Editor's note: Click here to learn about and order the documentary "Sacred Texts, Social Duty."
"For a just and flourishing society, we need to have a balance between church and moral institutions and government and the opportunity for individuals to choose rightly …," Victor Claar said.
A clichéd question took a bottom-line twist: What would Jesus do about the national debt?
The question was raised by Matt Cook, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Ark., during a panel discussion following the EthicsDaily.com documentary on taxes, "Sacred Texts, Social Duty."
The event was part of the church's summer "Sweet Justice" series focusing on Christian perspectives on social issues.
Wrestling with the questions were Ray Higgins, coordinator of Arkansas CBF and a former seminary professor; and Victor Claar, economics professor at Henderson State University and co-author of the recent book, "Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices."
The formal discussion and informal conversation that followed continued well past the allotted hour and a half.
"I think (from the example of Jesus), we should handle the national debt like you handle a large personal debt," Claar said. "If you have a large debt, the next year you should spend a little less and retire a little of the debt. It's good stewardship."
"We have to take into account how our economic life affects the poor," Higgins said. "I don't know how good government is in addressing the needs of the poor or how much the free market addresses the needs of the poor. We Baptists like freedom theologically. It feels contradictory to me to like freedom theologically and not like freedom economically. What puts the brakes on it economically for me is one of Jesus' strongest teachings about vice was the vice of greed."
"Find those agencies and programs that are significantly transforming lives," Claar said. "In economics, you don't have lab experiments. You don't have another macro economy that you can go tinker with and run 100 million rats around and find out how to tweak it."
The panelists, both of whom had viewed the documentary, had no disagreement on the Christian obligation to pay taxes, through the example of Jesus and Scripture.
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"As a citizen, it's my responsibility to play a role in the common good and participate in community and one of those ways is paying taxes," Higgins said. "Being a Christian is a steroid shot to that. It adds more value, more importance, more significance to the role of helping the poor, seeking justice and promoting the common good."
"For a just and flourishing society, we need to have a balance between church and moral institutions and government and the opportunity for individuals to choose rightly and participate as creators alongside God in bringing forth his kingdom," Claar said. "The question is how much should be done or how much should not be done by government. The devil is in the details."
One of liveliest parts of the discussion was generated by generators.
Claar gave an example of a Kentucky businessman who, in the wake Hurricane Katrina, went to a retail store and bought 19 generators, then traveled to the hurricane-ravaged gulf and tried to sell those generators for double the price he paid for them.
The question was raised whether the man was being helpful or greedy. A show of hands among the audience of about 50 was split, with a few raising hands for both characterizations. Claar said the attorney general arrested the man, charged him with price-gouging, and the generators got to no one.
"The best way to handle problems is for the best people who can handle it with the most efficiency to handle it," Claar said, noting that the businessman was able to get needed generators to the gulf quicker than any government agency.
"Why get in the way of that?" said Claar. "The guy was trying to serve people he had never met who were in dire straits."
Discussion ensued from several audience members about whether the man was acting out of Christian charity or clever business enterprise. After all, if he spent his money, time and gas to purchase the generators and transport them to the gulf, shouldn't he be allowed to make a fair profit?
Others questioned whether the markup on the generators was consistent with that of other goods and services in the area at the time.
Claar gave another example: After the earthquake in Haiti, the country was flooded with food and other items from government and private agencies – so much so that it drove some Haitians out of business.
"That's an example of our best intentions harming a culture," Higgins said.
Claar says a delicate balance is required among three spheres: the free market (or economy), the government and cultural or faith-based institutions.
"When one of those oversteps or goes too far, there is more opportunity for oppression and injustice," he said.
"Taxes do a tremendous amount of good," Higgins said, "but there is also a lot of waste and ineffectiveness I wish we could prevent and clean up … Individual freedom should be focused on the common good."
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.