Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What Should Christians Think About Taxes?: Part 2 - "Thou Shalt Not Steal"

In my first post on the subject of Christians and taxes, I argued that the "render unto Caesar" and "pay your taxes" passages in the New Testament does not make taxes themselves moral. In this post, I will argue that taxes are a form of theft, and that they violate the Ten Commandments, especially the command to not steal and the command to have no other gods before God.

"Thou Shalt Not Steal" - Exodus 20:15

The Ten Commandments i the great moral bedrock of moral and ethical law by which Jews and Christians abide by. They have endured in the hearts and souls of many throughout all of history, and they have enriched the hearts of all who abide by them (and they receive their fullest recognition in Christ Jesus).

However, even so, there is one passage that most people don't seem to grasp as fully as I believe they should and that is the sixth commandment. "You shall not steal." (Exodus 20:15).

Most people recognize that this commandment is a condemnation of theft, and many also believe that it protects the sanctity of private property rights, as the majority of property titles are obtained and earned justly (through "homesteading" and/or through voluntary exchange). However, when one condemns taxation as a violation of this commandment, most Christians will recoil and argue that since taxes are commanded in the Scripture elsewhere, then taxes cannot be theft.

However, such a dismissal not only misunderstands the nature of taxes but also the nature of theft and how it doesn't suddenly become something else when it is made legal or labeled by another name.

First, let us look at what taxes are. Essentially, they are the forcible taking of earnings and fruits of one's labor by the State for the use of the State. They are done without the consent of the taxed person, and often the person who refuses to pay taxes is sent a paper, and if he resists further, he is dragged to court (or immediately jailed, depending on the society one lives in) and if he resists even more, he will probably be killed in the process. These are not mere dues that one pays for living in society; they are forcible takings of one's goods and services for the benefit of the State.

Murray Rothbard says of the state and taxes in For A New Liberty:

At first, of course, it is startling for someone to consider taxation as robbery, and therefore government as a band of robbers. But anyone who persists in thinking of taxation as in some sense a "voluntary" payment can see what happens if he chooses not to pay. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter, himself by no means a libertarian, wrote that "the state has been living on a revenue which was being produced in the private sphere for private purposes and had to be deflected from these purposes by political force. The theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind."4 The eminent Viennese "legal positivist" Hans Kelsen attempted...to establish a political theory and justification of the State, on a strictly "scientific" and value-free basis. What happened is that early in the book, he came to the crucial sticking-point, the pons asinorum of political philosophy: What distinguishes the edicts of the State from the commands of a bandit gang? Kelsen's answer was simply to say that the decrees of the State are "valid," and to proceed happily from there, without bothering to define or explain this concept of "validity." Indeed, it would be a useful exercise for nonlibertarians to ponder this question: How can you define taxation in a way which makes it different from robbery?

And the very existence of the State creates two classes, the taxpayers and the tax consumers. The late philosopher John C. Calhoun said in his Disquisition on Government:
The necessary result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is to divide the community into two great classes: one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes and, of course, bear exclusively the burden of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are the recipients of their proceeds through disbursements, and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer words, to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers.
But the effect of this is to place them in antagonistic relations in reference to the fiscal action of the government — and the entire course of policy therewith connected. For the greater the taxes and disbursements, the greater the gain of the one and the loss of the other, and vice versa . . . . The effect, then, of every increase is to enrich and strengthen the one, and impoverish and weaken the other.
Another reason that makes taxation a worse form of theft is that it is legitimized by its defenders as being a necessity for society, without which none of us can survive and without which we would all become selfish pricks without concern for morality or justice. However, this is definitely not the case at all, and I believe the tax defenders are misunderstood. Fees may be asked of by private (non-state) communities in the anarcho-capitalist society, but even then they won't be forced on the non-consenting parties, like taxation is. Just because one doesn't actively kill a tax collector to prevent being taxed doesn't mean that consensual transferring of wealth has occurred. Theft is theft.

"Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me" - Exodus 20:3

Another important consideration when dealing with taxes is the issue of who is God. Often taxes are collected by the State in an attempt to make itself godlike and powerful. Many times, as others noted elsewhere, the State charges even more than God Himself commanded His people to pay (State tax rates are often higher than the 10% tithe God commands His people to pay).

C. Jay Engel, a Reformed Baptist anarcho-capitalist, says of this:


Beyond the realm of goods and services, the State has stolen the messianic mindset.  For in its massive taxation of the people, what has the State really claimed, but that it is the ultimate owner of whatever revenue the individual makes for himself?  This soon becomes a knowledge issue.  By its decrees and by its own calculation, the State assumes the ability to determine exactly how much money an individual “needs” and how much is good for him.  And when by licensing and certifying business to provide services for each other, the State has set up itself as Society’s sovereign institution, making it plain that, by only the grace of itself can the economy operate.


This is indeed true. By taxing the people, the State asserts that it has the right to take part of the capital of its own subjects/people. It asserts that its own well-being is more valuable to the people than if the people merely kept their earnings and capital and allocated them elsewhere in more productive suits. It takes resources and money that would arguably be allocated more justly in the private sector and wastes it in the public sector, often on things that have no worth and meaning. With the exception of inflation and money-creation that occurs in the fractional-reserve/central-bank system that now exists in America, taxation is one of the most powerful and deadly uses of state power. As the famous statement opines: "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Indeed. Without taxation, not only would the State be unable to do major damage, but the very structure of the State would disappear, as it should (in my view, but more on that later).

And how does this all relate to idolatry? In many ways it does. While taxation is indeed forced upon the people, oftentimes some people see their taxes as offerings to the state. Why is the State's taxation idolatrous? Because it takes money that rightly belongs to God and to man (to man because man often earns his wealth justly) and expropriates it for itself. It assumes that since it is the chief unifying force of society without which society would collapse, it assumes the right to forcibly take money from its citizens and use it for its own purposes (and also other services that are done in the name of the people, when in fact, those services can be provided better in the free market by individuals).

