Jesus, the State, and Socialism: A Response to David Schell

Jesus, the State, and Socialism: A Response to David Schell March 14, 2016

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch

In this post, I respond to David Schell’s post “Is Socialism Unbiblical?” which is itself a response to a post entitled “Dear Liberal ‘Christians’: No, it’s Not ‘Christian’ for the Government to Redistribute My Money,” written by Courtney Kirchoff

Before we get going, I want to note that Schell does a tremendous job responding to the tone of Kirchoff’s post, so as far as that goes, we’re in complete agreement. Truth be told, I’m not sure Ms. Kirchoff’s post merits a response. I’m writing this primarily for the opportunity to interact with Schell’s ideas. I am grateful to Schell for writing a challenging article that gives solid, Biblical evidence for why a Christian can with sincerity believe that socialism is the Christian political ideal, or at the very least, why it’s a tenable position for a Christian to take.


Kirchoff’s primary argument is the anarchist-libertarian claim that taxation is theft – and therefore government aid to the poor cannot be charity. However, the only evidence she gives for her claim is an analogy of a mugging, which, without any other arguments to support her position, is a textbook example of the false analogy logical fallacy. She doesn’t bother responding to the most obvious of counterpoints: the US Constitution and Social Contract Theory, i.e., “it’s not theft because you’ve tacitly consented.” David, however, chooses not to address these problems.  Instead, he shifts the question from “is taxation theft?” to “is taxation Biblical?” which is also a problem for Kirchoff, because in addition to the aforementioned lack of evidence regarding the Social Contract, she also fails to offer any scriptural evidence for her position.

Schell’s Question: Is Taxation Biblical?

Schell offers a preponderance of scriptural evidence to support his argument, which as I understand it, is that 1) taxation is Biblical, 2) Christians are obligated to pay their taxes, and 3) Christians should desire to see those taxes go to poverty relief. A more modest reading of his argument may be that socialism (or merely government subsidies to poverty relief efforts) is at least as Biblical as capitalism, and that progressive Christians do have some scriptural evidence to support their views on government. I am going to keep both of these readings in mind.

I want to note that at no point does Schell use the term “charity” to describe tax subsidies to the poor (a term Kirchoff finds problematic). This is crucial, and it makes me wonder if Schell and Kirchoff aren’t at some level talking past each other. That aside, I want to specifically comment on some of David’s scripture passages which he offers as evidence to support his argument, which is: Unlike about 99% of other topics, the Bible is univocal regarding taxes: “Pay them.”

1) Romans 13:6-7

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

I am hesitant to draw too strong a comparison between taxes in the Roman Empire and taxes in the United States. As I understand it, taxes in Rome were intimately connected to the worship of Roman deities. Paul, in my view, was addressing the difficult question of whether or not to pay those taxes and thereby implicate yourself in the worship of idols. His answer: God is sovereign over all power and authority (13:1), so you should not only pay taxes, but honor and respect, as well. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (13:6-8). That is, I think, a remarkable statement given Paul’s political and religious context: you can pay tribute to the Roman gods and in so doing still fulfill the law by loving your neighbor, or perhaps more accurately, loving your enemy.  That’s how big God is.

Romans 13:1-7 is bookended with a restatement of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:17-49). It’s also worth noting that in the verses immediately preceding Romans 13 (12:20) Paul alludes to Proverbs 25:22, that when you treat an enemy with kindness you “heap burning coals on his head.” I read this whole stretch of scripture (Romans 12:14-13:10) as Paul giving the church in Rome some non-violent, Christ-like instructions on how to navigate life in the empire. 1 Peter 2:13-17 echoes Paul’s call to this sort of non-violent resistance:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

The context of Peter’s advice about accepting the authority of the emperor is important. In the same breath, he also tells slaves to obey the authority of their masters, women to obey the authority of their husbands, goes on at length about what a blessing it is to share in Christ’s suffering, and as Paul did, restates Christ’s non-violent teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing (3:9).” These are Peter’s words to a vulnerable and sojourning people (Christians under Nero, slaves under their masters, wives under their husbands), that they might respond to adversity and injustice with good deeds and by following “in Christ’s steps (2:21).”

