Income Redistribution is not Christian Teaching

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...
English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commentators, economic analysts, and even some pastors are using a term lately that has sent me scrambling for understanding. The term is “income disparity.” I recently undertook some research on that term and l learned that it refers to the gap between the individuals who are statistically identified as the highest income earners and those identified as the lowest income earners. Apparently, the amount earned at these different levels in the USA has been widening for several years, and the trend has roused panicked concern in some circles. What led me to do the research was a growing trend in public discourse to speak of “the rich” as if they were evil because of their ability to earn so much. The scorn usually morphs into allegations that rich people ought to pay more in taxes simply because they are rich. The rhetoric hinges on a concept labeled their “fair share” in taxes.

In all the discussions I have read and heard, few people seem to take note that history shows that income gaps have widened and narrowed over and over throughout history. In the material I was able to find, there was no credible evidence that the disparity was due to selfish or wicked behavior by people with high income. To say that is not to say that all rich people are good, but there is no evidence they are all bad, either. I concluded long ago that you could not assume anything about the moral character of an individual by knowing his income.

What baffles me is to hear pastors talk about income disparity as if God wanted the government to fix it. It baffles me to hear pastors suggest that the government ought to fix anything. It baffles me profoundly to hear pastors say that, just like the politicians, they think rich people ought to pay an even higher tax rate than they pay now. Pastors are entitled to their own political views, of course, but they are not entitled to appropriate the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve their political agendas. It baffles me still more to try to figure out how taxing rich people at a high rate will result in higher income for the poor. I don’t see any theological justification for the idea, and I don’t see any logical justification for the idea. History records that something similar was the basis for life in the former Soviet Union. If that experiment is any evidence, the idea of income redistribution by a government will do nothing but impoverish a whole nation.

Christ did not teach anything remotely like income redistribution by the government. If he had believed in that idea, he lived under the perfect government for it. The Roman government was a model of administrative genius. In an age without electricity, telephones, or the internet, Rome ruled a huge empire, and it did that job so well that Roman law is still a model for all of us to learn from. If Christ wanted a government with the will and the power to take the wealth of the richest people and divide it up among all the other people, he could hardly have found a better choice. But Christ did not suggest any such thing. Not then. Not now.

Christ taught that people should give thanks to God for what they had and live in grateful stewardship of their possessions. Christ did not teach that people should camp out on the estates of the wealthy and call the property owners vulgar names and express their vile envy of those who happen to have more of the world’s goods. Christ taught that his followers should put the kingdom of God ahead of self-aggrandizement, in fact, they should deny self altogether, and be like him. Being like him means to love God above all and to love people. Being like him means to spend your time and energy doing what God created you to do, not envying and maligning other people who happen to have more money.

Christ taught that everyone is valuable to God. He did tell his followers to be givers, not takers, which pretty much undercuts participation in a movement to besmirch the character of people who are wealthy and steal their wealth from them. Being Christ-like means that his followers will not support an autocratic and tyrannical attempt by the government to take half or more of the income of some citizens simply because they have large incomes. This is an outrage and an insult to the gospel.

Christ did teach loving charity. He taught his followers to be servants. But he also taught his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Serpentine wisdom informs me that government is a devious manipulator of all the money it receives. The more money the government receives from the people, the more money simply disappears from any accounting. The government is not a good steward of the people’s money, which is why people who are wise as serpents will give the government the least amount of money it needs to do its legitimate jobs. The task of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or the task of attempting to make us all believe that is what it is doing, is not a legitimate job of government. Christians who take Christ’s teachings seriously are already busy about helping the poor and the hungry and the sick. The more the government takes, the less is available for those charitable endeavors. As a matter of fact, the government has recently intruded into those institutions with the consequence of first taking from them money that should serve their charitable endeavors and second forcing them to use that money to do things inimical to their faith. This is only one example of the reason government must be kept within the boundaries of its legitimate roles.

Christians always want to do what Jesus would do. Jesus would not give to Caesar anything that did not belong to him. The income of the citizens does not belong to the government, and the government has never been awarded by God or by the Constitution with the authority to tell any citizen how much income is “enough” for him. Christians must beware of false prophets who try to look like cute little lambs when under that innocent mask they are ravening wolves who will take everything all citizens have, not just the rich, and then bite off the hand that gives it.

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6 thoughts on “Income Redistribution is not Christian Teaching”

  1. To fobspace — the reply option wasn’t available for your last comment.

    We meet again.

