather than from Jesus, grammatically is actually a question, and a sarcastic one at that: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
A one-letter prefix (the Hebrew letter “he”) makes a world of difference in the meaning of this verse. It cannot be the Hebrew definite article, because the definite article almost never occurs on a noun that is in the construct state, that is, possessed by another noun. This prefix has to be the Hebrew question-marker. You can claim that some ancient Tea Party activist slipped that tiny question-marker into a text that was not originally a question. But that would have had to have happened before 275 BC, because by this early date, the Septuagint translator also, unmistakably, translates this sentence into Greek as a question, which is evidence that the question-marker was already in the translator’s Hebrew original. A pretty shaky foundation on which to build a doctrine that makes such costly categorical demands.
There are better Biblical grounds for insisting that Christians must pay their taxes, no matter how those taxes are spent. Paul writes in Romans 13:6 that his readers must pay their taxes, because “the authorities are God’s servants.” He says this, knowing full well that his tax money pays for the worship of pagan deities and for a humongous military machine. But when he calls government authorities “servants of God,” he is referring specifically to government’s function to restrain and punish evil (13:1-5), not to provide financial assistance to the poor.
Yes, Roman taxes did pay for welfare to the poor. But they experienced welfare abuse much like our own. The Roman comic Juvenal (100 A.D.) describes lines of Roman citizens standing in line for handouts from wealthy patrons, arguing over who got there first, even nobles and foreigners earning 400 grand. He asks, “How are we poor dependents to manage? Out of this pittance we must pay for decent clothes and shoes, not to mention our food and fuel for heating. But plenty who can afford a palanquin still line up for their wad a day. Some husbands go the rounds with a sick or pregnant wife in tow,” or even pretend they’ve got a wife inside an empty curtained sedan and claim a handout for both.
Both the reigns of Solomon and Herod the Great serve as examples of the evil effects of massive government spending. Both rulers flooded the nation with grandiose building projects. These created plenty of employment (unlike our recent “stimulus”), but bankrupted their treasuries and reached deep into the purses of their people. Solomon’s subjects tell his son Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy” (1 Kgs 12:4). The term “oppression,” a word usually used in today’s class warfare against the rich, is an apt description of such high taxation. It was oppression back then. It is oppression today, when used to pay our triple-mortgage on our grandchildren’s future to pay for spending that has very little to do with the poor.
Should the rich pay higher taxes than the rest of us? My wife of 32 years spent a large portion of her childhood living homeless in a school bus, foraging food out of dumpsters. I did not grow up poor like her. Yet my wife is the one who is dead-set against the rich paying higher tax rates, because she believes it’s not fair to punish people who work hard for what they have.
Michael Kruse has pointed out in his blog that the poor actually got a larger percentage tax break than the rich from the Bush tax cuts (32.8 percent versus 8.9 percent). As for the rich being the solution to our federal deficit, even confiscating all the assets of our top 1 percent would only make a small dent in our debt.
Is taxation a form of loving our neighbor? Or is it a form of robbery, i. e. confiscation by force against one’s will (albeit with good intentions)? The answer partly depends on whether our money belongs to a government that is kind enough to let us keep a percentage of it, or whether the money is ours to manage on behalf of the God to whom it rightfully belongs. God gave us an eighth commandment to protect private property from the violence of aggressors. There is a difference between taking a collection to buy your neighbor a wheelchair, and extorting that money at gunpoint.
Yes, I am not sure whether voluntary charity by itself can adequately fund the legitimate needs of our neighbors, unless it is combined with private-sector “set-asides” of goods and services for those who cannot afford them (like “pro-bono” legal services). But I question whether even 10 percent of our monstrous federal budget is providing compassion to the poor. It is even more questionable whether we can make our government into a theocracy appointed by God to implement a redistributionist “Christian” utopia, which is what the taxation equals compassion theory would require.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently
serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill., and as adjunct professor at Morthland
College, West Frankfort, Ill.