Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 3: What is Christian Protest?

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.  

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.

Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 1: A bit of exegesis

What should Christians think about taxes?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  How much do we have to pay?  What about tax shelters and loopholes?  What if we can legally avoid taxes–can we do so?

Such questions, which not all that long ago might have been considered no-brainers, are now a pressing ethical question for Christians, particularly in America.  As our governments increasingly lose the respect of their people and the aura of legitimacy, all taxes come to seem like an imposition, a coercive demand.  Many Christians are convinced that most of our taxes are in fact a form of theft, and hence to be protested and, if possible, not paid.  Any legal loopholes should be exploited readily as safe ways to avoid paying taxes we have no duty to pay. 

Although I’ve regularly given thought to related issues on this blog (see here and here), a recent question from a friend afforded me the opportunity to try to offer a more systematic ethical reflection than I’ve yet given the matter.  I certainly welcome any feedback.  A full response to this question would require a thorough consideration of the role of government in a well-ordered political theology, which is something I won’t pretend to offer here.  But a few key Scripture passages will provide us with some good starting points:


When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” 
He said, “Yes.” 
And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” 
Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” 
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.  Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

 –Mt. 17:24-27 (NKJV)

In this passage, a couple of things jump out at us.  First is Jesus’ striking flippancy regarding the whole matter– “They want money?  Heck, here’s a fish, take the money from the fish and pay it to them.”  Second is his apparent claim that Christians–“the sons”–can consider themselves “free” from the duty of taxpaying.  They should pay only “lest we offend them.”  Taken together, Jesus appears to give us a picture of Christian freedom, a freedom that expresses itself in service precisely because it is free also from selfish concern.  In one sense, you need not pay, but in another sense, you have no reason not to pay–it’s just money, after all. 

This is consonant with a recurrent theme of Jesus’ ministry, one we have seen already in Matthew–that Christians need not be overly concerned about money, their hearts are not to be set on it: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).  It is not merely greed that we are to avoid, but a prudent preoccupation with just making sure we have enough; instead, we should trust that God knows what he’s doing, and will provide: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:31-33)


Something similar, I suggest, is going on in the famous “Render unto Caesar passage”:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money.” 
So they brought Him a denarius. 
And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 
They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 
And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

–Mt. 22:15-22 (NKJV)


What’s interesting here is that Jesus does not, as a matter of fact, answer their question at all.  Too often, this passage has been read as if he clearly did.  They ask, “Is it lawful?” and he answers, “Give unto Caesar what is his due,” so clearly he is saying that it is not only lawful, but necessary.  But of course, Jesus does not actually say anything about “what is due”–he merely notes that this money is, in fact, Caesar’s.  There are several things going on here.  For one, we notice again a flippancy, a lack of seriousness confronted with a question which, for many Jews, was deadly serious.   Instead of appealing to theological principles to answer this question, which for the Jew was weighted with theological significance, Jesus adjudicates it on the question of a picture: “The coin’s got Caesar’s picture on it, so it must belong to him.”  

But there is a deeper message, underneath the irony.  Jesus’ teaching ministry is permeated by a contrast between God and Mammon–you cannot serve two masters.  And Mammon is repeatedly identified with the power-hunger and violence of both Rome and the Jewish leaders.  “Caesar demands money?” asks Jesus–“Well of course he does, since his kingdom is all about money.  God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is about other things.”  Give Caesar taxes, then, and don’t fuss yourself about it, if you are truly of God’s kingdom.   


Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  Therefore “ If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.  Render therefore to all what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are owed, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.   

–Rom. 12:14-13:8; NJKV (except for verse 7, which I have translated so as to make consistent with verse 8) 

As you may know, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time over the past couple years studying this passage, but I’ll confine myself here to a couple general points, without seeking to include the detailed justification for them that I’ve worked out elsewhere.  The point in this passage, I think, is not to lay out criteria of governmental legitimacy, upon which basis our obedience (including taxpaying) is required.  I think, on the contrary, that the point is to sidestep the issue of “legitimacy” altogether.  The Caesars were hardly “legitimate”–either in title or practice.  The taxes they demanded were largely unjust, both in quantity and in purpose.  But that doesn’t stop Paul from insisting that the Roman Christians continue to pay their taxes (or, if you translate the verb as indicative, as the NJKV above does, assuming that they will continue to pay their taxes).  This is because tax-paying is not primarily about legitimacy, but about love.  Jesus, as you will recall, told Peter to pay taxes “lest we offend them”; Paul here calls on us to obey and pay the authorities as a way of “blessing” rather than “cursing.”  Even if the government is an enemy, what are you supposed to do?  Feed the enemy.  What if it asks more than is justly owed to it?  Well, love should determine how much is owed, and there is no limit to love.  

