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President Obama’s “Buffet Rule,” a plan that would have
A man dressed as Jesus sits amongst other protestors holding placards on the steps of Saint Paul’s cathedral in central London on October 15, 2011.
raised taxes for the super-rich, failed to get enough votes to bring the proposal up for debate in the Senate, blocked by the GOP, even as on this tax day, millions of Americans are doing their last-minute duty of filling out the dreaded tax forms and mailing them in, along with payments many to most of us cannot afford.
And while polls show that about two-thirds of all Americans feel that the tax code in this country favors the rich and is unfair to the masses, legislators on both sides of the aisle have resorted to the Bible to justify their points of view.
Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the chairperson of the House Budget Committee who presented a budget that has earned harsh criticism from Democrats, insists that Jesus was for small government, a point of view that is dialectically opposed to the point of view that Jesus mandated and taught that the government, ought to take care of “the least of these.”
In a piece on National Public Radio, religious conservative David Barton used the parable in the book of Luke where Jesus tells the story of a man who worked only an hour being paid the same as men who had worked all day.
Found in the 20th chapter of Matthew, the story has inspired debate for years. Some see the end of the story, where the man who had worked only an hour receiving the same wage as the others, as a sign of God’s benevolence, God’s desire that all people be treated equally.
That thought, however, the thought or belief in economic equality, is hotly contested. The United States Constitution, while mentioning the ideal of equality, does not in fact promote equality amongst people on a number of levels. And capitalism is certainly not intended to promote economic equality. In a free market system, some people will do better than others. It is the way the system is intended to work.
Referring to the parable in Matthew, Barton asks, “Where were unions in all this?” The contract is between an employer and an employee.” Barton says the parable is or was proof that Jesus believed in the free market system. Others say that the parable, and others like it, are justification for the belief that Jesus opposed progressive taxation, unions, collective bargaining, a minimum wage and social welfare spending.
The problem is that the Bible has no study guide; there apparently is no one way, no one correct way, to interpret it, and so is virtually impossible to get a black-and-white answer. Jesus does ask believers to take care of the poor. He really does criticize governments that participate in economic oppression of the poor.
Obery Hendricks, in his book “The Politics of Jesus,” writes that poverty was widespread in Jesus’ time, and that farmers in Jesus’ day had to borrow funds from the wealthy to pay Roman taxes. The system was such that farmers had to borrow money every year to pay taxes until they could no longer borrow, and then they went into default.
The lenders, says Hendricks, then had the right to collect the debts; he references Matthew18: 25-25, where the rich could demand payment from the poor by making them sell their children or stay in economic bondage forever. Debt slavery was a huge issue.
Jesus was so attuned to the needs of the poor that he used the word “debts” in the Lord’s prayer, asking believers to pray that God forgive our debts (denoting a legal, economic issue) as we forgive our debtors.
Jesus was concerned about the poor and the spiral downward into poverty of so many people, but he did not say specifically that the government should take care of the poor. Jesus denounces the system, a government ( Mark 12:41 ff) where the poor are treated so poorly, but he does not say, for example, that such a government is bad.
Conservatives have picked up on that omission. In the NPR piece, the author writes that “Evangelicals cite the Book of Romans, one of the few places in the New Testament that refer to civil government…” and the author says that some conservatives say that taxation “violates the Eighth Commandment, which says, “thou shalt not steal.”
Conservatives say yes, Jesus says take care of the poor, but that the Bible doesn’t mandate that governments pick up the mantle. Ryan says that the poor should be helped through our civic organizations and churches and charities. When those institutions run out of money, what then? Conservatives are silent, perhaps because they believe that the working of capitalism kicks in at that point. Some people can and will be helped, and others will not. When the money runs out from civic, charitable and religious organizations, it just runs out.
People who interpret the Bible differently object to what is seen as a manipulation of the Scriptures and as a willingness of religious conservatives to ignore what they see as the precepts of Jesus. Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way says that conservatives are using biblical justification for their opposition to taxation, minimum wage, and other ways the government might get involved.
But there’s the problem. The Bible says so much that is open to interpretation. The late Jesse Helms admitted that Jesus said we should love our neighbor, but added, “we get to choose our neighbor.” Though both conservatives and liberals would agree that that the Bible does say a lot about people needing to take care of the poor and the hungry, the way conservatives see what the Bible in general and what Jesus in particular says about how this should be done is so far apart that intersection of the two “sides” seems highly unlikely.
The problem with Jesus and what he says in the Bible is that he criticizes systems of oppression and criticizes the rich; he hates how the poor are treated, but does not give a hard enough line of how government and the very rich must act and what they must do in order to be pleasing to God. Liberals can argue forever, and correctly so, that Jesus’ challenge to government was one of the main reasons he was killed, but those looking for a way to support their point of view will tell those same stories with a different twist. They will argue, as Rep. Ryan has said, that Jesus was for small government.
If only it were so clear.
Susan K. Smith, an On Faith panelist, is a Yale Divinity School graduate and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,”a winner of the 2009 National Best Books Award.