Friday, January 6, 2012

Christianity and taxes

I'm almost done with the book The Least of These; Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians by Susan Pace Hamill. The author achieved tenure at the University of Alabama School of Law and had an upcoming sabbatical. She felt she should study ethics, so went off to the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham. She eventually completed a masters of theological studies and her thesis became this book. She felt she was in a unique position to look at tax issues from both the legal and Judeo-Christian moral viewpoint. The thesis is only 81 pages long and more than half of most pages is taken up with footnotes (which can be skipped, though that's where all the Biblical quotes are). Here's a summary of her points:

The tax system in Alabama is so unfair that it intentionally perpetuates poverty. Property taxes, the potentially most progressive, are way too low, especially on forestry property, which is a high percentage of the state. Income taxes are essentially flat, which makes them regressive, and have such a low exemption that the working poor (with a job but still under the poverty line) must pay. The percentage of their income going to taxes is much higher than that of the rich. State sales tax may be moderate, but since local governments can't raise enough money anywhere else, they tack on a hefty local sales tax -- on the people least able to pay. Even with the extra sales tax school districts are chronically underfunded. Poor people cannot break out of the cycle of poverty. Hamill, being a law professor and a scholar, provides plenty of details in those extensive footnotes. Hamill includes a discussion of standard principals of evaluating whether a tax system is fair. Yup, the Alabama system fails them all.

Since this tax system was created in 1901 and this is Alabama it is obvious who the poor people are and why their education is intentionally inadequate.

On to the moral argument.

Deuteronomy 6:5 -- Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you strength.

Leviticus 19:18 -- Love your neighbor as yourself.

Our link with God is inseparable from a proper relationship with fellow humans. God imposes a complete pattern of moral and social behavior on believers. We are responsible for one another.

The rest of the Biblical quotes are from The Message, a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson.

Exodus 22:21-22 -- Don't abuse or take advantage of strangers; you, remember, were once strangers in Egypt. Don't mistreat widows or orphans.

Exodus 23:10-11 -- Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29 -- At the end of every third year, gather the tithe from all your produce of that year and put it aside in storage. Keep it in reserve for the Levite who won't get any property or inheritance as you will, and for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow who live in your neighborhood. That way they'll have plenty to eat and God, your God, will bless you in all your work.

Deuteronomy 15:1-2 -- At the end of every seventh year, cancel all debts. This is the procedure: Everyone who has lent money to a neighbor writes it off. You must not press your neighbor or his brother for payment.

Deuteronomy 15:11 -- There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.

Deuteronomy 15:12-14 -- If a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman was sold to you and has served you for six years, in the seventh year you must set him or her free, released into a free life. And when you set them free don't send them off empty-handed. Provide them with some animals, plenty of bread and wine and oil. Load them with provisions from all the blessings with which God, your God, has blessed you.

Deuteronomy 16:18-20 -- Appoint judges and officers, organized by tribes, in all the towns that God, your God, is giving you. They are to judge the people fairly and honestly. Don't twist the law. Don't play favorites. Don't take a bribe—a bribe blinds even a wise person; it undermines the intentions of the best of people.

Deuteronomy 17:15,17 -- Choose your king from among your kinsmen; don't take a foreigner—only a kinsman. And make sure he doesn't build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. And make sure he doesn't pile up a lot of silver and gold.

Deuteronomy 24:14-15 -- Don't abuse a laborer who is destitute and needy, whether he is a fellow Israelite living in your land and in your city. Pay him at the end of each workday; he's living from hand to mouth and needs it now.

Deuteronomy 24:17 -- Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights.

Leviticus 19:9-10 -- When you harvest your land, don't harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don't strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner

Amos 2:6-8 -- Because of the three great sins of Israel—make that four—I'm not putting up with them any longer. They buy and sell upstanding people. People for them are only things—ways of making money. They'd sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. They'd sell their own grandmother! They grind the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into the ditch. Everyone and his brother sleeps with the 'sacred whore'—a sacrilege against my Holy Name. Stuff they've extorted from the poor is piled up at the shrine of their god, While they sit around drinking wine they've conned from their victims.

