Monday, March 10, 2014

"Hate Taxes More Than They Love Jesus"

(Nobody likes to pay taxes. But is there a religious duty to do so? Some religious leaders believe the answer is yes, as I found when I researched this subject in 2004.)

Do Christians have a religious duty to pay taxes?

The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales says yes. And not only that, they say Christians should be happy to do it.

But wait, there’s more: They also say that wealthier Christians should pay more taxes, in order to ease the burden on the poor.

“Taxes are very much based on the principles of solidarity, which is based on the commandment to love your neighbour,” said Bishop Howard Tripp at launch of Taxation for the Common Good, a 40-page document that is designed to spark discussion about taxation and public services in the United Kingdom.

According to Tripp, Christians should “rejoice” in the chance to contribute towards the sort of society that they want. 

“This document is suggesting taxes are a way to play our part and it is something we should be pleased to do,” he said. “It’s all part of our duty to our neighbor.”

Added the Most Reverend Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Cardiff, who headed the committee that created the report: “Taxation is a sign of social health, a moral good. Our willingness to pay it is a sign of our solidarity with one another, and of our humanity.”

One person who tried to put this kind of thinking into action was Alabama Governor Bob Riley.

Riley, an evangelical Christian and Republican, stunned many of his conservative supporters in 2003 when he advocated a tax reform plan that would have shifted a significant amount of the state's tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations.

In trying to rally support for the plan in the heavily-religious state, Riley argued that it was a matter of Christian duty to reform a tax system in which a family of four making as little as $4,600 a year paid more taxes, percentage-wise, than the richest of the state’s residents.

Said Riley: "I've spent a lot of time reading the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: Love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 a year an income tax."

Under Riley's proposal, which critics called the “How would Jesus Tax Us?” plan, just the top third of income earners, plus corporations and large farm and timber operations, would pay more taxes. Anyone earning less than $20,000 a year would pay no income taxes at all.

Christians in Alabama were divided over the plan, with some church groups in favour and others attacking it.

“Never in Scripture does it say, ‘Render unto Caesar so he can take care of the poor,’ said John Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, which opposed the plan. “It is the church's responsibility.”

When Riley’s tax reform plan was defeated by Alabama voters in a special election, one observer was prompted to remark that “for all the moral high ground Christians claim,” their opposition to the proposal showed that “they hate taxes more than they love Jesus.”

Given reports of government waste, the last thing many people of faith in Canada want to hear is that we have a religious duty to give politicians our hard-earned money.

But maybe the English and Welsh bishops have a point; maybe there is a moral and religious foundation to taxation that includes Jesus’ command to love our neighbours, whoever they are, and wherever they live.

It’s a shared commitment to creating a society that serves the common good, with a special concern for the neediest among us.

So if you’re up late one night this month trying to calculate your income tax, maybe it will help if you don’t think of it as a burden. Maybe you will feel better if you see it as a way to serve God and love your neighbour.

But I think you will be forgiven if you don’t feel happy about it.

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