Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jesus as Robin Hood

Mark Hendrickson in an essay called "The Liberal Temptation":

Christians who happen to be political liberals are fond of citing scriptural verses exhorting believers to perform charitable deeds. Indeed, there are many such verses, and they mean what they say. But what the liberals invariably fail to see is that the Bible never indicates that it is the Christian's duty to compel others to do charitable works; rather, Christians themselves are expected to do those works. There is no charity by proxy in the Bible. True charity comes from an inner, spiritual impulsion, not from outward political compulsion. That is the essential difference between Caesar and Christ.

Indeed. Christ commanded the rich young ruler to "sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor", but he did not break into the man's house and rob him, as government does. In fact, at no point in the Gospels did Christ urge the use of government force to compel people to adopt his teachings.

This is why Hendrickson has incorrectly referred to Bible-based policy making as "the liberal temptation". It is a statist temptation, found readily among conservatives. James Dobson and Pat Robertson are conservatives who, just like their liberal counterparts, try to force their vision of Christian ethics on people by using government power.

Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.

UPDATE: Oops! I forgot to hat tip Joe Carter for this article.

29 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

I agree with you, John, that this is a temptation common to all.

I disagree that we, the people, who decide that we want to use tax dollars to pay for welfare, or roads, or a police force, etc, are committing robbery, as you seem to be stating. Gov't does not rob us by having a taxation system.

We may disagree with the usage of our tax dollars (as nearly all people do for one reason or another), but taxation is not the same as robbery.

IF that's what you're saying with this: "...but he did not break into the man's house and rob him, as government does.".

(I've seen that argument incorrectly made before, but perhaps that wasn't you point.)

Keith Taylor said...

Dan,

If I fall behind paying my taxes, you see how fast my possessions end up on the action block and my house has a hasp and a padlock on the front door. To be sold for what the back taxes are, not for what the house is worth and if there is money left over the government gives you the change.

What if I came to you and I told you that you were going to pay me 28% of your salary or else I was going to put a lien on your house and car and possessions and sell them for my gain and, oh, BTW, you can't call the police for protection of your property and you can't go to court and sue me to stop me. Basically, if you don't like it, I'll take it at gunpoint and throw you in jail.

Wouldn't you consider that robery?

How is that different that how the IRS treats people?

Dan Trabue said...

Because we legally agree, via our elected representatives, to tax ourselves and spend that money on certain areas. Robbery is a crime. Taxation - no matter how little we may like it or if we disagree with how it is used - is not.

If we don't like taxation, we have the freedom to leave and go start our own country that doesn't have taxation (and every person pays for their own roads, their own police force, their own pollution prevention systems, etc, etc, etc).

Are you really opposed to all taxation? You don't think it reasonable to pool our resources for common needs?

Most people don't really think taxation is robbery - they don't mind that the gov't is paving their roads and picking up their garbage, if nothing else. It's just when it comes to paying for things they don't agree with that they get disgruntled.

But that doesn't make it suddenly robbery when your fellow citizens want to use tax money for something you disagree with.

Dan Trabue said...

Now, if you're talking about how we spend our tax money as a "crime" in the metaphorical sense, I can agree.

As in, "It's a crime that we spend more on our military than the next 26 nations combined - over half a trillion dollars!! - and yet we are unable or unwilling to spend $25 billion to end hunger..." THAT kind of thing, where I'm expressing outrage at our mixed priorities, I fully agree with calling it "robbery" in that sense.

Just as long as we don't confuse that for literally considering it robbery.

John said...

Dan, if taxation is truly consensual giving, then why is it necessary to make failure to pay taxes a crime? If it is truly voluntary, then shouldn't payment of taxes be voluntary?

Dan Trabue said...

I didn't say taxation was consensual, I said it wasn't robbery. And it's not, except perhaps in the philosophical or metaphorical sense.

Taxation is part of the common agreement we have to live in this society (and most societies are similar in this regard). If you don't want to be taxed, you are free to leave and find some place you can live without taxation (good luck with that!).

