SACRED TEXTS, SOCIAL DUTY: A Documentary by Ethics Daily. (DVD) Robert Parham and Cliff Vaughn, Co-Producers/Directors. Nashville: EthicsDaily.Com, 2010. 58 minutes.
We know that people don’t like to pay taxes; that is clear from the political rhetoric of the day. Who can forget the famous words of George H. W. Bush, who said so very clearly: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” It was a promise that he couldn’t keep, but the blowback was so great that today it would seem un-American to suggest that taxes should be raised. Although we like public services, such as roads, schools, police, fire departments, ambulances, libraries, and the like, we’d rather not pay for them. And don’t get me started on those entitlement programs like Medicaid and welfare; though Medicare and Social Security seem sacrosanct in many quarters (remember that senior citizens do vote). Our anti-tax mentality, when accompanied by an inability to figure out exactly where the fat is that can be trimmed, has lead to ever increasing budget deficits.
Questions of taxation would seem to be political issues upon which the faith community would appear to have little to say, which may be why there are so few sermons on the subject. After all, politics doesn’t belong in the pulpit. Still, is it really true that our sacred texts don’t have anything to say about this issue? Is there no word that can be spoken from a faith perspective on this issue, especially at this critical moment in the nation’s history? These are the kinds of questions that are addressed in a splendid but challenging documentary from the people at Ethics Daily, who graciously provided me a copy of Sacred Texts, Social Duty to preview.
The premise of this documentary is that the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic traditions do offer important guidance on the matter of taxation. It’s not that God has a specific tax policy or method of taxation, but the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do speak of the need for funds to be gathered for the common good. Consider that Moses levied a half shekel tax on the people of Israel for support of the community (Exodus 30:13). Malachi even suggested that failure to pay the tithe should be considered robbing God. As for Jesus, he consistently called for those who had funds to share them with those who did not, and he is famous for saying “Give to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which belongs to God” (Mark 12:13-17); while hanging around with tax collectors. Yes, he called on them to do their job justly, but he didn’t condemn the profession. Paul, of course, called for submission to the authorities, whom God had placed in their positions for the common good (Romans 13:1-7). And, according to the Qur’an, zakat, alms given for the provision of care to the poor is a pillar of Islam. So, the question is: do our sacred texts simply commend charity – that is voluntary giving – or do they encourage or allow for what we would call taxation?
The documentary is divided into four segments – “Social Duty in the States”; “Social Duty in the Sacred Traditions”; “Social Duty in the Square”; and “Social Duty and the Pulpit.” Contributors to the discussion come from all parts of the three Abrahamic traditions, and are drawn from North and South, East and West. All are in agreement that in one form or another; the Scriptures allow for and encourage the gathering of funds for the common good. Indeed, as Presbyterian Tami Sober puts it: “Taxes are what we pay for the common good.”
At the heart of the conversation is a matter of justice. The scriptures of all three traditions are clear – God is concerned about justice. Historian and Baptist Sunday School Teacher Wayne Flynt reminds us that Matthew 25 speaks not just about charity, but about justice. He says in the film that “What we’ve done is sever ethics from social morality and reduce ethics to personal morality. Also what we’ve done is say that justice is about charity.” Rabbi Ben Romer of Virginia reminds us that in the Jewish tradition, government is charged with preserving justice for the entire community, therefore, he says that:
“The American government has the responsibility, as the government of the people, to provide for the needs of the people. And certainly the synagogue and the mosque and the church has a responsibility beyond the government, but not in place of the government.”
If taxes are appropriate way of providing for the common good from a faith perspective, then the next question concerns the kind of taxes that Scripture would deem appropriate. Again, even though no particular tax method is outlined in Scripture, principles of justice would assume that the tax burdens not fall on those least able to pay. That is, tax policy should be progressive not regressive. As all the scriptures of all three traditions put it – those to whom much is given, much is expected. Even Adam Smith agrees with this principle – as pointed out in the documentary, Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations:
“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”A progressive tax is one that doesn’t fall heaviest upon those least able to pay – making sales taxes more regressive than income taxes, since often sales taxes fall even on essentials such as food. Lotteries are also regressive forms of taxation, in fact they can be considered, as Baptist pastor David Wheeler puts it, “tax evasion.”
The assumptions that lie behind the film are that most people of faith want to do the right thing, and that the Scriptures of all three traditions call on governments, as well as individuals, to pursue justice and the common good. It would appear that taxes are essential to this process, for services need to be paid for – something that seems lost on so many American today. They decry the deficit, but want their taxes to reduced even as they demand more services. Unfortunately, those who need help the most, too often don’t have the power to speak out for themselves, and thus they end up bearing the burden.
The value of this documentary is that it raises important questions that people of faith need to wrestle with. This film, therefore, is an excellent piece to be used in congregations to start that discussion, and fortunately a discussion guide can be found on the web site. Congregations may want to divide the video curriculum into four parts, making for a month long study, or it could be used in one sitting, but the participants need to be ready to engage for a lengthy period of time. As to why we would want to do this, perhaps Methodist pastor Philip Blackwell makes the best the case:
“If the public system of taxation as well as the delivery of services doesn’t reflect how it is that we are to care for one another, then it is the religious community’s responsibility not only to point that out, but to advocate and to organize in order to make sure that there is a kind of common care for people.”
Some might call this politics, but as the participants in this conversation are apt to point out, it is really a matter of a sacred duty, for God is concerned for justice and the common good. And that, as they say, is preachable! And this DVD an insightful and important contributor to a conversation that needs to be undertaken.