Ryan Lau | @agorisms
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”, says Jesus in Matthew 22:21. For centuries, many Christians have used this famous verse as an argument to dutifully pay taxes. At first glance, it is quite compelling. After all, Jesus is answering the trick question of whether or not the Pharisees and Herodians should pay taxes. If he answers yes, he loses the support of the radical Pharisees, but if he says no, the more moderate Herodians would be wary and he may face arrest.
Luckily, he is able to avoid both of these instances, calling out the Pharisees for their trap before answering. So, it already is clear that the line is much more ambiguous than many people claim. Had it been a simple yes, Jesus would have stated such, rather than blatantly refusing to do so and calling the questioners hypocrites.
What Does It Mean to Be Caesar’s?
Looking more closely at the verse and its context reveals an interesting question; how does one define what it means to be Caesar’s? Of course, anything that Caesar genuinely owned is his, but this is not the case of the Pharisees’ denarii.
Before speaking the famous line, Jesus identifies Caesar’s face on a denarius. Clearly, though, someone’s face on an object does not necessarily denote the owner of that object. A sculptor can create a statue of Martin Luther King to place in Washington, but doing so does not suddenly void ownership of the statue to his living descendants. Similarly, a coinmaker pressing the face of Donald Trump onto a coin does not mean that the coin belongs to him. Ownership rests in the voluntary trade of money for a good or a service, not in an arbitrary face.
In fact, Jesus is entirely correct in stating that everyone should give Caesar what is Caesar’s. The issue comes down to the fact that a subject’s money is not Caesar’s; it is the subject’s. Jesus frequently teaches to hold on loosely to earthly possessions, but this applies to all human beings and does not have a special exception for Caesar or any other figurehead.
Obeying the Governing Authorities
Though the above argument appears not to favor paying taxes, Christians often use Romans 13:1-7 as further evidence. These verses state that all should “be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God”. It later states that because of this, those who do good have nothing to fear, and all should pay tributes when they are due. Once more, the argument of whether or not tributes are legitimate calls into question the latter segment. But in particular, the first verse clearly does not apply to all governments.
Throughout history, our world has been the home to some truly oppressive states. Nazi Germany killed over 11 million people in less than a decade during the Holocaust. The regime of Stalin was responsible for even more. Dictators throughout the world have brutally slaughtered a countless number of people; this is an indubitable fact.
What would these Christians say about these repressive regimes? Do they act in the name of God, despite violating one of the Ten Commandments? The obvious answer to this question is a firm, resounding no. One cannot claim to be following the will of God while also following the will of an imperfect man who is making an order entirely contrary to God’s teachings.
Lack of Support for Immoralities
It’s a safe assumption to make that when the government directly tells you to violate one of the Ten Commandments, it is morally sound for a Christian to disobey that order. But just how often do these instances occur? Well, by virtue of what it means to be a government, more often than most may think. Even allegedly liberal democracies such as the United States kill civilians on a regular basis. The fact that these people are foreign, rather than citizens, makes no difference.
Immediately, the government appears to violate three of the commandments. First of all, it kills both soldiers and civilians abroad. The Ten Commandments do not make the distinction of “Thou shall not kill, save in self-defense or war”. Rather, murder is recognized, as it should be, as a wicked act to avoid in all circumstances. Similarly, there is no clause in the commandments that allows the government to steal from you or covet your goods, even for seemingly good purposes.
As a counterpoint, some may argue that Christians not paying taxes contradicts the idea of turning the other cheek. This point carries a great deal of weight but ultimately fails. It is true that Christians should not violently resist a tax collector or any other, as doing so would clearly not be turning the other cheek. However, peaceful disobedience does not fall into the same category; in fact, turning the other cheek itself is a form of this. Rather than being meek, Jesus suggests a tone of defiance when he turns his cheek. Likewise, it makes sense for Christians not to pay taxes to a government that will violate the commandments. Rather, they should turn the other cheek in defiance, neither violently protesting nor passively submitting.
The Law of God
It is also worth mentioning that Romans 13:1-7 does not paint the whole picture of the law. Immediately after, Romans 13:8 reads: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law”. Clearly, this suggests that anyone who loves other people will fulfill the law.
This stands in striking contradiction to the actions of most governments today. Though it is conceptually possible for one to operate entirely on the principles of love, this has never been the case and very well may never be. Currently, the United States is militarily involved in a number of other countries, imprisons hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people, and extorts the rest of the citizens to pay for these things. It appears that this is a clear violation of the law of God to love one another, and thus, any legitimacy to follow the government as an extension of God vanishes.
A Contradiction of Free Will
An additional section of the Romans verse suggests that God instituted all of the governing authorities. From a moral standpoint, this already appears shaky, but it also denies the very existence of free will.
Why does evil in the world exist, when God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent? The problem of evil has tormented theologists and philosophers alike for centuries, but Thomas Aquinas, among others, believed to have found a solution to this dilemma: free will. As the point goes, though God is perfect, he also instills free will in each person. The Bible also contains evidence to support this claim; Deuteronomy 30:19 teaches to “choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live”. Therefore, there is no way to guarantee that people will choose to act with goodness.
Christians Have No Obligation to Pay Taxes
Let’s now apply this to the concept of the state. How can people with free will always choose the right person that will follow the will of God? And, in a nondemocratic society, what is to prevent an evil ruler from forcibly taking power? Simply put, there is no guarantee here due to the idea of free will. Thus, it appears that a government may or may not follow God’s teachings.
Without a doubt, Christians do not have a moral obligation to pay taxes to a state that defies their religion. Though a couple of Bible verses weakly attempt to suggest this, they either fail to present the whole story or rely on faulty assumptions. Ultimately, no government that defies what Jesus teaches is worthy of the respect or obedience of Christians, and in the course of history, not a single one has managed to do so.
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