It’s April 15 – the traditional date/deadline when the Internal Revenue Service of the United States says that every citizen’s taxes must be filed. Saying that, did you know that discussion of taxation is one of the most pertinent – and often biblical – discussions that anyone can ever have? That’s why we’ve asked Thomas R. Blanton IV to share his rather piercing observations on taxation, and the disturbing analogs that now exist between Jesus’ time and our own. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
In a famous episode in the Bible, Jesus addresses a topic that is as relevant in twenty-first century America as it was in Judea in the first century CE: taxation.
According to the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels in which the story is told, Jesus is questioned by Pharisees and Herodians; that is, political partisans of Herod Antipas. For as long as he enjoyed the support of the Roman emperor, Antipas ruled as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (regions north and east of Roman Judea). According to Mark’s narrative, the Pharisees and Herodians asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus responded: “Bring me a denarius so that I can look at it,” and, after they had produced one for his examination, he asked, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” The reply was short: “Caesar’s.” This in turn elicited Jesus’s pithy response: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:13–17).
At issue in the story is whether Jesus would, in an unguarded moment, confess some revolutionary, anti-Roman sentiment in the presence of partisans of Antipas, and thus partisans of Rome. The Romans had taken control of Judea in 64 BCE and retained it until the Byzantine Period, beginning in 324 CE. Although Jesus’s proclamation that the apocalyptic “kingdom of God” would soon arrive implied an end to Roman rule in Judea, his reply to the Herodians seems strikingly nonrevolutionary.
Perhaps, like Paul of Tarsus, he viewed the arrival of the new kingdom as act of God rather than the result of human effort, and understood Roman authority as something that was to be respected—or at least tolerated—until the kingdom arrived. His question and answer indicate Jesus’s reasoning: since the image and name of the emperor Tiberius (“Caesar”) appeared on Roman denarii minted during his reign (14–37 CE), the denarius in question therefore “belonged” to Caesar and ought to be returned to Rome in payment of the tax.
In other words, if it has your name on it, it’s yours.
Although New Testament scholars, pastors, and economic theorists who discuss the relationship between the Bible and the contemporary economy often wish to draw direct analogies between the biblical text and contemporary contexts, a wide gulf separates the two, and analogies ought not be drawn too hastily. The most notable difference between the Roman tax referred to in the Gospel of Mark and taxation in the United States today is that the Roman version operated according to the logic of expropriation, whereas in the United States it operates according to the logic of redistribution.
Let me explain.
In the Roman Empire, taxation was imposed by the imperial power on its provinces; it involved the transmission of surplus in the form of money and goods from one geographic region and ethnic group to another (from Judea to Rome, for example). The payment of taxes was enforced by the threat of violence by means of military force. Economists in the tradition of Karl Marx use the term expropriation to refer to the extraction of currency and/or goods that are possessed by another for one’s own use. By way of contrast, taxation in the United States operates according to the logic of redistribution, which involves collecting, dividing up and assigning or reassigning goods, currency, and/or services to those within the nation or state from which taxes are collected. Because the two systems operate according to two different schemes—expropriation and redistribution—direct analogies between the systems are difficult to draw.
Proponents of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Donald J. Trump on December 22, 2017, claimed that—as the name implies—tax cuts, primarily for corporations, would result in a net economic benefit for all Americans in the form of job and wage growth.
Actually, the benefits of the new tax law do not flow to all Americans; instead they disproportionately benefit the wealthiest, while resulting in net loss to the poorest and to many others in between, after reductions in social safety net benefits are factored in. The tax act lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent; this is the single largest reduction in corporate taxes in U.S. history, and will result in an estimated $1 trillion tax break for corporations over the next ten years.
Although some companies like Apple, Walmart, and Home Depot took the passage of the bill as an opportunity to announce worker bonuses or wage increases, a Morgan Stanley survey indicates that 43% of the money saved by the tax cut will be spent on stock buybacks and to pay dividends to shareholders, while only 13% will be distributed to workers in the form of pay raises, bonuses, and benefits. A related study reported in February 2018 that S&P 500 companies planned to devote $5.6 billion to wage hikes and bonuses, while a whopping $171 billion were slated for stock buybacks. Stock buybacks increase the value of each share of stock by removing shares from the market; each remaining share subsequently represents a claim to ownership of a slightly larger fraction of a business.