The Fundamental Question: What Right Has The State To Tax Us?

It all comes down to this: what right has the State to tax us? Some may say that Romans 13 approves the State as an institution and thus taxes are a legitimate and godly thing, provided they are not excessive. However, I would argue that Romans 13's ideas don't endorse the exploitative institution known as the State and that the command to pay taxes was not a legitimizing of the tax system but rather a command of Christians to pay in order to avoid persecution (as at the time the corrupt Roman bureaucracy would severely persecute tax resistors).

Another factor to consider is how the State originates itself. I argue that it is rooted in exploitation and aggressive force; it is not voluntary governance that everyone agrees to, but rather it is an institution that lives off of force and taxes. This is what is called the Rothbardian theory, the anarcho-capitalist theory, or the conquest theory of the state. C. Jay Engel says:


The origination of the State is in conquest.  Whereas many Statists will attempt to show that the State is a grassroots or “bottom-up” phenomenon (an interesting claim, as those who today write the political narrative generally despise “bottom-up” approaches), the so-called “Austro-libertarian” theory is that the State forces itself onto the people it claims to “represent.”  There is interests of wealth, money, and economics on one hand, and also a general disposition to be in charge and to rule over others.  The State, therefore, is alien to the people, its victims.

What should the Christian think of this though? Is the conquest theory really incompatible with the Bible? Or is there something more? Engel says:
They believe that the origination of the State is to be found in God’s ordination.  God ordains the existence of the State.  Therefore, it is a reality because He seeks to accomplish some aim by means of this State.   Try to stay with me here.  Many Christians will then say: “Therefore, the State is good.”  But that is absurd.  Doesn’t God ordain evil?  Why would we ever take the position of: “God ordained the existence of Satan, therefore Satan’s existence is good”?  That is not a Biblical logic.  More importantly, consider Acts 2:23: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The gravity of understanding that the death of Jesus Christ was planned, ordained, from eternity past should be emphasized.  Is not the murder of the God-man Christ Jesus the most horrific crime in all of history?  Is there any better way of demonstrating the depravity of mankind?  And yet, it was ordained by God Himself.  Yes, God ordains evil.  God ordains all things.  So the assumption that the State is good because it was ordained by God is a poor assumption if that is the only reason given.
(This is, of course, setting aside the discussion of the goodness of some agency, perhaps on the free market, which plays the role of “punisher,” or “government.”  And I assume that by now the reader is familiar with the distinction that I find useful of separating the State as a monopoly institution and the government as a role in civil society.  One can be provided on the free market and the other requires the initiation of force.  Whether or not the State should be accepted as a civil good is a different conversation, but I do want to point out the coercive nature that is core to its character.)
It is clearer now that the conquest theory of the State—that the State lives off of conquest and is born in such—is not exactly contrary to the view that God "ordains" the State, since God can "ordain" bad things and He can permit them to happen. And often, history testifies to the fact that States are formed in conquest and aggression, ranging from the conquests against other nations that occur against other nations or even the (gasp) somewhat secretive nature in which our constitutional system was formed. And not even "democracy" can legitimize the State, for as the late Albert J. Nock noted in The American Mercury:

...the idea that the procedure of the "democratic" State is any less criminal than that of the State under any other fancy name, is rubbish. The country is now being surfeited with journalistic garbage about our great sister democracy, England, its fine democratic government, its vast beneficent gift for ruling subject peoples, and so on; but does anyone ever look up the criminal record of the British State? The bombardment of Copenhagen; the Boer War; the Sepoy Rebellion; the starvation of Germans by the post-Armistice blockade; the massacre of natives in India, Afghanistan, Jamaica; the employment of Hessians to kill off American colonists. What is the difference, moral or actual, between Kitchener's democratic concentration camps and the totalitarian concentration camps maintained by Herr Hitler? The totalitarian general Badoglio is a pretty hard-boiled brother, if you like, but how about the democratic general O'Dwyer and Governor Eyre? Any of the three stands up pretty well beside our own democratic virtuoso, Hell Roaring Jake Smith, in his treatment of the Filipinos; and you can't say fairer than that.

The conclusion that I take here is that not only are taxes a form of stealing and that they are somewhat of an idolatrous thing, but they have no legitimacy, not even when it is democratic or plastered with Christian symbols. Even while taxes should be paid by the Christian, that does not mean that taxes are pre se legitimate. One can fully support Christians paying their taxes while at the same time supporting any call for the abolition or (at the very least) reduction of any taxes, and one can even support the abolition of taxes and the state itself with a clear conscience.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Film Review: THE SEARCHERS (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford
Producer: Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
Story/Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent; based on The Searchers by Alan Le May
Music: Max Steiner; Stan Jones (title song, "The Searchers")
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Editing; Jack Murray
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Hank Worden

MPAA Rating: NR

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

***** (5/5)

"That'll be the day." — Ethan Edwards, The Searchers

The Searchers is a truly popular film, even as it is 58 years old to date (in 2016 it will be its 60th anniversary). The American Film Institute named it the greatest Western of all time in 2008, one of the top 100 greatest American movies ever made in 2007 and 1998, and held by critics, fans of Western movies, cinephiles and almost everyone as not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time (and maybe THE greatest Western) but also one of the all-time great movies. Despite it not receiving major Oscar nominations upon its release, it was a commercial success and ultimately a popular and critical success, not only then but also now. This is especially important, as Westerns are often written off by most serious folks as being mindless exercises in violence and racism and nationalistic jingoism. Often that is true, especially among some of the older B-westerns and even in some acclaimed Westerns. However, even many who normally don't think very highly of Westerns per se are very fond of The Searchers, mainly in part due to the cinematic qualities that Ford and all involved placed in the film, and also how it manages to not succumb to the typical problems that plagued most Western films before this film came out. 