So it is consensual in that we consensually agree to live here and by the rules and if we don't wish to live here by the rules we've agreed to, then we are free to leave. IF, on the other hands, you wish to share the common benefits of society (roads, police force, etc), then you are expected to share in the common expenses.

Are y'all advocating a voluntary taxation process to pay for our commonwealth? Really?

BruceA said...

Maybe I'm just stating the obvious, but I think there are two issues here: 1) The role of government in providing for the common good, and 2) Christians' responsibility to take care of people in need.

I don't think Jesus said enough about political theory for us to determine what a "Christian" government should do. If we try to use politics to compel people to behave the way we think they should -- whether in personal morality or in charitable giving -- we've lost sight of Christ's message.

On the other hand, there may be legitimate reasons the government should collect taxes and distribute the money to people in need, and pass laws requiring employers to pay a certain wage, or to provide certain benefits to their employees, or to place limits on abortions or stem cell research. But the idea that this is a Christian nation whose laws should be derived from Scripture is NOT one of those legitimate reasons.

John B said...

Might make for an interesting discuss if one were to substitute the word "apportionments" for taxes and "Annual Conference" for government.

That aside, I agree wholeheartedly with you John. Christians have been given the responsibility to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Nowhere is scripture do I find a mandate for a secular government to do these things. Jesus never rebuted the Romans for not caring for the needy. Perhaps one might make a case that God commanded the leaders of Israel through the prophets to do these things. But the USA is not the nation of Israel.

Dan Trabue said...

RE:

Nowhere is scripture do I find a mandate for a secular government to do these things.

No, nowhere is there a specific mandate for a secular gov't to care for the poor. HOWEVER, neither is there a mandate for a secular gov't NOT to care for the poor.

Additionally, there are multiple instances of gov'ts and nations being criticized for failing to take care of the poor.

For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals - They who trample the head of the poor into the dust of earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.

[Amos 2:6-7]


Isaiah writes to Israel: Alas, sinful nation, People weighed down with iniquity... And God tells this sinful nation of Israel (which was a monarchy at this time, not a theocracy) that they needed to: Cease to do evil, learn to do good; Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. [Isaiah 1]

Was this directed at the monarchy in Israel? The people of Israel as individuals?

Does it matter?

The point seems to be that God was verily buggered at their failure to deal with the poor. Do we have any sense that God would have preferred that the people deal with these problems individually or that God would NOT have wanted gov't intervention?

In Micah 6, we read:

Can I justify wicked scales and a bag of deceptive weights? For the rich men of the city are full of violence, her residents speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

And I could be wrong, but typically it has been one of gov't's roles to verify that valid weights are being used in trade (fair trading/business practices). That's definitely the case today and I think I remember reading that was the case in these ancient lands.

So, in other words, Israel as a whole (as well as other nations in the OT) was found guilty of oppression and maltreatment of the poor. And some of that responsibility fell upon gov't's shoulders.

Even after Israel moved from a theocracy to a monarchy, they were expected to adhere to the Jubilee and Sabbath laws, which were ways of taking care of the poor.

All of that is to say that
1. We don't have any - ZERO - prohibitions in the Bible against gov't assisting the poor.
2. We do find plenty of passages where whole nations are found guilty of failing to tend to the needs of the poor and live justly.
3. The only example we have in the Bible of a gov't in a nation of supposedly God-fearing people (Israel) includes laws designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor and to promote justice.

And in none of these biblical do we see any reference to taxation as stealing. Although we DO see some references of failing to take care of the poor as a sort of stealing (what you didn't do to the least of these, you didn't do for me) - and that, from God!

Mitch Lewis said...

