Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 2: Paying Up

From the passages discussed in Part 1, we can glean several principles about our responsibility to pay our taxes, and about the extent to which it is legitimate to try to minimize our tax-paying through legal loopholes, etc.  Here’s a first attempt to think through those principles, and how they might apply concretely.  

1. We shouldn’t care

For himself, the Christian shouldn’t be bothered about paying taxes.  This is chiefly because the Christian shouldn’t be bothered about money in general.  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth” (Mt. 6:19-34; Lk. 12:13-34); “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  We are certainly not to seek after wealth as a good in itself–that much is obvious enough.  But nor are we to seek after it unduly as a means to meet our needs, for we are to have faith that God will provide–interestingly, it is what we might call legitimate prudence, rather than miserly greed, that is primarily being targeted in both the Matthew 6 and Luke 12 passages.  This does not mean, of course, that we are to indulge in sloth and apathy; it means we are to work diligently in faith, without fear, and it means that if we have enough for our needs, we will be content.  If someone demands money from us, then we will have no reason to make a fuss about it, because we don’t need it.  Of course, this raises the objection, “What if we do *need* it?  What if the government is in fact levying very oppressive taxes on very poor people?”  Well, actually, it kinda was in the Palestine of Jesus’s day; and Jesus still calls on us to trust and pay.  I imagine that there could very well be exceptions, however; but as our own tax systems are far less oppressive, considering our disposable income, it hardly seems like a relevant objection in modern America.


 2. It isn’t ours

It’s also important to remember that the money isn’t ours to begin with.  People will immediately raise objections to the first principle based on “good stewardship.”  Ok, fine.  But what does stewardship mean?  Taking care of what is someone else’s, in this case, God’s.  Now, if God demands it from us in some form or another (say, by putting over us a magistrate who demands it), then we can’t very well protest on the basis of good stewardship.  “No, God, we can’t give this up, like you’re asking us to, because we have to keep it safe for you.”  Ha!  

Indeed, more to the point, on whose behalf are we exercising our stewardship?  For God?  That’s silly–God doesn’t need the stuff!  “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  God gives it to us to exercise stewardship over it for the sake of those who need it.   Why does God give me the things that I have?  To use for the advancement of his kingdom, which will include any number of things, but will mostly boil down to using it for the help of my neighbor.  (This doesn’t mean there’s never any basis for enjoying it myself.  If God has given me more than enough, and I’m using the surplus to help advance his kingdom and care for those around me who need it, and there’s still surplus, then by all means enjoy it, and be thankful!)  Now, this raises a couple of points that have ramifications for the current question.  For instance, it raises the question of whether tax-paying is a legitimate means of helping the needs of my neighbor.  I think it is, but before addressing this, another issue must be cleared out of the way.


 3. Legitimacy isn’t relevant

In view of the foregoing points, a common issue that is raised in this discussion (indeed, the chief issue) melts away as irrelevant–the issue of legitimacy.  Generally, the question of taxation is posed in these terms: The government has a right to take a certain amount from you, and everything else, you have a right to keep.  Therefore, you have an obligation to pay the part they have a right to, and no more.  If they demand more than they have a right to, then in principle, you don’t have to pay, though you don’t really want to get put in jail.  So, by all means, look for legal loopholes, to avoid paying more than you have to.

This paradigm is immensely unhelpful on a number of levels.  For one thing, it simply embroils us in endess and heated political disputes which seek to determine how much the government does and does not have a right to.  This would seem a very difficult question to resolve in abstract terms, and even more so to determine clearly in particular circumstances.  So it doesn’t really solve the problem, and any answer it gives us is one that is hardly theological.  More seriously, it represents a “rights” paradigm that should be excluded ipso facto for the Christian by the fact that “we are not our own.”  We do not even possess ourselves, much less our earthly possessions.  We are possessed by Christ, and all that we have is at his service.  If the government takes more than they ought to, then, it is not we who are robbed, but Christ, and he is more than capable of taking care of himself.  Likewise, we might say that the government does not have “rights” so that we “owe” them anything in an absolute sense.  We all stand before God, and are accountable only to him.  “The sons are free.”  However, we express this freedom in love and service to all.  The sons pay their taxes not because the government constrains them, but because the love of Christ constrains them, and because they are free, in any case, from bondage to their money.  It has no hold over them, so why not give it up? 

