Jesus’ famous line on paying taxes is “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)What is less well remembered is the reason Jesus called out both the political and the religious leaders who asked him about whether you should pay your taxes: Jesus “knew their hypocrisy.” (Mark 12:15)
There’s nothing more hypocritical today than the kind of political gamesmanship we have about paying taxes. The most vivid example of this is, as Erza Klein so rightly says, the “dumb tax pledges that dominate Washington.” These dumb tax pledges, especially “Grover Norquist’s now-infamous pledge” that Republicans have taken never to raise taxes on anyone for any reason, effectively ended our capacity to have government function properly. Of course, now, as Klein points out, Democrats are being forced into tax pledges of their own, exempting those who earn less than $250,000 per year from having their taxes raised. Dumb and hypocritical.
Taxes happen, friends. Nobody likes them, and yet it is certain they have to be paid. Daniel Defoe, in “The Political History of the Devil,” (1726) coined the famous phrase, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.” Death and taxes. They’re inevitable.
Taxes happen because taxes are how you fund government and you can’t have a government unless you have revenue.
Of course, the attack on taxes from the political right is an attack on government and its right to even exist. Norquist has said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” thus, of course, abolishing it.
Government needs to exist and in fact be celebrated. It’s U.S., all of us, and the way we take care of each other. We have a moral responsibility to our fellow citizens, both from a civil and a moral perspective. We are one people. The problem is that some of us, in fact, many of us in this difficult economy are struggling, and we need to help those folks out. Government does that.
The “small government” or even “no government” folks want to say that the churches should pick up the slack on taking care of the poor instead of us paying taxes for a social safety net. Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical pastor, has recently noted how unrealistic that view really is in a recent talk with the title, “Government is Not the Enemy.”
Hunter’s church does a huge amount of humanitarian work, but, he says, they can’t do it all without the government:
“Look at the math. It is ridiculous to even, just look at the SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the old Food Stamps program – it has been estimated by I think the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that the average church in America would literally have to double its budget and just take that extra budget and give to hungry people. And that is just one government program. So let’s not fool ourselves.”
What is hypocrisy but ‘fooling yourself’? That’s what Jesus is talking about. Don’t be a hypocrite. We need taxes to run the government, and we need government because it does things no individual or even organization can do on its own.
Don’t be a hypocrite. Pay your taxes.
Even the Romans used the taxes they collected to build infrastructure, per Monty Python, the British comedians. Besides, everybody deserves a good laugh on tax day.
An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.