1. The U.S. Constitution authorizes taxation. Failure to pay taxes due subjects the violator to the force of law. Taxation is inherently un-pacifist.
2. While taxes are necessary (they pay my salary), I give considerable weight to the argument that they are a drag on the economy (and thus hurt people.) Using taxes to "redistribute" wealth is a not a terribly good idea. Wealth in the modern economy is not a static commodity - like gold in a vault. Wealth exists as the product of labor and capital.
3. Here's my thoughts on governmental responsibility from Psalm 72.
4. It's hard to jump from Israel in the 8th century BCE to western economies in the 21st century CE. Ancient Israel was largely agricultural. Laws for perpetual ownership of the land by families, prohibiting interest, requiring sabbatical and jubilee years and providing for levirate marriage were all part of an economic vision that does not translate easily.
5. Here's my thoughts on Amos and the Poor. Bottom line: Amos condemns the dishonesty and exploitive greediness of Israel's wealthy citizens. Their acquisitiveness subordinated the love of God and neighbor - and the rule of law - to naked self-interest. Amos’ specific concerns - bribery, dishonest business practice and disproportionate penalties for economic failure - are certainly relevant today. Even the broader concern of the giving the poor a hopeful future can find support in Amos’ denunciations. Amos’ condemnation of those who abuse the poor, however, is not an infinitely large tent. The further one wanders from Amos’ specific concerns into contemporary political and economic policies, the more humble one should be in claiming God’s authority for one’s own convictions.

BruceA said...

Using taxes to "redistribute" wealth is a not a terribly good idea.

In 1935, the majority of Americans above the age of 60 lived in poverty. But since then, Social Security, the world's largest program that uses taxes to redistribute wealth, has also become the most successful.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross raised some $2 billion to help those displaced by the storm. Congress allocated nearly $200 billion.

If we did not redistribute tax money to those in need, our poverty rate would be much higher. Most people who fell on hard times would suffer for the rest of their lives. Human beings are simply not naturally generous enough to cover all the need.

John said...

I'll contribute to this thread and the yoga thread soon. Too busy, too tired right now.

Dan Trabue said...

John, you have our permission not to participate. Now go take a nap, ya big lug.

Mitch, you make some interesting and well-considered points. I don't necessarily agree with all your conclusions, but you've obviously thought them through a good bit.

You are certainly correct that ancient Israel did not operate under the same economic and political systems we do today. No argument there.

The points I was raising were:

1. To address the error that taxation is stealing - it's not.

2. To address the notion that we have no guidance on economic or political ideals from the Bible - we do.

3. To address the notion that gov't has no responsibility to the poor - the people of a nation do.

Now, I am not saying our God-given duty to be in solidarity with and concerned for the poor and marginalized has to be dealt with only by gov't intervention. Not at all.

I fully agree with efforts by faith communities to do what they can outside of gov't to deal with problems of oppression and injustice towards the poor. Churches have the resources to deal quite effectively with poverty issues, IF they were so inclined and could effectively put the gov't out of the welfare business, IF the church were so inclined.

All I'm saying is that one can't read the Bible and come to the conclusion that it is wrong to have gov't intervention to deal with problems of poverty and injustice. That is not supported by the Bible.

One may well disagree with how the gov't is dealing with these problems, but that's not the same as saying the Bible teaches gov't ought not deal with it or that taxation is stealing.

Mitch Lewis said...

Bruce - The point that I was trying to make - and perhaps did so poorly - is that "wealth" is not a giant pie sitting somewhere waiting to be divided. It has to be created before you can do anything else with it. That takes labor, creativity and investment.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of GDP government cash assistance constitutes. Some level of social support are probably beneficial. I am opposed to the idea, however, that if the government's redistribution of $1 is good, $2 must be twice as good and $10 must be ten times as good. We could tax everyone's income at 100% and provide to everyone "according to their needs" but destroy economic incentives for productivity and creativity in the process. We could take all the capital assets and divide them them up, but lose quite a bit of productive capacity in doing so.

A healthy economy is at least as important to the the poor (and everyone else) as a government handouts. The best hope for most poor is better employment. Gerry Charlotte Phelps has written recently about the social mobility of the poor. By government standards, I was poor once, and my children are now. In the depression era of the 1930s, the elderly weren't the only poor. The Roosevelt administrations' approach to depression economics would be an interesting discussion. The New Deal programs made life a little more bearable. Ultimately, however, it was the booming economy of the post-war era that helped the poor the most.

