Rendering Unto Caesar

Rendering Unto Caesar November 3, 2011

They say that nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes. “They” are pretty much correct in that assessment, and they have been correct for a long, long time. Even in Jesus’ day, the Jews were upset about paying taxes to Rome, so much so that they would soon form their own little “Occupy Jerusalem” protest, only they would not be so peaceful about it. In the midst of this unrest against the tyranny of Rome, Jesus was confronted about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees, being the clever politicians that they were, thought that they had trapped Jesus in an inescapable dilemma. If Jesus said, “No, you should not pay the tax,” then he would be arrested for sedition. If he said, “Yes, pay the tax,” then they hoped that he would lose the favor of the people who despised the Roman authority. Jesus simply replied to his interlocutors, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15-22). Taxes are a fact of life, they are a necessity, and Jesus taught that they ought to be paid.

Here in the modern world we are in the thick of the Republican primaries, and despite 2,000 years having passed, we still are not happy about taxes and government. Why are folks Occupying Wall Street and other cities in the USA? The protesters have many complaints, but it seems that the core of their frustration cannot be summed up any better than how James Carville summed it up in President Clinton’s ’92 campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.” One of the major factors in an economy is the tax system, as the Republican contenders well know. Herman Cain, one of the current front-runners, has gained traction with the idea of eliminating the current tax code and re-writing it with a sort of flat tax. His is the 9-9-9 Plan: 9% for corporations, 9% for individual income, and a 9% federal sales tax.

I’d like to explore why his plan has gotten the attention that it has gotten. Particularly interesting to me is how many people are willing to support it despite the fact that almost no research has been done to see whether or not this plan is viable. People ought to be asking questions like, “How much revenue will this plan generate?” and “How will we implement a 9% federal sales tax on a national level?” and “What is an ’empowerment zone’ and how do we decide where those should be located?” My point is this: If people are already jumping on this bandwagon, it is because Cain’s plan is currently striking an emotional chord with voters. It cannot be that they are voting on the facts of the plan because the necessary numbers are not being presented by anyone. (If anyone finds those numbers, I will be glad to amend this post to give those stats.)

What is it about the plan that is resonating with Republican voters? My opinion is that it comes from a misguided idea of “fairness.” Many Republicans make a big deal of saying that the current tax code is unfair because the wealthy bear a larger burden than the lower income folks. They point to the fact that almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. Further, the Republican mantra is that if you tax the wealthy, then you essentially shoot yourself in the foot. That is, if you tax the “job creators,” then they will have less money to invest in companies that create jobs. Therefore, placing an extra burden on the wealthy has the effect of stifling the economy.

If there is anything that I would like my conservative friends to consider, it is this idea that it is somehow “unfair” to tax the wealthy more than the poor. Jesus himself said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). Is Jesus directly speaking to a responsibility to pay taxes in this passage? No, but I believe it applies for a couple of reasons. First, it is a general wisdom principle that I think can be applied to anything in life. This parable is about a governor who gives out money and demands an account. Notice that Jesus says, “whom they entrusted much” and “they will demand the more.” Who is the “they” if not the governing authorities? This principle indicates that as one grows more wealthy, so grows the burden of responsibility.

Second, I would like to take a very brief look at the economics of the Old Testament. I am not going to argue to implement the tax code of the Old Testament, as if such a thing might be found. Rather, I am going to pick out a few evident principles from the Old Testament. First, we should note that the Old Testament, especially the Prophets, have a consistent theme of advocating for the poor. In Exodus 22:25, Israel is forbidden from charging interest on loans to poor people. In Deuteronomy 15, the debts of the poor were to be released every seventh year. If the lender refused to do this, then God would hold the lender guilty of sin. God warns Israel that if they “oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16), and God continually stressed throughout the book of Proverbs that generosity to the poor will lead to increased wealth, not loss (Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 28:27). I cannot find a single reference in the Bible supporting the idea that a country needs to take care to guard the rights of the wealthy, though there is warning against partiality in judgment (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17). It is also worth considering that God sometimes commanded an offering for atonement that could not be altered, regardless of financial well-being (Exodus 30:15). That particular offering was a half-day wage for a laborer. However, God also allowed poor people to “pay” less in certain circumstances with regard to their offerings (Leviticus 12:8; 14:21-32). Was it fair of God to charge the poor less than He charged the wealthy?

If Christian conservatives would arm themselves with these two principles—1) The one who is given much has a greater responsibility, and 2) If we are going to play favorites, it is going to be toward the poor because they are more vulnerable—then we might be able to compromise on the tax code stalemate.

Is the flat tax ethical? I believe that the individual income tax certainly is. Nine percent is nine percent. That means the poor pay less and the wealthy pay more, but it is a function of percent of income. What about 9% federal sales tax? Here, we have to be very cautious. A flat sales tax means that those of lower income pay a higher percentage of taxes. The higher the sales tax, the larger the percentage that is gobbled up for the poor. This isn’t to say that a federal sales tax is automatically unjust: It simply means that we, as a country, need to be very careful not to place a larger burden on the poor. One remedy might be to limit sales tax on necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. Regardless of the solution, politicians ought to make it clear that their plan has taken special consideration of lower wage earners and that they are protecting their interests in their proposals.

