Taxation is Theft. (The Rest of The Story)

In my previous post, I raised some questions and pointed out problems with an argument against those who say “taxation is theft.” But my argument was missing one important piece: a discussion of the cultural context of the first-century, in which claims are made by Christ and Christians about taxation and government. In this segment, we look more directly at the environment that gave rise to the New Testament writings. The condition of the soil largely determines the condition of the plant, after all.

The centuries immediately before and after the 100s CE in the Greco-Roman world were increasingly violent. There were frequent uprisings, attempted coups, assassinations of political leaders, reform efforts, and massacres of Jews and other groups led by the Romans. Palestine, the land of the Jews, was being controlled by the Romans in its ever expanding empire. The Jewish people, at times, tried to “get it back,” sometimes with more success than others. Besides this ongoing struggle, the Romans also brought in new religious threats, political threats, and various forms of coercion—not to mention religious and cultural (Hellenistic) agendas. Revolts against this paganization stem all the way back to the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BC.

You can imagine how much the expectation there was for political and religious liberty. Revolution was in the air. (See Wright, The Day the Revolution Began.) Jews were who willing to use violent action to achieve this revolution were called “Zealots.” That is, “rebels,” “terrorists,” “jihadists” ready for holy war (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 23-24). Others took to the desert to wait it out (Essenes), while others made inroads with the government (Herodians), or maintained religious purity as good followers of Yahweh (Pharisees). This to mention very little of non-Jewish movements, which will have to remain shelved for this essay. In any case, the Jews were particularly notable in their expectation of a great leader who would soon overthrow the government and re-establish the Kingdom of David. This was to be a monarchy, and monarchy, as it turned out, was extremely unpopular in the democratic first century empire (Ellul, Christian Anarchism, 75). If you valued your life, “King” and “Kingdom” is not something you want to speak very loudly about.

You can imagine, then, just how nervous a strong (carpenter), male Jewish rabbi—with disciples comprised of rebels and government officials (e.g., tax collectors) and (no time for details now) wealthy women—would make the authorities. These were trouble-makers for sure! Public preaching in this context was extremely risky. Preaching about a king or “kingdom” with these kind of people was even more risky. So if any kind of message was going to get out before getting squashed, it would have to be intentionally shrewd and shrouded, at least in part.

And it was. Jesus managed to escape life-threatening situations (e.g., Jn 10:39; Lk 19:47; etc.). But, through parable—encoded messages that the mass peasantry understood—Jesus communicated to the right people about important matters. This bought him some time. And his preaching of the “Kingdom” wasn’t as immediately threatening to hearers because no one saw a pompous political leader marching around on a horse with an army.

In contrast to these traditional hopes, Jesus realized both the faux authority and violent nature of governments, armies, and political coercion. When offered the equivalent of the chair of the Fed, head of the IMF, and US Presidency by Satan himself (Lk 4:6), Jesus declined. (You remove your “Jesus for President” bumper stickers now.) He knew just who it was who had “authority.” His own successful birth was outlawed (Mt 1-2), and as an adult in ministry, Jesus critiqued the state and empire itself while—out of necessity, like eating fish, speaking Aramaic, etc.—was subordinate to the immediate authorities at the same time. It was no surprise that he was both loved and hated.

Naturally, Jesus’ life and teaching caused listeners to wonder if paying taxes was really necessary (Mt 22:15-22; Lk 20:19-26). Being a good Jew, taxation for him—especially enforced by the secular empire—was theft. But, to go out in the streets and simply decree “taxation is theft, so don’t do it,” would mean immediate death—just as declaring “slavery is wrong” would mean the collapse of the entire ancient economy, with nearly 20% of the populous being slaves. So he never acknowledged the money as being stolen property (i.e., “give unto Caesar what is yours”), as that would have (a) openly legitimized theft and (b) fanned yet more fire for the flames of violent revolution. But he had to fulfill many other conditions in this tight box: (a) don’t leave people thinking Caesar/the state is Lord, since he’s not; (b) diminish the empire and its importance; (b) say this without getting crushed; (c) don’t cause anyone else to get crushed. Good heavens, only God could pull this off!

And He did.

Jesus’ trivializing of earthly authorities and embodied ethical life (e.g., free of theft) led again to the question: “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” (Mt 17:24-27) [Peter] said “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”  When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

It goes without saying that this is a lot different than the popular, naïve mantra of “just pay your taxes, it’s the law; Romans 13.” And Jesus’ response is not anything close to contemporary justifications of taxation. The very fact that it was and remained a controversial talking point indicates the complex nature of the situation. What does seem clear is that Jesus was rolling his eyes the whole time; “Yeah, like they’re in a position to demand people’s possessions. Sigh, whatever. Just find a coin and give it to them.”

Jesus paid taxes for the same reason everyone else does today: we have to. There’s no choice—at least if we want to live and live outside prison. It is a prudential decision, and it doesn’t escalate violence. We don’t want to, in Jesus’ words, “give offense.” The way of the Kingdom is not coercion or physical resistance. There are other ways to change the world—and to combat injustice. So, in the meantime, we get by on this messy planet, even letting others steal from us.

This explains Paul’s instruction to essentially “steady the course” in Romans 13—although without as much eye-rolling, and a theological argument saying that the whole arrangement is not arbitrary. The authority of the authorities is really not theirs at all; whatever authority exists is God’s alone. Paul’s larger concern was obviously keeping Christianity alive, and obedience to the emperor was necessary to fulfill this mission. (And because of that strategy, Christianity did live, while Judaism was essentially destroyed—the Jerusalem and the Temple being burned in 70AD and the last of the resistance was crushed in the early 100s.) In another context, keeping Christianity alive may mean disobedience to the emperor, which is not a foreign idea in church history.

So when Christians acknowledge that “taxation is theft,” this does not automatically amount to resisting the IRS. Much less does it call for a violent revolution. Why, then, attempt to (Block) “defend the undefendable”?

To suggest that taxation isn’t theft, and that Christians should pay taxes for this reason, or to benefit the common good etc., or to suggest that the mere reading of a text instructing first-century Christians to remain peaceful (by doing A, B, C, and paying taxes…) is grounds for universal, unquestioning acceptance and/or the vindication of taxation and its morality for all time, is to miss not only the context from which these this observations are made and given concrete authority themselves, but also to miss the continual, characteristic mockery—and, eventually, non-cooperation (Mt 27:11-14; Mk 15:5)—of and with earthly authorities on the lips and life of Jesus. In a word, honest and serious study of the NT leads one to affirm that taxation is theft, not that it isn’t.

Whether Christians chose to pay taxes or not is an ethical choice they have to make, depending on context, conscience, and a number of other variables. If someone commits a crime against me (e.g., steals my car), I can do nothing, I can try to stop them, I can call the police, I can steal my neighbor’s car to replace it, and on and on. But it does no good to legitimize the theft on the basis of frequency, popularity, or poor exegesis.