By Bishop Michael Goings
Before I get into the aim of this commentary, I would like to make a bold and perhaps un-American declaration. I hate paying taxes! Now I know that I have just expressed the conviction of arguably the vast majority of every red-blooded American about this constitutional responsibility; this dreaded thing that we all must do to some degree in various segments of our culture. Paying taxes is, in my estimation, a necessary evil and is just as much a part of the rich history and heritage of America as baseball, apple pie, hot dog, or Chevrolet. As a matter of fact, it was a part of the primary and precipitous events that incited the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence. So in a real way, we owe a debt of gratitude to the role that taxes played in the shaping and birthing of our nation.
Important Tax Incidents in Scripture and History: Taxes as They Related to Jesus’ Life
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:1-5)
Undoubtedly and certainly in my estimation, this event has to rank at the very top of the list of historical events that occurred in the annals of history regarding taxes.
Isn’t it amazing that providence used taxes to maneuver Joseph and Mary to the very place that prophecy declared Jesus would be born?
Even Jesus Paid Taxes
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:24-27)
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:13-17)
These two events in the life and ministry of Christ simplified and settled the relevance of paying taxes, as far as I am concerned. To me, it refutes and repudiates the opinionated and distorted interpretations of both the scriptures and the Constitution that some have and therefore seek to justify why the collecting and paying of taxes is unconstitutional and unbiblical. Admittedly, as much as I despise paying taxes, how can I criminalize or spiritualize away its relevance when Jesus both paid His taxes and gave us clear instructions that we should do likewise.
The Whiskey Rebellion
We have already considered the role that taxes played in helping to birth this nation. Taxation without equal representation was the primary stimulant that caused the famous Boston Tea Party and other acts of protest and rebellion that would lead to the Revolutionary War. However, the United States, not many years after winning independence from Great Britain, was faced with a domestic rebellion of its own that was brought on by a dispute over taxes. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was brought about by a United States tax in 1791 on whiskey makers. The rebellion tested the use of federal power to enforce a federal law within a state. In the summer of 1794, the federal government ordered the arrest of the Pennsylvania ringleaders and their removal to Philadelphia. Rebel farmers in western Pennsylvania prevented the arrest. The rebels exchanged gunfire with government representatives, burned the property of tax inspectors, and marched on Pittsburgh. Several people were killed and wounded before President George Washington raised an army of nearly 13,000 soldiers who put down the rebellion. It is ironic that the issue of taxes that played such a pivotal role in our nation’s shaping and history will perhaps be one of the essentials that determines our destiny for better or for worse.
What is a Necessary Evil?
At this point, I think it is necessary to explain what I mean by the term “necessary evil”. A “necessary evil” can be defined by perpetrating an act or practice that causes harm or great injury to oneself or others to preserve life or promote the common good. Self-defense is a “necessary evil” that has been used by some that inflicted injury or even death on others in order to save their own lives.
Imminent Domain is a practice that our government employs on every level to assure that what is better for the many will not be held up by a few. It is a “necessary evil” when those with pure motives who wield either political or economic sway use it properly, fairly, and without bias or manipulation. War is a “necessary evil” and “War is hell” as General William Tecumseh Sherman so appropriately coined it. However, without it America would still be under British rule, slavery would still exist in America, and Nazism would perhaps have dominated the world.
Taxes…The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Having already established the historicity and importance of receiving and paying taxes, I want to conclude by asserting that the system is not by any means perfect and at times can seem unfair to some and tilted toward the favor of others. Perhaps one of the great inequalities of our tax system is how it is overburdening and diminishing the middle class and yet at the same time is affording the truly rich more breaks and loopholes. My assertion is not based upon the numeric principle, but the principle of proportion. The middle class is being squeezed and is disproportionately carrying the tax burden of this country. I believe that those who have been given more by way of income should be taxed in accordance without getting away scot-free because they can afford lawyers and experts who know about all the breaks and loopholes. Just because it is legal does not make it fair and right. One of the taxes I absolutely abhor is property tax, especially the kind where you are not the occupant of the property for which you are being taxed. I know you cannot get around this “necessary evil” that helps to fuel our various governmental bureaucracies and their functions. I still hate it because in a way it seems like you are being punished and penalized for striving to have something. Now I want to briefly mention what I deem as the worst problem with our tax system, especially on the federal level. That problem is fiscal waste. When I consider how our national debt has soared to pandemic and epic proportions that are what some of the economic experts are laboring as insoluble, I am truly angry and disappointed. Our governmental leaders in both the White House and Capital Hill have demonstrated neither the will nor courage to address and remedy this fiscal cancer. It will certainly bankrupt and ruin our economy and standard of living if something is not done immediately to cure the malignity. Admittedly, I am no tax expert and have to employ someone to do mine each tax season. However, it does not take an expert or fiscal genius to surmise that the answer does not lie with a practice of over spending and increasing of taxes in order to pay on the interest and remain solvent as most liberals propose. Neither is the favoring of the rich in regard to taxes and diminishing of entitlement programs, coupled with inconsiderate or insensitive policies embraced by many conservatives towards the poor the solution. The answer, I believe, is a just and practical solution that lies somewhere in the middle through the practice of compromise and the abandonment of partisan politics that will be the death of this nation if it continues. For what our leaders cannot see is that extended or permanent polarization will always lead to certain pulverization.
Summary and Conclusion
Throughout this commentary, I have held to my disdain for taxes and will probably go to my grave hating them. However, I have asserted that in spite of taxes being a “necessary evil” much good comes from the proper and proficient distribution and use of them on the federal, state, and local levels. For without taxes, we would have no money to maintain our military or various law enforcement agencies on every level. For without taxes, our infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, etc.) would be in a worse shape than many of the developing and third world countries that I have visited. For without taxes, our public education system, as well as our health care system could not survive. So though I hate paying taxes, I nevertheless love the good that they afford every American citizen in some way. I will therefore continue to pay my taxes on every level and frown and grimace when it is time to meet this patriotic duty as a citizen complying to a necessary evil.