Saturday, October 16, 2004

Taxes and Ethics

Politics obviously consumes many people’s attention right now. While I have tended to focus on matters relating to theology or interpretation; I will spend the next few posts examining some issues where Christianity intersects politics. The focus in particular is on areas where I feel current discussion among Christians is less than Biblical. The first issue relates to tax policy; and I thank those I discussed this with and who helped me sharpen my focus, and hopefully better my argument.

John Kerry’s plan to pay for his social programs involves rescinding the tax cut to the top 2% of Americans who make more than $200,000 a year. Questions about whether this amount of money will actually be able to cover the expenses he proposes aside, is it right to tax the rich more than the rest of the population? I would answer that this reflects sound principles. As a basic principle, I hold that those who are strong are morally obligated to help those who are weaker than themselves, that those who are blessed with plenty should help those in poverty. A graduated tax system, not only make sense if we desire to fully fund without deficits all of our societies goals, but also reflects this general principle.

This principle is clearly in evidence in Scripture. Two examples will suffice from the Old Testament law to demonstrate this principle. First, Leviticus 23:22 commands harvesters to not harvest the edge of their field, or to pick up what the reapers dropped, in order to provide for the poor. The law had a built in requirement to provide for those less fortunate in society. Second, their was a “progressive” sacrificial system based on what the individual was able to provide. If, for example, an Israelite sinned, and was not able to afford a lamb, he could bring two pigeons or doves; and if he could not afford the birds, he was allowed to bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flower (Leviticus 5:7-13). This sacrificial system was not simply a religious institution, but a means of providing for the priests and Levites who ministered before the great King of Israel. One could say the sacrificial system functioned like an early graduated tax system. The principal can be observed in the New Testament also. Once again, two passages will suffice in demonstrating the presence of this principle. First, one of the reasons which Paul gives for work in Ephesians 4:28 is that one would have something to share with those in need. The purpose of money is not to selfishly accumulate capital, but to minister Christ’s love “as we have opportunity” (Galatians 6:10). James statement in his second chapter evidences the same concern. The reality and vitality if faith is evidenced by a believers works, particularly in relation to a brother or sister in need (verse 14-17). Many other text could be brought forward to demonstrate the basic principal that the strong have a moral obligation to help the week.

This principal is not limited to Scripture alone. The greatest thinkers of the past supported a similar principal. Most directly to this question, Aristotle write in Politics, “The true friend of the people should see that they be not too poor, for extreme poverty lowers the character of the democracy; measures therefore should be take which will give them lasting prosperity…[I]n the meantime the rich should pay the fee for the attendance of the poor at the necessary assemblies; and should in return be excused from useless public services.” Cicero similarly writes, “Without doubt, the highest privilege of wealth is the opportunity it affords for doing good, without giving up one’s wealth.” Baruch Spinoza wrote in his Ethics, “The care, therefore, of the poor is incumbent on the whole of society and concerns only the general profit.” Even the great father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations, “No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

Several objections arise. First, some could question the propriety of arguing from the Old Testament for twenty-first century nations. However, while it would be improper to directly apply Old Covenant laws, the moral principles, or general equity is still binding. The Westminster Confession states, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” Second, there is a world of difference between one voluntarily giving to the poor verses its imposition by the state. While one could admittedly view this as forced charity, however, this does not appear to be the greatest perspective. No one complains about the tax relief offered to the 26% of Camden residents whose rent accounts for 46% of their monthly income. Somewhere this gap must be made up. Asking those who are rich and can afford it to grant relief to those who are truly needy in society is not only common sense, but expressive of social nobility. The goal of course of course is in the end, that those individuals who were beneficiaries of society’s charity would later become the benefactors. Third, it is objected that this policy unfairly penalizes the rich. This objection, however, reeks more of Western greed than sound, noble thinking. Having opportunity to help another, whether formal or informal, in not a penalty but a privilege. For the Christian, the offering aid in this manner to another is more than a noble deed, but a fulfillment of the second great commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness.” It is God who has freely and graciously blessed the rich with the talents and opportunities which account for his plenty. It is God who has preserved and prospered society; and it is God who will judge both the individual and the society for how His blessings are used.

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