Taxes and tithes

The other day in my Gospel of Luke class (during which, I confess, I was intermittently passing in and out of conscious attention), someone made the comment that perhaps our taxes should count as tithing, considering the fact that they go toward the greater good of society.  Um… first, I should say that I was not listening much prior to this comment, so any reflection I attempt here relies on absolutely zero context, excepting my theological education and common sense.  And, for the sake of full-disclosure, I had already commenced with eye-rolling earlier in the class due to another comment linking Jesus to capitalism, so my attitude was irreparably soured.  And, having grown up within the Mennonite tradition, I am already biased toward believing that any government that spends the bulk of its citizens’ income tax on war spending does not deserve to receive it.  The Kingdom of God is endangered in a world of war.  It’s why I’ve taken 3 days to talk about it.  This comment hit me in the sternum like a brick. 

So, here’s where I am with taxes as tithes: absolutely not, NO, under no circumstances should government taxes be considered our offering to God.  I seem to remember Jesus saying something about giving to God what is God’s.  I don’t remember him telling us to give to Caesar what is God’s.  But, I realize I sound angry, even horrified, and there’s a need here for listening more deeply to what my colleague may have been trying to say.  As I’ve said, we’re studying Luke, whose gospel pounds home the necessity of caring for the poor, the need for keeping a constant eye on the building up of the kingdom of God to the exclusion of mammon, a regular check on where our priorities really lie.  In Luke, this care and prioritizing requires a “spreading of the wealth,” something I seem to be hearing called socialism lately in the national political media. 

Sure, this means using wealth in such a generous and responsive way that it furthers the Kingdom, if you have wealth, which might mean renouncing it altogether or spending it for the good of the poor.  Luke’s message isn’t entirely consistent or clear – if we give away all of what we own, almsgiving is obviously not possible, but he tells us to do that, as well.  So I get it… it’s confusing.  But where I struggle is with the word “generous.”  Is our government’s spending generous?  I know (church and state, and all that) we can’t claim it’s focused on the growing of the Kingdom of God, despite the fact that many federal, state, and local programs do indeed care for the marginalized of our society, and do it well.  But this care does not constitue even nearlythe bulk of the spending, and as citizens we have no control over how our taxes are spent, really.  That brings me to the question of what tithing really is, then.  How do we understand this odd word, one that has, I think, as many definitions as there are people who give to the church?  The scriptures aren’t entirely clear, either, so we can’t prooftext our way out of this one. 

Here’s my understanding of tithing: we are to intentionally, carefully, and generously provide out of the blessings of our lives, be those possessions, skills, resources of any kind, for the furthering of the Kingdom of God in this world.  We give because we love God and God’s vision for the world so much that we can’t help but give, and give with radical, extravegant generosity and abandon.  This can be through giving to the ministry of the church, but it doesn’t need to be.  I think giving to a community of believers in ministry together is a special kind of giving – it shows one’s faith and hope that this gathered community of broken and seeking folks has the Spirit moving through them, that the Church is the face of God in the world, and that God is, has been, and will be transforming Creation into something new and wonderful. 

But taxes? 

First of all, aside from what I’ve already said, my understanding of giving back to God what is (in any case) already God’s means that making it mandatory doesn’t qualify.  We give to God because we love and were loved first.  Giving comes from a sense of gratitude and hope, not guilt and certainly not obligation.  Here’s how I could justify that statement.  I would consider taxes as tithes when our government’s every decision was made with the good of the entirety of the human family in mind; when preserving, enriching, and honoring life was the primary vision rather than self-preservation and a culture of death; when creation ruled over destruction; when the voices of the poor had a heavier lobby in Congress than the voice of wealth; when the goal of unity outweighed the push for personal gain.  What I’ve just described is a vision of the Kingdom of God, broken into the life of our political, cultural, and social systems. Is this our reality?  No.  So no dice on taxes as tithes.  But, oh, until then, I’ll keep praying.

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3 Comments »

  1. Chrissy Joy Said:

    Number 1: Taxes do not equal tithing.

    Number 2: I’ve been struggling lately with the whole giving of ourselves (in whatever way that may be) for the furthering of the Kingdom of God here on earth. This Ultimately is my life goal, this is what I want to do. But how? And when? And where?

    In my day program this week we had a values group that discussed suffering. And I was beginning to dread it until the conversation actually started. We talked about the suffering that we are all experiencing in our mental and physical ways, but then the conversation turned to suffering of the world and the ending of that suffering. I found myself proud to be in a group of people who took my question “What can we as humans do to end suffering in the world?” seriously. We all had a lot to complain about, but that’s not what the bulk of the conversation was about. Towards the end of my conversation I mentioned about how I had been having suicidal thoughts, and someone called me out immediately and said, “but that doesn’t match your goals of ending suffering.” And she was so right.

    So what am I left with? What can I do right now to further the Kingdom of God, because honestly, when it gets here it’s going to be AWESOME. Just some thoughts Jules.
    Love ya.

  2. honeywasp Said:

    Chrissy,
    It’s an amazing thing when people who know so much about suffering can turn that feeling and those experiences into something good. I wonder whether this is one of the reasons God has a preferential option for the poor. They can offer a perspective and a hope that the rest of us can not. What an incredible statement your friend made – It makes sense that when we hurt ourselves we’re not living out our call to make the world a better place, to reduce suffering. That’s profound, and profoundly moving. Maybe what you can do right now is exactly what the rest of us need to do – take steps every day to recognize where things are broken and then put a healing balm on them. This must look different for each of us, I’m betting, since all of us come from a different perspective and set of experiences. Given what you’ve gone through this year, and reading your blog during the last month or so, I’m thinking you have something unique to offer, which is hope despite the fact that things seem so dark sometimes. Sticking around and asking where God is in all of this seems like a gift to everyone you have relationships with. Helping us to understand what it’s like to maintain some hope and to be generous when we don’t feel like we have anything to give.
    Love ya, kiddo.
    J

  3. Todd Clark Said:

    I don’t think taxes qualify as tithing either because they’re not voluntarily given like you said. I also don’t think the kingdom of God comes to bear on earth through government programs. If it did, I think we’d see that Western Europe would be a more religious society than the U.S. is. But the opposite is true. From what I find in the Gospels (like rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, which to me sets aside the government side of the kingdom question to focus squarely on us), I think Jesus meant what we do for the poor, for example, not what our governments try to do for the poor. If the government is doing it, then we’re not really directly involved in the act. Which is back to why I agree that taxes don’t count as tithes!

    Thanks for the opportunity. –Todd (from the 20s/30s group)


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