    I agree with you that Jesus saw “positive potential” in people. He saw that in everyone. God created us with gifts and potential, and he yearns for us to live up to all that potential. Christ is all about releasing us from bondage to anything that locks up that latent talent.
    I read your comments about Jesus and government with great interest. Some of my Christian friends would agree with you. When I was younger, before I learned more about human nature, I remember telling my parents that communism with a lower case “c” was very Christlike, even though Communism, the politicial entity, was wicked. They laughed at me, and years later I finally understood why. Human beings of all stripes simply wither in a commune. What is the point of developing all that potential if we are all subsequently poured into the same mold?
    Christ isn’t about cookie-cutter humanity. We are all created unique. We all want different things. We all dream different dreams. God has unique purposes for each of us, and he gives each one different talents. My dreams can be financed with a middle class income, but some people’s dreams need more. Other people are happy raising goats in the Ozarks. To be constantly measuring everyone to be sure nobody pops up higher than anyone else means that somebody must be higher than everyone else. The early Christians in Jerusalem experimented with communism, but that idea failed in the real world of human nature, even redeemed human nature. It is a reminder that Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.
    I don’t think Jesus lived hand to mouth as you suggest, either, because there are references to people who helped with the costs. It appears that Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple until Christ’s death, and I have long speculated that Nicodemus and Zaccheus also donated generously. I can only guess where other money came from, but I don’t think it was a beggarly existence.
    My interpretation is that Jesus concentrated on the character of the person who might be a government leader rather than focusing in the form of the government. Government is an entity confined to the time/space universe. Even though the man Jesus lived in time and space, he acted on an eternal/infinite frame of reference, and that is how he taught people to live as well.
    You make a good point about the cost of the military. I will digress from my core topic and say that I believe the military is just as full of bureaucracy and mindless expense as any other part of the government, maybe moreso, because advocates for military spending can play on the national fear of aggression. I would love to see the military budget as it would look if the budget were not padded the way it has been since time immemorial. I don’t think any military services or personnel should be cut. I do think somebody somewhere knows how to keep the quality and force levels up without spending $700 for a toilet seat.
    You seem to think that my religious beliefs shape my perception about government spending and government programs. When I say that Christians ought not to advocate for the government to do things Christians ought to be doing instead, I guess it sounds that way. However, if I were to address all the questions you brought up, my answers would be rooted not in specific theology but rather in Constitutional arguments coupled with the simple rule that nobody should spend more money than he has. That would be an interesting discussion, but not relevant to the core theme of my blog. I used to blog on exactly such topics. However, I concluded that my calling is to help Christians live their faith consistently no matter what government we have. I try to stay on that subject.

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  2. This has been a bit of a recurring theme for us. I’m responding because I think I have a bit new to add to the discussion, so I’m going to give it a go. I think at the end of day though, we’ll just need to agree that we disagree.

    If your point is government is bloated and inefficient in administering safety net programs, then I’d suggest we need your help in trying to fix these problems.

    But you seem to also suggest that Jesus would not be in favor of income redistribution. Jesus didn’t have much to say about government. He wasn’t all that impressed with military power as this was nothing compared to God’s power. He hung out with tax collectors, the tools of power, as he saw these persons like everyone else, having a good core. He was suspicious of those in power. We see that especially with the temple. He believed in repaying our debts. In Jesus’s time there was no such thing as a government safety net program — you (and probably your family) became a slave to your debtor. It would be almost 1800 years before there would be a US constitution, setting up a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    However to really complete your thought experiment, I think we need to move Jesus to today, and place him as President of the United States. Jesus returns to earth, (without the headless horseman stuff). Against his better judgement, he runs for president as an independent. With 70% of country being Christian, he wins, by a small majority (of both republican and democratic voters).

    Now let’s consider how Jesus would run things. Let’s see how would the one who taught, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” (Mathew 5), feel about safety net programs?

    You’ve made the same point. Jesus would be generous. But I guess you don’t see his teachings as including government handouts, and yet, I guess it’s more correct to consider what Jesus would do if he was in charge.

    Let me define what I think we mean by income redistribution. Here’s what we spent on safety net programs. I got the safety net data from here, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3677. Federal budget and GDP numbers are from Wikipedia. For tax year 2010 I found safety net spending, for programs:
    – medicaid,
    – temp assistance for needy,
    – suppl nutrition,
    – school lunch,
    – earned income credit,
    – children’s health insurance,
    – rental assistance,
    – special suppl nutrition,
    – low income home energy

    was 602 billion. As I’d like to compare with 2011 budget and GDP numbers, (2012 is moving target), let’s add 4% for inflation, 626 million. This is 17.4% of 3,598 billion spending budget, or 4.1% of 15,100 trillion GDP. I’ve not counted medicare, social security, or unemployment, as these are self funded. When included, spending increases by 330%. That said, the study also shows that 90% of this spending goes to the elderly, disabled, or working households.