It should be noted that Paul himself wasn’t especially good at following his own advice, and because he had such a propensity for disobeying ruling authorities, sometimes getting off the hook, sometimes getting thrown in jail, until he was beheaded by Nero, some read Romans 13 as ironic and subversive. Others read it as pragmatic. Whatever the case, I agree with Alexandre Christoyannopoulos:

In the Sermon [on the Mount], Jesus calls for his followers to love their enemies, to give not only the requested coat but the cloak also, and to bless their persecutors. In Romans 12-13, Paul is doing the same, and applying Jesus’s commandments to the authorities.

The formula works like this:

Step 1) There’s the Enemy
Step 2) There’s the Enemy’s Action
Step 3) There’s the Christian’s Initial Response 
Step 4) There’s the Christian’s Followup Response
Step 5) There’s the Result 

Let’s plug in the variables:

Step 1) Enemy → Those who curse you (Luke 6)
Step 2) Enemy’s Action → They cursed you
Step 3) Christian’s Initial Response → Don’t curse back
Step 4) Christian’s Followup Response → Bless them
Step 5) Result → Fulfill the law

Step 1) Enemy → Those who take your coat (Luke 6)
Step 2) Enemy’s Action → They demand your coat
Step 3) Christian’s Initial Response → Give them your coat
Step 4) Christian’s Followup Response → Give them your shirt, too
Step 5) Result → Fulfill the law

Step 1) Enemy → Ruling powers and authorities (Romans 13)
Step 2) Enemy’s Action → They are taxing you

Step 3) Christian’s Initial Response → Pay the taxes
Step 4) Christian’s Followup Response → Pay them honor and respect
Step 5) Result → Fulfill the law

Non-Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd

In light of how I interpret Romans 13, I do not think we can take Paul’s comments on taxes as binding and prescriptive for all Christians in all places at all times. Non-violence requires imagination, creativity, and the Holy Spirit. It requires an understanding of what sort of system you’re dealing with and your place and role within that system. It requires courage, self-control, and the ability to step outside of systemic expectations and conditioned reactions. In some cases, the best non-violent response to the powers and principalities may be to pay your taxes. In other cases, the best response may be a form of tax resistance. In still other circumstances, non-violence may mean a way that is yet unknown, to be revealed by the Spirit.

“Come, let us bow down and bend the knee : let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.” – Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

2) Mark 12:14-17

And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

I’m not sure this works. The religious authorities, the Pharisees and the Herodians, did not ask Jesus if his followers should pay taxes. They asked him if it is “lawful” to pay taxes, that is, “is it in accordance with the Mosaic Law to pay tribute to false gods?” Now, the text acknowledges they were conspiring to catch Jesus in a trap. If he answers “yes, it is lawful,” it would anger the Pharisees and he would be in violation of the Mosaic Law. If he answers “no, it is unlawful,” it would anger the Herodians and he would be in danger of arrest. Jesus’s answer avoids both of these traps and packs a punch. Some implications of what he said:

1) Caesar is not God, and God is not Caesar.

2) Caesar can have his rusty old coins – they’ve got his image, after all. But creation and life bear the Imago Dei, and those belong to God (including Caesar, himself, and the land of Israel which was under Roman occupation).

3) If life bears the image of God, then Caesar has no right to take it with political executions and military campaigns.

4) It turns the tables and poses a challenge to the Pharisees and Herodians: To whom do you pledge allegiance? To God, or to Caesar and his coins? You cannot serve two masters.

5) It exposes the Pharisees and Herodians as having accepted the supremacy of Rome over and against giving to God what is God’s (they had the coin with Caesar’s face and Jesus did not).

Jesus insulted the religious establishment, challenged the authority of Rome, denied the divinity of Caesar, and distinguished these earthly powers from his father in heaven, all while escaping a trick question. To read Jesus’s answer merely as a command to pay taxes diminishes the power of this oft-quoted verse.† “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (KJV) is a disarming, incendiary statement, not a suggestion that we bend the knee.

†Note: His opponents certainly didn’t interpret him this way. At his trial, they accused him of teaching people not to pay: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:1-2). Now, it’s possible (likely) they were just lying, but it’s also the case that Jesus didn’t have a reputation of encouraging allegiance to Caesar.

