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Religion and Taxes: Commentary

January 4, 2008 · 0 comments

After I wrote my piece on religion and taxes, I emailed the link to my priest, Father Kirk Berlenbach, at St. Timothys because I thought he might have some interesting perspective. He responded by posting a fairly lengthy comment which I thought deserved its own post. Here’s what he has to say… I welcome your responses!

Hi all

I know I am joining this late but felt compelled to weigh in.

I am Kelly’s priest and she invited me to take a look at this post in particular.

I was intrigued by what she (and all of you) have written thus far.

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely agree that we cannot allow any one religion or denomination to control our goverment or its policies. However, as individuals, we all have a obligation to try to make sure that our goverment creates policies that allow for equity, justice and opportuinty for all… IOW policies that are moral and good. Naturally, there will be a wide range of opinion as to how best to create that enviornment and even over what defines “moral” and “good.” So I can only speak for myself.

As a liberal Christian, it is essential that we all recognize that God is interested in many more aspects of human behavior and morality than just what we do with our genitals. That includes economics. Jesus speaks about sex only a handful of times (and in fact never once mentions homosexuality). YET – he talks more about money and economic justice than any other subject. So it is an unavoidable conclusion that what we do with our money, both as indivudals and as a society, matters a great deal to God. This is entirely different than the “prooftexting” practice that both Dobbs and Miki cite. In fact I would agree that one cannot simply pull verses willy-nilly and come up with a sound argument. But when one finds a theme, something that is discussed over and over, at great length, then I think it is fair to begin to draw some conclusions.

So, it is more than fair to say that Jesus and the economic system of the Old Testament alike were very concerned with the poor and disadvantaged (strangers, aliens, widows and orphans). In fact, the biblical economic system has ways both of providing for the needs of the poor- both tithing and leaving the gleanings which could be considered very much like a welfare system. Next, the practice of charging interest (albeit to fellow Jews only) was forbidden. Furthermore there was the once a decade practice of canceling all debt and freeing slaves. Finally there was the every 50 year practice of the Year of Jubilee in which land was returned to its original owners. Both of these occasional practices were designed to keep the playing field level and to minimize the reality of there being a permanent under-class.

By making sure that no one was forever enslaved to their debts and that everyone had the chance to earn a living, God offered a system that was both fair and equitable. One could earn profit… one could become rich through hard work… one could leave one’s wealth to one’s children but one also had an obligation to look out for the poor and to make practical and real contributions to their care and their needs. This is a system which has elements of both Capitalism and Marxism.

Anyway, as to the specific issue of “moral” tax code… I would agree with Hamill that we need to scrutinize and confront systems which are clearly designed to keep the rich rich at the expense of the poor. By no standard is this either just or moral. In fact the only people you will find arguing for it are those who benefit from it and are thereby trying to protect their own interests. Now this is an entirely understandable and human thing to do… one always looks to protect one’s own… if I have money then I will be included to vote for laws and legislators that promise to protect or increase my wealth.

What we must all understand is that human beings are fundamentally interdependent and connected. When one of us suffers, it impacts us all. So we have an obligation to look out for one another and when we have more than what we need, we need to make sure that we are sharing our abundance with those who do not have enough. This is entirely in keeping with the practices of the early church (see Acts). Yet one need not be a Christian, nor even a theist of any kind to see the truth of it. So long as we exploit the poor (who lack both voice and power to effect change within the confines of the system) to our own benefit (assuming that everyone in this conversation is middle-class or higher), then we fail on our moral duty to care of one another. Sadly, this has consequences not only for the poor, but also for us.

One day we, or our children or our children’s children will pay the price for our neglect, our greed, or our indifference. Indeed we pay it now… only a mile from where I sit in my warm office in Philadelphia there are neighborhoods of my city that are ruled by poverty… I could not walk there safely (nor can the residents thanks to the drug dealers)… this profound contrast in economics and justice hurts not only the residents of that neighborhood… it hurts me and it hurts my children. How so you ask? By perpetuating the evil myth that all people are NOT created equal.. that people live like that because they are lazy or stupid… that they are somehow deserving of their fate… so long as such racial and economic prejudice exists, we will never live in the truly free and equal society that was the vision of the Founding Fathers of these United States.