    In summary we (our government) transferred 626 billion in tax revenue to safety net program recipients. This is 4.1% of GDP.

    In 2010, we also gave 291 billion to charity (all charity, not just that for poor), http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/news/2011/06/pr-GUSA.aspx. If I add 4% for 2011 dollars, this is 2.0% of GDP.

    So it we total all government safety net programs, and private charity giving we see the government funds 67%, and private persons fund 33%. My point is our society would not be well served by drastic cuts in government safety net programs.

    By way of comparison, the military budget is 700 million, 19% of spending budget (which doesn’t include significant amounts for homeland security or veteran administration, and some minor discretionary programs), but that said, let’s use 700 million. If we go by actual spending, US spending exceeds the next closest country, China by 550 million, 78%. We spend more than the next 4 countries, (China 150 billion, Russia 60, UK 50, France 45), by 305, 57%. In terms of GDP, we spend 4.7% of GDP. The next highest is China, 2.2%. In terms of per capita, we spend 2100 per capita; we’re 2nd. 1st and 3rd is Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (our customers). China spends 74 per capita. Looking at this it’s hard to see us as anything but best case a bit paranoid, and worst case, a war monger. We’re certainly not setting a good example for China, the future world leader.

    If we decided to spend on the military in line with China, we cut 550 million from our budget (almost our safety net spending). And one could argue it’s US and Europe’s total, that should equal China’s spending.

    I ramble on a bit, but it’s because I want to expand the thought experiment a bit. Jesus would see federal spending of 626 million for safety net, and 700 million for military. Jesus taught, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” I’m pretty sure I know where Jesus would see waste in our budget.

    You can argue that Jesus was teaching about a perfect world (God’s kingdom), and that it’s hard to translate this into practical advice for the real world. I would agree, but I think if the question is how would Jesus act, we need to stick to the premise.

    As an atheist/humanist, with a deep respect for the teachings of Jesus, I’ll outline my motivation for helping those in need. Unemployment is 8% (counting only those looking), and for veterans it’s 27%. Until we can figure out how our economy can create living wage jobs for all who want jobs, we need to fund a safety net. 4.1% of GDP is not expensive, and one can argue it pays for itself in that all citizens (especially children) stay nourished and don’t have physical and mental health issues. We include free education. We offer free methadone or drug rehab. It minimizes crime, motivated by hunger and want of basic needs. We continue to work on how to improve/manage the economy so all can have sustainable jobs. We continue to root out government waste. This is morally right, and enlightened self interest.

    To me the important thing is not how Jesus would act, but how should we collectively as a society act. There’s no denying that Jesus’ teachings have had a huge beneficial impact on the moral code of our society, but I think in the future it’s important to see our problems through a modern lense, and at the same time, with respect for our heritage.

    Peace.

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    1. I apologize it has been so long between your post and my response. We are traveling on our sailboat from the Palm Beach area in Florida to the Baltimore area in Maryland. We don’t have satellite service, so I only have internet in a port. So please forgive my late response.

      You say that if government is bloated and wasteful, I need to help fix that problem. I agree. I actually work and act in every way possible to motivate action on that goal, but that subject is not within the scope of my writing on this blog. I do share your conviction, however, that good citizens speak out and take action to assure fiscal and managerial responsibility and to keep the government within its constitutional and fiscal limits. We can agree to agree on that subject. We might disagree as to the specific actions, but we agree on the principle.

      You state that Jesus hung out with tax collectors because “as he saw these persons like everyone else, having a good core.” I have to suggest that you reread one of the gospels – whichever one you like. Jesus hung out with tax collectors, partly because they were willing to listen. They invited him to dinner. They asked questions and seemed to want the answers. But when the Pharisees complained to him that a rabbi should be a good person and a good person should not hang out with sinners, he replied, tongue in cheek, saying that sick people are the ones who need a physician, not those who were well. That is when he revealed the real reason he hung out with sinners. This statement was a jab at the Pharisaical notion that they were more righteous than everyone else. Jesus hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, because they needed to be redeemed, like all the rest of humankind. His message was that the kingdom of God had come near. In him, the kingdom drew near to those who needed it, The Pharisees rejected it. The “sinners” welcomed it.

      God doesn’t think anybody has a “good core,” but God loves us anyway. In Jesus, God came to earth in human form to show us how much he loves us. He did it for me and you and all people. Jesus, God in the flesh, hung out with tax collectors, because he loved them. God loves all of us, because we are his beloved creations. In humankind, he saw all his gifts to us come to life, and it pained him to see how people selfishly used their creation gifts either causing or allowing harm to come to people around them.

