Rector’s Ruminations for May 2011
A couple of weeks ago, along with millions of other Americans, we settled up with the IRS by paying our 2010 tax bill. At about the same time, I received a copy of The Christian Century magazine, which had as a featured theme, “The Common Good.” One article, actually an editorial, entitled “Tax Benefit” caught my attention with the statement, “…paying taxes is not just a legal duty but a moral opportunity – because paying taxes is one way each of us supports the common good. Taxation provides crucial elements of a good society, including a justice system, public education, an infrastructure that encourages commerce, and a safety net for the elderly and the vulnerable.”
The phrase that struck me was “a moral opportunity.” I suspect that most Americans view paying taxes, along with dying as the “two inevitable certainties” of life. But a moral opportunity? The phrase stirred something within me as a citizen and as a Christian.
A related article in the same issue, written by Gary Dorrien of Columbia University, points out that tax rates in the U.S. have mostly gone down since the 1980s and political candidates continue to pledge that they will lower taxes as if that is necessarily better for the country. But we all know in our heart of hearts that it isn’t in terms of the common good. He notes, “…while tax rates have been going down, the income level of most Americans has stagnated” (or decreased through unemployment and underemployment). “The income of the wealthy has sharply increased and increasingly regressive tax rates have put new stresses on the middle class while helping many of the rich get richer…and allowing many corporations, such as General Electric, Exxon-Mobil, The Bank of America and Citibank to escape taxes altogether.” Moral opportunity or moral outrage? Dorrien suggests that Americans are more comfortable talking about the good life than the common good. Moral opportunity or immoral greed? The definition of the good life he cites is one of individual consumption, dependent on foreign fossil fuel protected by military might.
The current debate between Republicans and Democrats in terms of the budget, deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility seems to overlook the obvious. Paying taxes is not only a moral opportunity but a moral imperative, at least for Christians.
In Journey to the Common Good Walter Bruggeman states that “The bible’s vision of the common good is a society in which the poor are not taken advantage of, in which strangers are welcomed and in which people stand in solidarity with one another. Applying this vision to contemporary conditions is a prophetic vocation to which people of faith and conscience are called. Even when that means defending taxes.”
Having just finished paying our taxes, two aspects of Bruggeman’s notion of the common good and our shared prophetic vocation stand out for me. First, we should work for a redistribution of wealth in our country that is more egalitarian and second demand of our elected leaders tax reform that includes the obvious – raising taxes to fund the common good not only as a moral opportunity but as an ethical obligation. In short, we have taxation with representation and it is incumbent upon us to call our representative elected leaders to do that which they are elected to do – to work for, to budget for and to develop tax policies for the common good rather than disparage taxes as some sort of necessary evil to be done away with.
Having put our tax return in the mail, I hope, pray and will work for a “tax benefit” that will be a benefit to all Americans beautifully expressed in the second verse of “O beautiful for spacious skies,” Hymn #719.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
In God we Trust,