Taxes are a sacrament.
That’s according to James Carroll, the novelist, playwright, poet, author of such major texts as “House of War,” “Constantine’s Sword” and “Practicing Catholic” and a Monday columnist for the Boston Globe.
The Carroll claim about the sacramental character of taxes caught my attention on a couple of fronts. First, there was just the audacity of the claim itself. And then, second, my old Baptist sentiments were aroused by the former Roman Catholic priest’s appeal to that business about something serving as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” (For those unfamiliar with Baptist ways, we deny anything earthly and finite can be “sacred” in such a fashion and call them “ordinances” instead.)
I quickly got over that second hurdle by remembering what, for me at least, was a better definition of “sacrament,” penned by Episcopalian Robert Farrar Capon, author of “Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith,” which he described as “a signal instance of something that is true everywhere but effectively manifested here.”
But that still left the primary problem of viewing the payment of taxes like participating in the Eucharist – or, as we Baptists have it, the Lord’s Supper.
The key to understanding Carroll’s claim is seeing how he draws a parallel between the religious realm of the “church” and the secular realm of the “commonwealth.” Just as our involvement in the meal that Jesus instituted for the church signals our membership and life and ministry in his Body, so paying taxes is a sign of our membership and life and service in our democratic commonwealth.
If that parallelism holds, then it would be a kind of heresy both to trash participation in such practices as baptism and communion in the ecclesial realm – and paying taxes in the realm of the democratic commonwealth. It would, that is, be a denial of the truth about what the sacrament (or ordinance) represents – or, literally, the truth it re-presents.
And that is what Carroll proceeds to show in his recent column titled “The true patriotism of paying taxes.”
The participants in the contemporary Tea Party movement, therefore, are anything but “true patriots” and anything but true heirs of those responsible for what happened in Boston Harbor in 1773. As Carroll notes, those earlier Americans weren’t protesting oppressive taxes and they didn’t question the need for taxation; they did oppose taxes paid to a government – a commonwealth – that wasn’t their own.
To be sure, there was an argument in the early years of our nation about whether legitimate taxes should be paid to state or federal governments, an argument that was resolved after the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. And, to be sure, a strenuous tension has existed throughout U.S. history regarding the interplay of individualism and mutualism, with those advocating for the former more often suspicious of taxation and those supporting the latter more likely to favor taxation.
But Carroll argues that the frontier movement, which has been the great symbol of rugged individualism, was highly dependent on federal taxes and gave rise to an ever increasing sense of commonwealth:
“The humane spirit of commonwealth, once embraced, is expansive. Taxes paid for roads and garrisons – and also for health and education. When the needs of some were met, the needs of all were made more apparent. Thus, America’s understanding of government’s role shifted when the people came to a common recognition that, acting together, they could – and should – provide basic necessities of life for Americans who lacked them. Charity yielded to justice. Soon enough, such provision was seen not as a matter of altruism, but as a way to assure the thriving of the whole nation. The old dichotomy between the individual and the group was shown up as false.”
It is the truth of that understanding of commonwealth, which affirms the vital interplay between individualism and mutualism, that is now under assault in the anti-tax folks, both within and outside of the Tea Party movement. It isn’t just the sacrament of taxes that are under siege, it is also what the sacrament represents/re-presents: a rich understanding of what it means to be a citizen in this democratic republic, which affirms the interdependence of individualism and mutualism.
Sometimes it seems that the angry tax protestors are taking on the cause of an angry God who is upset because of a fundamental disruption in the way things ought to be in that divinely inspired experiment called American democracy in which “we the people” rule.
But they would be wiser to remember the words of the psalmist who, after realizing the futility of trying to overcome disease and death of one’s own, praised the helping and healing God whose “anger is but for a moment” and whose “favor is for a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5).
Within the church, we join with that favoring God of help and healing at the sacrament/ordinance of shared communion. Within our democratic commonwealth, we join with that divine source that favors help and healing for all of us at the sacrament/ordinance of shared taxation.
Blest be the tie that binds our individual hearts in Christian love and democratic mutuality.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.