      I can’t join in your vision of Jesus as president, even if he came to earth today, because to be president would be antithetical to Jesus’ purpose. For Jesus to be president would be like acceding to the temptation of Satan who offered him all the kingdoms of the world. He rejected that temptation then, and he would reject it if he came today. Jesus came to earth, because we cannot redeem ourselves from the evils that beset us. He came to give his life away for that purpose. He came for all people, not just for the USA.

      Further, he came to call people to a higher commitment than government. He came to raise us to our highest and best as individuals. If I work with government as a citizen or as an official, Jesus calls me to a high standard of personal integrity and to obedient service to God’s standards in my work and my personal life. However, God in the flesh or God on his heavenly throne does not set any political power structure in place of his kingdom. That is why the early Christians came to have so many conflicts with Rome. They could not and would not worship the state. They could not and would not even worship religious power. They made their commitment to God first. Any attempt to make them put any other power ahead of God was rejected. “We ought to obey God rather than men,” they said. So I reject any analysis of what Jesus would do as president, because he would never be willing to lower himself from being God to being president.

      Your description of the safety net is very nice. I think we agree on many of the components of a safety net. Where we will disagree is the administration of it. I have no quarrel with the idea that a government might help its citizens through tough times, but I have observed that it never does that. Government charity at any level – local, state or federal – has a terrible track record of demeaning and destroying people rather than helping them. Private charities have a much better track record of uplifting and actually helping people to move on out of the safety net. I am not so naïve that I believe private charity has no failures, but I do see that private charity’s track record is better than that of government. The Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex built with such high hopes during the War on Poverty has become an icon for the government track record. Its story is repeated all over the place and makes any sane person ask why continue to do the same thing when it keeps producing the same negative result. My fundamental position is that Christians must put their efforts into funding the best stewards of the money. I don’t think the government is the best steward.

      As an aside, I recently finished reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy about a young woman who became enmeshed in the Swedish social safety net. I found it completely credible and a good warning to anyone who believes that government can and should have the power to parent its citizens. This series highlighted the problems that occur when people with no character have power, a persistent problem in governments everywhere. So in addition to all my concerns that government is a poor steward, this series speaks truth in a fictional setting on the subject of abuse of power. Just an additional thought on the subject.

      You say we should look at problems through a modern lens, and we should respect our heritage. I understand why you as an atheist do not look at world problems asking what Jesus would do. That makes sense, because you do not believe that Jesus is God. However, it is not possible for me as a believer to look at life the same way. Our world views are completely different, even though we both share love and respect for humankind. You believe that people can learn to be better and do better, and you believe that we can shape a government which behaves responsibly and gives people just the amount of freedom they need while only putting limits on things for the good of all the people. I love and respect humankind even though I don’t think we can or will get better on our own. Despite possibly millions of years of human life on earth, there is no evidence that the fundamental character of humans today is any different or better than that of the most primitive humans we know about. The fact that I love people compels me to share my own experience of the love of God. That love is the means of grace and forgiveness that can actually bring about transformation in this life, not to mention the hope of eternal life without the pain and selfishness that darkens this world.

      Because I believe that God is sovereign, I try to look at the world through the lens of God’s purpose. That isn’t always the easiest thing to do. I am human and flawed. I am selfish, just like any other human being. However, due to the absolute truth of God’s love for me expressed through the God-man Jesus I have hope, not wishful thinking but actual hope, that the outcome of the perennial war between good and evil will be a win for good. My hope is built on the eternal defeat of evil by Christ who died and rose again. From the lens of God’s plans, the evil at work in the world is the death throes of a defeated power who tries to wreak as much havoc as possible before he is finally thrown out of the universe. No government program will ever put an end to it. No private charity will end it, either, even though the charity will accomplish more good with less money than government ever will. We all endure the battle, whether or not we trust God with our lives.

      I write this blog, because I trust God with my life. I can say with confidence that God loves you just as he loves me. The fact that you reject that whole idea does not change his love. Living in relationship with God has brought me personal fulfillment that otherwise eluded me in the past. I write to share with others what has been good for me. I think of myself as one of a community of beggars who has found bread. In a needy community, when you find something everyone needs, you must share. It would be subhuman to horde that good thing and watch everyone else suffer without it. You and I seem to disagree on the value of what I have found. You are welcome to share it anyway.

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      1. With tax collectors, I think we’re making same point, although my “good core” term doesn’t fit well with original sin type thing (which I can respect). Perhaps I should have said he saw their positive potential. And certainly Jesus wasn’t keen on the Pharisees (and he might have similar problems with some of our religious leaders of today), with the exception of a couple (one?) who were inquisitive, or as you say, good listeners.

