Pursue Righteousness before a Tax Code Change

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, In Illinois, Tax Increases Become an Article of Faith, Heather Wilhelm outlined a current effort in the State of Illinois to have their flat income tax system replaced with a progressive income tax. Quoting extensively from this article:

“In Illinois—a state plagued by epic budget woes, a pension crisis, byzantine taxes and the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate—politics is rarely associated with godliness. Four of the past seven governors, most recently Rod Blagojevich, have been sent to prison. Locals will tell you that corruption is practically a sport. But on April 8 more than 500 Illinoisans showed that they, at least, were keeping the faith.

Donning orange T-shirts reading “Faith in Action,” a coalition of religious groups flooded the state capitol in Springfield, singing hymns, shouting “Hallelujah,” and praying for higher taxes on the rich. Their goal: replacing the state’s long-standing flat income tax with a new, progressive “Fair Tax.”

“The gospel tells us that ‘For everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,’ ” Rev. Jason Coulter, a Chicago pastor and board member of the Community Renewal Society (which organized Faith in Action) told me.” I’m called by my faith tradition to speak truth to power when I see injustice being done. And a flat tax is an injustice.”

“This is a moral imperative,” said Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, a workers’ rights group. “There are over 400 passages in the Bible that talk about God’s special concern for the poor. Our current tax system, which favors the wealthy, is so off kilter, so skewed, and so contrary to the vision God has set before us.” “

From the Community Renewal Society web site, we quote:

“”The Illinois Policy Institute is being dishonest when they claim a Fair Tax is anything besides a tax cut for the overwhelming majority of Illinoisans.  The smoke and mirrors about future rates if we drove off the fiscal cliff are designed to confuse and scare voters, all in an effort to protect an unjust status quo,” said Rev. Jason Coulter of Ravenswood United Church of Christ.

Documents exposed in a December news report revealed that the Illinois Policy Institute has been serving as a conduit for the national State Policy Network, a group financed by America’s wealthiest corporate interests, including billionaires David and Charles Koch. The documents revealed funding to IPI from the group as earmarked for the purpose of making a Fair Tax “politically toxic” to Illinois voters.

“We, the citizens of Illinois, should decide tax and budget policy, not lobbyists and lawmakers backed by the wealthiest corporate special interests in America,” said Rev. Coulter.

The Illinois Policy Institute is responsible for many false attacks on the Fair Tax, including claims it would raise taxes on low- and middle-income families—claims which have been thoroughly debunked.  The truth is that a Fair Tax – implemented with a rate structure proposed by the Fair Tax Act‘s chief sponsor, Sen. Don Harmon – would cut taxes for 94% of Illinois residents, including everyone making up to $205,000.

Today’s attendees emphasized that tax relief for the overwhelming number of Illinois families and the protection of vital public priorities were both vitally important to the success of their communities.

“I can’t possibly pay any more taxes than I already do, and we won’t stand for any more cuts to my kids’ schools.  Enough is enough!” said Tammy Jordan of Shiloh Baptist Church of Waukegan.

“As a home healthcare worker, people’s lives depend on my care.  If there are any more cuts to the budget, I’m afraid what will happen to those seniors,” said Monique Cooper of the First Baptist Congregational Church of Chicago.

Rev. Coulter noted the unfairness of Illinois’ current tax and budget system that requires low and middle income families to pay a tax rate that is two to three times more than that of the very rich, factoring all state and local taxes paid.

“This is backwards.  Our faith calls us to fight for a Fair Tax because we believe in a community where everyone pays their fair share.  Jesus said, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.'”

Core Issue of Fairness

After reading these two articles, it seems to me that the core issue is really not one of taxes, but one of fairness. People inherently want what is “fair”, but how that concept is defined can vary widely. One wonders what the Bible has to say about the concept of fairness. Do the Scriptures speak to this concept such that we should inform our own perceptions and concepts first from the Bible? Are disciples of Jesus Christ called by God to pursue fairness? At what point do we accept injustice as part of our call to suffer – if ever?

What Does the Bible Say About Fairness?

