Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My very good friend Ned who is much more erudite than I writes:

To a Quaker Bible studies teacher. I have given up on this person. Ned is more tactful. I just called this person a non-Christian. So, that soul is now in Ned's gentle care.


I want to thank you for taking the time and effort to provide me with your very thorough and insightful analysis of various aspects of Jesus' relationship to taxes and other issues, which John Redman forwarded to me when you were unable to get it to me directly. I especially appreciate the spirit of helpfulness in which it was offered. God bless you for that as well as for the work you put into it. When I first received it my printer was misbehaving and these tired old eyes don't take to reading any but the briefest documents on the computer screen, so it was not until yesterday that I printed it out and read it.

One of the ways in which your analysis conflicts with mine is in our different understanding of taxation generally. The first point you make is that "the Roman tax in Judea was not a tax in the modern sense of the word. It was tribute."

You and I are in pretty close agreement regarding the nature of the Roman tax, as you explain in your enumerated points first, second and third. But when you say that the Roman tax "was not a tax in the modern sense of the word," without explaining what you mean by "the modern sense," I am forced to conclude that your understanding of the nature and history of taxation is radically different than my own. In my opinion, the Roman tax, the modern tax (whether sales, income, property, excise, duty, direct, indirect, etc.), as well as the tribute the Israelis exacted from some of the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land whom they did not drive out entirely as God told them to do, and the taxes the Egyptians undoubtedly levied on the Jews living among them to diminish them from the state of wealth they enjoyed when Joseph lived until they were utterly impoverished as slaves by the time Moses came along. All of these taxes share the same basic element, which distinguishes a tax from most other exchanges of wealth, and renders taxes next of kin to slavery. That basic element is this: all taxes are a form of extortion, viz., theft by force and violence or the threat thereof. They are all a way of taking the property of one person for the benefit of another or others without that person's freely given consent. They are violations of God's unequivocal command: Thou shalt not steal! Now you can take a modern tax, dress it up in the gayest legal finery, put lipstick on it, and, as the pig with those embellishments remains a pig nonetheless, the modern tax with its enFORCEMENT procedures, remains what is was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, to wit, stealing.

XXXX, you spoke of the "civil benefits derived from taxes" being incidental to Rome's [primary] purpose," which suggests to me that you may be making some kind of a distinction between taxes based on how the revenues therefrom are used. But, if so, this is, I believe, specious reasoning. Whatever reason a thief concocts for looting, or to what use he puts the loot, however noble or base, does not in any way diminish the crime. Remember, XXXX, Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of the necessities of life would be given to us. This admonition was intended for the tax collector and his beneficiaries as well as you and I. Furthermore, if Jesus knew what he was talking about, and I know from personal experience that he did, such dependence on God alleviates once and for all any reason for resorting to taxation and the concomitant, enslaving dependence on the state that it generates.

XXXX, you refer to the fact that the residents of Judea in the time of Jesus "did not have much if any input about what moneys were assessed on them and by whom," which, from the context, implies that having input into the taxation process changes its nature. I believe that the only change wrought by modern "participatory" government on the crime of taxation is to spread the sin like a contagious disease; that many, many more people, all those who willingly participate, become accomplices of the tax collectors and equally guilty of stealing. Surely modern taxation corrupts more souls than any other human institution, including even war, which of course is always and only financed by taxes.

I certainly agree with you, XXXX, when you say that "payment of the tribute said that you recognized the AUTHORITY of Caesar over you." And it is equally true that payment of a federal tax, for example, acknowledges the AUTHORITY of the United States government over you. That is what makes paying taxes to any state, I believe, unacceptable to disciples of Jesus, who clearly endorsed God's first commandment.

You say "Caesar accepted payment only in his own coin." But at another point you say, correctly I think, "Tax collectors were also moneychangers." My point is this: the fact that Caesar accepted payment only in his own coin, a point that many exegetes have for some misguided reasons dwelt on, is an insignificant fact that has no bearing on the question of Jesus' support or opposition to taxes, since Caesar did not do the collecting in person and thus the tax collectors would quite obviously and gladly have accepted anything given them in payment of the Roman tax so long as it was worth as much or more than the tax, for they could convert whatever they received into Caesar's coin before handing it over to whoever was over them, keeping the "vigorish" they made on the exchange transaction for themselves.

