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.