WJPT?

After work today  I will be heading down to my church to help out with our annual stewardship campaign.  For those of you not up to speed on church lingo, stewardship is the label we use to describe our annual call for pledges.  You see, the church I belong to is a charity (as are all churches that I know about) – it operates solely based on the goodwill of its members, both current and past (we are lucky enough to have an endowment).  I have been involved in various aspects of our annual giving campaign for five years or so.  While no one is really all that comfortable talking about money (one of our rectors once said that it was the last taboo), I have found that the easiest way to get up and ask people to donate to a cause is to talk about why you donate to the same cause.  What it does for you and what you hope your charity can bring about.  Being asked to ask other people to give has actually allowed me to better understand why I give.

I bring this all up because I have seen a meme circulating in my Facebook feed that has been (erroneously perhaps?) attributed to Jimmy Carter which says:

If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then STOP saying that you want a country based on Christian Values, because you don’t!

I don’t want to get into an argument about separation of church and state or whether we are or should be a nation based on christian values.  Rather, I want to address what this quote seems to me to be trying to do: convince those of you that DO think that we have (or should have) a nation based on Christian values that you should also be OK with the government taxing you to fund programs that purportedly help the poor (again, it’s a whole other topic whether they do or not, let’s just assume that they do for the rest of this post).  This seems logically consistent at first, but it misses on really important difference between the act of charity and the act of taxation: force.

I do not claim to be any great theologian (and would welcome anyone that is to correct this part of my thinking), but one key aspect of Christianity is the fact we are granted the free will to be part of it or not.  We can choose whether to be Christians or not – understanding that there may or may not be consequences to our choice, but even the Big One (who in theory could make us do whatever he/she wants) lets us make the choice.  It may be true that I could help to raise far more money for my church in tonight’s stewardship campaign if I could threaten people with imprisonment or death if they didn’t participate, but I don’t think anyone (even an atheist, agnostic, etc) would call what I was doing based on Christian values.  How can we think when the government does the same thing that they are acting in a Christian way?

If you think the imprisonment or death thing is hyperbole when , try not paying your taxes for a while.  But don’t waste your one phone call to tell me how it tuned out – I can read about it in the papers.  And also don’t tell me that the application of force by the government in their version of charity is a minor difference – that’s like saying the difference between consensual sex and rape is a small technicality.  Even though the people that actually need to read this next statement have already stopped reading and are either firing up a flaming response, unfriending me or are setting up a DDOS attack on my blog right now please understand I am NOT at all equating the consequences and impact of rape with the consequences or impact of paying taxes.  I would gladly agree to pay taxes for the rest of my life if we could guarantee that no one would ever be raped.  I am trying to point out (poorly perhaps) that there is no small difference in intent or action when we are talking about the coercive use of force.  Making someone do anything alters the entire act for everyone involved.

There may be logical arguments that support the idea of using force to collect taxes to help the poor (I said logical – not necessarily moral), but the idea that it’s the same as charitable giving is not only false, it sullies the name of Christianity.

20 thoughts on “WJPT?

  1. I think your thoughts may suggest that taxing to help the poor is not charity and you may be right, but taxing to help the poor is certainly moral as I see it. Government policy can certainly be influenced by our Christian values while being different from what we do at church.

    1. I just don’t see how you can call any action moral which is forced on to someone. If I make you do the “right” thing was that action truly moral? I don’t disagree that we as Christians should so all we can to influence policy. The use (or mostly just the threat of use) of force as the basis to get the money that eventually is used for what may otherwise be viewed as good deeds corrupts the entire action. I don’t think its moral to justify the means by the ends.

  2. The government forces all sorts of things based on morality. (Bill or rights, threatening prison to those thinking of commiting crimes, stopping genocide with force, etc)

    1. Yes, they do. In everyone of the specific examples you mention (rights violation, crimes, genocide) though the government is the one responding to force with force. Someone else chose an immoral action that justifies moraly a response. If someone has force threatened or applied to pay a tax, what have they done to deserve the application of the force – how is it morally justified? The difference is clear to me – don’t you see it? This is the crux of the argument I have – the intentions, reasons and justifications for action matter when judging an actions morality. So while charity is moral in and of itself, forced charity is immoral.