“Is it true that people were created to collect more and more gold? No. God created people after his own image; He created you so that you could fulfill his will.” – Saint John Chrysostom

Conclusion: Lessons We Can Learn 

How do Romans 13 and Mark 12 speak to us today, in light of these alternative interpretations? I think they offer challenges to both Christian conservatives and Christian progressives. As an Anabaptist-Mennonite, I believe that our politics in general, and our interactions with the government and with political adversaries, must flow from Jesus’s teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. This is the example Paul gives us in Romans 12-13. I also believe, as a Mennonite, that we must recognize that both money, and the state apparatus, itself, are dangerous masters which will often come into conflict with the Kingdom of God. This is (in part) the message of Jesus in Mark 12:14-17.

Some Challenges to the Christian Right

1) The identity politics of gun ownership is a problem in light of Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’s command to practice non-violent resistance.

2) The dehumanizing rhetoric towards Muslims, immigrants, black people, homosexuals, atheists, those who are pro-choice, etc. (the list goes on) is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus or Paul.

3) The celebration of exorbitant riches should, by and large, not be a feature of Christian politics in light of Jesus’s instructions to “give unto God what is God’s.” (Though this says nothing on the subject of whether taxes should be levied to address this matter).

4) The burning anger and picketing over taxes is probably not an appropriate Christian response in light of Paul’s suggestion that paying taxes can be an act of enemy love and scripture’s innumerable warnings about the disordered desire for money. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feed your family and pay the heating bill, so this issue requires some nuance).

5) The lack of empathy for scapegoated groups, particularly black and Palestinian resistance movements, is extraordinarily hypocritical given that both Jesus and Paul, whom we follow, were executed for their confrontations with the ruling authorities. We must have the ears to hear those who cry out for justice.

Some Challenges to the Left

1) The knee-jerk conclusion that Christians who oppose higher taxes for poor relief/healthcare/education, etc. don’t take Jesus seriously is unwarranted given that both Jesus and Paul were in conflict with the empire and we don’t really have much evidence (that I know of) that they considered it a partner in building the Kingdom of God.

2) The possibility that “taxation is theft” shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, given that Jesus and Paul both tell us to let thieves take what they want (and therefore being commanded to pay taxes wouldn’t justify the tax itself), and if taxation is theft (or if not outright “theft” then the coercive expropriation of someone else’s possessions), then Jesus’s message of non-violence should make us reconsider how willing we are to agitate for higher taxes (I will deal with this question more in part 2 of this series).

3) The faith of progressives in the state apparatus to provide material necessities, protect human rights, and guarantee economic justice betrays the strong distinction Jesus makes between God and Caesar, and the fact that the state continually fails to do these things (and instead impoverishes communities, wages war, and protects corporate economic interests) should not come as a surprise, given that distinction. 

4) The temptation to scapegoat conservatives should be resisted. When it comes to loving enemies, Christian progressives need to walk the walk (and I am as guilty as anyone of failing to do this). Schell’s response to Ms. Kirchoff is a wonderful example of blessing someone who curses you. She showed his position a tremendous disrespect by addressing it in such a flippant and superficial way. He took the time to carefully respond and provide scripture to support his beliefs, giving her position the sort of dignity which she refused to give his.

“The only way to tell the truth is to speak with kindness. Only the words of a loving person can be heard.” – Henry David Thoreau

For the sake of brevity, I’m not able to deal with all of Schell’s points. But I hope this serves as an adequate response both to his essay and to the general idea that Romans 13 and Mark 12 require that Christians pay taxes. I think Christians are called to think differently about politics. Because we are building for the Kingdom of God, and because we’ve been called to love our enemies, the question of paying taxes is bigger than just “is taxation theft?” or “render unto Caesar,” and the question of Christian politics doesn’t stop with what party you identify with, your position on issues, who you vote for, what cable news program you watch, where you come from, or any of the usual things that culture tells us define our politics. Christian politics, or as I like to call them, “Mustard Seed politics,” involves our work, our play, our communities, our friends, and our routines; it involves the hard work of learning from mistakes, maturing in faith, and day by day non-violent resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.

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