Everyone’s favorite time of the year is upon us: tax season.
We all join in the annual ritual of compiling seemingly endless documents – W2s, 1098s, 1099-INTs, charitable giving statements and so on – which we dread no matter our perspective on taxation.
As onerous as this process can be, it provides a needed reminder that taxes are not only unavoidable, but also essential to a functioning society.
As I reviewed the 2015 State of the State addresses delivered in January for an EthicsDaily.com news brief, I noted how frequently taxes were presented in a negative light.
Lowering taxes and reducing government size was frequently presented as an unqualified good by many governors.
Rarely was taxation connected to the essential services they provide, save for education. An understanding of taxation as a means to advance the common good was notably absent.
In an often-quoted statement, Nelson Mandela said, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.”
While certainly not the only measure of society, it remains an important one that is rooted in the biblical witness.
Analyzing the tax system – how it is structured and what it is used to pay for – provides insight into how well a nation is doing in this regard.
I have fresh insight regarding what services my taxes support after purchasing a home for the first time.
Analyzing my property taxes – there is no state income tax in Texas – I found that more than 56 percent went to fund the local independent school district. The remaining 44 percent was divided between the county and the city in which I live.
At the national level, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provides a percentage breakdown of how U.S. income taxes are spent: Social Security (24), Medicaid, Medicare and CHIP (22), defense (19), safety net programs (12), federal retiree and veteran benefits (8), interest on the debt (6), infrastructure (3), other (3), science and medical research (2), education (1) and non-security international (1).
I’m encouraged to know that a majority of my state tax dollars fund public education and a majority of my federal tax dollars fund social safety net programs (when Social Security, Medicaid and so on are included in this category).
However, where tax dollars are spent only provides a partial analysis. Other considerations include: tax brackets, actual versus effective tax rates, capital gains versus earned income, regressive taxation like lotteries, and food taxes.
In addition, there is the overly complex tax system to consider, which favors people who, like myself, can afford to pay someone to file my tax return to ensure that it is done correctly and that I can claim any exemptions for which my family qualifies.
Considering how few sermons or studies I have heard (or given) on the topic, it seems clear that Christians need to engage in more frequent moral, ethical reflection on taxation.
When doing so, we must ensure that our discussion isn’t rooted in partisan politics but in the biblical witness.
While turning to the Bible is essential, locating relevant texts, interpreting them accurately and applying them faithfully to present-day circumstances can prove difficult.
Reflect on how many different interpretations you’ve encountered regarding Jesus’ comment, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17), and you’ll understand the challenge.
To bridge the gap, EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” could help you engage this issue in a Sunday school class, small group or Wednesday night Bible study.
The film offers an avenue to explore how the Abrahamic faith traditions engage the relationship between faith, morality and taxation.
Featuring Baptist ministers and professors, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, seminary deans and more, the film provides a balanced, substantive engagement of the issue.
You can learn more about the documentary at SacredTextsSocialDuty.com, and there is a free study guide available to help facilitate conversation.
In addition to the film, there are numerous articles related to taxation available on EthicsDaily.com.
Sadly, what “Sacred Texts, Social Duty” producers, Robert Parham and Cliff Vaughn, found in 2010 remains true too often today: taxation is a forbidden topic in churches, more rare than an annual obligatory tithing sermon.
More telling is the fact that, almost five years since its release, the film remains one of the few resources for people of faith to reflect on how their faith tradition engages the issue.
The Abrahamic faith traditions have rich resources to offer a vibrant witness on taxation, defending the cause of the poor, pointing the way toward a more just social order, and providing substantive reflection that transcends partisan rhetoric.
The weeks leading up to “tax day” in April offer an annual opportunity for congregations to engage this issue.
While Lent is almost over, Christians could embrace the Lenten practice of giving up something, in this case, their preconceptions about taxation, in order to explore what their sacred texts have to say on this topic during Eastertide.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.