Fairness is something we should strive to achieve, but it will not come from political lobbying, but rather from living a righteous life. In the bible, living a righteous life is a perquisite for understanding fairness. In Prov. 2:9–10, we read: “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path”. This type of understanding only comes after one has been living righteously before the Lord (2.1-8). This is reinforced by Deuteronomy 29.15, in which we learn that when we live in sin, God sends on us rebukes, confusions and curses. Living in sin leads to confusion. It would stand to reason that one cannot understand what is fair in a given situation if one is confused. Moreover, reading and learning the proverbs of the Bible will help you and I learn and understand fairness. In Prov. 1:2–3, the writer tells us that the purpose of the proverbs in the Bible are for “attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair…” If you want to know what “fairness” is, I would point you to the book of Proverbs.

The prophets linked fairness with righteousness (Isa. 11:4; cp. Ps. 98:9) and saw that when fairness was lacking, life became tenuous and uncertain (Isa. 59:9–11; Mic. 3:9–12). Biblical persons who exhibited fairness in their words or actions include Jacob (Gen. 31:38–41), Solomon (1 Kings 3:16–27), Jesus (John 7:53–8:11) and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40–41). Biblical injunctions uphold fairness in matters of business (Lev. 19:36; Deut. 25:15; 1 Tim. 5:18), law (Exod. 23:3; Deut. 16:19), speech (Exod. 23:1), and family relationships (e.g., Deut. 21:15–17; Eph. 6:1–9). God’s fairness in His treatment of sin was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ – who was unjustly accused and wrongly killed for our sins but who willingly bore them because of His great love for us.

Fairness and Suffering

The Bible tells us that suffering is part of our call to discipleship: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but to suffer for Him.” (Phil 1.29). Suffering for the gospel is foundational to our call to believing in Christ. When (not if) we suffer for the Gospel, we’re going to live with injustices committed against us (and Christ – John 15). Suffering and injustice often go hand in hand. For the Christian, we look forward to the day when God will make everything right and will true justice to all – including you and I.

What is the role of Government?

The Bible doesn’t endorse any particular form of judgment, though we do know that in the future, God’s form of government will be a righteous dictatorship. In the Bible, God is the ultimate ruler, and He gives the responsibility to execute justice to the king (government), particularly for the weak (1 Kings 10:9; Prov. 31:8–9; Ezek. 34:1–6, 23). However, government needs limits; ruling is a function, not a status or class (Deut. 17:14–20). Government is divinely established to encourage and maintain what is beneficial and to discourage what is harmful and disruptive. Hence, believers should honor and obey governing authorities as instituted by God (Rom. 13:1–7; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). But let’s remember that all governing authorities are made up of fallible men operating in a world that is intrinsically opposed to Jesus and hostile to his followers.

Pursue a Righteous Life First

There is nothing wrong with lobbying the government to right a wrong – to bring justice to an unjust situation. But it seems to me that Christ took a position of counseling us to accept the powers that be while focusing us on a transcendent commitment to God alone. There is a place for Christians to lobby our government to bring justice and fairness to an unjust situation, but our focus should be on the church righting the wrongs whether or not the government intervenes. We might lobby the government, but we trust God.

As Heather wrote in her article, corruption is nearly a sport in Illinois. I merely ask the question: Are there louder, more persistent calls to our society to repent of our sin and live in righteousness before God? I suspect that Reverend Coulter and his friends would disagree that a call to a progressive tax and a call to righteousness are two different things. But I don’t see how they are synonymous. It seems to me that for the Christian, lobbying the government for changes in the tax code should take a back seat to calling our nation to repentance. Such a call would include repentance from hoarding wealth and oppressing the poor by the wealthy. But it would also include a call to repentance from the holocaust of our age – abortions or sexual promiscuity or the forsaking of our commitments in our families and community through fatherlessness and divorce or even our own arrogance in believing that we are somehow better than others. Is it not true that the millions of abortions are an anathema to God? Should we not be lobbying our government to change the law to protect the unborn, even at the expense of taking away a woman’s right to choose? Are not the lives of the unborn worth more than a civil right? Is there anywhere in the Bible where a civil right is elevated over the sanctity of life?

As I read the home page of the CRS web site and then read the WSJ article, the situation comes across to me as a political one wrapped in religious clothes. Hence, my response to these groups in Chicago is simple: be sure that God has called you to lobby the Illinois government for this specific tax law change. Be very sure of His specific call on your life to do this. And above all else, pursue God and a righteous life first. Without this, you (and I) will never know what “fair” really is.