Monday, September 5, 2011

A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011 

The old adage says, "Nothing is certain but death and taxes." Those "old adagers" had a pretty dim view of what we can expect in life. Most of us don’t want to die, and we’re not too tickled about paying taxes. But have you ever considered that the "old adagers" who linked death with taxes may have unwittingly demonized taxes? I would agree that most of us dread death. But can the same be said about taxes? Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes famously said, "Taxes are what I pay for civilization." Without taxes we would not have the infrastructure of a civilized nation: schools, roads, airports, railroads, navigable rivers, power lines, clean water, waste disposal, street lighting, security, and many other shared benefits.

I have begun this sermon with a reflection on taxes because today I am joining a significant number of other preachers around Missouri and all over the country who are using this Sunday before Labor Day to bring the concerns of working people to the pulpit. This year organized labor in Missouri has asked us to focus on the morality of the Missouri Tax Structure. I want to be up front about this, because this is a political issue and I know some of you think politics has no place in the pulpit. But God is not apolitical. Today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures is about how God became political to end the immorality of Pharaoh’s oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt. It is the beginning of the final chapter of Yahweh's political contest with Pharaoh to free his people from slavery. It is the story of the Passover in which God finally resorts to extremely violent methods to accomplish his victory.

I believe that when moral issues have political dimensions, God wants his people to get politically involved. The tax structure of any state always involves moral judgments because important values determine the rate at which the state will collect money from its citizens. Needless to say, Christian values are not always the values that inform and shape the taxation policies of the states, including Missouri.

As Paul says in our second lesson for today, the bottom-line-value of Christians is love. "Owe no one anything, except to love one another" he wrote; "for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The [ten] commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." When Paul defines love as not doing wrong to a neighbor he has identified justice as an important aspect of love. If we permit our government to do wrong to our neighbors, we have forsaken the value of love by being complacent about injustice. We have not kept our baptismal promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

Our country does wrong to our neighbors by not taxing ourselves enough. Taxes do not only pay for the infrastructure which benefits all of us, they also pay for human services like health care, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other welfare programs that benefit the citizens who have been left out of the country’s prosperity. With the percent of people living below the poverty level increasing year by year during the current recession, low taxes cannot adequately fund the so-called "safety net" that these marginalized Americans need to survive.

Of the developed nations of the world, only four of them tax themselves less than the United States.1 We appropriate only about 27% of our nation’s gross domestic product in taxes. The average slice of gross domestic product collected in the other 30 economically developed countries is 36%, with most European nations collecting more than 40%. In our low tax nation, only five states tax their citizens less than Missouri, and only four states spend less per capita on all government programs.2 In trying to balance state budgets and reduce our nation's deficit, American politicians would rather find ways to reduce government spending than add more revenue through taxation. Forty-one U.S. Senators and 236 members of the House of Representatives have signed a pledge never to increase taxes in any way.

I think politicians who refuse to consider increasing taxes have become obedient to the chief idol of our nation—the American Dream. They believe the American Dream is achieved by individual effort and not by cooperative action, even though no one can possibly achieve the dream without help from the infrastructure provided by taxation. The idol inspires the belief that money belongs to the individual who acquires it and should be shielded from collection by the government, even though starving the government will make it less able to guarantee the liberty, security, and educational resources individuals need to make money. The idol emphasizes individual responsibility for taking care of oneself and condemns those who can't of being lazy, even though our economic system has failed to sustain enough jobs for all who want to work. Finally, and most important, the idol of the American Dream justifies selfishness at the expense of love of neighbor.

Instead of defining morality by America's idol, we who follow Jesus define it in terms of the kingdom of God, the community of the beloved and the loving. As Paul says, the commandment to love our neighbors means at least that we will do no harm to them, but even more than that, it calls us to care for them. Those who worship the idol argue that the state should not compel that kind of love, that it is up to individuals acting on their own to care for their neighbors. However, as Frank Schaeffer reveals in a recent book,3 for the last 1000 years Christian leaders have seen government as the medium through which Jesus' disciples work together for the common good. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the government's responsibility to provide justice for those who are oppressed and exploited. Jesus, himself, criticized the Pharisees, the political elite of his time, for "[tying] up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they, themselves, are unwilling to lift a finger to move them" [Mt. 23.4]

While the din of the idol worshippers seems to be drowning out the voices of the kingdom at the present time, more and more of God's advocates are urging us to increase revenue through taxation instead of starving the government through spending cuts. They argue that the government needs resources to supply the basics of civilized societies and care for those who have been marginalized by our political, economic, and social systems. They understand that taxes are not the pariah the idol worshippers contend that they are, but the moral approach to making justice a key component of loving our neighbors.


The Tax Policy Briefing Book, Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, (taxpolicycenter. org)

"The Tax Tale: 50 State Comparison" in JSOnline: Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sentinal Journal,

Frank Schaeffer, Sex, Mom, and God, (Philadelphia, 2011)

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