      1. I understand your argument, but no, I do not see the difference. All forms of poverty in this country are largely a result of extreme greed by corporations and the super wealthy. The actions of these peoples and companies are a direct threat to the survival of the working poor and below, therefore the government that is elected to represent the entire populace is morally obligated to take action against this immoral threat. The immoral action is clear to me and I don’t understand why many don’t see it or choose to ignore it.

        1. Not sure how you can understand the argument but not see the difference – it seems to me that only one of those can be true.

          A few thoughts on your statement that “All forms of poverty in this country are largely a result of extreme greed by corporations and the super wealthy.”
          1 – interesting statement. Can you prove it – or at least lay out a logical path from the idea that corporations or super wealthy are greedy leads to all of the poverty? Not looking for a thesis – just want to understand how A leads to B.
          2 – If I accept your statement without support, then by that logic if you know for sure that your next door neighbor stole your bike then morally you could put all your neighbors in a cage until they each give you $5 to buy a new bike – right?

          1. Throughout history extreme income inequality has always had disaster outs effects on the poor.

            I did not say all poverty is the result of greed. I said largely.

            I understand your argument, meaning I follow what you are saying, I just thing you are wrong.

            If someone steals my bike I would call the police who are paid through taxation. I am talking about poverty. We elect the people who make these policies. If you don’t like them vote for someone else. It sounds to me that don’t like the system of government we have. Your way of life is made possible by all of the good things in our system but you are trying to argue a way out of taking responsibility for the less desirable parts.

          2. That’s about as logical as saying that wet sidewalks cause it to rain. I’m not saying your wrong – I’m just saying that you are not presenting a case for your argument that poverty is the result of greed by corporations and the super wealthy. Help me understand how the two are connected other than it’s just always been true.

            It’s OK to think I am wrong – I want you to prove I am wrong.

            As to the bike analogy, you are claiming that greedy corporations and the super wealthy are causing poor people to live in poverty. So in other words I have nothing to do with it – I am neither a corporation nor super wealthy. However I am still subjected to the “punishment” that is exacted on those the are committing this immoral act. So it follows that if someone stole your bike you (or your agent, the police) could morally punish everyone for the act of one person. Make sense?

            You are close, “It sounds to me that don’t like the system of government we have” – I don’t like any system of government. My way of life is made possible by the work that I do and the work that others do – not the “system”. Belief in a “system” is what causes illogical and immoral actions because it lets us shirk responsibility to someone else – to the “system”. The “system” will take care of the poor. The “system” will provide for my protection. The “system” will take care of me if I lose my job. There is no system, no collective and believing that there is really diminishes the value of each person you are putting into that collective.

            In actuality I am trying to argue my way IN to taking responsibility – but personal responsibility for the things I decide to do, taking full responsibility for the results. Not having anyone make me do anything just because they think its the right thing to do. If every person on the planet was able to live that way not only would it eliminate poverty, but a host of other societal ills.

          3. Love TED Talks. I understand the points that he is making in the video (at least I think I do). What I took away is that income inequality within a particular is highly correlated with a bunch of bad stuff – shorter life expectancy for those on the lower end, bad cores for UNICEF child well being, etc. Don’t disagree with any of that. What I am still looking for is a simple explanation of how rich people / corps cause poor people to be poor (I’d also still like to know why what two people do that aren’t me justifies force against me, but we’ll save that for later).

            I agree that income inequality is a bad thing. I agree that it is highly correlated with many ills. I disagree fundamentally that the answer is more government – in fact I would argue that the system that allows such income inequality and that creates such epic poverty is the same system you want to solve those issues.