A progressive tax system is also a good system, but as with any system, it can get out of balance. Is it currently placing a disproportionate burden on the middle class? Perhaps. Is the current system generating the necessary revenue? Not right now. Something needs to be done, but every politician and every citizen must keep this principle in mind: Nobody likes to pay taxes. Because of this, no solution will make everyone happy, but at least we can begin to talk about whether or not it is equitable.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brad, this is a well-considered and scriptural approach to the issue. I can only commend you for speaking out on this so clearly and thoughtfully.

    The bad news is that if I find this so appropriate, many people are going to label you as a hippie socialist.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Brad, you make some good points here. Yet, consider:

    When the Law allowed the poor to “pay less,” it was a gracious act of God to allow them to be spared the full amount of what they actually still owed. It was mercy, not cutting them slack by reducing the debt. Moreover, this applied only to sacrifices, not to the tithe, and even in the sacrifices they weren’t allowed to get away with paying nothing. Unlike 47% of Americans. All citizens, regardless of their poverty or wealth, are responsible for rendering unto Caesar. Reaping the benefits of taxes while paying none oneself is tax evasion. It may be legal tax evasion, but it’s still stealing.

    Second, Scripture requires all people, and especially rulers, to shun covetousness. The drive to tax the wealthy more in the US today is manifestly driven by covetousness. The so-called “99%” down in the park want the fat cats’ fat redistributed down to their own pockets simply because it is there for the taking. He has it, and I don’t, and that’s not fair. Well, God blesses some more than others and tells the others they aren’t allowed to covet what the some have. When they do covet it, that’s sin, and when they use the political process to take what they covet, that’s stealing.

    Third, it’s interesting that one of the awful, dire consequences that Samuel told Israel would come from their demanding a king like the nations around them would be heavy, oppressive, unbearable taxation. How much? Ten percent (1 Sam 8:15). If that’s the standard for oppressive, unjust tax levels, it’s clear something is way out of whack today. Cain has proposed a tax plan nearly triple that rate, and he’s getting flak because it’s too easy on the rich? Our perspective on what’s just needs recalibration.

    Finally, the New Testament does make it clear that the rich in this life do bear a greater responsibility. But Paul makes it clear in 1 Timothy 6 that the responsibility is generosity, which is always voluntary. Are the wealthy responsible for caring for the poor? Yes, but it’s not at all clear that it’s the responsibility of the state to make sure they do. And – as an aside – don’t miss what Paul says in verse 17 – God gives the rich their wealth for their own enjoyment too. If a rich man is generous with what he has, he doesn’t need to feel the slightest guilt about his private jet. God gave it to him for him to enjoy.

  • Jeff,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate the feedback.

    To your first point, I would simply argue that no one in the United States gets off “tax free.” Sales tax takes care of that. Do they pay federal income tax? Sometimes no. But just because the government refunds the taxes that they took does not mean that they did not pay. There’s a difference. Also, you say that all citizens are responsible to render to Caesar. That isn’t true is Caesar doesn’t ask for it. It is absurd to call a non-payment to Caesar “stealing” if Caesar doesn’t tax you for it.

    Secondly, it is not evident that the drive to tax the wealthy is driven by covetousness. I think the rich should pay more taxes, but it isn’t driven by anything I can perceive as coveting their wealth. It is a simple issue of a revenue gap. They can afford to make up the difference; the middle class cannot. What you are saying sounds more like spin than truth. It is a fact that the super-wealthy are currently having more influence on the government because of wealth than you or me. If that trend continues, our voice in government will be even more marginalized. Add to this the fact that the rich have gotten wealthy, seen great gains in income, and corporations have not passed these benefits along to the workers of the company. CEO pay has gone up. Average worker comp. has decreased or remained flat. They have the right to protest that. Besides all of this, the Year of Jubilee was wealth redistribution no matter how you slice it. It was God’s way of cutting the poor slack, as you say. Why do you suppose that was included in the Bible?

    You cannot run the federal government on a 10% flat tax on income. Not as it currently exists. You could not even finance the salary of our military on that. You could not make the current Social Security payments on that. What kind of government do you want?

    Finally, generosity is not voluntary if God has commanded generosity. If the rich bear a greater responsibility, and they are willing to be generous, then they should have no problem with paying more taxes than the poor.

  • Amy Webb

    These are great points, except we don’t live in a theocracy. If we did, there would be no welfare system and no social security. The church would meet the needs of the truly needy and our goals wouldn’t be to retire with ease and comfort. It’s a broken system to begin with. At this point it seems like all you can do is plaster around a cracked and crooked foundation. Like you, Brad, I have no idea if Cain’s system will work or not, but it seems nothing else does either. I realize that the Roman system wasn’t a theocracy, but a republic. However, the common man didn’t elect his leaders. As believers, we have to figure out how to make responsible choices in a democratic government that isn’t a theocracy. We are in a unique situation where there is no easy answer.