To decide whether or not we ought to pay taxes, then, it is not really relevant whether or not the government demands “their fair share,” whatever that might be.  Perhaps the tax rate should only be 20%, but it’s 50%.  Well, can you afford to pay 50%?  Then shut up and pay up.  This, I have suggested is the point of Romans 13.  No doubt the Roman government was extraordinarily unjust with their taxes.  But how does the Christian confront injustice?  Like Christ, by giving himself up on behalf of others.

(Now, I should add that this does not, of course, preclude any form of speaking up against injustice and oppression.  It may be unhelpful to try to pinpoint a “legitimate” amount of taxes the government can demand, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to recognize an exorbitant and harmful demand.  And there are godly ways to oppose this–at least, one would hope so!  I’ll try to touch on this in the third post–Tax Protesting.)


4. Charity is the rule

Now, this “on behalf of others” then leads us to the crucial point.  The Christian is to use their financial resources for the sake of others.  This is the controlling principle.  So, what if I’m planning to give 30% of my income to charity, and the government comes along and demands that 30%?  

Well, the principle that comes in here (one I’ve recently been focusing on in my Reformation research) is this: we are not bound to civil laws, except insofar as failure to obey is a sin against charity.  Now, first, the law itself may be an expression of charity, and so failure to obey it will be ipso facto a sin against charity.  Although we are inclined to be highly skeptical of the value of our laws, and can easily list off dozens of examples of bad laws, the fact is that most of our laws, at any rate in a modern Western country, do considerably more good than harm.  Despite all the wicked and inefficient things in the US budget, I would be willing to hazard that a majority of our tax money then does actually do some very good things (even if one wanted to argue that the same money might hypothetically do even more good if controlled by another entity).  And I would submit that it is our duty to give the benefit of the doubt, assuming the law is an expression of charity, and happily paying up, except where there is clear reason to think otherwise.


And what if there is?  Well, it’s still possible that disobeying will be a sin against charity.  I can think of at least three ways: a) because other good people think the law is good, and your disobedience would look evil to them, and would thus be a source of offence; b) because you get thrown into prison or something, which is probably not good for anybody; if the law is downright wicked, it may be worth it, but usually not; c) because a bad order is often better than no order at all, and while the taxes may be bad, a failure to pay them will be disruptive in a harmful way.  

One or all of these, presumably, is probably in view in Romans 13.  The taxes were themselves bad, both by virtue of demanding too much from poor people, and from the fact that the Roman government used this tax money for some very wicked things.  Despite all this, Paul says pay. (Brief excursus: this, in my view, is enough to refute the regular arguments that we shouldn’t pay taxes that will go to support abortion (as the right will object) or to support wicked wars (as the left will object).  While we are by all means to oppose such things, tax resistance does not seem to be the right way to do so, at least in the ordinary course of events.  And it seems clear that we do not incur guilt by forking over the money that is used for such things.)  To fail to pay would have been a failure of the Christian charity that Paul calls for here–it would look bad in the eyes of their neighbors and their rulers, even if it did not call down needless persecution on them, which it may have done; perhaps also he knew that the attitude of the Roman Christians was such that any disobedience on their part would not have been rightly motivated.


But this does not prove that Paul’s command would apply in every circumstance.  What if, for instance, your sister had just died and left her three children for you to care for and feed, and along comes the tax man, and you simply can’t afford to pay him?  Well then, you would do as charity demanded in this situation–not pay–at least, not beyond what you were able.  Obviously an extreme example.  In such a case, you would be legitimate in refusing payment even if somehow it did cause offence–the urgent need of another human being that you were in a position to relieve could take precedence over the tax demand, so that you ought first to look for legal ways to minimize your payment, and if necessary illegal ways.  Now, it’s important to be careful here.  Because there are always urgent needs of other human beings.  Can I say I’m not going to pay my taxes this year because there are desperately hungry people in Haiti who need that money instead?  Well, I suppose there would be some moral integrity in this position if I really did give every penny I could spare to these desperate people, and lived an ascetic life myself; but few people are going to do that.  At any rate, I think a good sense of vocation will come to our rescue here–you’re not called upon to shirk demands that God has put right in front of you–the laws of your country–for demands thousands of miles away.   

