There is something wonderful that happens at this time of year. Not Easter… although it is coming soon and it is beyond wonderful. I am actually referring to tax time. Wonderful, you might ask? Well, yes, in a kind of just-had-the-cavity-in-my-tooth-filled kind of wonderful.
When I do my taxes each year I, like most people, am pleased to find a deduction, glad when I get a bit of a refund and wince when I discover I owe more than I expected. However, even though paying taxes is not pleasant, I am quite willing – even happy – to do so. For me, it is a way in which, I can participate in the creation of a just society. I regard paying taxes a way for me to contribute to the common good, to work with my neighbours in building roads and bridges, educating the youth and healing the sick, ensuring access to safe drinking water and access to parks and libraries and countless other wonderful things that make our country a comfortable place to live for so many of us. I regard paying my taxes not just something I am called to do as a responsible citizen but as a loving Christian.
Certainly not all governments are just, nor are all the policies of even good governments always in line with our Catholic view of ethics. So, along with paying taxes, it is important to make our voices known to our government on how our tax dollars are spent. This is especially true when our contributions may be supporting projects that harm our common home or do not respect human dignity. (Think of recent efforts to oppose the expansion of medically-assisted death in our country.) In some instances, we may even need to withhold our taxes on the grounds of conscience. During the Vietnam War many Catholics refused to pay federal taxes to the government because they felt their money was in the service of death rather than life.
There are a variety of Christian perspectives on taxes. Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, was not a fan. He believed funding social programs with taxes let people off the hook for actively engaging in the works of mercy. He thought that Christians need to take direct responsibility for feeding the hungry and eradicating poverty. Life experience has taught me that if we were to rely on the goodwill of people alone, there would be a lot more poverty and a lot more potholes.
At the time of Christ taxation was a significant issue. People were overtaxed to the point of poverty. Tax resistance was promoted by those who thought the system unjust. Jesus was questioned: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? (Mt 22:17)” One answer would put him in prison, the other would support severe injustice. So, he asked his adversaries to produce a coin having them note that it was adorned with the head of Caesar. He then said: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mt 22:21).” All present would have known that Jews believe people to be stewards, not owners, of God’s gifts. All things belong to God. The coin might bear Caesar’s head, but it, and everything it might purchase, ultimately belong to God.
Our taxation system is not perfect by a long shot. Money is wasted or used to fund that which is ethically dubious. However, the alternative – radical disparity between God’s people – is far worse. So, then, let us render the gifts God has given unto Caesar, not because they belong to Caesar, but because we want a more equitable society where the extremes of wealth and poverty are tempered. Participating in that effort to me is wonderful.
Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She also loves art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.