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A Response to Tony Campolo on Taxes
In this and the next several blogs that I’ll be writing, I’d like to respond to views of Tony Campolo on several topics related to Christians and politics. I have had the privilege of dialoguing with Tony several times and even publicly debating him once on this top. And while I have the utmost respect for him, I do not agree with some of his ideas about how Christians are to serve as agents of change in society. I’d like to flesh out my differences by offering some reflections on a dialogue between him and Shane Claiborne, which is an excerpt from a recently published book they co-authored entitled, The Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Meant What He Said?. I encourage you to read this brief excerpt before reading my responses. In this blog I’ll respond to a comment made by Tony on the question of whether Christians should pay taxes or not.
At one point in the dialogue, Tony offers his thoughts on the Gospel narrative of Jesus holding up a coin and asking the crowd, “whose image is this?” (Mt. 22:21). Tony says:
Jesus seems to be saying that though Caesar’s image is on the coin, you have to decide whether it belongs to Caesar or whether it belongs to God. Jesus is asking, “Are you going to use your money the way Caesar wants it to be used, or do you want it to be used the way God wants it to be used?”… Each [person] will have to decide whether the money in question ultimately belongs to Caesar or should it be used the way God wants it to be used. When there is conflict between what God requires and the demands of the government, each of us has an important decision to make concerning taxes.
With this interpretation of Jesus’ illustration, Tony is suggesting that when our government acts in ways that we believe are contrary to God’s will and that does not help people, it may be appropriate, if not necessary, for Christians to refuse to support their government. For “[w]e have the right to resist governments,” he argues, “when they don’t do what is good for their people.” While I agree that kingdom people must refuse to cooperate with government if doing so contradicts our call to obey God, I must confess, with all due respect, that I believe my friend has completely missed the point that Jesus was making in this passage.
It’s important to note that, as Jesus himself acknowledged, the Jewish religious leaders he was talking to were trying to trap him when they asked, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt. 22:17). This was one of the most divisive political questions of Jesus’ day, so these leaders knew that whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no,” he would lose half the crowd that was following him.
As he always did, Jesus wisely avoided their trap. He held up a denarius and asked the leaders and the crowd: “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” They answered “Caesar’s,” to which Jesus replied, ““Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:20-21). Now, if you interpret Jesus literally, you’d have to conclude that Jesus was telling these leaders and this crowd to give all their money back to Caesar, for all coins bore his image! This would have been impossible for people to do, of course, or it would have meant that people would no long have any money. But it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t being literal. He was rather being sarcastic.
To grasp the point he was sarcastically making, it’s important to remember two points. First, all ancient Jews know that humans were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). And second, because humans are the image of God, ancient Jews considered it idolatrous for a person to put their image on anything. It violated the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids making an image of anything (Ex. 20:4). In fact, ancient Jews sometimes caused such a ruckus over Caesar’s image on coins that local Roman authorities concluded that fighting them was more trouble than it was worth, so they printed special coins for the Jews that had no image on them.
In this light, it’s clear that what Jesus was doing was turning a kingdom-of –the-world question into a kingdom-of-God question. He was in essence challenging these leaders as well as the crowd by asking:
Are we Jews, who are supposed to be God’s chosen people, actually going to argue about whether or not we should give back to Caesar the idolatrous metal that he demands of us? Since it bears his idolatrous image, it belongs to him, and you can give it all back to him for all I care! The question that we who know the one true God ought to be focusing on – and the only question I care to address — is this: Are we giving back to God all that bears his image? Are we giving God our whole self?
If I’m right, Jesus’ wasn’t answering the question the leaders posed by telling people to use money “the way God wants “rather than “the way Caesar wants you to use it,” as Tony suggests. In fact, I confess I can’t see any hint in this passage that Jesus is interested in how people generally use their money. The issue on the table is specifically about taxes, not general spending. Moreover, Tony’s interpretation doesn’t make any sense of the punch line of this narrative, which is Jesus’ teaching that we are to give to God what bears his image.
Not only this, but there is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that supports Tony’s contention that we who belong to the kingdom of God get to decide the extent to which we will pay taxes based on whether or not we think government is doing what God wants it to be doing. In fact, in a variety of ways, the New Testament depicts all government as being under the influence of, if not controlled by, Satan. He is the “ruler (arche) of the world” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) has “all the authority and splendor” of “all the kingdoms of the world” and can “give it to anyone [he] wants to” (Lk. 4:5-7). While God uses sword-wielding governments to carry out as much justice as possible (Rom. 13:1-7), there is no reason for a Jesus follower to expect government to behave godly.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were painfully aware that the Roman government was unjust and cruel, sometimes murdering innocent people just to flex their muscle and intimidate those whom they ruled. And they were very aware that Roman leaders were notoriously immoral, doing whatever they pleased without being accountable to anyone. Yet, the New Testament simply commands the people of their day, and commands us in our day, to obey government, as much as possible, and to pay whatever taxes it requires of us (Rom. 13:5-7; 1 Pet 2:13-15).
Kingdom people aren’t to pay taxes because we think government deserves it, or even because government has any authority over us. We are to rather pay taxes because God, who is the only one who has authority over us and the only one we are to pledge our allegiance to, commands us to pay them. And as ambassadors of the kingdom of God who are stationed in a foreign land (2 Cor 5:20; Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet 2:11), the affairs of the worldly government we find ourselves in, as well as the worldly money we are given, simply isn’t worth fighting over. To get into a political fight with the human rulers of this world over the money it exacts from us would distract us from the one thing we are called to do, which is to advance the kingdom of God by manifesting the beautiful character of our King as we sacrificially serve those around us just as Jesus did.
It’s true our taxes support a government that does many things we don’t approve of. This has always been the case. But as citizens of heaven, that is no concern of ours. Our only concern is that we are giving to God all that bears his image, which is our whole being.
Image by Andres Rueda. Sourced via Flickr.
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