In America we treasure our religious freedom. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that government will keep out of the religion business and guarantees religion will be practiced freely without interference by government. “The wall of separation” is revered.
Have we misunderstood the meaning of the wall of separation? We all should be reminded that the First Amendment keeps government out of religion, but says nothing about keeping religion out of government. Under our Constitution, religious people and religious institutions are welcome in the halls of government. They are free to bring their religious convictions with them wherever they go. Religious people are bringing contraception, abortion rights and gay marriage to the fall 2012 election debates.
There is another issue that qualifies as a religious issue and ought to be a part of our debates. In importance, it dwarfs the issues already mentioned. Taxation.
Taxation is a major issue in the Bible. In Old Testament law, tithing was not voluntary. It was a tax. The tax had three uses: care of the temple, maintenance of the priesthood and care of widows and orphans. The priests ran the system. If the priests ran short, an additional tithe was sometimes added.
In first century Palestine when Jesus was teaching, taxation was brutal. There were three taxing powers. Rome was ruthless in collecting taxes in its conquered territories. In addition, Rome gave powers of taxation to puppet local and regional rulers such as the Herods in Palestine. The rule by which the Herods collected taxes was vicious: take all you can get. In addition, the priests and rulers of the Jerusalem temple were allowed to collect tithes.
Rural peasants of Galilee were subject to all three taxing entities. After paying all of the taxes, a typical peasant of Galilee ended up with no more than a subsistence living. Jesus from Nazareth became their champion. Many of the parables of Jesus aroused awareness of and resistance to the tax oppressors. Taxation was a moral issue. Taxation was the tool that was used for the rich to get richer and the poor to become poorer.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was identified by his overt criticism of taxation designed to make the ruling classes richer. The Mark Gospel records a confrontation between the representatives of King Herod and Jesus. The issue was clearly taxation. The Herodians asked a blunt question — Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? The Herodians attempted to trap Jesus in his anti-tax rhetoric. Resisting taxation was equated with insurrection, a crime punishable by death. In the reported encounter, Jesus asked for a Roman coin.
The denarius was a Roman coin, the most commonly used coin in the Roman Empire. It was the preferred coin used for payment of an annual head tax. The coin was both propaganda and currency. On one side of the coin was the image of the heads of Tiberius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The inscription identified them as gods. On the reverse side of the coin was the image of Livia, the mother of Tiberius. She was sitting on the throne of the gods. Poor Galilean Jews despised their Roman rulers and the coin that was forced upon them. The coin was a witness to the power and rule of the Caesars over the world. To pay the head tax with the denarius was a confession of submission to Roman rulers as self-appointed gods.
When Jesus was handed the coin, he asked whose image was on the coin. The answer was obvious — the Caesars, Augustus and Tiberius. Jesus is then reported to make his famous statement, “The things of Caesar pay back to Caesar, and the things of God to God.”
Was Jesus drawing a line between the Roman emperor and the divine? Was he giving support for the payment of the Roman tax? Was he declaring that he would not pay the Roman tax with the hated coin? What was he saying to the poor who surrounded him and were being victimized by unjust taxes? Some suspect that the intent of Jesus was to confuse his questioners. Without answering the question he was first asked, the conversation ended.
The conversation was not about separation of church and state. It was about taxation. For Jesus, taxation was a moral issue. It was a moral issue because taxes were being used to deny justice to masses of people. The Roman puppets killed Jesus for one very specific reason. He vocally opposed unfair taxation, whether instituted by Caesar, the Herod puppets or the Jerusalem temple.
The current debate about taxes in America is being driven by the “health of the economy” argument. Somehow education, health care and support for the vulnerable have been lost in the discussion. We desperately need voices for justice and compassion. Religious people and institutions have entered the political scene with the issues of gay marriage, abortion and contraception. They need to add one more issue — taxation.
Jesus rightly made taxes a moral issue. So also should his followers. When Christians remain silent, we strangely resemble the contemporaries of Jesus, who dutifully used the hated denarius to pay unjust taxes.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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