Sunday, February 18, 2018

On the Mount (18)

Back in 2013, Republican congressman Jeff Duncan toured a Department of Homeland Security training facility in Maryland and observed eight or nine IRS agents engaged in target practice with semi-automatic Colt rifles. It later occurred to him to ask, “Why do IRS law enforcement agents need standoff capability that you would have with a long rifle or with a weapon similar to an AR-15?”

Good question, but it goes to the basic nature of taxation.

Taxation is not “giving”.

The Colbert Christmas Screed

That’s a distinction lost on media personality Stephen Colbert, whose well-circulated Christmas rant has less to do with loving the poor and serving the needy than he may think:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Few of the thousands who retweeted and Facebook-shared Colbert’s message noted the context in which his remarks were made. Fact is, Colbert was not encouraging Americans to send more money to World Vision or UNICEF; he was peeved at his fellow citizens for expressing enthusiasm about reduced tax rates. He was singing the praises of confiscatory redistribution.

Render Unto Caesar

I say that in the kindest possible way, and fully cognizant that we are to “render unto Caesar” what is his. But confiscatory it is; there is nothing remotely voluntary about taxation, the AR-15 in your friendly neighborhood taxman’s hand being your first clue.

Taxation is not giving. Love is not a necessary prerequisite. If we don’t pay up in a timely fashion, ultimately the powers that be will come and take what they may by force, quite literally at the end of a gun; in this case one with considerable stopping power.

The enthusiasm or hardness of heart of the citizenry with regard to the percentage of our incomes deducted at source and redirected to the “poor and needy” doesn’t much factor into policy-making. We don’t get to decide how much, or to whom, or on what basis. These things are determined well above our heads.

Synagogues and Streets

But the synagogues and streets are where hypocrites have always done their giving going back thousands of years. It should hardly surprise us if our society now accepts without debate the notion that “giving” is a function of government. It certainly relieves us of any personal responsibility.

Does that sound right to you? It shouldn’t:
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In the words of the Lord Jesus, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount — and if and only if one does it right — giving to the needy falls into the category of “practicing your righteousness”.

Every one of these words is important.

The Practice of Righteousness

Practicing — The Greek word poieĊ gets translated as “do”, “make”, “bring forth”, “commit”, “fulfill”, “keep” and a host of others. In this case the ESV has translated it as “practicing”. The thing every single one of these words has in common is that they are active verbs predicated on human choice. You can’t “practice” righteousness passively by watching others help themselves to the fruit of your labor and spread it around society as they see fit. That may be how a fair bit of good is done in the world today — I can’t speak to outcomes — but it’s definitely not the practice of righteousness.

Your — A little word that simply means “belonging to you”. Taxes paid at source don’t “belong” to us at any point. The only control we have over them is to minimize them as best we can by claiming such credits and deductions as we may be allowed. “Theoretically,” wrote Barack Obama Sr. in a 1965 scholarly paper, “There is nothing that can stop the government from taxing 100% of income so long as the people get benefits from the government commensurate with their income which is taxed.” But remove the “your” from society, and you also remove giving. One cannot give what one doesn’t own.

Righteousness — The word used here means literally “acts of mercy” or “acts of compassion”. No language could be less accurately employed to describe the most common feelings of the tax base about taxation.

Out with the Trumpets

Thus, if, like Mr. Colbert, we choose to make a big deal of the moral virtue of our government’s redistribution policies and our (debatable) part in them, reframing them as an expression of our love and compassion, we are only doing much the same thing as the hypocrites in the streets and synagogues in the early first century in Judea: blowing our own trumpets in order to encourage others to praise us; ironically, for something we couldn’t possibly NOT have done. In which case we have received our reward … such as it is.

About the only thing we can really do with that particular stewardship is mess it up by filing a fraudulent return. It is only what makes it into our hands that we can possibly be responsible for.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Now, this is not a problem unique to our society. The first century Jew was in precisely the same boat. He had financial obligations both to the synagogue and to the secular government. Neither had anything to do with his obligation to give to the needy, which came straight from the Law of Moses and found its echo in the words of the prophets. That was above and beyond, and to be undertaken in the right spirit: “Open wide your hand to your brother” and “your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him.”

Here on the Mount the Lord adds one more thing: keep it confidential. Easy for a Jew in the time of Christ; not so easy today. But as much as possible, in a day in which everyone and his Big Brother has access to every single piece of information in existence concerning you and me, it’s still a very good thought to keep in mind. It is, after all, only the secret giving we do voluntarily and enthusiastically that really merits eternal reward.

Given his professed concern for the state of his “Christian nation”, maybe somebody should bring Stephen Colbert up to speed ...

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