Based on what the gospels say, I think you have misinterpreted the intent of the Sanhedrin's plot to trap Jesus by his response to the question of whether or not it was lawful--according to God's law--to pay tax to Caesar, and, as Mark has it, whether or not to pay the tax. You say that "the Sanhedrin needed [Jesus] to be seen by the people to have committed blasphemy." This interpretation of the purpose of the coin question originated, I believe, with Eusebius (Jerome), after the Christian church became enthralled to the Roman state during the time of Constantine, and its leaders came to share in the booty of Roman taxes, which, by the way, is. in my opinion, wherein the need for separating church and state originated. Eusebius' interpretation ignores the fact that the Gospel of Luke clearly explains the design of the trap and the intent of their question, "so as to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor," who, they could be sure, would then execute Jesus as a tax resister. The Sanhedrin asked the question in the firm expectation that Jesus would say no. (If he said yes, they could hardly hand him over to the governor for supporting Caesar's tax.) Luke states the obvious design of the trap; Mark and Matthew don't mention it, but this is merely by ellipsis, because, I am sure, Jesus' stern opposition to stealing under the guise of taxation was as well known to the authors of the gospels as it was to the Sanhedrin.

You say Jesus was "only a minor annoyance from Pilate's point of view." You may have reached this erroneous, in my opinion, conclusion by misapprehending Pilate's responsibility in respect to the collection of Caesar's tax. Whereas you are correct that the actual collection was a profit-making business conducted by those who successfully bid for the right to collect Rome's taxes in Judea (as was the case throughout much of the empire's territories). Nevertheless the person ultimately responsible for the collection of taxes in Judea was Pilate. He was in virtually the same position regarding Caesar's tax in Judea as is a District Director of Taxation of the Internal Revenue Service, who is ultimately responsible for tax collections within his geographic district. Tax farming, as the Roman practice is known, did not relieve Pilate of his duty to ensure the appropriate tax revenues were collected and the appropriate portion remitted to Rome. Who actually carried out the collection process and how they went about it is beside the point. Pilate most likely executed Jesus, a man who had been "recruiting" his disciples from the ranks of Rome's tax collectors at an untold cost to the system, whose popularity was growing by leaps and bounds as he healed and preached a gospel of repentance, and who must have been notorious among those involved in collecting taxes for his repeated references to tax collectors as exemplars of sinfulness during his crowd-drawing sermons.

XXXX, you say that on one level Jesus' response ("render unto...etc.") "is saying to submit to Rome." What do you mean by "on one level." On what level? What are you saying? Was there a subliminal message? Jesus' response is as unambiguous as his Father's command, "Thou shalt not steal!" He said, "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, but give God what is God's," which of course begs the question, What is Caesar's and what is God's? Scripture says in at least five places (e.g. Psalm 24:1) that everything is God's, which leaves absolutely nothing for Caesar's. Should we pay taxes to Caesar? Not unless you have something that belongs to him (Thou shalt not steal, which goes for Caesar as well as you and me). Jesus was obviously guilty of the charge of sedition (not treason) by interfering with Rome's collection of taxes.

Have you read my interpretation of the Temple Tax incident recorded in Matthew 17? It is considerably different than yours. I think it is important that the Temple Tax, a forced, involuntary exaction, not be confused with tithing, which is an entirely voluntary donation or gift. ("Bring your gift to the alter.") Furthermore, it seems to me that Pilate would be interested in the collection of the Temple Tax, although not to the degree of his interest in the collection of Rome's tax. I'm sure you are familiar with the incident reported by Josephus when Pilate used Temple money to divert the waters of a Jerusalem stream. The Jews complained bitterly, and he had his soldiers violently quell their dissent at the cost of many Jews' lives. Evidently, then, Pilate did have a hand in the Temple's revenues. Suffice to say there are several other points on which I differ with your interpretation of the coin-in-the-mouth of a fish incident.

Bottom line: Jesus preached and practiced principles for right living--and dying. Those who follow his ways will be loyal to God alone. They constitute the Kingdom of God here and now upon this earth, living according to the law of God, who is Truth, and Love, and Justice, and Freedom, and Wisdom. When acting from Love, we are sure to comply with God's commandments--not preying upon our neighbors by means of "lawfully enacted" (by humans) taxes. Acting from Truth and Love we are certain to run afoul of the State and its man-made laws, which always represent a usurpation of God's role as our almighty and only Lawgiver.

XXXX, you stress the importance of Love in Friends' theology "when we decline to serve in the military. No way can one justify killing." If one pays federal taxes, that taxpayer supports the US military's almost daily killings just as certainly as if the taxpayer pulled the trigger. Indeed the taxpayer's guilt may be greater than the soldier's, for, pursuant to the system of government in America, the citizen-taxpayer is the principal, the soldier is merely his or her agent. There is nothing of God's love in killing--directly or by proxy.

Yours in the Love of Jesus, Ned