For example, whereas racism was often viewed lightly and even condoned in previous Western films, The Searchers departed from this route, even as it was still a classical American Western movie. Yes, it did not take a politically correct view of the Native Americans or the Comanche, but neither did it subscribe to the gung-ho Manifest Destiny doctrine that many a Western would subscribe to before.

And I was very impressed by the film, considering that this was the first Western I have watched. I was impressed not only by the depth and filmmaking quality of this movie but also its many other merits. But I will get to that later on.

The Searchers centers around the story of former Confederate war hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who returns back to Texas three years after the Civil War ended. He returns to his brother Aaron Edwards's (Walter Coy) home, as well as to his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) (whom many consider to have had a previous relation with John Wayne's character). And his character is established as a racist who doesn't like Indians—this is established when he mocks his young relative Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter)—and who is a wanderer that has no stable place to settle. Later on, it turns out that the Comanche Indians raided the cattle of Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), and eventually it is found that the whole thing was a decoy for the parties involved to leave their homes undefended and prone to Indian attacks.

And it turns out that Indians do attack the homes (led by war chief Scar (Henry Brandon)), and especially Aaron's house. His wife Martha is dead (even raped, which is definitely not depicted on-screen but surely implied). However, Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ethan's two nieces, come with him, as well as Mose Harper (Hank Worden), Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), Martin, and Lars's son Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) (who had some romantic relations with Lucy). But due to certain events, the rest of them leave the journey, with Ethan, Martin and Brad alone to continue the journey. However, it turns out that Lucy, one of the girls, was raped and killed by the Comanche kidnappers and left out there. Brad, grieved by this, runs out and is killed as a result by the Indians.

This leaves Ethan and Martin now to find Debbie; however, through the span of five years, many interesting events happen, including one with Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who desperately wants to fall in love and has her eye set on Martin. However, Martin's adventures hinder him from responding to Laurie's claims, which anger her even more (a very strong running point in the film).

Another subplot comes in with regard to Ethan's racism toward Indians, particularly Comanche (who killed his mother a long time ago). It is revealed that his racism is so strong that it spills over into cultural bias; he even harbors a hatred for former white victims of Comanche raids that were brainwashed—he even wants to consider murdering Debbie (Natalie Wood) due to her having assimilated into the Indian ways and Indian culture. This leaves for another layer of development that set The Searchers apart from not only previous Westerns but also previous John Wayne performances. 

While this film definitely is celebrated and a hallowed piece of Americana in American cinema, it still does have a fair share of detractors, who argue that the film takes a hypocritical stance on racism; they argue that while The Searchers does have anti-racist themes, it does wallow in racism throughout the film, as Indian-related stuff is often related to either evil things or awkward John Ford humor. I would respond that the treatment toward Indians is not flawless and it does have tinges of racism; even so, the anti-racist theme remains powerful, especially in the second half.

Normally in an old Western, the white man would be depicted as the undisputed hero and the Indian as the undisputed villain. Yes, The Searchers retains some of that classical trapping in its structure, with the Indian characters being the villains and the white people being depicted as the protagonists/heroes. However, added to this film is a thought-provoking and excellent layer of moral ambiguity and unsettling power that distinguishes this movie. Ethan Edwards is at once depicted both as a courageous war hero looking out for his only living niece and a culturalist/racist who hates Comanches and whites brainwashed by Comanches. The film skillfully juxtaposes this and uses the other protagonist, Martin Pawley, as a foil to Ethan's virulent racism, which offends even his closest friends.

What made The Searchers a towering masterpiece is not just all the great technical achievements (directing, acting, mise-en-scene, cinematography, writing, creative uses of flashbacks, beautiful shots and memorable sequences, etc.), all of which deserve the honors they receive, but the moral ambiguity that is prevalent in the film. 

Roger Ebert's interesting essay on this film sums up quite nicely:
Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan's attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians. This is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's “Birth of a Nation.” Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it. I think it took a certain amount of courage to cast Wayne as a character whose heroism was tainted. Ethan's redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands, lifts her up to the sky, drops her down into his arms, and says, “Let's go home, Debbie.” The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film--and indeed, there is no indication be thinks any differently about Indians.

Steven D. Greydanus also rightly notes: "The film’s complexity and ambiguity extends even to the famous climax, in which two central characters make choices that could be viewed as changes of heart, but could also be viewed as differing responses to changing circumstances. Do the characters change and develop, or is the truth about them simply more clearly revealed? The Searchers offers no clear-cut answers, not even to the question in the theme song."

While such a film can easily become preachy and heavy-handed, The Searchers brilliantly avoided this trap and gave us not only a great masterpiece of cinema but a film that can be appreciated by almost anybody, even one who likes Westerns as a shoot-em-up genre. Everything has a purpose and is used skillfully by Ford, even the often awkward comic humor and romantic subplots, which show the contrast between humanity and Ethan's wandering nature.

John Wayne gives one of his greatest performances, which also happens to be one of the greatest roles in film. His Ethan Edwards is one of the greatest anti-heroic protagnoists in film, contrasting his most admirable bravery with his despicable and twisted racism and hatred of the Commanches which is infused by a statist and quasi-totalitarian desire to not only kill Commanches but also those who were integrated into this culture. Jeffrey Hunter is also brilliant as Ethan's foil, Martin Pawley, and Hunter's performance infuses humanity into the darkness of this film. And the rest of the performances are also superb, including that of Hank Worden's Mose Harper, Ford's comic-relief character that actually helps the film a lot in many ways more than one. For example, Jason Fraley's in-depth essay notes: "Thus there’s almost a humorous significance to Mose’s constant cries of, “My rocking chair! I want my rocking chair!” The rocking chair is a symbol of domestic moral stability, swaying back and forth, but in the end, holding its ground. It’s a visual idea that was perhaps growing in Ford since Henry Fonda memorably rocked in that chair in My Darling Clementine (1946). How fitting that Mose sit in such a chair at the end of The Searchers donning a top hat, yet another symbol of the civilized world." The rest of the cast is great, including Natalie Wood as the grown-up Debbie (however brief her role is) and Vera Miles as Laurie, who is madly in love with Martin. Even though Miles's performance does annoy me in many ways, I don't deny that it is a good character portrayal and very understandable considering the circumstances of the film. After all, Martin goes off with Ethan on this long quest and often ignores Laurie, leading her to go with another guy (which serves as another point of comic humor near the climatic moments of the movie). 