  3. I would agree that using tax dollars to pay for programs that benefit the poor is not properly speaking charity. Such actions are public policy decisions that are implemented by elected politicians and generally reflect the will of the people they represent. Some voters are motivated by Christian values to support such programs. Others are motivated by the desire to maintain a civil society. Of course, if a voter’s values or thinking motivates them to vote for politicians that would end such programs, they are certainly free to do so. However, we don’t live in a direct democracy and no one is free to decide how their individual tax dollars are spent. Some people don’t like tanks. Even more don’t like Congress. Can such people claim to be forced to support these things by the threat of imprisonment or violence? I suppose. If one feels strongly enough that their tax dollars are being spent in an immoral way they can certainly follow Thoreau’s example and then accept the consequences of their civil disobedience.

    Personally, I support spending tax dollars on programs that benefit the poor. I do so because of my faith, but also because I believe it is good, common sense public policy. As evidenced by current circumstances, social and economic inequality are bad for the economy. Also, poverty breeds crime and social disfunction. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society.

    1. To clarify – you agree that its false logic to say that if you support charity you also have to support taxation? If so, then we have the same viewpoint. I agree with you further that the initiation of force to extract funds to buy tanks is equally immoral – but at least its not falsely wrapped in Christian morals as a justification. (Buy us a tank – it’s what Jesus would want you to do!)

      The argument you seem to be making to justify the use of force by the government on individuals (instead of charity) is by the fact that the individuals voted for those that are in the government. The “They are getting what they asked for” argument. By that logic, if you don’t vote then the use of force would be unjustified – correct?

      I do really appreciate the discussion – as I have said many times I know I don’t have this nearly all figured out and this is really testing my argument. That being said, I still haven’t heard a justification for the initiation of force by the government on an individual. Why is it justified for the government to do something that I would be unjustified in doing? Agree that it is that way – the question is should it be?

  4. I am not suggesting that we have the best system, but it is the one we have and therefore my comments are related to operating within that system

    http://m.huff-post.com/us/entry/3480009

    This chart shows that there have been times of great prosperity in the US.

    http://t.ritholtz.com/bigpicture/#!/entry/great-prosperity-194777-vs-great-regression-1981,50cac4b6d7fc7b5670a56ded/media/1,04reichgraphicpopup

    It is bad actors within the system that have caused the current inequality. This is breifly described in the following video. Detailed analysis can be found in the intro to the book “after shock” by Robert reich.

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3480009

    As to your point about it not being your problem because you are not a bad actor: You have operated in a system (just because you were born here, not because you love the system) and have had some level of success. Others have suffered (not because they are lazy but because a capitalist system has losers as a byproduct). Therefore you have some responsibility to have some percentage of your success redistributed to those who suffer. :)

    More rambling to follow. My thumbs are getting tierd.

    1. You did that all on your iphone? Or you just type with your thumbs normally ;-)

      Maybe this is the big disconnect: you are trying to make things better in the system and I am trying to make things better because I know that no matter what you do within the system it won’t actually get better – and is very likely to get worse. Just as much as I know the system causes poverty, it also allows the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others.

      I think we agree on the ends, but are opposed on the means. I still ask for a logical and moral case for the state providing what you are looking for – and I claim that it does not exist. The only thing you said that I 100% disagree with is that just because I was born here I have taken on obligations. There is no natural concept of anything called a state. When you go from country to country, the laws of physics and human interaction are all the same, so the idea that it is moral to make someone operate under rules that someone else made up and they never agreed to just because of where they were born is just plain wrong. I completely agree and understand that that’s the way it is – again I am arguing that it not only is wrong that it’s that way, but also that it doesn’t have to be that way and it would actually be better for everyone if it wasn’t.

    2. I just got that video from Robert Reich to play (had some network issues). The video is very clear that the government was used as a tool to create income inequality (the tug of war with the capital building sort of gave it away). You may be surprised, but I agree – I think this is exactly what happened. To me the next logical step is to remove that tool so the corporations and wealthy are no longer able to slant the tables in their favor – to let the system balance on its own. You seem to be advocating some sort of revenge – let the poor use the government on the rich like they have had it used on them. How moral is that? How sustainable?

    3. One more thing: I never said it wasn’t my problem. I said that the government had no moral authority to be able to use force against me to solve it. Poverty is a problem that I want to help solve – but in no way does that mean that I am responsible for it.