For more info please read, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald J Sider.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristen King January 4, 2008 at 8:00 am

…as individuals, we all have a obligation to try to make sure that our goverment creates policies that allow for equity, justice and opportuinty for all… IOW policies that are moral and good. Naturally, there will be a wide range of opinion as to how best to create that enviornment and even over what defines “moral” and “good.” So I can only speak for myself.

So what exactly do you feel can be done? I see a lot of discussion about what result we want, but I’m not sure I understand how you think it could potentially be accomplished. In other words, how can people meet the obligation you describe? (You discuss sharing abundance, but that doesn’t have an impact on legislation per se.) I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear yours.

Kristen

2 Kirk T. Berlenbach January 4, 2008 at 8:43 am

Hi Kristen-
You get right to the heart of the matter which is, of course, the most challenging part of any debate. How do we put this into practice? Well I am not a tax person nor a law person so I don’t know how any particular legislation ought to be contructed but what I do feel is that any and all tax law needs to recognize the truth and respond appropriately; namely that we have a collective obligation to care for the vulnerable members of our society. This is tricky because I also adamantly oppose the idea of trying to legislate any particular religion (if you want to live in a country ruled by fundamentalists you can move to Iran or Saudi Arabia). However, in looking at any piece of legislation the question must be asked- “Who benefits?” Does it only serve to make the rich richer? Does it protect or enhance the wealth of corporations? What is the effect on the poor, the disabled and the elderly? The “Trickle Down” theory does not work. Legislation must account for and address the needs of all, not just the wealthy and powerful who create it. Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently verse to describe what such law might look like.
Therefore it is my conclusion that the most immediate (and perhaps most important) changes are to be made at an individual level. I can only assume that a majority (if not the entirety) of the people in this conversation have more than what they need to live. We must each evaluate our own lives and use of money in the light of our moral obligation to the whole of our community, including the poor and disenfranchised. How you choose to put that into action must be decided on an individual level but it can include lots of possibilities- it begins by evaluating your standard of living- what do you really need? Then begin applyiing this standard to your daily choices of what you buy. You must also make a commitement to share your time, your talent and/or your money (including the money you save by simplifying) with those causes/charities that you deem worthy.
I look forward to hearing your ideas.

3 Ren Garcia January 4, 2008 at 9:20 pm

on keeping the rich rich at the expense of the poor: as long as the economic pie (gross domestic product, in economic-ese) does not grow, this will always happen because the rich have more opportunities for grabbing a bigger share of the pie, i.e., “money begets money.”

4 Kristen King January 5, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Personally, I don’t think this is a problem human government can solve, nor individual humans (thought of course generosity and care for fellow mankind is certainly a worthy pursuit in the model set forth by Jesus). It’s an imperfect system run by imperfect men whose desires for personal success and power (and lack of actual power) interfere with their ability to effect change. My feeling is that the only government that can bring about the just system we all want is God’s kingdom government (Dan 2:44), which is discussed throughout the Bible as the solution to all of mankind’s problems and which Jesus taught us to pray for (Matt 6:9,10). What do you think?

kk

5 Kirk T. Berlenbach January 7, 2008 at 7:36 am

Ren and Kristen are of course correct-
there is no way to establish a perfectly equitable system. People are imperfect, selfish and greedy. Those with money and power will naturally use what they already have to amass more. This most definately applies to us all, especially myself.
My point was that even though we may not succeed, we need to try to establish personal codes of conduct AND tax policies that emphasize our communal obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable. We may not elminate the problem but we must do something to address it because we can ALL do more than what we currently do.
“The Kingdom” as Kristen puts it, may not be established by human hands alone, but we need to do our part and keep reaching for that goal, all the while trusting that some day, God will finish our work.

6 Mary Jo January 7, 2008 at 11:51 am

I went to a Jesuit university, and we used to have fascinating discussions on topics like this.

Somehow, it never translated into a parish situation. If there had been more priests like you, willing to debate and discuss issues, perhaps more of us would not have fallen away from the church.

I’m enjoying following this discussion.

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