taking the words of Jesus seriously

I tend not to be impressed when politicians use god-words. In fact I’m immediately suspicious. It seems to me that pandering to religious folks rather than the glorification of God is the goal. Too often the politicians most prone to sprinkle their speeches and interviews with references to God or scripture are the very ones who show the least sympathy for some of the key concerns reflected in scripture. Yet there are many Christians who gush and swoon at the god-talk of elected officials and candidates for office.

So I find it amusing that some of these very people have been incensed at President Obama’s references to scripture at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. They accuse him of using scripture for political advantage and PR purposes. I am not inclined to disagree. But I do find the objections disingenuous given their support of the god-talk of politicians and candidates on the political right.

The President appealed to scripture about helping the poor to justify raising taxes on the rich.  I don’t believe that the scriptures can be directly translated into public policy. Many who take positions far different from ones I’m inclined to support agree. Some of them asked, “Who would Jesus tax?” Given that Jesus wasn’t in the business of running governments, the obvious answer is, “No one.” But that doesn’t entirely settle the matter. While there is no direct line between scripture and public policy, if the President was wrong in his use of scripture, at least he was wrong in the right direction.

Some of those who protested the President’s scripture references readily admit that Jesus had great concern for the poor. But, they contend, he was no Robin Hood who would take from the rich to give to the poor. Helping the poor should be voluntary. Giving to the poor or supporting programs that serve them should be done without compulsion. There is no virtue in being forced to help the poor through taxation. Jesus wanted to inspire generosity in people, not have them working through governments that take some people’s money and use it on behalf of others.

There is truth in these claims. But it is far from the whole truth. First, all governments take and use people’s money for purposes everyone doesn’t necessarily support. Programs that help the disadvantaged are no more or less a product of compulsion than what we find when the government uses far more tax dollars to buy weapons systems, fund shadowy intelligence agencies and provide aid to unjust but strategically useful foreign governments. For Christians to suggest Jesus wouldn’t want taxes used to help those who are weak, sick and poor, while not more strenuously objecting to being compelled to pay for these other items, shows, I believe, a serious lack of Christ-shaped priorities.

One pundit, Doug Giles, who objected to the President citing words of scripture and making proposals about taxing the wealthy to the benefit of the poor in the same breath, wrote, “I wish Christianity did influence Obama’s policies.” But how did he envision such influence playing out? Among the items in his answer: “We’d enforce tougher immigration policy. Our military would be stronger.” Seriously? To quote Rick Santorum, “I must have missed that passage.” The fact is that the pundit didn’t get those ideas from anything taught by Jesus. He is letting his political ideology get the best of him.

Second, any notion that the Lord wants the less advantaged to be helped only by generous individuals suggests that Jesus was more concerned with the virtues of the helpers than the needs of the helped. Repeatedly I’ve heard it said, “Governments can’t be compassionate; only individuals can be compassionate.” Or, “There is no virtue in helping the poor if you have no choice about it.” : “The Bible is clear that we should care for the less fortunate, but not once does it imply that it’s government’s job to do so.” What gets lost in these protestations is the pressing concerns of those who are struggling the hardest to feed, cloth, educate and house their families.

Statements like these imply that getting spiritual “brownie points” for one’s righteous character have priority over alleviating suffering and need. Scripture indicates that sometimes the virtues of the actors are less important that the good results of their ignobly motivated action: “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill…What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:15, 18). If some pay their taxes grudgingly, what of it? That does not take away from the fact that needy people are served “and in that I rejoice.”

The suggestion by the President that our Lord’s words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourselves, ” may have relevance for public policy became an opportunity for some to rail against “Big Government, ” missing the more important point. The fact is that for Christians love is the guiding principle in every domain of life, with friends, family, church and, yes, government. Government is not some exception that allows Christians to move love away from the forefront. The policies Christians support should, as much as possible, be what they understand as expressions of love. I believe it was Cornel West who said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Just because Christians should be motivated by love as they support policies that help the weak and poor, doesn’t mean that all who are affected will participate out of love. “Love does not equate with forced redistribution of wealth. No matter how many times you say it, no matter how badly you want it to be true, love is personal and difficult in a way that writing a bigger check come April 15th can never (and in my opinion, should never) be, ” wrote blogger R.J. Moeller . Love is personal but it is not only private. Moeller, and others like him, express much concern over the fact that some people will have tax dollars taken from their pockets unwillingly to be used for the poor. However, they fail to extend that concern in other relevant ways.

When there is a “forced redistribution” of my wealth to pay for Big Military – a form of Big Government loved by conservatives – and I have not one hint of military pride or support for war in my heart, why are people like this author totally unconcerned about my inner state or the external coercion I endure? While they think such matters are relevant when it comes to helping the poor by governmental means, they are perfectly fine with “forced redistribution” when it comes to programs and projects they support. Yes, the policies I support as an extension of love impinge on others. But so do policies impinge upon me and my pocketbook that I believe are the polar opposite of loving.  Given a choice, I’ll be supporting those public policies that aim to accomplish –however fallibly- ends that are in keeping with love.

I don’t believe what the government is capable of doing is ever going to meet all the physical and social needs of the least advantaged. I believe the work of the church is absolutely crucial and much more important on some levels. But the church doesn’t have the resources to do enough and not likely ever to have them. Only a misguided ideological purity would deny that the government has a crucial role. I don’t claim that there is a biblical platform for governing and I don’t suggest that there is any one Christian way to approach these matters or to know exactly how Christians should be involved. I do believe we must keep our eyes on Jesus as the Gospels present him and be prayerfully responsive in this world of need.

All this leads me to contend that the question, “Who would Jesus tax?” is the wrong question. A far better one is this: “Given the fact of taxation and the world in which we live, what uses of taxes are in keeping with the ends Jesus advocated?” Taxation is not a Jesus-method. But helping “the least of these” is certainly a Jesus-end. If Jesus wouldn’t approve of “taking from the rich and giving to the poor, ” far less does he approve of taking from his followers and having it given to war. As followers of Christ, does it make any spiritual sense to object to having taxes used to help the less advantaged while supporting their use for things that clearly are not Jesus-ends, things that are used to threaten and destroy? Should we not be supportive of the former rather than the latter?

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Craig M. Watts is the minister of (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the

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About The Author

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Craig M. Watts is author of Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America (Cascade Books 2017) and minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida.

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