The idea here is that Christians are not to be self-concerned in any of their relations–rather, they are to be concerned about how best they can show concern for the other, which includes enemies and authorities.  They are not to be be pre-occupied with ascertaining “legitimacy” and adjudicating “rights,” but are to be humble, confident that God is in control, and is using all things for good.  This is the context within which we are to understand tax-paying.  The main questions are not “How much can the government justly demand?” but “What opportunities for love and service does this demand provide?  How can I respond with maximum charity, faith, and humility in light of this demand?”  

Shifting from “rights” and “legitimacy” to “charity” does not necessarily make matters simpler.  Charity is a tricky business if there ever was one.  But it does help clear the field of false concerns that often blind us and entangle us before we even get to working out the tricky business of charity.


In these passages, I have taken what is, I suppose, a fairly Anabaptist tack, implying that the government is always bad and their tax-collecting illegitimate.  It is not my intention to make that claim.  Rather, the point is that, even if the government were bad and illegitimate, the core values and duties informing Christian taxpaying (and Christian citizenship in general) would still be operative.  If the government is in fact doing good and wonderful things for society, then all the more reason to pay up willingly.  

In the following post, I shall try to draw some implications from these passages and the rest of Scripture regarding tax-paying and tax avoidance.  I may also try to offer an additional post with some thoughts on tax protesting, if time allows.

The Land is Mine

Some of you may recall, from around a year ago, that I posted from time to time on the relationship between law and ethics in the Pentateuchal social justice laws–were these laws moral rules of charity or genuine civil legislation of justice, and what did this tell us about the relationship between charity and justice more generally?  To answer the question took six months of labor on a paper of many thousand words, with which I was still never quite satisfied, so I was quite bowled over, with a kind of exasperated delight, when I found Eric Nelson summarily deal with (resolve?) the whole question in one elegant paragraph in chapter 2 of The Hebrew Republic:

“The vision [of property rights] in question is epitomized by a striking semantic fact about the Hebrew language, well-known to Biblical scholars, but worth repeating in this context.  Those of us whose languages use terms derived from Greek and Latin are used to marking a key lexical distinction between ‘justice’ (dike/iustitia) and ‘charity’ (charis/charitas).  What distinguishes them is the element of personal discretion.  If I give you a $5 bill to which you have a legal claim, this is an instance of justice, not charity; if, however, I give you a $5 to which you have no legal claim, this is an instance of charity, not justice.  Hebrew recognizes no such dichotomy.  The same Hebrew word (tzedek/tzedakah) refers both to the fulfillment of what we would regard as conventional legal obligations and to the performance of what we would regard as charitable acts.  The reason is straightforward.  In the Biblical worldview, God is regarded as the owner of all things and is therefore empowered to impose whatever conditions he wishes on the use of his property by human beings.  Many of these conditions involve, for example, care for the poor and indigent, but precisely because these are legal obligations imposed by a rightful owner on his tenants, they are no more discretionary than, say, the payment of debts.  The Hebrew Bible develops this into a theory of property according to which there is only one owner.  As God says to Moses in chapter 25 of Leviticus, ‘the land is mine’ (Lev. 25:23).”

Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much what I was trying to say.  Brilliant.  

Locke’s Right to Theft of Private Property?

Is “theft” ever just?  Is the right to private property absolute?  That is to say, does a man in urgent need have a right to the means of his sustenance so that he is entitled, if necessary, to take what he needs from a person who has more than enough?  Regular readers of this blog will recall that this has been a frequent theme of discussion here in the past year.  In the past, however, it was Aquinas who was commonly referenced as the chief example of this concession, this limitation of private property rights (common though it was in the classical Christian tradition).  But although John Locke often figures in such discussions as the symbol for the development of modern, capitalistic, increasingly absolute property rights, it turns out that this theme is not alien to his thinking either.  He remains more traditional than we might expect.  

