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Death and Taxes

Tomorrow is April 15, tax day.  It is a day to be reminded of the privilege of living in a society that understands we have responsibility for each other, that the most vulnerable among us are not to be abandoned to their own meager devices, that all citizens are deserving of a certain level of public services – national defense, civil protection, education, culture, health care, etc. – and that individual achievement and privileges are always to be balanced with the needs of the common good.  I’m sure that’s what you all thought as you prepared to settle up with the IRS and whatever state and local tax authorities who are looking forward to hearing from you!  Well, perhaps not.  Writing checks is not something we like to do, particularly when compelled to do so.  And these days taxation seems to have a particularly bad name as all public institutions are under assault.

Some of the hostility to government is understandable given the level of corruption, waste, and ineptitude that seems to afflict so much it, though it is not at all clear to me that our private institutions are substantially more ethical or even benign; they are just less exposed to public scrutiny.  And when we read that US corporations have avoided tax liabilities on their significant earnings by legal and accounting sleight of hand, lodging their “corporate headquarters” in postal boxes in the Caribbean or Swizterland, it’s not hard to appreciate the frustration of ordinary tax payers like you and me.  But legitimate expectations for good governance and public sector excellence should not become cover for indiscriminate bashing of the public arena or for a failure to accept personal responsibility for the shared expectations of citizenship.  And private sector abuses can’t be a rationale for avoiding my personal moral obligation to the common good.

Underlying American notions of the public welfare are distinctively Christian notions of the law read through the lens of the Protestant Reformed tradition.  The “three uses” of the law includes first its convicting us of our own sinfulness, the tendency we have to turn in on ourselves and away from our neighbors, and the selfishness that undermines the mandate to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  The second use is to constrain us from sin and to protect the larger society from the reality of evil with all the violence it often entails.  The third use is to enable us to seek the good, to approximate as best we can the principles of justice most fully revealed in the Kingdom or Realm of God.  It is a kind of “tutor,” encouraging behavior that is not the natural inclination of our own sinful nature but that is reflective, at least in part, of the justice, mercy, and peace of God’s shalom.

At its best, good government – supported by our taxes – embodies these three uses.  It turns us toward our neighbor and away from ourselves.  It protects us from the worst of our own and our neighbor’s evil, violent inclinations.  It guides us toward proximate embodiments of the good.  It is, in Christian theology, the necessary counterpoint of the freeing Gospel this side of heaven.

I suspect that few of us associate paying taxes with the Reformed theology of our nation’s Protestant origins.  Indeed, many today employ their own brand of Christianity to demean public institutions and exalt private gain over the common good.  At the very least, we ought to argue with them that theirs is not the only way to read our theological tradition, and perhaps not the best.

Tomorrow we’ll all grumble and groan a bit when we write our checks.  And we’ll legitimately yearn for our modest contributions to be used as effectively and honestly as possible.  But in the face of anti-government rhetoric that sometimes suggests that taxes are somehow alien to our national and even religious heritage, it is helpful to remember that support of the commonwealth – the common good - is as about being as American and as Protestant as one can be.

Death and taxes may not be our first loves.  But for Christians, and Americans, they are not the ultimate enemies.  Each has its place in the divine economy, and we avoid or deny each to our own and our neighbor’s peril.

John H. Thomas

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