The visual shots themselves are magnificent and truly cinematic, and they really shine on the Blu-ray Disc for this film. Ford really had an eye for the West and his skill shows in how masterfully and meaningfully he crafts the shots, from the opening mise-en-scene sequences with Ethan and Marth to the wide VistaVision shots of the setting to the other various iconic shots that many films after paid homage to. Also, Ford manages to capture brutality without showing us in-your-face gore and violence, another great skill courtesy of the best classics of olden times (though graphic violence isn't necessarily a bad thing, from my personal point of view; just don't use it in excess and where it is not needed). This thing impressed me throughout the film, and not only that, Max Steiner's epic music score is perfect for the film, ranging from the thoughtful opening song to the wonderful melody to the haunting tunes and finally to the famous "Searchers" song that plays at the iconic ending scene.

Many others have delved further into the brilliance of this movie, so the best I can conclude with is: The Searchers deserves and rewards repeat viewings, and I probably will want to delve into this film again. 5/5

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Meaning of Good Friday

This day, the day of Good Friday, I have decided to take upon the meaning of "Good Friday," the day that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified on the cross and died to save us from our sins and restore fellowship with God.

However, on this day, many seem to underestimate the power of this very event and very day, and how it not only impacted the human race but also our very own lives.

How "Good Friday" Impacted The Human Race's Relation with God

The most important thing in considering "Good Friday" is the consideration of how it impacted the relationship between God and humanity. When Christ died on the cross, He took upon Himself the sin that we committed and by which we were healed (Isaiah 53:5-6). For we should have been punished for our sinful nature, for as the Scriptures said, all sin and fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23) and the "wages of sin" is death (Romans 6:23). But even so, as Romans 6:23, God's gift is life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Without Christ's death on the cross, none of us would be where we were, for without Christ's intercession, the death that comes upon all who sin would rightly come upon us, and we would not receive God's mercy without having violated the justice of God. However, when Christ interceded for us and died on the cross, both the love of God and the justice/wrath of God were satisfied on the cross as the result of sin (death) was upon Christ and the love of God was shown upon us (the human race).

How Good Friday Impacted Our Lives

The next important thing in considering Good Friday is how it impacted our very own lives. Individual lives were saved through faith by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), and people had freedom from their sin due to God's unfettered grace and Christ's love for them.

Before this very day, people in Israel often made atonement for their sins by bringing certain animals to the priest, who would then sacrifice the animals to God to make atonement for the sins, for as Hebrews 9:26 said, without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin.

However, when God sent Jesus Christ, His death on the cross fulfilled that requirement for redemption, and not only that, the decision was final and complete, bridging the further gap between God and man.

Hebrews 10:11-18 said of this:

11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. 14 For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
15 But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” 17 then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”18 Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. (NKJV)

The significance of this is that no effort of ours could bring salvation; only Christ Jesus could do that, and when He was crucified on the cross, He not only fulfilled the requirement of shedding blood for atonement but also kept us from facing God's wrath and instead revealing His love and justice.

It is for this that we who celebrate Good Friday are grateful; that was the day that God fulfilled His justice and love equally, laying down all our sins on Christ (who took on them of His own will) and giving us new life in Him. That day bridged the gap between God and man, and for it we are so ever grateful.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What Should Christians Think About Taxes?: Part 1 - "Render Unto Caesar" & Romans 13

Yesterday was Tax Day, the day where everyone pays their taxes to the fed.

Most Christians argue that taxes are a necessity to humanity and society, and therefore Christians, in obedience to the government, must pay their taxes (Romans 13:6). I don't dispute that Christians should pay taxes, for doing so not only keeps unnecessary harm from ourselves but also keeps the Gospel message from being discredited by anti-Christians. However, what i do dispute is the necessity and morality of taxes. On this issue I and many others depart from the conventional Christian understanding of taxation and society. My view is that while Christians should pay taxes for pragmatic reasons, taxes are not by themselves good things but rather they are unnecessary for human flourishing and are very immoral in their nature. For taxation is essentially the forceful taking of the fruits of the labor of every man for the purpose of the flourishing of the State. While paying taxes is not a sin, the act of taxing is certainly so, and a very dangeorus one at that.

Romans 13:6

The first reason why I argue that taxation is immoral is from the moral-ethical perspective: taxation can be called theft, for it is the initiation of force to take the fruits of one's labor or one's wealth for the use of the State, and it is not consensual in any way.

But the Christian may ask, "Why then does Romans 13:6 ask us to pay taxes if taxes were so immoral?" I would answer that the passage in Romans 13:6 does not make a statement on the morality of taxation but rather how a Christian should react to them.

Norman Horn, in his essay "The New Testament Theology of the State," says this:


Verses 5-7 expand upon the reasons for submitting and include practical ways the Roman Christians were to respond to Paul’s message. Cobin says, “The reason we must submit to government is to avoid wrath or worrying about being harmed by the state authority. God does not want us to be entangled with the affairs of this world to the point where such involvement detracts from our primary mission” (Christian Theology of Public Policy, 125). The word “conscience” in verse 5 should be interpreted in a similar manner as 1 Corinthians 10 (regarding food sacrificed to idols). The believers were concerned that the Roman state would find a legal reason to persecute them. One cannot use this verse in an absolutist sense to say that Christians can never participate in removing any authority, such as in the American Revolution. Paul also encourages Christians to “overcome evil with good” as understood in Romans 12:21 (this includes evil authority), and to work to be free if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-23). 