Locke shares with Aquinas and the tradition the belief that in the beginning, the world and its goods were created for the common enjoyment and sustenance of all mankind, each of whom had an equal right to be nourished by the earth’s fruits.  Although he gets from this point to the lawful existence of private property via a significantly different route than Aquinas, this starting point means that he can hardly allow that anyone’s subsequent private property rights could extend to the point of denying basic sustenance to the starving.  

In his meticulous summary in The Right to Private Property, Jeremy Waldron states that according to Locke, private property rights “are themselves constrained by a deeper and, in the last resort, more powerful general right which each man has to the material necessities for his survival.  This forms the basis of what one might refer to as entitlements of charity in Locke’s system.”  Waldron expounds further: according to Locke, everyone has a responsibility, second only to the preservation of his own life, to preserve the lives of others.  This of course imposes the negative duty not to harm others,

“but Locke quickly makes it clear that the duty has a positive side to it as well.  When it is put together with premisses (1) and (2), it generates the following claim-right as the substantive basis of the Lockean theory of property: ‘Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence’ (II. 25).  That this doctrine imposes positive duties on men to satisfy others’ needs (or at least stand aside while the needy make use of property  acquired by those who are not needy), and that these duties are correlative to the rights of the needy, is emphasized in the following important and often-overlooked passage from the First Treatise: 

‘God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a Property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it. . . . As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, . . . so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise. (I. 42)’

Locke, in other words, is not prepared to concede absolute rights to any owner, no matter how respectable the [147] pedigree of his endowment.”  

Of course, we may notice the oddity of the term “entitlement of charity” and the clause, “so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty…”  This seems a bit oxymoronic, as the whole point of “charity,” one would have thought, was that it was free and voluntary, extending beyond the obligations imposed by justice.  Justice involves strict rights and obligations, it concerns what a man has a “title” to, but charity operates at the less clear-cut level of moral obligation, where one’s duty to render something to another does not necessarily correspond to any right that he has to expect it from you.  Needless to say, the dividing line between these two, particularly on this question of economic justice, has been bitterly contested.  For, if an obligation is one of justice, then, on standard definitions, one has recourse to the justice system in case the obligation is not performed.  And thus, on our particular example, the hungry man would presumably be exonerated in court for taking the loaf of bread from the rich man’s larder.  But if the property owner merely has a charitable duty to forgo his rights in favor of the needy man, then he could still prosecute the thief.  On a wider level, if the right to sustenance is a right of justice, then a government may have some role in restricting property rights accordingly.  Waldron clearly takes the right to sustenance as a fully-fledged right that can genuinely override the right to private property, but the actual language is a bit fuzzy.

Of course, Locke’s ambiguity at this point is not uncommon.  Even in Aquinas, there is a confusing tangle of duties of charity and justice governing the limitations on property rights (though John Finnis has helpfully untangled these–see here); in Leo’s Rerum Novarum, more influenced by Locke than Aquinas, he says “if the question be asked, how ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: ‘As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need.’ Wherefore the Apostle says: ‘Charge the rich of this world…to give readily, to share with others.’”  But, he goes on, “these are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action,” a point that has proved contentious in subsequent Catholic Social Teaching.  However, it is worth noting that Leo does make the case of extreme need–of basic sustenance–which is the proviso under discussion in Locke, a matter of justice, and so an actual structural limit on property rights.


One other interesting point on which Locke does not advocate absolute private property rights–he does not believe one has a right to use or abuse one’s property.  C.B. Macpherson claims that according to a modern understanding of property rights (with which he groups Locke), “It is a right to dispose of, or alienate, as well as to use; and it is a right which is not conditional on the owner’s performance of any social function.”  James Tully argues however, that for Locke, property rights “are not rights of abuse; on the contrary, a man ‘has not the Liberty to destroy . . . so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare preservation calls for it’ (II. 6).”