And, to come back to my little parenthetical excursus above, you may have noticed that I said “at least in the ordinary course of events.”  Might there be times when tax resistance is legitimate because of the wicked cause the money is going to?  I think so.  Imagine if in 1400, the English king came along and said, “I have to levy a huge additional tax to finance an expedition into France, so I can kill fellow Christians simply to increase my domain.”  (You know, hypothetically–as if such a thing could ever happen!)  I think Christians could say, “Heck no.  We will not be party to such wickedness!”  Of course, I think that this ought to, as much as possible, be a corporate action, something church leaders could agree on, instead of just individuals taking it upon themselves.  Likewise, if the US gov’t came along and said, “We need to raise an additional $10 billion to fund Planned Parenthood this year, and we’re going to do it by taxing such-and-such.”  In such a case, by all means mount a concerted resistance to paying taxes on such-and-such.  Of course, I still wouldn’t say that you are required to do so, and would be sinning ipso facto by paying the tax.  It may prove unrealistic to resist the tax.  But if it was doable, then I would say it would be legitimate.  The problem is that most taxes are not like this, and if one is not given the opportunity to selectively opt out of the downright wicked bits of the tax, then one is not given license to start resisting the whole thing.

So, assuming such extreme circumstances aren’t in place, then what?  Well, then, you could only avoid taxes if it were not a source of offence or harm–possibly.  Here’s the bar one would have to meet: IF (1) a tax were in itself bad–unjustly demanded, wickedly used, whatever–and (2) you wanted to put the tax money toward another use that was clearly for the benefit of others, not simply for yourself; and (3) you could do so–avoid paying the unjust or harmful tax–without causing disruption, getting yourself in trouble, causing others to stumble or being a bad example to others with less pure motives, THEN it seems to me you would be justified in avoiding the tax.  Now, the way I’ve put it, this would conceivably include even tax evasion (which is illegal) rather than mere tax avoidance (which is legal), if you were certain that you could get away with the evasion and thus avoid violating condition three.  But I’d be very hesitant to go there in practice; at any rate, it seems quite unlikely you could be sufficiently certain, so you’d have to have a really darn good reason for it.  On the whole, this is quite a high bar to meet, and the capacity for self-deception is high.  If Christian love is our guide, in any case, we will not go in with an attitude of looking at a checklist to try to justify exploiting tax loopholes…rather, we would only go in that direction if love was otherwise driving us toward it by putting other more urgent demands before us.  


So much for paying.  But can we pay up scrupulously and fully and still protest the injustice, the inefficiency, the idiocy of our taxes?  In a final post, I’ll try to explore this question a bit.

11 thoughts on “Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 2: Paying Up

  1. Bradley

    "Despite all the wicked and inefficient things in the US budget, I would be willing to hazard that a majority of our tax money then does actually do some very good things."Most folks would probably make the same guess. Thankfully, the budget isn't a secret, so we don't have to guess. Therefore, it depends mostly upon what you call "very good things." If you believe killing 2 million Iraqis is a good thing, and keeping our military bases overseas filled with soldiers is a good thing, then yes, most of our budget goes towards very good things. (Although you might think I'm being sarcastic, I'm not. Remember, many Americans believe these *are* very good things.) A total of $901 billion goes towards our military and 'national defense.' That's 63% of the US Federal Budget! Absolutely everything else in the budget costs about $520 billion: only 37%. So when you pay your federal taxes, you should think of them primarily as supporting the military, with about 1/3rd of it going towards more domestic programs, like the Department of Education or Department of Transportation. Of course, that doesn't change the argument substantially. Your main points in this blogpost are still sound. I just wanted to notify you that your "hazard" regarding the budget was far from the mark. 🙂 Just because we recognize that it's alright for the government to build highways, let's not get carried away and start assuming the majority of their expenditures are good. Even if we included a hefty part of our military expenses as morally just and righteous, even then, well over 50% of the Federal Budget would be going towards evil. A huge improvement over Rome, but still nasty.


