People don’t like to pay taxes. That is clear from the political rhetoric of the day.
Who can forget the famous words of George H.W. Bush, who said so very clearly: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” It was a promise that he couldn’t keep, but the blowback was so great that today it would seem un-American to suggest that taxes should be raised.
We like public services, such as roads, schools, police, fire departments, ambulances and libraries. We’d rather not pay for them.
Questions of taxation would seem to be political issues upon which the faith community would appear to have little to say, which may be why there are so few sermons on the subject.
Still, is it really true that our sacred texts don’t have anything to say about this issue? Is there no word that can be spoken from a faith perspective on this issue, especially at this critical moment in the nation’s history?
These are the kinds of questions that are addressed in a splendid but challenging documentary from the people at EthicsDaily.com, who graciously provided me a copy of “Sacred Texts, Social Duty” to preview.
The documentary premise is that the three Abrahamic traditions do offer important guidance on the matter of taxation. It’s not that God has a specific tax policy or method of taxation, but the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam do speak of the need for funds to be gathered for the common good.
Consider that Moses levied a half-shekel tax on the people of Israel for support of the community (Exodus 30:13).
Jesus consistently called for those who had funds to share them with those who did not, and he famously said, “Give to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which belongs to God” (Mark 12:13-17), while he hung around with tax collectors. Yes, he called on them to do their job justly, but he didn’t condemn the profession.
Paul called for submission to the authorities, whom God had placed in their positions for the common good (Romans 13:1-7).
Zakat, alms given for the provision of care to the poor, is a pillar of Islam, according to the Quran.
So the question is: Do our sacred texts simply commend charity – that is, voluntary giving – or do they encourage or allow for what we would call taxation? All interviewees agree that, in one form or another, sacred texts allow for and encourage the gathering of funds for the common good.
Indeed, as Presbyterian Tami Sober puts it: “Taxes are what we pay for the common good.”
At the heart of the conversation is a matter of justice. The three traditions are clear – God is concerned about justice.
Historian and Baptist Sunday school teacher Wayne Flynt reminds us that Matthew 25 speaks not just about charity, but about justice. He says in the film, “What we’ve done is sever ethics from social morality and reduce ethics to personal morality. Also what we’ve done is say that justice is about charity.”
Rabbi Ben Romer of Virginia reminds us that in the Jewish tradition, government is charged with preserving justice for the entire community. Therefore, he says: “The American government has the responsibility, as the government of the people, to provide for the needs of the people. And certainly the synagogue and the mosque and the church has a responsibility beyond the government, but not in place of the government.”
If taxes are an appropriate way of providing for the common good from a faith perspective, then the next question concerns which kind of taxes would be appropriate. Again, even though no particular tax method is outlined in Scripture, principles of justice would assume that the tax burdens not fall on those least able to pay. That is, tax policy should be progressive not regressive. As all the Scriptures put it: Those to whom much is given, much is expected.
Even Adam Smith agrees with this principle – as pointed out in the documentary.
A progressive tax is one that doesn’t fall heaviest upon those least able to pay – thus making sales taxes more regressive than income taxes because sales taxes often fall even on essentials such as food. Lotteries are also regressive forms of taxation; in fact they can be considered, as Baptist pastor David Wheeler puts it, “tax evasion.”
The assumptions that lie behind the film are that most people of faith want to do the right thing, and that the Scriptures of all three traditions call on governments, as well as individuals, to pursue justice and the common good. It would appear that taxes are essential to this process, for services need to be paid for – something that seems lost on so many Americans today.
The value of this documentary is that it raises important questions that people of faith need to wrestle with. This film is an excellent piece to be used in congregations to start that discussion, and fortunately a discussion guide can be found on the website.
As to why we would want to do this, perhaps Methodist pastor Philip Blackwell makes the best case: “If the public system of taxation as well as the delivery of services doesn’t reflect how it is that we are to care for one another, then it is the religious community’s responsibility not only to point that out, but to advocate and to organize in order to make sure that there is a kind of common care for people.”
Some might call this politics, but as the participants are apt to point out, it is really a matter of a sacred duty, for God is concerned for justice and the common good. And that, as they say, is preachable!
Editor’s note: Learn more about and order the documentary here.
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.