Taxes are a fact of life and an issue of faith–and I would argue–one of the most important issues of faith we face today. So what can we say about the ethics of tax policy from a Christian perspective?
From a biblical perspective, our philosophy regarding taxation should reflect a moral conversation, not faddish economic theories or the privilege of power and money. Instead of embodying justice and working for the common good, our system of taxation reflects the values of selfish individualism. When the Bible makes thousands of references to our responsibility to do justice for the least of these in our midst, why is it so difficult to make the connection between taxation and biblical ethics?
As it applies to my own faith tradition, Christianity, I have two answers to that question. The first is that many American Christians are too narrowly focused on the “self-help” aspects of being a Christian, for example, on personal salvation. I certainly am thankful for the assurance of salvation, but I don’t think Christ wants us to focus only on this one aspect of being a Christian. I think our Lord expects us to be good stewards of the grace which has been bestowed on us, that we are expected to work for the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, that we are called to the way of the cross in the long walk of discipleship.
The second answer is that many Christians get obsessed with certain hot-button issues like abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality. While I affirm that these issues are important to Christian faith, it is nonetheless telling that the issues of economic justice, which are so important in the Bible and which impact so many poor and middle-class people in American society, are often simply ignored with regard to tax policy.
That we ignore biblical justice and champion hot-button issues in my opinion speaks volumes about our willingness to embrace matters which require less sacrifice (unless one of these issues happens to impact us personally) and ignore issues which require a certain degree of sacrifice (like raising adequate revenues to meet basic human need and reconfiguring the burden of taxation).
Fair and just taxation requires some degree of sacrifice for many of us. Because we do not like sacrifice (remember the disciples’ difficult conversations with Jesus in the gospels regarding the way of the cross), there is no message more unwelcome to fallen human beings than the message that fair and just taxation requires more of us.
I understand this reality at a personal level, because when Gov. Riley’s tax-reform plan was being considered by the voters in Alabama, I gave an entire summer to speaking publicly in favor of the plan. I spoke to churches, civic groups and others, even though my taxes would have gone up.
But I must confess to you that I never used the calculator available to voters on the Web site to figure the actual increase, because I was afraid that knowledge might have dampened my participation.
We are all self-centered, but if we are willing to be led by the Spirit, we must open our hearts and minds to the whole gospel. If we describe ourselves as pro-life, but are indifferent to unjust taxation, we really don’t understand the gospel. Being truly pro-life entails acting respectfully toward all life, including the least of these, our brothers and sisters, in whom Christ confronts us.
As we have said, justice in taxation involves both fair burden and adequate revenue, not just for the military and the infrastructures we all use, but also for other basic requirements of a just society, including public education and the needs of people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
If we fail to change the moral conversation in America to include fair and adequate taxation, we fail to do so at our own peril. We need to hear the words of Jesus, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).
We need to hear the words of the prophets which call us to repentance in the face of social injustice. We need to hear the words of one of Jesus’ favorite scrolls of the Torah, Deuteronomy: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, . . .Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” (Dt 8:11-14, 17-19)
This passage is a clear warning to us that the gods of mammon, greed and egoism are just as deadly as any of the false gods the people of ancient Israel ever worshipped.
The idolatries of the present age have brought us to the brink of collapse as a just and democratic society. Injustice abounds, and our political processes are all too rarely driven by any sense of the common good which derives from scripture.
Without fair and adequate taxation, there is no justice, and without justice we are doomed as surely as the words of Deuteronomy warn us.
Susan Pace Hamill is a professor of law at the University of Alabama Law School. This column is an excerpt from a longer article from “Therefore,” a publication of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It is used here with permission.