There is a difference between redistributing wealth and sharing costs. Living together in society creates shared expenses for the common good. I'm not sure if you mean that congress voted $200 billion in direct-to-consumer aid in the form of cash payments to use as people wished, or if a large percentage of that money was intended for infrastructure repair and replacement. The latter is more of a shared cost than redistribution of wealth.

God's grace to all ..

Dan Trabue said...

I don't think anyone is advocating spending more and more, just because spending a little can be good.

Most social assistance programs I'm aware of have a societal benefit to them. It may cost $1 billion to educate prisoners, for instance, BUT, if it saves $2 billion (through lower recidivism, through ex-cons becoming productive citizens, etc), then it's only fiscally responsible to spend the $1 billion - even if we set aside any morality questions.

Most "welfare" programs I'm aware of are of that nature - they are an upfront investment to benefit society more down the road. For the most part, they aren't "handouts" directly to the poor, but assistance to systems to reduce the negative (and costly to society) effects of poverty.

Which is not to say that there may not be bad programs out there or people who take advantage of programs and that this couldn't be improved. Just that assistance is generally not the "socialist redistribution" scheme it's sometimes made out to be.

Jeff the Baptist said...

As in, "It's a crime that we spend more on our military than the next 26 nations combined - over half a trillion dollars!! - and yet we are unable or unwilling to spend $25 billion to end hunger..."

Actually we spend more than the next 14 countries combined, not 26. More importantly, we spend less than 4% of our GDP on the military. That doesn't even put us in the top ten in military spending. Nor are we at historic highs like 38% of GDP for WWII or 9% for Vietnam.

But the idea that $25 billion dollars will end hunger is ridiculous. We spend over 1.6 trillion dollars on social spending programs like social security, medicare, medicaid, and welfare. $25 billion is a drop in the bucket.

Dan Trabue said...

"Actually we spend more than the next 14 countries combined, not 26."

Where do you get your data?

We are spending well over half a trillion dollars a year currently on our military.

According to the wikipedia source cited below, the top seven military budgets are:

US: $553 billion (PLUS!! They just requested an additional, what? $140 Billion for prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!! They've requested an additional amount that's greater than the next two nations combined alone!)

UK $72 billion
France $60 billion
Germany $52 billion
Japan $49 billion
China $45 billion
Russia $32 billion

It depends upon what sources you find, but all the sources I've seen have indicated well above the next 20 countries.

It's greater than the next 24 countries according to this site.

Here and here are sources for more info.

Dan Trabue said...

A small correction, Jeff said:

That doesn't even put us in the top ten in military spending.

No, we are still in the top ten in military spending. We are NOT in the top ten (assuming your data is correct) in military spending as a percentage of GNP.

But definitely, we are THE single largest spender of military dollars in the history of the world by far.

Yes, we can look at it in different ways. We spend a smaller percentage of our GNP on military, if you want to look at it that way. Or, we spend vastly more than anyone else on a per capita basis. Or you can juggle the numbers in other ways.

However, you want to spin it, though, it remains that we are the largest spender. Period.

But that's off topic, I reckon...

You are correct that $25 billion would not end hunger. What I intended to suggest, I believe, was that we spend this vast amount on military, but only a pittance on hunger relief. And, if you want to call something "robbery," you could call that robbery. Just not in the legal sense.
======
"Every gun, every warship, every tank and every military aircraft built is, in the final analysis, a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, from those who are naked and are not clothed."

~President (and General) Dwight Eisenhower

JD said...

John said:

"Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all."

I still am not sure how we got to the point in the discussion that we have. IMHO this discussion should have been more of a discussion about issues arising when government tries to implement some sort of "ethical" principle upon its constituants, than about taxes and the mis-appropriation thereof. Or more readily the idea of 'charity by proxy' would have been a better topic. We seem to have fallen off the faith topic and delved into the political realm once again.(Although, the discussion was quite lively)

I'm just thinking outloud here.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

"this discussion should have been more of a discussion about issues arising when government tries to implement some sort of "ethical" principle upon its constituants..."

