Saturday, April 17, 2010


They asked Jesus, "Teacher, 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
I have a confession to make: I am the cause of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent bankruptcy. When I found out I could get the entire contents on line, I cancelled my subscription to the paper version, and it all went downhill for them from there. (Yes, I miss the tactility and scanning of the paper, but that’s another blog for another time.) I was simply acting as a member of a universal digital-age movement: Since the very dawn of the internet, newspapers and all sorts of other providers have made their wares available for free – some as a deliberate business plan, others because they became victims of a kind of “hell, no, I’m not paying for anything on the internet” populism. Of which I was a part. Until recently. I have come around to the view that if I want some of this to remain available to me, I’m going to have to pay for it – and I’m willing to do so.

As I was completing my taxes recently, the thought came to me that this kind of anti-payment populism may also be driving a lot (certainly not all) of the no-taxes movement. They just don’t want to pay for anything. 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.”

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.’” Whether he meant that to be politically provocative, cynical, or sincere is another question, but this interpretation seems to follow logically from his observation about whose face is on the coin. (And when you consider that Jesus called a hated tax collector to be one of his disciples -- no wonder they strung him up!)

In a representative democracy, taxes, for a Christian citizen, are tied to the idea of stewardship: an elective way of contributing to the poor-box at the back of the church. 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 – whether you call it a democracy or a republic – will decay at the roots with the drought of selfishness.

Let me give the last word to former South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings:
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.
Caesar's highway. Been on it lately?
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.


Joseph G. Crippen said...

Well, done, sir. Thank you. Glad to hear that even George Will is tired of the complaining.

Jeep said...

I like your interpretation of that passage. Just sent a big fat check to the IRS. I am happy to pay my share of taxes, with which I am buying (I think you said recently) "civilization." Excellent essay, my brother!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I wonder how other cultures understand this story, especially the first readers of this text. Perhaps the desire to get things for free makes it harder for us to understand the point Jesus is making, whereas others with different thought-systems don't struggle with this text as much.

jessewinsell said...

Great post. I appreciate the Christian ethics argument for why we should pay our taxes. I usually tend toward the efficiency argument -- i.e., oftentimes it is more cost effective and things run smoother when one central entity can pool resources to provide things that everyone needs. This argument sometimes gets trampled, though, when things like the "Bridge to Nowhere" (which turns out was an important first step in a business development that would have created jobs in an economically depressed area in Alaska, and was originally supported by one of the emerging Tea Party leaders, Sarah Palin) get trashed in the media.

A good example of how the ethical argument and the efficiency argument work well togther is with the elimination of GAMC. By vetoing a safety net health care program, the Governor not only turns his back on the suffering, he forces them to seek expensive care at the ER for maladies that are more effectively treated at lower cost facilities. This results in uncompensated care, which will be recouped by hospitals through increased rates for health insurers, which are then passed on to everyone who does have coverage. If Tea Partiers and other "No new taxes" dogmatists (most of whom I will assume have health insurance) really wanted less money flowing out of their pockets, they would support paying a little more in taxes to cover the poorest Minnesotans. It is both ethical and cost effective to have a program that provides health care coverage for people making less than $9K.