  2. Bradley

    I've appreciated these two blogposts, but I'd like to see more interaction on the significance of mundane tax mitigation. Throughout your posts you seem to have the more shady, extreme edges of tax mitigation in mind. But what about more normal practices? To a certain extent, we all use strategies to lower our taxes. If we can claim this or that as tax deductible, then we can save $100 on our taxes, etc. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with that. Or perhaps there is? Perhaps even that sort of mitigation might be wrong, if done for greedy and selfish reasons? I suppose anything done in greed would be wrong. So we might be able to condemn that sort of tax mitigation on grounds of greediness, but certainly it would be righteous in terms of submission to the governing authorities? It must be. My grandfather is an IRS agent, and even he approves of such practices.Would you say that even this, the most mundane of tax mitigation strategies, is subject to the 3 conditions above?


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    In reply to your first point, Brad:Yikes, 63%? That is ridiculous. I suppose I am still too steeped in my right-wing upbringing, which tried to pretend that 90% of the budget went to welfare, social security, and public education. But actually, that doesn't change my point–here's where my Hookerianism comes in. Not too long ago, I might've been of the radical mindset, "If it's bad for the government to be involved in, it should stop right away! Pull the plug! Elect Ron Paul!" But it ain't that simple. Fact is, that most of our overcommitments are such that an immediate pullout would do more harm than good (this factor applies to domestic overcommitments as well). And so, except in cases where our commitment is ipso facto a moral evil, I would submit that, in continuing to pay for our military presence, our tax money is doing good. In a highly qualified and regrettable sense, yes, but still. For instance, I have long thought that while we never should have gone into Iraq, once we'd created a big lawless mess, we had a responsibility to the people there to try to find a way to restore some order instead of simply leaving the country to destroy itself. The status quo may be ugly, but it can be better than no status at all, as may result from an over-hasty attempt to overturn the status quo.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    In reply to your second point:On the whole, I would still want to use the three conditions, or at least two of them. The condition about not causing offence still applies–indeed, your whole point is that, as these are completely accepted strategies, they would not in any way cause offence or a bad witness. And the condition about attitude still applies. It would be possible to be a stingy miser trying to take every possible tax deduction for ungodly reasons; but if the rest of your financial life were well-ordered in submission to Christ, then surely it would be fine to take advantage of such things. Indeed, if you're talking about, for instance, getting a tax deduction for charitable giving, that's not in any sense trying to take advantage of loopholes–that's there in the tax code for a very good reason, as a way of acknowledging that in giving to charity, someone has already contributed to the common good in the sort of way that taxpaying is supposed to do, so they are to that extent off the hook. But it's quite easy to use that very legitimate tax mitigation policy in questionable ways, seeking to exploit it for all it's worth and count all kinds of things as charitable donations that aren't really. And that's where you'd really start having to ask questions. I suppose I would question the use of criterion (1) here–does a tax have to be exorbitant or unjust in order to justify taking advantage even of the most basic and accepted strategies for tax mitigation? Perhaps the tax isn't bad per se, but you still feel that your resources could be better deployed for the good of your neighbor and God's kingdom by making use of them yourself, instead of giving them to the government. So I suppose I might want to reword the three conditions to say: "If (1) you feel that your tax money will be poorly used and (2) your goal is to use it to advance the common good, and (3) there is a perfectly legitimate route for you to minimize your tax payment, then you're OK."And from there, it's a spectrum. The more terribly or unjustly the gov't is using the money, the edgier you can get with your tax avoidance, to the point where, as I said in the post, if the tax is clearly being raised for a specific very wicked purpose, you could resist paying even if it did cause offence.


