Thursday, May 05, 2011

The "WWJD" Rhetoric: Scripture and Taxes

"What Would Jesus Do?" Apparently, some "progressive" politicians and religious leaders believe he would raise taxes. Is this rhetorical argument valid? About as valid to my thinking as using scriptures to set public social policies — which is to say the Bible is a lousy rhetorical brace for a number of reasons. I'm uncomfortable with the Religious Right and a Religious Left only compounds my unease.

What lead me to think about the topic of Jesus and taxes?
Huffington Post: What Would Jesus Cut (or Tax)
by Jim Wallis
Christian leader for social change

It used to be very popular for Christians to ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" They even wore bracelets with the initials "WWJD." The bracelets acted as reminders that as Christians, our actions should always reflect the values and example we see in the life of Jesus. Already, in a first wave of response to the proposed cuts, thousands of Christians told their members of Congress that they need to ask themselves, "What Would Jesus Cut?" They believe, and so do I, that the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. And that is exactly what the Bible says, over and over again.
No, no, no, and again, no, Rev. Wallis. The Bible, both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian Gospels, tell us and our temples / churches to care for the needy, to be charitable and kind. The Hebrew Bible, however, features a clear and definite separation between the religious temple and the governmental throne of power. Just ask King David, the most admired leader of the Jewish people and a man favored, at least in Biblical tradition, by the Lord.

When progressive politicians and ministers / rabbis of the Social Gospel start to rely on part of the scriptures, they open up questions about why scripture should not be used as the justification for any and all social policies. Hopefully, I'm not alone in viewing religiously based rhetoric as ill-advised regardless of the person using scripturally derived rhetorical devices.

The following discussion is not theological, as I have explained previously:
I am not religious, and I am not a formal theological scholar, but some of the myths used by politicians (and political religious leaders — same difference?) in public statements are clearly absurd and deserve to be debunked. I write this only from the view of errors in political speeches and writings — errors I believe are intentional in many instances. I am not writing this as a Christian or Jew or anything else; my intention is not to claim that Biblical accounts are historical or true. However, if you are going to cite the Judeo-Christian scriptures and traditions, you should at least get those right.
With the caveats, cautions, and disclaimers offered, I want to challenge the rhetorical argument that "Jesus" or "the Lord" viewed government and taxes as the correct and righteous way to provide charity and support for those in need. Embracing Jesus, the Hebrew Prophets, and the "heroes" of the Bible to argue for a governmental role or specific policy is risky.

Rev. Wallis and other progressives ask us what Jesus would do. I have to imagine Jesus, as Christ, would not be in government. He would be working through a church and other charities. How can I make this claim? Because Jesus is God, and God expressed clear views of government and faith to King David.

Let us first deal with a basic notion of "the Christ" and how we might ascribe political views to Jesus. It is my understanding that Jesus is both God and human. In theory, any opinion expressed by God in the Jewish traditions is the opinion of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus makes clear that He meant to fulfill and enforce previous Jewish laws and traditions (see Matthew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them..."). So, for anyone to claim Jesus changed the basic rules is a contradiction of numerous scriptural and traditional views of Christ.

If God and Jesus are one and the same, then Jesus probably shares His / His Father's disdain for expansive government (represented by various kings). Yes, there is evidence in scripture that the Lord really doesn't like it when a government tries to expand into the social realm of the temple.

The story of King David’s political overreach is chronicled in the books of Samuel and the Chronicles. The prophet Samuel even warned Israelites what would happen if they had a king.

The Israelites make a big mistake in I Samuel 8:10-20: they ask for a king. Samuel warns the people this is a bad, bad idea. Why? Because a king will take ten percent of everything and make slaves of the people. Yes, ten percent is equated to slavery. The only tithing one is supposed to do in ancient Israel is through the temple, through the religious powers instead of the state (the king).

Sure enough, even the great King David gets a little tax happy. God doesn't like high taxes; believe it or not several passaged in the Bible comment on this. Taxes are supposed to be "fair" and "fair" is defined as something less than tithes. The temple receives ten percent, the king (government) receives less.

In II Samuel 24:1-9 and I Chronicles 21:1-7, King David commits a horrible sin. David orders a census for the purposes of taxation. Conducting a census is actually banned in the book Exodus. What in the universe would lead to such a decision? Satan, of course. I'm certain plenty of areligious people agree: intrusive government is evil. Apparently, Satan likes the notion of a census and taxes.
I Chronicles 21:1-2: Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number."
Even David's loyal military leaders question this decision, though they do so politely in both II Samuel and I Chronicles. The language in these scriptures illustrates the polite formality and deference of the culture, but the meaning is also clear: the military leaders disagree with David.
II Samuel 24:3: But Joab said to the king, "May the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?"
It turns out that one should not conduct a census against the will of God. I don't take the language literally; I assume David experienced guilt and remorse, not a heart attack, after the census.
II Samuel 24:10: But David's heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly."
What did David do that was so wrong? He was attempting to raise money from the people following a series of wars. According to some scholars, he also sought to provide some basic services to the people. Water, in particular, was in short supply, and some historians suggest water was at the core of many regional conflicts. So, by modern standards, the census was to raise taxes to pay for wars and essential services.