Well, as I said, I'd suppose that most social assistance sorts of programs have a fiscal responsibility facet to them. Although some may be tougher to quantify than others (how do we measure the economic success of keeping a family intact?, for instance).

It might make for an interesting modest proposal, though: We don't spend tax dollars on any issue without some verification of an economic benefit first.

But then, again, that might make a bad measure. Our pollution laws would probably be argued that they cost more economically than they benefit. Just the same, we don't want people dumping even more toxins in the air or water than they do now.

hmmm..

John said...

Dan wrote:

Are y'all advocating a voluntary taxation process to pay for our commonwealth? Really?

No. Government and therefore taxation are necessary evils. We need, at a minimal level, some form of government. But that doesn't make taxation any less robbery.

John said...

Dan wrote:

All of that is to say that
1. We don't have any - ZERO - prohibitions in the Bible against gov't assisting the poor.
2. We do find plenty of passages where whole nations are found guilty of failing to tend to the needs of the poor and live justly.
3. The only example we have in the Bible of a gov't in a nation of supposedly God-fearing people (Israel) includes laws designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor and to promote justice.


All true.

And in none of these biblical do we see any reference to taxation as stealing. Although we DO see some references of failing to take care of the poor as a sort of stealing (what you didn't do to the least of these, you didn't do for me) - and that, from God!

Not quite.

1 Samuel 8:14-18
1 Kings 12:1-4
Jeremiah 22:13-17

John said...

Mitch wrote:

Taxation is inherently un-pacifist.

This is something that I've never thought of before, but is quite true. Taxation requires force, and force is anethema to pacifists, so pacifists cannot support taxation. Or atleast enforcement of taxation law.

John said...

JD wrote:

Or more readily the idea of 'charity by proxy' would have been a better topic. We seem to have fallen off the faith topic and delved into the political realm once again.(Although, the discussion was quite lively)

Yes, charity by proxy is what I'm taking issue with. A church body is not being authentic to Christ's call to help the poor when it advocates government aid while it still has assets of its own to give.

Jerry w.d. said...

Hmm. I'd say all these arguments would be moot if we Christians actually followed the biblical injunction to care for the poor and needy. I'm all with John on the Christian personalism front (Christians ought to take responsibility for doing the works of mercy rather than leaving it to the government), but the reality is that we don't. 18,000 people die every day worldwide of hunger and malnutrition. Meanwhile, we throw away 7 percent of our food, eat so much as to make obesity an "epidemic," and spend billions of dollars on cosmetics and fancy electronic toys. Oh, and we drive to megachurches in our SUVs. If we Christians followed Jesus' injunction to give generously rather than just whatever is "left over," the government wouldn't have to tax anyone to keep people from dying of poverty in America. Until the day when we Christians start taking responsibility for our neighbors, then the government -- which is nothing more than an expression of our communal values -- is the next best, if imperfect, solution.

JD said...

Jerry said:

"If we Christians followed Jesus' injunction to give generously rather than just whatever is "left over," the government wouldn't have to tax anyone to keep people from dying of poverty in America."

Actually, statistics prove out, that when the personal tax rate is lowered, the giving rate at churches and the taxes collected by the government are actually higher. I realize that as good Christians, we should have faith and tithe, regardless, trusting in God's providence, but unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

Just a hunch: If taxes were quite a bit lower, churches would still not meet the needs of society or the world.

Just a hunch. Churches could stand ready to prove me wrong at any point in time.

John said...

I'd bet on that hunch, too. Sort of like if you ask a random stranger "Please give me some money", you're more likely to get it if you're holding a gun at the time. But the success of said acquisition doesn't justify the use of coercion.

JD said...

Dan,

You're right, churches, as the organization and building, may not meet the needs of the less fortunate, but I have faith that the church, all Christians, would either give enough directly to a church or indirectly through a non-government supported entity, to meet the needs of at least those that cannot help themselves. I stress, HELP THEMSELVES. Let the govn't focus on what they are supposed to: infrastructure and protection of its citizens.

PAX
JD