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    By the way, where'd you get those numbers? Officially, the US Federal Budget in 2010 was $3.5 trillion, of which only around $700 billion, or 20%, went to defense.


  6. Bradley

    On the first point: I agree with you about pulling out of Iraq too hastily. It's our mess now, and we bear some responsibility in cleaning it up. Unfortunately that argument doesn't apply to our military presence in Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, South Korea, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, etc. The numbers I provided were in reference to the Federal Discretionary Budget. Sorry, I probably should've made that clearer. When the President talks about introducing a new budget, that's what he's talking about. It's the budget paid for by our Federal Income Tax (and a few other misc taxes), which is the tax I had in mind during this blogpost. The budget is $1.421 trillion total and doesn't include Social Security and Medicare. Those are obviously paid for by the tailor-made taxes, namely Social Security Tax and Medicare Tax, which are not voted on by Congress and not part of the budget.A little less than $700 billion was officially portioned to the Department of Defense, yes. But it's closer to $901 billion total for military/defense when you add in the multitudinous expenses mysteriously counted on the civilian side of the budget, such as FBI Counterterrorism ($4.52 billion), Foreign Military Financing ($5.27 billion), Naval Reactors ($1.0 billion), Weapons Activities ($6.38 billion), etc., etc.


  7. Bradley

    On the second point: That makes sense. A sliding scale, where the more evil a tax is, the 'edgier' we can get in avoiding it to help those in need. That seems like the most wise and loving course of action. And certainly, today's taxes really aren't that bad (in the moral sense), therefore we aren't permitted to be so edgy in our tax avoidance.


  8. Just because we recognize that it's alright for the government to build highwaysActually, I'm not really a fan of this (nor of the military-industrial complex either). Building more roads implies the further penetration of automobiles into the life of a society. Beyond a certain minimum, I think that cars are a net social cost rather than benefit (when considering their total impact on climate, resource depletion, public health, physical trauma in collisions, reduced mobility and hence rising obesity, and so on and so on). It is abundantly clear to me that the US is more than abundantly supplied with cars. Much greater investment in public transport (and the town planning that goes with it) ought to be a high priority. And that is before we've even considered the resource costs of actually building roads.Having said that, I am a big fan of this post. Very stimulating and refreshing to hear Christian freedom articulated so joyfully (note that this freedom is not so that we can indulge our selfish desires, but is a freedom to serve our neighbour without being bound by anxiety over financial security).


  9. Brad Littlejohn

    On the first point: I agree with you about pulling out of Iraq too hastily. It's our mess now, and we bear some responsibility in cleaning it up. Unfortunately that argument doesn't apply to our military presence in Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, South Korea, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, etc.Well, it does apply to South Korea. As far as the others, their collective cost, while considerable, is a fairly small percentage of the overall budget.Byron,Thanks, those are of course very good objections to an automobile-centered transportation system, and I probably agree with you. All I really meant to say is that government expenditure on transportation is generally a good thing–I phrased that as "building roads" because that is what we Americans automatically think of when we think of government transportation expenditures.


  10. Bradley

    Okay, we're getting really off topic now. But what it applies to South Korea? How is it any different than our presence in Germany or Japan? They are an orderly, peaceful, perfectly fine country that doesn't require our presence for any reason (other than as a spending stimulus to their economy, which Germany in particular really appreciates!). I don't know how much it costs to support our thousands of military bases overseas, so I can't respond on that point.


  11. Brad Littlejohn

    In South Korea, we have pledged ourselves to protecting the security of a nation constantly threatened by a belligerent and highly militarized foe to their north. Sudden withdrawal on our part might tempt North Korea to attack. At least, that is what most policy-makers seem to think; I don't know the details well enough to confirm or deny that claim. If it is true, then I would tend to say that even if we shouldn't have made a commitment to South Korea's security in the first place, having made one, we should be careful about suddenly bailing on it. That's not to say, of course, that there might not be other much better ways of securing long-term peace in Korea, which should be earnestly pursued. But in the meantime, I'm not going to fuss much about the expense of our troop commitment there or in similar places.


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