While all of this is great news for shareholders, it hardly benefits the majority of Americans. A 2014 study found that “the top one percent of households classified by wealth owned 38 percent of all stocks in 2013, the top 10 percent [owned] 81 percent, and the top quintile [= top 20 percent] 92 percent.” That is worth repeating: the top 10% of the wealthiest households in the country controlled over 80% of stocks.
Not only is stock ownership unequally distributed by economic class, however, it is also unequally distributed along racial lines. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 60% of non-Hispanic whites reported owning stock (including stock held through retirement accounts), while 37% of Hispanics and 36% of non-Hispanic black Americans reported holdings.
It is important to remember that the tax cut is only one side of a coin; on the other side is government spending. Since taxes provide the basis of the government’s revenue, tax cuts involve revenue loss. The administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 included big cuts to spending in the areas of education, health and human services (including cuts to “Obamacare” health insurance subsidies), housing and urban development, the Department of the Interior (which manages federally owned lands, including national parks), the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency—cuts to be passed on to Americans through increased costs, decreases in public services, and a reduction of the social safety net.
It is for this reason that Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times, “Donald Trump and his allies pretended to give you a gift, but they gave themselves and their wealthy patrons much bigger gifts—and they’re going to stick you with the bill. You’ve been scammed.”
Fortunately for most Americans, some of the biggest cuts proposed by the administration were not accepted in the omnibus spending bill that the president reluctantly signed on March 23, 2018. At a time when income inequality is increasing, 44% of children in the United States lived in low-income families as of 2015. According to a recent study, “Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children are disproportionately low income and poor.” In addition, over 12% of households (15.6 million) report being food insecure—not having access at all times to sufficient food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Here, too, we find differences by race: 22.5% of black, non-Hispanic households are food insecure; compared with 18.5% of Hispanic households, and approximately 9% of white, non-Hispanic households. Moreover, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that “on a single night in 2017, 553,742 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States.”
College and university students, too, increasingly face both food and housing insecurity. A study released in April 2018 reported that “36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey” and “36% of university students were housing insecure in the last year.” The study reports disparities along lines of race and sexual orientation: in four-year colleges and universities, black students reported the highest levels of food (47%) and housing (43%) insecurity, followed by native Americans (food: 30%; housing: 58%) and Hispanics (food: 42%; housing: 39%). Along lines of sexual orientation, bisexuals in 4-year institutions experienced food (47%) and housing (47%) insecurity at higher rates than homosexuals (food: 43%; housing: 44%) and heterosexuals (food: 33%; housing: 35%). Those identified as gender nonbinary experienced greater insecurities (food: 46%; housing: 50%) than did those identified either as females (food: 37%; housing: 39%) or as males (food: 28%; housing: 31%).
In light of these disparities in the distribution of resources, which affect groups differently based on class, race, sexual orientation, and gender, we must ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to put huge amounts of money back into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans when too many others struggle under the weight of preventable economic problems.
Unlike Jesus and Paul, who expected the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God to turn the tables politically, the majority of Americans literally cannot afford to wait to exert an influence over our tax policies. And unlike Jesus, who had no influence over what Rome did with the taxes that were expropriated from him, Americans retain the power to determine how our pooled resources will be allocated and distributed: we can speak out, we can vote; we can educate, organize, and protest to hold our elected officials accountable.
This ought not be construed as a blue issue or a red issue; it is rather an issue involving intersections between class, race, sexual orientation, and gender. It is an issue that affects us all, and it concerns the questionable ethic behind policies that enrich the wealthiest even as many others struggle to afford housing, adequate food, and health care.
Despite the major differences between the economic structures governing first century Judea and twenty-first century America, however, some things remain the same: “To those who have, more will be given; and to those who do not have, even what [little] they have will be taken away from them” (Mark 4:25). The logic of wealth accumulation by the few at the expense of the many aggravates income inequality today just as it fueled the unequal distribution of resources in Roman antiquity, and it is the same logic that guided the recent tax cuts.