        I must agree with your President point. I forgot about Satan’s offer. You’re absolutely right my thought experiment absolutely breaks down there. Jesus would reject the offer.

        Basically I think your point that government is wasting money trying to help poor has merit. I don’t agree to the point that I’d stop the funding, but I certainly get your point. The thing I have a problem with is that you’re trying to use your religious belief system to further justify this conclusion, and while it’s not my religion, I have a deep respect for Jesus’ teachings, and I must defend these teachings, as I think they point to an opposite conclusion. I’d still like to insist that Jesus would support income redistribution. I’ll try to improve on my prior flawed argument.

        Jesus wasn’t interested in government, but he did espouse a way of living together, and that was one of loving our enemies, paying our debts, lending to those who asked, and giving to those in need. We can see how he lived. He seemed to live hand to mouth, with no foresight about tomorrow. He very much believed that God would provide (as God did for the birds, etc), and Jesus told us to believe this. We have the Exodus stories of the Jews escaping from Egypt and finding food from the sky, etc. It seems Jesus was content to live together with his disciples, many of whom were women. They seem to share whatever small amount of possessions they had. They lived on the generosity of others. Jesus preached to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God. To try to live perfectly, as God did in heaven. In this ideal society I don’t see that there would be any authority other than God’s will. There would be no government. There would only be only all the people, and rule would be by consensus with no police/military type enforcement (let he cast the first stone who has not sinned). Any punishment would come only after death. I can’t help but think Jesus was a bit like a communist, or a formal anarchist, (look up formal definitions; here’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism), but with an important difference, Jesus’ society had a clear goal — to prepare for God’s kingdom on earth.

        To get back to income redistribution, in this ideal society, Jesus would expect that we would share — and there would be large scale income redistribution (although there might be some human nature problems, as there is with communism, since individual hard work might not be sufficiently rewarded).

        Now back to our world. Not only does our government not work like this, either do most of our churches or temples. All have a hierarchy of leaders (some somewhat democratically elected, others not), rigid rules, and they’re enforced, with possibility of excommunication (or jail time for not paying taxes). It seems if you’re suggesting Jesus wouldn’t trust today’s government much, I’m not sure he’d see organized religion as much better. Jesus never suggested a break from Judaism. We don’t even know if he’d see himself as a Christian (you’re probably more certain than I). Whether Christian or Jew, we see a hierarchy with some corruption and hypocrisy, and that tolerates life far from the ideal,although there are exceptions to this generalization.

        If Jesus wants us to share, and we’ve decided to have a representative democracy (a concept that didn’t exist in Jesus’ time) to administer the will of the people, then why not see government sharing (some taxes from rich going to poor) as consistent with Jesus’ teaching, and therefore a good thing? To me to suggest that Jesus wouldn’t want government administered income redistribution is tortured at best. And to suggest that giving to the poor, because it’s the churches doing it, is somehow better; I’m not sure I see how Jesus sees this as better. He didn’t think much of the Jewish hierarchy and Temple administration during his time, especially as for him, they seemed to have drifted from their own tenets, (which one could say about today’s religions).

        To get back to government income redistribution, we’re talking about 4.1% of GDP going to the poor, or with Paul Ryan tax cuts, 2.9% (29% cut). I don’t see 4.1% as a disincentive for me to work hard. I’ve already pointed out why it’s enlightened self interest. And our military is funded with 4.7% of GDP. The 700 billion military spending is 4.6x larger than next country, China.

        I applaud your sincerity in doing God’s work, and I think we see Jesus’ teachings the same (or at least similar). It includes helping the poor, and you do your best, and that’s better than most.

        I have to be careful in generalizing, but based on my viewing of Fox commentators, and politicians, (such as Paul Ryan), I see good Christians worrying about the government giving to the poor, and not worrying about spending 4.6x more than any other country on our military (love thy neighbor?). I would agree we shouldn’t have a deficit, but Paul Ryan matches his spending cuts for the poor, with tax cuts for the rich, effectively not addressing the deficit. Any he says his budget is consistent with “Catholic teachings”, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/gop-budget-chief-ducks-questions-on-budgets-catholic-roots/2012/04/26/gIQAJw0mjT_story.html. Really? At what point do ordinary Christians have to say, wait a minute!? I’m at that point (and your blog, perhaps unjustifiably, gets my wrath).

        No apologies needed for delay. Real life should take precedent over blogging. Glad you agree. Your life sounds great, by the way.

        Peace.

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