Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:7)
One of the important roles of civil government, in providing for the good of its citizens, is to ensure that services essential to the orderly operation of society are in place and properly maintained. No one doubts the necessity for the well-being of a community of police, fire fighters, sanitation workers, teachers, and those who maintain our roads.
To organize and oversee the work of such public servants, magistrates of various sorts are required. Representing a particular sector of the community, they are responsible to make sure that their constituents, and the community as a whole, receive the services they need in a timely and appropriate manner.
All this work takes money—for personnel, capital, supplies, overhead, and so forth—and the money to support the services a community requires must come from the ones who benefit by such services. This revenue is typically secured through taxes.
Expanded beyond the local community to state and national levels, more essential services come into view—highways and those to police and repair them, military, transportation services, licenses of various sorts, and so forth—requiring more revenue and, hence, more taxes (or bonds, of course). Taxation is not an evil practice; it has solid biblical foundations. All Christians, in rendering to Caesar his due, should accept their part of the tax burden gladly, and pay in a timely manner, without grumbling and complaining.
Taxation becomes a problem, however, in two instances. First, when it presumes to fill a role that should be supplied by voluntary means. Second, when it seeks to provide services to a select few at the cost of the many—who are often remote from the intended project—for the sake of the political status of one or two influential lawmakers.
The tricky part of taxation is determining the proper bounds of voluntary agencies and the relative importance of “earmark” projects. Such determinations can only be made by those who maintain an active involvement in the workings of politics and government, even if only to keep informed about the work of magistrates at all levels. Resentment over taxes tends to develop not around essential services, but because of perceived abuses of tax codes on the part of social utopians or career politicians.
NO EASY SOLUTIONS But sorting out tax abuses from legitimate needs is a difficult task. Are hospitals, doctors, and nurses essential to the well-being of a community? If so, citizens should be taxed to pay for them. But, some will argue, no one uses these services continuously; therefore, they should only be required to pay for them when the need arises. And if the cost of such health services is too high for their normal budget to bear, let them lay up for such eventualities through insurance, health savings accounts, savings, or other means. It is not my responsibility to pay for the health care that my neighbor requires.
Or what if a community, though small, determines that an overpass is needed to avoid a dangerous and busy railroad crossing? This is something that would benefit all the members of the community; however, the cost is beyond their means. Should they be able to appeal to the state or the federal government for assistance? Is this a service essential to more than just this community, or is it an earmark intended to bolster the political stature of a local representative?
The examples of each could be multiplied almost indefinitely. It’s not hard to see how debates, diatribes, and hard feelings about taxes in general can easily flare over such questions.
Add to this the many and creative ways that government officials have discovered to relieve citizens of their income—gas taxes, sin taxes, property taxes, personal property taxes, sales taxes, estate taxes, document taxes, licenses and permits—and people can begin to feel that their primary reason for working is to prop up bureaucrats in cushy desk jobs with nothing to do. Resentment over exorbitant taxes spills over into resentment about taxes in general, and soon large social and political rifts appear in the fabric of society. Can anything be done?
THE EXAMPLE OF OUR FOREBEARS Our colonial fathers set an example in this matter that can function to ensure a just system of taxation: “No taxation without representation.” That is, no citizen should be required to pay a tax he does not agree to, if only through those who represent him in government. Put another way, all taxes should be traceable to specific government officials whose decisions are responsible for the tax code in all its wondrous variety. This should be a matter of public record, which any citizen can consult, by some means, in order to discover the sources of taxes. This will allow citizens to formulate and express views about the justice—or lack thereof—of the tax system.
In fact, this is precisely what exists in our country at this time. The Congressional Recordand similar documents and minutes at the state and local levels record the votes of magistrates on all matters of public weal. If we want to know who’s responsible for imposing this or that particular tax for a bridge leading to nowhere, we can consult the record. What’s more, in our society various watchdog agencies, together with the media, provide a constant monitor on just such decisions and are quick to let the public know when they consider that the tax codes are in danger of being abused. Their reports are readily available for interested parties to consult.
All the taxes that Americans bear today are the result, not of some exercise of divine right over which the citizens have no say, but of the actions of duly elected public officials. If we do not like certain aspects of the tax code, then the way to change them is not through rebellion—we do have representation, after all—or grousing, but by approaching the appropriate public officials in order to hear explanations and provide reasons for our own views. For in this country at least, “we the people” are still the determiners of how much of our money we will relinquish to projects and programs deemed essential to the public weal.
A CHRISTIAN APPROACH TO EASING TAXES That being said, I am convinced that the tax burden on the whole nation could be eased if Christians were more diligent and consistent in certain matters of community and public concern. I do not here intend to provide an exhaustive program of responsible Christian citizenship, only to offer suggestions that could have effects on tax systems at various levels.
For example, if the churches in a community made care for the poor the kind of priority Scripture indicates it should be (cf. Galatians 2:10), it would not be necessary to create public programs to alleviate this constant need. Most churches do not set aside funds or develop programs to minister to the poor in their communities. This task is left to charitable agencies and local government programs, funded by individual contributions, whether personal or corporate. Churches spend more on air conditioning, typically, than they do on caring for the poor, in spite of the fact that sacrifice, not comfort, is the believer’s calling in life.
Further, if Christians practiced better stewardship over their material possessions, might this not help, over time, to lessen the tax burden? Would gas taxes decrease if Christians refused to purchase gas-guzzling automobiles, learned to car pool, or banded together to sponsor forms of private transportation services to select members of the population?
If believers took more care to use legal means of passing their personal property on to their heirs, would governments give up on estate taxes as a profitable source of revenue? If Christians practiced tithing and giving offerings beyond that, would there not be more money available for Christian education projects in a community, thus relieving the property tax burden which pays for teachers and schools?
Most importantly, if believers were more broadly and more consistently active in the political process—rendering Caesar his due in a way we will examine later—would not lawmakers begin to be rather more hesitant about capricious or wasteful projects? Should Christians be content to allow the national tax burden to fall primarily on the backs of the wealthy? Should they not be more outspoken in favor of a fair and just system of taxation, in which all who benefit share an appropriate portion of the burden?
Taxes tend to creep upward when citizens fail to pay attention. The Christian understands that government is responsible to act on behalf of the good of its citizens—all its citizens, and in all the actions government undertakes. Without a healthy, continuous, and timely conversation on taxes and other issues, engaged by all members of the believing community, our only recourse is to bear the taxes our fellow citizens who are informed about and active in government and politics approve. So one of the best ways that Christians can ensure that the taxes imposed upon the nation are fair and just, and that all who benefit from such taxes pay them gladly, is to become more, not less, involved in the political process and work of government.
There will always be taxes, and Christians should always be ready and willing to pay them. However, they need not merely sit by and accept any and every tax scheme or program handed down by public officials. Christian stewardship—or wealth and the public trust—requires more attentive and active participation in government as part of what we owe to Caesar.
FOR REFLECTION How many different taxes do you pay? Are all of these just? What do they provide? How would you change any of them, if you could?
T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition, or sign up at WilberforceProject.com to receive his daily ViewPoint studies in Christian worldview living.. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.
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