If you are interested in advocating for change in the wake of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, “Repeal the Trump Tax” marches are scheduled to be held in cities across the country on April 15. You can find out more by following this link.
Thomas R. Blanton IV is the author of A Spiritual Economy: Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and coeditor of Paul and Economics: A Handbook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). He currently teaches as auxiliary professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
 Comparable versions of the story appear in Matthew 22:15–22 and Luke 20:20–26.
 Specifically, from 4 BCE until 39 CE.
 The translations of the original Greek of the Gospel of Mark are my own.
 See Paul’s accommodationist advice in Romans 13:1–7; contrast his futuristic view in Philippians 2:9–11.
 A denarius was worth about a day’s wage for a laborer; see Matthew 20:10; Revelation 6:6.
 The terminology is drawn from Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 2.
 See Boer, Sacred Economy, 25.
 Heather Long, “The final GOP Tax Bill Is Complete: Here’s What Is in It,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/15/the-final-gop-tax-bill-is-complete-heres-what-is-in-it/?utm_term=.5f265b592f90.
 Alex Webb and Mark Gurman, “Apple, Returning Overseas Cash, to Pay $38 Billion Tax Bill,” Bloomberg News, January 17, 2018; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-17/apple-expects-38-billion-tax-bill-on-overseas-repatriated-cash; Arthur Delaney, “New Tax Law Benefiting Shareholders More Than Workers So Far,” Huffington Post, Mar. 2, 2018; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tax-law-stock-buybacks_us_5a9990ade4b089ec3539d869.
 David Goldman and Jeanne Sahadi, “Only 13% of Business’ Tax Cuts Are Going to Workers, Survey Says,” CNN Money, February 9, 2018; http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/09/news/companies/tax-cut-bonuses-buybacks/index.html.
 Matt Egan, “Tax Cut Scoreboard: Workers $6 billion; Shareholders $171 billion,” CNN Money, Feb. 16, 2018; http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/16/investing/stock-buybacks-tax-law-bonuses/index.html.
 Edward Wolff, “Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962–2013: What Happened over the Great Recession?” working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (2014), 42.
 Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Stock Ownership Down among All but Older, Higher-Income,” Gallup News, May 24, 2017; http://news.gallup.com/poll/211052/stock-ownership-down-among-older-higher-income.aspx.
 See also the administration’s wish list of cuts outlined in “An American Budget: Efficient, Effective, Accountable,” Office of Management and Budget, [n.d.], https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/budget-fy2019.pdf.
 Paul Krugman, “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed,” New York Times, Opinion, Mar. 1, 2018; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/01/opinion/taxpayers-scammed-republicans.html.
 John Wagner and Mike DeBonis, “Trump Signs $1.3 Trillion Spending Bill Despite Veto Threat on Twitter,” Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2018/03/23/trump-threatens-to-veto-omnibus-bill-because-it-does-not-address-daca-recipients/?utm_term=.f0643d8b2025. For a detailed summary of the omnibus spending bill, see Mary Lee, Hugh T. Ferguson, and Caitlin Oprysko, “Pro Bill Analysis: H.R. 1625 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018; Politico Pro: Policy Intelligence for Pros, Mar. 23, 2018; https://www.politico.com/pro/blog/pro-bill-analysis-h.r.-1625-consolidated-appropriations-act-2018.
 “Income inequality in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_United_States; see also Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
 Yang Jiang, Mercedes Ekono, and Curtis Skinner, “Basic Facts About Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2013,” National Center for Children in Poverty, Fact Sheet, January, 2015: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1100.html.
 “Food Security in the U.S.: Key Statistics and Graphics,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service; https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx.
 Meghan Henry, Rian Watt, Lily Rosenthal, Azim Shivji, and Abt Associates, “The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development, 1.
 Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson, Joel Schneider, Anthony Hernandez, and Clare Cady, “Still Hungry and Homeless in College,” Wisconsin Hope Lab, April 2018; http://wihopelab.com/publications/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf, 1.
 Goldrick-Rab et al., “Still Hungry and Homeless,” 15.