Amos 5:7 -- Woe to you who turn justice to vinegar and stomp righteousness into the mud.

Isaiah 1:17 -- Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.

Isaiah 5:8 -- Doom to you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land for yourselves—Evicting the old owners, posting no trespassing signs, Taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless.

Isaiah 10:1-2 -- Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims— Laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, Exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children.

Micah 2:1-2 -- Doom to those who plot evil, who go to bed dreaming up crimes! As soon as it's morning, they're off, full of energy, doing what they've planned. They covet fields and grab them, find homes and take them. They bully the neighbor and his family, see people only for what they can get out of them.

Micah 3:1-3 -- Don't you know anything of justice? Haters of good, lovers of evil: Isn't justice in your job description? But you skin my people alive. You rip the meat off their bones. You break up the bones, chop the meat, and throw it in a pot for cannibal stew.

Leaders have special responsibilities of upholding justice:
Ezekiel 22:25-29 -- Your priests violated my law and desecrated my holy things. They can't tell the difference between sacred and secular. They tell people there's no difference between right and wrong. They're contemptuous of my holy Sabbaths, profaning me by trying to pull me down to their level. Your politicians are like wolves prowling and killing and rapaciously taking whatever they want. Your preachers cover up for the politicians by pretending to have received visions and special revelations. They say, "This is what God, the Master, says..." when God hasn't said so much as one word. Extortion is rife, robbery is epidemic, the poor and needy are abused, outsiders are kicked around at will, with no access to justice.

Proverbs 31:8-9 -- Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!

Jeremiah 22:3 -- Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters. Don't take advantage of the homeless, the orphans, the widows.

Yes, there are a lot more Old Testament passages like the ones above. And a lot of Christians insist chunks of the Old Testament (like the Top Ten) should still be in force. But what about the New Testament? Does Jesus say the same thing?

Luke 3:11 -- "If you have two coats, give one away," Jesus said. "Do the same with your food."

Luke 12: 16-20 -- Then Jesus told them this story: "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest.' Then he said, 'Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself, Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!' Just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?'

Luke 16:19-25 -- There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man's table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, 'Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I'm in agony in this fire.'

But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It's not like that here. Here he's consoled and you're tormented.

Matthew 25:41-45 -- Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'

Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?'

He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'

Philippians 2:3-4 -- Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

1 John 3:17 -- If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God's love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.

Acts 2:44-45 -- And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met.

And there are a lot more verses like that in the New Testament.

Putting this together has reminded me of the priorities of God and Jesus. I tend to skip a great deal of the Old Testament because so little of the laws seem to have anything to do with modern life (not to mention a passage here and there used to condemn me). I had forgotten there is a great deal that does apply to the modern age and does support the values I hold dear.

Putting these verses all in one place shows clearly that the GOP and their backers are not living up to Christian ideas. This is quite an indictment of a party who claims to represent those same ideals. They clearly do not.

But back to Alabama's taxes. Few of these passages talk directly about taxes. They certainly don't talk about sales tax v. property tax. Do they apply to today? Yes, says Hamill, they do. One must look at what those commandments meant for the society of the time, extract the general principle, and apply that same principle to our own society.

And when those principles are applied, Hamill says, at the very least the tax structure should allow the poor a way out of their poverty. At the very least the schools should be funded to sufficiently educate all children so they are able to get a job with an income at least above the poverty line. Anything less is immoral.

Judeo-Christian ethics calls on those with privilege to use their access to power structures to alleviate the plight of the poor by at least reforming the tax code. Those who selfishly take advantage of the poor's lack of knowledge to maintain the current system (through misleading ads, or thwarting the truth) are violating the principle that forbids economic oppression. Those in positions of power have even greater responsibility to right this wrong. Religious leaders bear the greatest responsibility to educate the community about this oppression and to speak this truth to the powerful.

I could say, yeah, that's Alabama. It doesn't apply to me. But Michigan's income tax is also flat (mandated by the state constitution). Several years ago property taxes were shifted to sales taxes. And last year business taxes were shifted to pension taxes. Schools in Detroit, Flint, and Benton Harbor appear to be consistently underfunded. This isn't just an Alabama issue.

And I haven't yet talked about national taxes.

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