  5. Dear Mad Max,

    I have some thoughts about the utopian fantasies you libertarians dream up inside your fortified compounds ;-) But I thought I would make a few quick points about Christianity and social responsibility. Not a sermon…just some thoughts.

    Your initial question had to do with the relationship between charity and taxation. I agreed with you that taxation might not properly be considered charity. While you correctly state that our common faith requires us to be charitable in our private lives, that is not our only Christian civic obligation. The Hebrew Bible speaks very clearly about communal responsibility in the prophets, especially in Isaiah and Amos. These books address issues such as poverty, taxation, property rights, debt, and the responsibilities of leaders and regular people. Similar material can be found in Leviticus and in the Epistles. The obligations laid on the faithful are often understand within the Covenantal relationship we have with God. Beyond specific directives, I believe any honest reading of the Bible reveals a God who loves equally but who also shows a special concern for the poor and the oppressed and who has very strong words for the people and systems that harm them.

    The theology on the “Body of Christ” in the New Testament should also be considered in this debate. Look at the way the Apostolic community ordered their common life. This need not be obligatory to be instructive.

    The most salient point for me may be that Christianity cannot be practiced in isolation. We are called to be in community with one another and to care for one another. This concern is not limited to our parish family or our denomination, or even our co-religionists. Agape implies a universal regard. And this regard is not about you. Many people talk about charity as if it all about them and their spiritual discipline. It’s as if God created poverty and suffering so rich Americans could practice giving. How self-absorbed is that. Faith in Christ is not supposed to place you at the center of your little world. It is supposed to help you take up your cross, to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. We are meant to die to ourselves, not become isolated islands of personal piety.

    Personally, I have always found the Western obsession with individuality to run counter to the spirit of Christianity. So did many early Americans who had to distort their faith to make it jive with their political ideologies. And so did Ayn Rand who rightly despised Christianity and its implicit collectivism. In the Hebrew Bible the community lives and dies together. There is no individual salvation, only communal salvation. In the New Testament faith is personal but never private. Jesus does not call us to be successful, self-reliant individuals. He calls us into community. He calls us to care and depend on one another. This is the Kingdom of God.

    1. Good response. Agree with all of it except the dig about utopian fantasies (although addressing the response to Mad Max did make me laugh out loud ;-)). I’m not sure if that was just humor to start things off or you seriously think that my ideas are utopian, i.e. unobtainable. If so, I’d like to discuss that a bit more at some point, but I’ll let it rest for now.

      As for everything after that, I couldn’t have said it better myself – and I really mean that. I have read Rand (and Rothbard and Mises…but also Mao and Lennin and Marx) and I think she has lots of valid things to say about the “virtue of selfishness”. I think her point about selfishness is that it’s only by first focusing on the self can we (if we choose) do for others. Where I disagree with Ayn Rand (and most other objectivist writers) are her views on Christianity – I think she protests too much. If she were actually a libertarian (as opposed to an objectivist), then she should be fine with any voluntary association, including the church or the city states described in Isaiah and Amos. The libertarian ideal is very simple: property rights and non aggression – Rand adds layer upon layers on top of that to arrive at objectivism. Some of them interesting, some of them wrong, but none of them necessary IMHO.

      I choose to believe that I am my brother’s keeper and will help as many as I can. This post and all the responses was about the state using my christian ethics to justify their use of force without my consent. I’ve learned a lot through this discourse, but I still don’t see the moral justification for that. The closest has been the “you were born here so you have to” argument, but that sounds an awful lot like the argument for slavery…

      The biggest learning is that I may need to rethink my argument – not because I think its wrong, but because I thought the folks that read my blog that are Christian but anti- government would be the ones arguing with me. Instead I got the two that are Christian and pro-government arguing with me. All good, but makes me think I’m not explaining myself clearly enough – or I set my bait in the wrong back water.

      Again, I do sincerely appreciate the carefully considered response.

      Yours in Christ,

      The Road Warrior

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