Churches have often misused and misunderstood the Bible verse that says “render unto Caesar” as an excuse for tolerating unjust taxes that oppress the poor, a speaker at a Baptist Center for Ethics luncheon said Thursday.
“My job today is to convince you as good church leaders that tax policy is something you need to address in your pulpits and your Sunday school classes,” said Susan Pace Hamill, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. “You need to shake up the tax experts in your pews, the accountants and the lawyers that sit there Sunday after Sunday and then perpetuate and tolerate the oppressive policies, as I did for so many years myself.”
Hamill, a Methodist, worked as a lawyer for the IRS and a New York law firm before turning to advocating tax reform based on values found in the Bible. She developed her thesis that “biblical principles of justice require that the community at large embrace and protect reasonable opportunity of all God’s people to reach their potential” while studying for divinity degree at Beeson Divinity School, a branch of Baptist-affiliated with Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Hamill said Christians who rail against social issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research lose credibility if they also don’t demand just tax laws. That is because of the four, taxation is likely the only what will affect them personally.
“Unless you are also willing to bring your faith-based moral principles into the high-sacrifice realm of tax policy, your opposition to abortion is just another low-sacrifice proposition being driven by something other than genuine faith-based principle and has no credibility as a moral position,” she said.
Hamill said as a nation America is embracing low-sacrifice issues and ignoring high-sacrifice issues because of greed. As a result, she said, a “gulf of injustice is widening,” and nowhere is it more evident than in taxes.
Thirty-one states, she said, “grossly violate the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.” The other 19 states “have problems but they are more complicated and less severe.” “There is no state in this country right now that gets it right,” she said. Hamill said she believes only churches have the moral authority to lead Americans to embrace high-sacrifice issues along with other moral issues, but that is not yet happening in many places. “Why are we not talking about this extremely important issue in a biblical way?” she asked.
“I think it goes to the question of cost. In order to stand up in the pulpit and challenge your parishioners to think about this issue in a biblical way, guess whose ox you have to gore? The chair of the building committee, the chair of the pastor-parish relations committee, the Grand Poobah that gives to charity and thinks he’s wonderful, but he’s indifferent to the high sales tax pulverizing the poor–you have to tell that person he is not as much a saint as he thinks he is, and that is a tough job.”
“Biblically based tax policy is a high sacrifice issue for most of us,” she said. “It’s asking us to submit to the nasty law demanding more and not giving us any credit. That’s pretty high sacrifice.”
Hamill said the theological basis for her message is Luke 12:48: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” “This is a really hard message,” she said. “It is one that rocks the church and the people to the core, because the message is that those of us with more have to pay a proportionally greater burden.” Hamill said there is no more unpleasant topic for a preacher to address than taxation.
“The truth be told, none of us like paying taxes, and most of us will do whatever we can to minimize our share,” she said. But Hamill said the reason the law forces citizens to pay taxes is that most are too greedy to pay their share voluntarily. “How many times have you heard somebody say that the church in its charitable compassion will provide for the poor?” she asked. “Do you believe that as fallen human beings mired in the sin of greed that we have the ability to be charitable enough? I don’t.
In the orthodox approach no one is exempt from the fall of humankind, except for the One who died on the cross. But the rest of us are unfortunately stuck with fighting the sin of greed. That is why taxes have to be compelled. “Preachers, can you imagine passing the hat on April 15 to run the government? Would it work? No. So right there we are sort of stuck with compulsory laws that force us to pay because we are too greedy to do otherwise.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.