If taxes are in the news and it isn’t early April, then the story must have something to do with politics. The slow boil of controversy surrounding the tax returns of presidential candidate Donald Trump has now bubbled over into a hot mess of hubris, greed, and grasping for power.
And while the odor of political and economic machinations may be enough to turn one’s stomach, there are legitimate and important questions about the moral status of taxation and the Christian duty to, as Paul puts it, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.”
Note, however, the conditional status of Paul’s injunction. A great deal hangs on that little word, “if.” Who gets to decide if we owe taxes and how much? The answers to these questions are pretty clear: the government. But as anyone who has filed taxes knows full well, establishing the actual amount that is due is often much more complicated.
This is due in no small measure to the complexity of the American tax code, which currently clocks in at 74,608 pages. The more wealth and assets you have, the more income you have to declare, and the more of those pages come into play. When filing your taxes, there’s some truth to the adage “more money, more problems.” So while we can affirm the general duty to pay taxes, actually discharging that obligation is in reality a bit more difficult.
Paying taxes is a matter of justice, while Christian giving is a matter of charity.
In fact, the complexity of the tax code can obscure the many ways in which the current system actually helps the wealthy. The rich can afford specialized attorneys and tax professionals to help them optimize their returns to minimize their payments. Many of those thousands of pages of tax code include specialized options for high-income households to spread out their obligations and, in some cases, negate or minimize them over time.
When one exploits the tax code in a way that allows one to pay no net income taxes, is that intrinsically wrong? Perhaps the best way to look at it is via that final number, the amount a person owes or does not owe after establishing all the facts of his or her income and losses. In the final calculation, if the amount owed is zero or less, then Paul’s conditional “if” no longer applies. The government has established that such a person has no tax liability, so no further taxes need to be paid. If we sense that something is wrong even when the law has not been violated, that might be an indication that there are some underlying problems with the law itself.
A few other distinctions are in order as well. There is an important difference between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. So too is there a difference between complying with legal requirements and meeting our moral obligations. Thus it may be possible to pay what is owed in taxes by law and still violate moral and Christian norms. We do so, for instance, when we seek to “maximize after-tax income” out of a spirit of greed and miserliness. One final distinction is also in order: the difference between paying taxes and giving in Christian charity. Thus Paul writes that “If you owe taxes, pay taxes,” but he also writes that “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Paying taxes is a matter of justice, while Christian giving is a matter of charity.
There is no duty to pay anything other than what we owe in taxes. But whatever we do owe we must pay in good conscience and out of a spirit of justice. And, as Christians, we should also not confuse our legitimate payment of taxes with our greater obligation to give to God the things that are his. Rendering to Caesar does not exhaust our duty to give and to do so generously.