But, God wasn't so happy with these actions. Why not? Because traditionally the Rabbinical Duties included counting the men of the temple, collecting tithings, and providing for charity. David was attempting to assume religious duties, according to some Biblical scholars. To be blunt: with money (taxes, tithes) comes power and influence. The influence rightfully belonged to the temple, not the throne. (Gad is not a typo, it is the name of a prophet.)
II Samuel 24:13-16: So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me." So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand."
The government (David) was denied the taxpaying citizens. The deaths of men also reduced the numbers available for military service. In effect, the move towards a census and tax increase had the exact opposite of its intended effect: the government paid the price. At least David was smart enough to realize the people had done nothing wrong — except follow his orders, which in the scriptures as the same as committing the sin.
II Samuel 24:17: Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, "Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house."
The "I was just following orders" excuse doesn't work for God. This is definitely a political telling of history, a warning to the Jewish people that following a king should never eclipse the laws of the King of Kings. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus challenges the powers of the temple and of Rome. Passive acceptance of bad government is unacceptable. Joab defies the king (the government) and that happens to be the right thing to do.
I Chronicles 21:6: But [Joab] did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king's command was abhorrent to Joab.
Not only is the scripture a lousy rhetorical device employ in a basic tax debate, the Bible seems to argue against "takings" via imminent domain — at least not without fair compensation. There are two versions of how David ended the plague he brought upon the people with his census (and tax) plan. In both versions, David has to pay a private property owner for an altar location. First, the II Samuel version:
II Samuel 24:18-19: And Gad came that day to David and said to him, "Go up, raise an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite." So David went up at Gad's word, as the LORD commanded.
24:20: And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him. And Araunah went out and paid homage to the king with his face to the ground. And Araunah said, "Why has my lord the king come to his servant?" David said, "To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be averted from the people."
24:22-23: Then Araunah said to David, "Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king." And Araunah said to the king, "The LORD your God accept you."
24:24-25: But the king said to Araunah, "No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing." So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.
The same passages in I Chronicles read:
I Chronicles 21:22: And David said to Ornan, "Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the LORD—give it to me at its full price—that the plague may be averted from the people."
21:23: Then Ornan said to David, "Take it, and let my lord the king do what seems good to him. See, I give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for the wood and the wheat for a grain offering; I give it all."
21:24: But King David said to Ornan, "No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing."
21:25: So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site.
While II Samuel and I Chronicles are "Old Testament" scripture, as I stated earlier we must assume that Jesus would have the same political views as God. This is simply not a good position from which to argue for progressive, Social Gospel public policies. To do so, you have to pick-and-choose scripture passages, and even then you risk having the opposing side cite another Biblical passage as counterargument.

So far, we have evidence God doesn't care for a government census (but the Lord does approve several congregational counts in the Hebrew scrolls), taxes over ten percent (and prophets equate high taxes to "slavery"), or government not paying fair-market value for private property.

It shouldn't be taken for granted that Jesus was born during a tax-related census, either. Israeli culture was deeply, deeply suspicious of kings collecting wealth — which often went towards funding wars with nearby kingdoms. David? He wanted to raise an army. The Romans? They taxed the residents to pay for the occupation of Palestine! Taxes end up going to "bad" uses in the Bible.

Though I oppose using Biblically based rhetoric during any policy debate, let me at least attempt to find some passages that might be of use to progressive arguments. It does seem Jesus might suggest taxes are fair and reasonable based on Mark 12 and Romans 13. The famous passage from Mark is:
Mark 12:14: And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?"
12:15: But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it."
12:16: And they brought one. And he said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said to him, "Caesar's."
12:17: Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they marveled at him.
However, some scholars suggest this passage is much more complex than a superficial reading implies. Many of the residents of occupied Palestine did not consider Roman coins to have any value. Anything with a picture of Caesar on it was deemed "worthless." Read in this light, Jesus is telling his audience that Roman items are Rome's, while everything done for the Jewish community had a special value.

I'm not sure this more nuanced reading is correct. But, Jesus doesn't tell the audience to pay Rome ten percent — he tells the audience to offer Caesar "the things that are Caesar's" without qualification.

The argument could be made that U.S. currency is from the government, for the government, and as spiritually empty as a Roman coin. That might lead to an interesting rhetorical argument that paying taxes and surrendering material wealth is okay because wealth has no meaning. If that is true, does the property for which David had to pay following the plague have meaning?

Then, we encounter Romans. Romans presents a problem, at least for Christians, because it reminds us that nothing happens without God allowing it. Therefore, everything happens with God's consent. The argument becomes, "It is, so it must be okay with God." If there are taxes, they must be okay. If there are government price or wage controls? Then God must have approved those. Romans 13 reads:

Romans 13:1-4: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
13:5-6: Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
13:7: Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
By this theory of Divine Right, anything goes. It’s not that different from the notion that the State is Right because it is the State — power is its own justification for everything, from taxes to mandated behaviors. I’m sure more than one Social Conservative would reject the idea federal power is absolute simply because it is. So, the Bible turns against the “right” as easily as it does the “left” in debates.
Is it really wise to consider modern political realities through 90 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. sensibilities and superstitions?

My rhetorical critique is based on the scriptures and history, not any personal theological views. I would rather religion not be part of the political debate, but there is also no avoiding the language of religion in American politics. At least the debate should be "accurate" — even if I consider the scriptures literary works, they do express the political views of the authors. It would be reasonable to assume the lessons in scripture reflect the beliefs and political philosophies of the peoples involved.

For the curious: At Christmastime, I addressed a small portion of the annual rhetoric about Jesus. To call the rhetoric "misleading" is an understatement. To the best of my ability, I focused on the rhetorical use of Jesus, not the theological arguments. I did not discuss the actual holiday (which has little to do with Jesus historically or otherwise) or the Biblical admonitions against some of the traditions we practice (see Jeremiah 10:2-5 regarding decorating trees).
See: Rhetoric and Politics of the Birth of Jesus

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