A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Gospel According to Saint Marx

The catechism of taxation, and how the Left misuses it

By Jerry Bowyer

After seeing the failure of Washington-backed capitalist reforms in Latin America, I no longer think a third way between capitalism and socialism is possible. Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ - who I think was the first socialist - only socialism can really create a genuine society.

- Hugo Chavez, Dictator cum Theologian, Time Magazine, September 22, 2006

I can't find anything in any religion anywhere, I certainly cannot find anything in the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ, that says you ought to take health care away from poor children or money away from the poorest people in the country to give it to the wealthiest people in the nation.

- John Kerry, Senator from Massachusetts, Des Moines, Iowa, October 9, 2005

A Biblical scholar once said that if you torture a text long enough, you can get it to confess to anything. I thought of this as the Left tried to drive a wedge between "values voters" and President Bush's economic policies in the run-up to Election Day. Having learned that little electoral success comes from insulting evangelicals, the Democrats adopted the adage, "If you can't beat 'em, try to make 'em join you."

The text I most often hear stretched on the rack is the one in which Jesus tells a rich young "man" that he should sell all he has and give it to the poor. The socialist hawk Christopher Hitchens used this one last summer in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. His interpretation seems to be that Jesus is damning rich people in general, and that hostility to riches implies hostility to markets.

But this is an oft misquoted passage. "And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke: 18:19) He's not just a rich young man; he's a rich young ruler. Luke calls him an "archon," which my Greek/English lexicon defines as "a ruler, a judge . a member of the Sanhedrin." The Gospels, like all ancient texts written before low-cost book reproduction, were written very carefully and avoid extraneous details. It seems a stretch, at the very least, to use this story as a bludgeon against the institutions of the marketplace when the author goes to the trouble to tell us that the subject in question is not a man of the marketplace at all, but instead a man of the government.

Actually, Jesus encountered many people who had made their way in the marketplace. He was friendly with a wealthy merchant (according to tradition, a tin trader) named Joseph of Arimathea. They were so close, in fact, that Joseph donated the chamber in which Jesus was buried. Throughout the Gospels Jesus extols the example of the patriarch Abraham, whom the Torah says was a very wealthy man. If Jesus had a problem with wealth, where were the confrontations with the wealthy importer of metals? Where were the condemnations of the wealthy sheikh?

The wealthy men that Jesus does confront weren't men of pure commerce. There is the tax collector, Zacchaeus, who actually does obey Jesus and sells half his possessions in order to give definitively to the poor; there are the money changers getting rich off their monopolistic franchises on the property of King Herod's Temple.

This makes sense. First century Judea was a kleptocracy all the way to the top. The quisling King Herod was put there by Rome because he was such an excellent tax collector. As such, Herod created a centralized system of plunder and control through which he and his cronies could become very wealthy. There were some places for honest commerce. Jesus' home town of Galilee was a hot bed of entrepreneurship, which is probably the reason why so many of his parables drew on the language of the venture-capital market of masters and stewards. However, the closer you got to Herod (geographically and socially), the tougher it was to be honest and rich at the same time.

It's hard to believe that recent attacks on the religious right in America are attacks on wealth itself. Where would the Left be if George Soros had sold all his possessions and given those proceeds to the poor? Where would John Kerry be if Henry John Heinz had done the same a hundred years ago?

It seems more likely that many of Bush's American critics are not really calling for the elimination of all wealth accumulation, but more likely using (or misusing) these passages for their rhetorical value in a battle over the president's tax cuts. I'm afraid, however, that the Biblical tradition offers no more succor to opponents of tax cuts than it does to opponents of wealth in general.

One day, a left-leaning rabbi called my radio program and announced proudly that although his congregation had many wealthy members, they had opposed the president's tax cuts because of their devotion to Judaism. I asked him for examples from the Torah that endorse high taxes. He had none. On the other hand, I can think of lots of passages that seem to treat high taxes with suspicion. When the patriarch Joseph became the vice-regent of Egypt, we are told that he imposed a tax rate of one-fifth on the income of Egyptian citizens. According to the Torah, they "became his slaves." If a 20 percent tax rate is tantamount to slavery, what about a top rate of near 40 percent?

Much later, shortly before the emergence of the Davidic dynasty, the people of Israel asked for "a king, like the other nations." The prophet Samuel warned that, among other curses, the king would impose a tax of 10 percent on their incomes. The prophet was right, of course, and the line of kings became increasingly heavy taxers. One of them, Rehoboam, son of King Solomon, found himself on the receiving end of a tax revolt. The northern ten tribes of Israel approached him about reducing their unsustainably high tax burden. (Let's call it "Proposition 10.") His older advisors urged him to cut rates; his younger advisors urged the opposite. Rehoboam ignored the gray heads and raised taxes, the northern tribes seceded, and the tribes were never again reunited. Ultimately, they were carried off by the Assyrian Empire; they are now known as "the lost tribes of Israel." This is hardly a ringing endorsement of high taxes.

Do I think that our modern tax code should be adopted from the Torah? Of course not. But examining the Torah's teaching regarding kingship, power, and taxation is a good starting point for anyone seriously trying to figure out what Moses and the prophets meant when they used the word "justice."

John Kerry's comment of a year ago that the Bible doesn't recommend taking health care from the poor and giving it to the rich [Nor does anybody! It's a straw-man argument] wasn't his first in the faith-against-freedom vein. Months earlier he said, "I went back and reread the whole New Testament the other day. Nowhere in the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ did I find a suggestion at all, ever, anywhere, in any way whatsoever, that you ought to take the money from the poor, the opportunities from the poor, and give them to the rich people. [Through their taxes, the rich give vast amounts to the poor and there is no mainstream proposal anywhere that aims to alter that. A straw-man again]"

Rereading the entire New Testament in one day is a formidable feat [Sarcasm]. But it should come as no surprise when Kerry tries to use the Bible to argue against the president's tax cuts. After all, three years ago at the Democratic National Convention, he tried to use the Ten Commandments against the president's Social Security plan: "We believe in the family value expressed in one of the oldest Commandments: `Honor thy father and thy mother.' As President, I will not privatize Social Security." [A good twist: A responsibility of the children suddenly becomes a responsibility of the government!]

Of course, the same Moses who delivered that commandment went on to establish a regime with a heavy emphasis on private property - let's call it the "Old Ownership Society." Jesse Jackson famously observed that Mary and Joseph should be thought of as the "homeless," which placed the tax-cutting Ronald Reagan in the role of wicked King Herod. But Jackson left out the fact that the only reason Mary and Joseph were away from home in the first place was that "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."


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