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Do taxes qualify as stealing?

That’s the impression one gets from a Baptist Press report on the Nov. 14-16 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Milwaukee. During a session on “wealth redistribution,” Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Craig Mitchell presented a paper in which he argued that “Class warfare, wealth redistribution, and socialism can, at best, make people only equally miserable.”

Have you heard of anyone calling for any of those things lately?

Mitchell said proponents of government-sponsored “wealth redistribution” take Old Testament texts out of context. Passages such as those calling for landowners to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor can glean there show that the poor were expected to work for what they got, he said.

“Those who own the fields do not have their produce taken by the government and then given to the poor,” Mitchell said. “Since the Old Testament extols the virtue of work and deplores the vice of laziness, the contemporary concept of wealth redistribution is alien to the Ancient Israelite conception of justice or righteousness.”

Mitchell was certainly correct in stating that Old Testament laws such as the “Year of the Jubilee” were intended for Israel and offer no instructions to modern governments. Mitchell also argued that biblical appeals for economic justice are directed to individuals rather than governments, which is true in a sense, though we should recognize the corporate identity of Israel that is evident in Old Testament prescriptions — whether Israel lived under Moses or a judge or a king, commandments were for the people as a whole, not just individuals.

And, the Old Testament did call for a limited system of “wealth redistribution,” at least to the extent of asking those who have resources to provide for the Levites, poor, widows, and orphans: regular tithes of grain were to be brought to the temple or to local Levites for storage and distribution to the poor and needy (Deut. 14:27-29). That was a major aspect of the temple’s function in ancient Israel. In a country where the temple/church is not the central organizing institution, it’s certainly not improper for the government to play a similar role.

But Mitchell equated at least some government taxation to theft: “The sin of covetousness all too often ends in the sin of stealing,” Mitchell wrote: “Those who argue for class warfare call this stealing the redistribution of wealth. The most gentle way that this theft occurs is by taxation.”

I don’t know anyone who would “argue for class warfare,” though I’m sure the rising inequity in wealth levels will encourage resentment between richer Americans whose money multiplies itself, and poorer residents who find the system stacked against them.

The trick, I think, lies partly in how one defines “redistribution of wealth.” Does the provision of supplemental nutrition assistance and free school lunches for the poor constitute wealth redistribution? Are welfare programs that benefit aging, disabled, and otherwise challenged individuals a redistribution of wealth? Does health care for people who can’t find a job count as wealth redistribution? Is the building of roads and schools in rural areas a redistribution of wealth?

As long as people are encouraged to believe that their responsible participation in society amounts to theft-by-taxation, strife will only increase, and the “fiscal cliff” won’t be the only chasm that divides us.



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