Nothing is more exciting to a historian than living in a time when two great systems of thought collide.
On one hand we have a great, animated, public debate about taxes. Outraged Tea Party folks capture images of the American Revolution and dumping British tea in Boston harbor because of a hated British tax on the delicious brew.
Outraged Alabamians, complaining that they are “taxed to death” – despite the fact that they pay the lowest taxes in America, which pays the third-lowest taxes of any industrialized nation in the world – condemn education, tax reform and constitutional reform as ploys to raise their taxes.
On the other hand, we have the magnificent traditions of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – proclaiming the moral imperative of charity and justice for the poor, orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners and foreigners who live among us.
Jewish Scripture emphasizes these themes of charity and justice second only to admonitions against idolatry.
Christian Scripture mentions the theme in one of every 14 passages in the New Testament, one of 10 verses in the Gospels (one of seven in Luke) and one of every five in the Epistle of James.
Interestingly, Jesus (supposedly the ultimate source of meaning for Christians and the one whose resurrection we just celebrated) mentioned taxes and justice.
Both of his comments about taxes appear in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 17, tax collectors approached his disciple, Peter, and asked if Jesus paid the temple tax. “Yes,” Peter replied.
Jesus then interrogated Peter about the deeper meaning of taxes. Would the kings of the earth collect taxes from their own sons or from the sons of others? When the disciple replied, “From others,” Jesus saw a teachable moment.
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Then we are exempt, he said, but added that Peter should go to the lake, catch a fish, open its mouth and take the coin he found in it and give it to the tax collectors “for my tax and yours.”
The other incident is recorded in chapter 22, when religious leaders asked Jesus whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar or to God. Jesus asked to see a coin, and noting the portrait on the Roman coin, admonished them (us?) to pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s.
That’s it. That’s all he said. As if an afterthought not to be mentioned unless someone raised the issue of taxes. As if material things do not matter in the Kingdom of God.
As if we should not be anxious about what we shall eat and drink, for God knows our needs and provides for them. As if we were birds of the air or lilies of the fields, cared for by a loving father.
As if we should not bother to build larger banks and barns and stock portfolios, which often crash and are depressed and burn and disappear. As if we bring nothing into this world and will carry nothing from it.
Also in Matthew 25, Jesus warned that we will not be judged for the size of our bank accounts swollen by tax savings or the size of our beliefs, but by the way we reached out to minister to the poor, orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners and foreigners among us.
Listening to the debate, I think theologian Jim Wallis is correct. The world mainly has two kinds of people: atheistic materialists (most communists, many socialists and not a few capitalists, who do not believe in God and find meaning mainly in their possessions) and theistic materialists (who do believe in God and despite that find meaning mainly in their possessions).
Wallis is probably correct also in saying that if we were honest to God, we would change the nation’s motto from “In God We Trust” to “I shop, therefore I am.”
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University and the author of several books, including “Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie” and “Alabama in the Twentieth Century.” This column first appeared at al.com.