Paul also says to submit to paying taxes for the same reason: avoiding state wrath in order to live for God. One despises paying taxes, but in order to abate the state’s wrath one pays them. Likewise, “pay to all what is due them” is commanded for the same purpose, especially considering the political tumult of the time. But does this mean that a man sins if he makes a mistake on his Federal tax return? Paul would very likely answer no. Modern taxes are very different from Roman taxes. In fact, the Greek word for “taxes” in verse 7 is more accurately rendered “tribute,” which is specifically the capitation tax (or “head tax”) in a Roman township census. The Romans would send soldiers from house to house, count the residents there, calculate the tax, and then demand full payment immediately. If a Christian did not comply at once, then he, his family, and possibly even his fellow believers could be in imminent, serious trouble. Paul says to not resist these men when they do this, just pay the tax. Refusal to pay would identify them as part of the tax rebels and political rogues of the day, and would give the Romans a reason to persecute Christians in Rome and perhaps throughout the empire. Paul wanted the Roman Christians to avoid becoming public spectacles and government targets. 

Likewise, since the Christian would definitey want to avoid needless wrath, he should pay taxes, not because the tax itself is legitimate and moral but because paying the tax keeps the hand of the State away from needless persecution. In our present society, if one saw Christians not paying taxes, not only would the State crack down on them but also the media and society will unleash and declare open season on Christians, much like the media has done when scandals have broken out in the Christian community.

"Render Unto Caesar": Pro-State?

Now, having dealt with that, how does the Bible deal with the ethics of taxes? Does it approve and condone of the whole thing? Or is there something deeper 
in the Scriptures that most pro-tax people don't recognise fully?

First, let us deal with the famous saying of Jesus: "Render unto Caesar that   which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's." Many interpret the passage as meaning that jesus recognized the necessity and morality of taxation because, after all, he didn't say "Taxes are evil!" and thus, he probably approved of the process of taxation (though not necessarily the means with which the Roman Empire exercised taxation). This is the view of the conventional conservative interpretation, as well as the conventional classical-liberal interpretation.

A great article by Jeffrey F. Barr, however, disputes the conventional pro-tax interpretation of the message of Jesus.

The historical context is important in understanding Jesus' situation, where tax revolts occured and the Roman Empire brutally crushed them.


In 6 A.D., Roman occupiers of Palestine imposed a census tax on the Jewish people. The tribute was not well-received, and by 17 A.D., Tacitus reports in Book II.42 of the Annals, "The provinces, too, of Syria and Judaea, exhausted by their burdens, implored a reduction of tribute." A tax-revolt, led by Judas the Galileansoon ensued. Judas the Galilean taught that "taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery," and he and his followers had "an inviolable attachment to liberty," recognizing God, alone, as king and ruler of Israel. The Romans brutally combated the uprising for decades. Two of Judas' sons were crucified in 46 A.D., and a third was an early leader of the 66 A.D. Jewish revolt. Thus, payment of the tribute conveniently encapsulated the deeper philosophical, political, and theological issue: Either God and His divine laws were supreme, or the Roman emperor and his pagan laws were supreme.

Understanding the background of the Jewish homeland at the time will then give further understanding of how Jesus would have dealt with the situation laid out to him in Matthew 22:15-22. 

First, the Scripture points out that the whole question was not asked in sincerity but in an attempt to trap Jesus and hand Him over to the Roman authorities. 

Barr states:

By appealing to Jesus' authority to interpret God's law, the questioners accomplish two goals: (1) they force Jesus to answer the question; if Jesus refuses, He will lose credibility as a Rabbi with the very people who just proclaimed Him a King; and (2) they force Jesus to base this answer in Scripture. Thus, they are testing His scriptural knowledge and hoping to discredit Him if He cannot escape a prima facie intractable interrogatory. As Owen-Ball states, "The gospel writers thus describe a scene in which Jesus' questioners have boxed him in. He is tempted to assume, illegitimately, the authority of a Rabbi, while at the same time he is constrained to answer according to the dictates of the Torah."
This would mean that the Pharisees put Jesus between a rock and a hard place, putting him at risk of hatred if he said yes to the question and being branded a political rebel if he said no.

So later on, according to the Scriptures, Jesus finds a coin and asks, "Whose face is on it?" They answer, "Caesar's." Here is where another interesting nuance comes in. Barr points out that the denarii (the coin that was mentioned) was used by the emperor as a sign of his power, and while he made only three, two of which were rare, the third one was common, and Tiberius preferred it as such. Barr points out: 

"The only people to transact routinely with the denarius in Judaea would have been soldiers, Roman officials, and Jewish leaders in collaboration with Rome. Thus, it is noteworthy that Jesus, Himself, does not possess the coin. The questioners' quickness to produce the coin at Jesus' request implies that they routinely used it, taking advantage of Roman financial largess, whereas Jesus did not. Moreover, the Tribute Episode takes place in the Temple, and by producing the coin, the questioners reveal their religious hypocrisy – they bring a potentially profane item, the coin of a pagan, into the sacred space of the Temple."


This is very important as Jesus uses His question to counter the trap set by the questioners, as the denarii mentioned were often declarations of the emperor's divinity, and they brought something potentially idolatrous into the temple. As Barr points out, "Jesus' use of the word, "image," in the counter-question reminds His questioners of the First (Second) Commandment's requirement to venerate God first and its concomitant prohibition against creating images of false gods." 

Also, the "inscription" question harkens back to the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The coin had the inscription of the emperor, but the commands of God are to worship Him and to inscribe the words, and more specifically to carry them on their hands and foreheads (in the form of teffilins). In fact, Jesus quoted this passage when being tempted by Satan in Matthew 4:10. 

Having answered that, let us go on to how that question was answered and how Jesus dealt with it. The answer to the question is only this: "Caesar's."

Barr points out that the response was significant because the coin would have this inscription on it: "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus." Also, this would appear on the coin—the image of Pax, goddess of peace, and this inscription: "Pontifex Maximus." The term means "High Priest."

Barr says:


The coin of the Tribute Episode is a fine specimen of Roman propaganda. It imposes the cult of emperor worship and asserts Caesar's sovereignty upon all who transact with it.
In the most richly ironic passage in the entire Bible, all three synoptic Gospels depict the Son of God and the High Priest of Peace, newly-proclaimed by His people to be a King, holding the tiny silver coin of a king who claims to be the son of a god and the high priest of Roman peace.
The second reason the answer is significant is that in following the pattern of rabbinic rhetoric, the answer exposes the hostile questioners' position to attack. It is again noteworthy that the interrogators' answer to Jesus' counter-question about the coin's image and inscription bears little relevance to their original question as to whether it is licit to pay the tribute. Jesus could certainly answer their original question without their answer to His counter-question. But the rhetorical function of the answer to the counter-question is to demonstrate the vulnerability of the opponent's position and use that answer to refute the opponent's original, hostile question.
Now we get to the famous "Render unto Caesar" passage, which may not be the pro-state passage that many have interpeted it to be. Jesus, in His answer, subtly showed that God and the empire were in competition over who ruled His people: the State or God. Barr states:
With one straightforward counter-question, Jesus skillfully points out that the claims of God and Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one's faith is in God, then God is owed everything; Caesar's claims are necessarily illegitimate, and he is therefore owed nothing. If, on the other hand, one's faith is in Caesar, God's claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image.

What Is The Lesson For Us?

The lesson here is: Jesus didn't endorse the morality of taxation in his "Render unto Caesar" moment but rather affirmed the sovereignty of God in his subtle rhetorical wording while not directly answering the tricky question. Also, the fact that Christians ought to pay taxes doesn't by nature endorse the morality of taxing itself. In fact, in the Gospels, tax collection is often depicted as a sin, and two who were touched by Jesus were in fact motivated to leave the profession of tax collecting: those two were Matthew/Levi and Zacchaeus. 

Thus, while Christians should pay taxes for pragmatic and practical reasons, they should not endorse or celebrate the institution that often competes with God for sovereignty and ruler-ship.

The next section will be dealing with how taxation is a form of stealing and thus violates the Scriptures, especially the commandment to not steal.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Film Review: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug theatrical poster


***1/2/***** (3.5/5)

Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham
Story/Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro; based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Editing: Jabez Olssen
Starring: Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitrage, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

Run Time: 161 minutes

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, while definitely flawed and not up to the skill that The Lord of the Rings trilogy displayed, still served as a decent film adaptation of Tolkien's book (though three movies are a bit too stretched; two movies probably would have been enough; however, if the third movie delivers, then I won't complain too much). It did have some overuse of CGi and forced epic-ness, but it wasn't the abomination that some detractors claimed it was (and neither was it the masterpiece that its most ardent fans said it was). 

However, I was unable to catch this on the big screen, so I pre-ordered the Blu-ray when it was announced that it was going to be released soon. And sure enough, I got this film in the mailbox and decided to see this film with my siblings and a good friend of ours.

Now let me get to the plot summary: After the events of the previous film, the movie gives us a brief flashback to the events that happened before the journey, where Thorin (Richard Armitrage) is at an inn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meets him up there. It is here that Thorin is encouraged to go upon the quest and reclaim Erebor from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Later on, the film cuts to 12 months later, where Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf, Thorin and everyone else is on their journey and they come upon the house of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), in whose house they dwell while escaping from Azog and his forces. On the journey they encounter spiders, elves, and men, until they eventually come to the Lonely Mountain, to the Desolation of Smaug, and to their homeland in Erebor. 

However, dark forces are awakening that were only hinted at before, and they will arise to cause great disaster that will threaten not only our characters but also the entire realm of Middle Earth.

Now that i got the plot summary out of the way, let me get to the actual review of the film.

Is it the superb and masterful sequel that some claim that it is? Is it the bloated abomination of epic proportions that the detractors claim? Or are these two options only two of many different views of this film.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fails in many ways as an adaptation and rendition of the original source. While the main journey is there, much subplot has been added into the film (Thranduil, Legolas, and that female character Tauriel (Evangeline Lily)), and there is more CGi and more action than ever was in An Unexpected Journey. However, if one is considering this as a film, then for the most part this movie succeeds as a nice, exciting action flick that has some pretty good filmmaking and serves as a good blockbuster entertainment that doesn't transcend heights and genre limitations like Lord of the Rings did.

The acting is really good, with Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman doing really good jobs as Gandalf the Grey and Bilbo Baggins. Freeman really captures the development of Bilbo and how he has changed from the previous film. And McKellen captures the character of Gandalf as he learns of the evil that is awakening. Richard Armitrage as Thorin is well-acted, showing how the quest impacts Thorin's heart, changing him from a person concerned for Bilbo to a person almost mad for the Arkenstone and consumed by his desire for Erebor and the wealth it contains. Evangeline Lily is pretty decent as Tauriel, though I find her to still be filler that was added just to make the story more "female-friendly" (not to mention that I personally didn't connect with the implied love triangle with her, Legolas, and Kili, one of the thirteen dwarves) and Orlando Bloom is also pretty good in his role as Legolas (though his face looks a bit unnatural in contrast to the Lord of the Rings movies).


All the other actors do well in their roles, including Lee Pace as the dwarf-hating Woodland king Thranduil, but especially interesting in Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the fierce dragon Smaug. While he isn't the master that some of the fans claim he is, he actually is very good for his role, and the terror he inspires is fitting for his intimidating role. Cumberbatch was perfect for this role as Smaug.

The script also is pretty good, but the film did drag a bit near the middle, especially with the overload of action sequences in this film, all of which are pretty good but which are not great. Many of the scenes border on over-the-top and popcorn-style scenes, with dwarves suddenly having skills that rival the finest Olympic athletes, elves doing acrobatics while fighting evil orcs, Tauriel using cool ninja-esque moves while killing monsters, and more. For the heavy action fan and an admirer of today's action-packed blockbuster entertainment, this movie is heaven. But for those who preferred Lord of the Rings and don't like overloaded action, this film will drag (even though I admit that I didn't hate most of the action scenes in the film). And may I note that this film has an excess of computer-generated images in contrast to the happy marriage of practical and digital effects that has existed in so many great films, masterpieces and classic movies of modern times (Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and many other films come to mind). While the CGi does manage to be good in the long run, there are instances where it looks fake, particularly in the ending where Thorin and all the dwarves unleash a golden statue of a dwarf warrior and that statue melts and covers Smaug (the gold looked so laughably fake). 

Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, while a bit too overloaded with action and CGi as well as other pop-blockbuster elements of today, still serves as a nice action movie that both expands upon the merits of An Unexpected Journey and at the same time expands upon the demerits of the film. It works on the overall level as an action film set in Middle Earth, and depsite its many flaws, there is just so much good work and effort put into this movie that it is near-impossible to compare this to other big-budget failures and fanboy punching-bags like the Star Wars prequel trilogy or Battlefield Earth

It is not a perfect film, and neither is it a great film, but it is a good film. 3.5/5

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The NOAH Movie Resource Page


The movie Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) and starring famous movie star Russell Crowe in the titular role, has stirred up much controversy. The critics seem to like it a lot, and the film is getting plenty of glowing to good reviews, praising the creativity and what they see as good filmmaking.

However, in the Christian and religious community, there is much division. Many Christians consider it to be a good/great movie that succeeds both as a film and is compatible with the orthodox Christian faith despite the extrabiblical liberties and controversial changes. And others despise the film to the very core.

As for me, I personally I haven't seen the film, but I am finding validity on both sides of the issues. The haters seem to be right on with their complaints about certain bad changes that the movie makes, while the lovers of the film seem to make pretty decent arguments in favor of the film. And I don't exactly hold in favor some of the changes (from what I heard, the reason for the Flood was overpopulation, according to this film), but at the same time I will withhold judgment as to whether the film itself is bibilcal, not only because I haven't seen the film, but because much has already been said of the film elsewhere.

Also, I think both sides are in the wrong when bringing in personal attacks. Conservative Christians who hate the movie are wrong when they are accusing Noah fans of being immoral, godless hedonists and/or self-loathing Christians (in fact, I am pretty tired of this vitriol directed by them to Noah fans and defenders), and Noah defenders are wrong when they accuse all Noah skeptics of being bigots who can't appreciate good cinema (in fact, many people also hate Noah because they feel it is a bad film).

So here is my resource page on the movie, compiling lists that praise the movie, hate the movie (or don't want to support it due to the extrabiblical material) and are on the fence about it.

Note: This page won't be left uninterrupted and will be updated. When I see the film, I will publish my review of the film and maybe even more stuff on the film.

Introductory Material


  1. Brian Godawa. "Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Environmentalist wacko"
  2. Trevin Wax. "How Christians are responding to the Noah movie."


Pro/Mixed


  1. Peter T. Chattaway's review of the film; his second impressions
  2. Steven D. Greydanus's coverage of the film
  3. Steve Greydanus. "The Noah Movie: Questions and Answers"
  4. Jeffrey Overstreet talks a bit on coverage about the film.
  5. The Christianity Today review by Alissa Wilkison
  6. Rebecca Cusey. "Noah: A good flick for everyone"
  7. Rebecca Florence Miller. "10 reasons this Christian loves Noah"
  8. Joe Carter's review
  9. Greg Thornbury's review
  10. Diana Chandler. "Scriptural error abounds, but Christians promote, blast Noah."
  11. MOVIEGUIDE review
  12. Kat Butler's MOVIEGUIDE article: "What's wrong with NOAH?"
  13. Jerry Johnson lists five things he likes about the film.
  14. Peter T. Chattaway responds to Brian Mattson's anti-Noah article.
  15. Chris Goins. "NOAH: A Few Thoughts from a Pretty Simple Pastor and Dad"
  16. Steven D. Greydanus. "Fr. Barron on 'Noah'! Catholic Culture! More!"
  17. Plugged In. "Noah"
  18. Jeffrey Overstreet's commentary on Noah (Part One and Part Two)
  19. Kevin Ott's review of NOAH
  20. Russell Hemati - "Noah - a Christian Philosopher Review"
  21. An IGN.com review of the film by a Christian
  22. Ian Huyyet. "There's at least one conservative Christian who liked NOAH"

Con


  1. Barbara Nicolosi's review
  2. Answers in Genesis's page on Noah
  3. Kenneth Morefield's review
  4. Brian Godawa. "Deconstructing Noah's arc: Godawful storytelling" and "The subversion of God in Noah".
  5. Dr. Brian Mattson. "Sympathy for the devil"
  6. Dr. Albert Mohler. "Drowning in Distortion—Darren Aronofsky's Noah"
  7. Matt Walsh. "I'm a Christian and I think 'Noah' deserves four stars."
  8. Ben Shapiro. "9 Problems With Aronofsky's Noah"
  9. John Nolte. "'Noah' Review: Brilliantly Sinister Anti-Christian Filmmaking"
  10. Don Johnson. "How the NOAH Movie Dangerously Distorts The Truth About God"
  11. Denny Burk. "The midrashiest midrash that ever was midrashed ... A spoiler-free review of NOAH"
  12. Mennoknight's review of NOAH
  13. "A balanced Christian review of NOAH"
Discussion thread on Arts & Faith: "Noah"


Monday, April 7, 2014

Thoughts on "Thick" Libertarianism: Part 1 - Is Libertarianism More Than Anti-Statism?

There has been a recent controversy in the libertarian movement over the issue of "thin" vs. "thick" libertarianism. Some have argued that libertarianism shouldn't be "thick" while others (particularly of a more leftish inclination) argued that "thick" libertarianism is a necessary and a good thing.

So I have decided to give my few cents on this issue, from both a libertarian and a Christian standpoint.

In one article, left-libertarian Cory Massimino argued that libertarianism is more than just anti-statism and Sheldon Richman (a great writer, BTW) argued in favor of "thick libertarianism." However, many others have argued convincingly that libertarianism doesn't require being "thick" to be a good and that libertarianism, as a political philosophy, doesn't need any "thickness" added to it.

And now, I intend to give some of my thoughts on the "thick-libertarian" phenomenon, and why I think it is wrong-headed not only personally but also for the liberty movement in general.

I will also note that this will not be in-depth, for many great articles have been written on this subject, all of which can be found by a simple search on the Internet.

Is Libertarianism More Than Anti-Statism?

The great Catholic anarcho-capitalist writer Lew Rockwell wrote a column defining libertarianism and explaining what it both was and wasn't. Many libertarians took it to heart and agreed. However, left-libertarian Cory Massimino argued that libertarianism shouldn't be just anti-statism. It should be a holistically leftist movement committed to the non-aggression principle plus the leftist ideals of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and feminism, all as essential to libertarianism.

First, Massimino argues this:


The reason I concern myself with violations of peoples’ liberty that don’t owe their origin to the state is explained by Rockwell when he writes, “Our position is not merely that the state is a moral evil, but that human liberty is a tremendous moral good.” Exactly! I am against authoritarianism, domination, and believe in equality of authority. That is why I am opposed to statism. But it’s also why I am for a world free of institutional oppression in the form of patriarchy, racism, gay and trans shaming, and autonomy-destroying, hierarchical workplaces.
At the onset of the tone, it is clear that Massimino wants to infuse leftist ideals and concepts into libertarianism, thus imbibing certain leftist narratives and attempting to combine libertarian opposition to statism with opposition to all authority. But libertarianism, in its commitment to the non-aggression principle and it's recognition of voluntary organization and cooperation, allows for authority of various kinds, provided it is not gained through the use of force and an attaining of monopoly over a parcel of territory, like the State does. That means that gay and trans shaming, patriarchy, racism, and yes, hierarchical workplaces would exist in the libertarian society. They may not be as abundant or as widely-accepted as some right-wing libertarians would wish, but they would definitely exist. And discrimination (ah, that bogeyman of the left) will surely exist.
Later, Massimino says:

Rothbard’s argument shows how liberty is needed for each person to find their own purpose and achieve their own good. This goes beyond the actions of the state. Repressive cultural norms and domineering social customs also prevent people from flourishing. They, too, lessen people’s liberty. A black person can’t flourish if he lives in a staunchly racist community with employers and businesses who refuse him service. They wouldn’t be violating his rights, but they would certainly be diminishing his ability to achieve his own good. He would hardly be considered free in such an oppressive society.

Rothbard continues, “Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.” While this is an excellent quote by Lord Action, it doesn’t go far enough. Why would liberty only be relevant in the political sphere? It is certainly affected by various other factors. There is no reason to end our concern for human freedom at the doorstep of the capitol building. In order to remain consistent, we ought to extend that concern to all human interactions.

It is true that these types of relationships Massimino describes may be a horrible thing and a very sad one too. Liberty, however, means being free from the tentacles of being aggressed against, meaning that this freedom is a "negative" freedom. While libertarians may share admirations for other types of freedom, the "negative" ideal of freedom (not interfering with people's rights) is the primary political end. Other freedoms (freedom from sin, freedom from want, etc.) can occur safely within the bounds of negative freedom and are reconcileable with it, but they should not require the violation of other people's rights to provide for those rights. For example, "freedom from want," at least as interpreted by progressive activists, would require taking people's money against their will (taxation) to give to others. However, the freedom to take an unowned parcel of land and mix your labor with it does not violate another's rights, for that does not require the use of aggressive force and/or violence in doing so. So while repressive cultural norms and social customs may be restrictive of freedom in other senses, as long as there is no exploitation and initiation of force involved, then these social customs do not violate "negative" liberty. Also, since the Austrian economic theory teaches us that value is subjective, what defines "repressive" and "domineering"? Some may find the "repressive" traditions (no sex outside of marriage, no homosexuality, no adultery, etc.) to be not so repressive and in many ways liberating in their own way.

As for the example Massimino uses, the black person can then find another place where he can flourish, either by taking unowned land and mixing his labor with it (making it his property) and/or through voluntary exchange and market forces. The beauty of the libertarian society is that it offers options, and in such a society there will be options that don't always require the "crushing" of "repressive" norms, leaving almost no one's rights violated in the process. 
And is "liberty" be relevant only in the political sphere? In a way, that answer is not exactly yes or no. "No" in the sense that libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a holistic one, so the liberty that libertarianism advocates is a negative freedom to not have one's rights violated. Extensions to all human interactions will exist, but even then, as human interactions will become freer, there is not as big a need to make libertarianism holistic as Massimino and others would argue.
Later on, Massimino argues that making libertarianism "thick" is only a small branching out of core libertarian principles rather than extrapolating and adding to them. However, when one argues that libertarianism's foundations requires leftist principles and social constructs, then it is hard to consider this anything but adding onto libertarianism. And personally, I think the whole "pizza" comparison is a little offbase.