So, I’ve expended a great deal of metaphorical ink on attacking the idea that having a somewhat irresponsible government gives us license to avoid paying taxes. Many people may say, “So what? Who is this aimed at?” Don’t most people, even most Tea Party conservatives, pay their taxes, fully and on time? No one wants to go to jail, after all. Perhaps some do try and get creative to minimize their tax burden through loopholes, but honestly, the average working-man doesn’t have time for such shenanigans. So how is this relevant?
Well, my parents always used to have a good principle: Obedience while grumbling and complaining is as good as disobedience. Can we really claim to be upright citizens if we pay our taxes, but get out in the streets on April 15th to yell and carry angry signs? If we mouth off on talk radio stations about how “oppressed” we are? If we’re supposed to pay our taxes, then aren’t we supposed to pay without grumbling or complaining, without angrily protesting, without making it clear that we’re paying only because we have to?
And yet, are we supposed to be meek sheep, silently obeying whatever we are told, no matter how unjust? Jesus may have been led like a lamb to the slaughter, but he had no qualms about calling oppressors to account in no uncertain terms. Complete silence and passivity in the face of injustice is not a manifestation of Christian charity, because it lets ones neighbors continue to suffer. So what is the balance here? This is the question not merely of taxation, but of all Christian political action.
Regular readers may recall a similar discussion that emerged in the course of my posts on coercion last summer. There I argued against seeing the government as a coercive imposition, which we only obeyed so as to avoid going to prison. Coercion, I argued, is in a very important sense in the eye of the beholder. If you obey willingly, then you’re not coerced. If you thinks that you’re obeying simply to avoid going to prison, then voila! you’re being coerced. If Christians are to be above fear, then their obedience should never be coerced, but always be free. And yet, the question arose, does this imply complete willing, uncomplaining, non-resistant obedience? And if so, doesn’t that mean that oppression is simply allowed to continue? If we willingly and fearlessly accept the oppression, then it is never called to account–and that is not love.
So clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg of some rather big issues. But I will try to offer a just a few thoughts specific to the issue at hand, though they will have implications for other issues.
In view of the considerations offered in the first two posts, there are two targets we must keep in our sights to guide us in this issue: greed and love. The former we must always be on guard against, the latter we must always be guided by. If we are protesting taxation because we think that we’re entitled to more of our own income and we don’t want anyone else to get their grubby hands on it, then we should probably reconsider our protest–it is probably not a godly one. If we are protesting taxation because we convinced that others who can ill afford it are suffering, or because the taxes are being used to fund abortion, for instance, then we may be on to something. There is still a right and wrong way to protest, but at least there is a good cause. But what about something more abstract? What if we are convinced that the current tax regime is inefficient and unhelpful, that in the long run it will hurt the economy and hurt needy people, etc. Well, this too can be justified, though such protests, it seems, must be correspondingly more patient, muted, and willing to compromise.
But when we say “protest,” what do we mean? There are, of course, violent forms of protest, but thankfully, I don’t think that’s what anyone has in mind the current atmosphere of Tea Party America, so I will not here try to pursue the vexed question of whether violent resistance to government is ever justified. However, the question of violence cannot be quite so hastily laid to rest, for there are ways of being violent without engaging in actual violence. You may recall that a few months ago, when the Arizona congresswoman was shot, there was a great deal of discussion about all this, and I weighed in with some thoughts criticizing the violent attitudes and rhetoric that had come to dominate the political scene.
If political action for Christians is supposed to be an exercise in love of neighbor, and not an angry insistence on one’s own “rights,” then it goes without saying that violent rhetoric, which does not show love for one’s adversaries and rarely does any good for one’s friends, is inappropriate. There is of course no clear line on what constitutes “violent rhetoric,” but certainly much of what we hear on talk radio and occasionally in political protests falls under this heading.
The most appropriate forms of protest are those that have been built in to our political system. For while Romans 13 may appear to endorse a kind of political quietism, we should remember that there weren’t really any legal channels for protest and remonstrance in Neronian Rome. We, on the other hand, do have elected representatives, however skeptical we may be that they will actually do their jobs. Through them, we are invited to give our input regarding perceived injustices, we are given an opportunity to protest without taking matters into our own hands. So if we are honestly concerned about the effects of a policy, and what it might do to our communities, there is nothing wrong with seeking to make this concern known through established channels. This goes for either of the causes of protest I mentioned above (i.e., downright oppressive or wicked vs. long-term harmful).
Unfortunately, we have witnessed in recent decades the progressive erosion of the established channels. Political policy is progressively shaped only by plebiscite, a perpetual referendum on the unreflective sentiments of the whole populace, carefully manipulated by incessant marketing and media spin. The “established channels” for making our concerns known are increasingly those of the opinion poll, the street march, talk radio, and social media. Sheer quantity, rather than quality, of opinion expression is the barometer that guides our politicians. It’s like those talent shows where they vote for a winner by seeing which part of the crowd can yell the loudest.
Such a climate poses great temptations for Christians–the temptation simply to add our voices to the shouting match, and thus lose the ability to communicate anything coherent or uniquely Christian. If we gather together to celebrate a “Tea Party” with a bunch of angry people fighting for their “rights” or preaching resistance to “tyranny,” people who decry any taxation used for things they don’t personally approve of as “theft,” then however godly our own motives, our voice is subsumed into theirs. If we have the most loving motives in the world, and want to make a Christ-like witness in the public square, this is almost impossible if our voice is simply drowned in the cacophony of dissent. Not only that, but I think we deceive ourselves if we imagine we are immune to losing the clarity of our own convictions. How many Christians, I wonder, start out with a recognizably Christian rationale for protesting against “big government” or “oppressive taxes,” and end by speaking nothing but the language of greed and rights–“Mine! Mine! Mine!”?
It is not, I think, necessary to carry on all political action in explicitly Christian terms, or to refuse to ally with any who do not share all our goals and convictions. However, we need to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” We need to be always ask, “Can Christ’s love be shown through this sort of action? Can I bless my neighbor through this sort of action (not only in the short term, but in the long term)?” And we must be carefully attuned to the possible side-effects of our actions, to the way our protest will come across, whether it will bring Christ into contempt, whether it will advance the agenda of elements that are ultimately destructive to any Christian charity.
So, can we, as Christians, protest taxes and other perceived injustices? Well, possibly. But can we protest as Christians? That is the question. If we cannot, if we can only speak as outraged property owners, or as capitalist ideologues, or as troublemakers who remain perpetually unsatisfied with any status quo, then we’d best stay out of the brawl and find better uses of our time.