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.