Taxes, Rights, and Responsibilities: Part 2

Greg GarrettWell, my Federal tax refund came—and went.

I spent it on car repairs and a new computer and an airplane ticket to take up my post as Writer in Residence at Gladstone's Library in Wales this June. I also bought a magazine subscription from a single mother trying to get off the street, and gave some money to my homeless friend Jimmy, and handed a couple of hundred dollars to a friend who is down on her luck and needed a hand.

So, in sum, I made an investment in my continued competitiveness, winning the future, perhaps, as President Obama is telling us we must. I gave a pittance, all things considered, to some people who needed that money even more than I do.

And although I had not set out to make myself into an object lesson for this week's column, that's what tends to happen to people who have to write a weekly column.

We are now, as a nation, trying to decide what to cut and what to keep, where to spend and whether to tax, what our fiscal responsibilities should be.

These are hard choices, faced by people and governments all over the world at this particular moment. Should we balance our budgets at the local, state, and national levels by cutting services? By breaking unions? By reducing our commitments to care for the underprivileged?

Should we sell off forests? Should we raise fees and taxes?

These questions can only be faithfully answered if we ask ourselves the hard questions about what we value—or should value—from a faith standpoint rather than a secular standpoint, because as we discovered last week, the language of rights and freedoms may have little to do with our religious language of compassion, love, and sacrifice.

This week, we're looking at how we spend our resources—personal and societal—and at ideas of law and rights through the Christian tradition. What do the Bible and the tradition have to say about our ultimate goods? What should we be doing?

As I mentioned two weeks ago, when we ask about highest goods, we need to put ourselves under the microscope, to make decisions based on what we believe rather than on societal values. All people should examine their lives, Aristotle urged, but people of faith have an even more important mandate toward self-examination. As John Calvin wrote in The Institutes of Christian Religion, "If it is considered a shame to be ignorant of facts about life, self-ignorance is much more shameful, because it makes us deceive ourselves in matters of great importance, and so walk through life blindfold. . . . we were given reason and intelligence so that we might develop a holy and honest life." (2/1/1)

That holy and honest life, I would argue, should be present in more than our personal piety; it should be revealed in our entire life, private and public, in the way we relate to others, and in the way we project ourselves politically. When we argue for more or fewer taxes, when we argue for war or peace, when we argue for more programs or fewer programs, those arguments should grow out of our self-examination, emerge from our honest faith commitments. Our understanding of what Jesus is calling us to do and be should be reflected in our political choices.

Last week I presented what many people regard as an authentic summary of the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures, the words of the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NRSV)

This is a summary of the Law that resonates with me, and with many; it calls us to act justly, to be compassionate, and to aspire to holiness, as God is holy.

Last Sunday's Epiphany 7 texts from the Revised Common Lectionary also called for us to be holy as God is holy, and that holiness is reflected in both piety and justice. Along with remembering to keep the Sabbath holy, for example, the reading from Leviticus 19 gave instructions like these: