Why do we tax personal incomes rather than simply business outcomes (labor and profit)? The most intractable problems of the tax system seem tied to the choice of taxing income rather than outcome.
Those problems are:
1) Income tax means a tax is taken out of “my money” that “I deserve.”
– Whether it is fair or not to complain, human psychology necessarily places a different value on the money we consider to be our own as opposed to the money we see flowing through a business setting. Why not instead tax the impersonal business machines on the money they pay to ensure workers work, and remove any personalization of whose money is taken? If businesses want to incentivize the outcome that workers work by paying them, tax the business not the worker.
2) Income tax disproportionately affects poor and uneducated laborers.
– Those who don’t know the system well and cannot afford help are not able to take advantage of even the benefits specifically available for them. Those who must work multiple jobs to make ends meet may not have the time to maximize deductions even if they have the knowledge of deductions and skills to do the work. Why not instead tax the business itself so that businesses can hire the best minds to maximize profits and align incentives? There is no benefit to taxing those least equipped to work within the system; doing so is, in practice, a disproportionate tax on those without resources simply because they lack resources.
3) Individual lives are too chaotic and inconsistent to be affected consistently by any tax plan. Business systems are dispassionate and far more stable institutions capable of being guided by directed by policy direction.
– Individuals quickly have to make cost benefit decisions based on rapidly changing factors and without ever knowing when a life changing accident or job change might occur. There is no effective way through tax policy to shape personal decision making regarding the value of the next dollar earned. Business systems don’t make value judgments and necessarily tend toward profit production in a capitalist society. Businesses are capable of long term forecasting and factoring in the multiple competing outcomes of various decisions and at the same time are almost always immune from a single event or decision resulting in an insurmountable obstacle to doing business. If the government desires any role in shaping acceptable long term forms of business, it would be far more effective to incentive businesses through taxes and deductions than to think that there could be any consistent outcome from taxes and deductions applied to individuals. Put differently, the government does little to shape societal outcomes through structuring personal income taxes and deductions, but could be a great deal more effective by applying such a system with regard to business systems.
The world of the Bible and the world in which we live are almost exactly inverted in at least one crucial way – in biblical times, the family/tribal unit was the locus of identity and assumed to be the most determinative factor in the shape a life would take. In our modern times, radical individualism is assumed to open every possible door for a person to define their life goals, values, careers, and outcomes in whatever way is desired. The difference is at least vital for any conception of sin and forgiveness.
Throughout scripture, sin is a means of breaking with the presumed order of life and relationship – missing the mark or failing to live up to the kind of life that is expected and/or laid out in front. Forgiveness is that action or process whereby order and relationship are restored. In a world that presumes a particular tribal and family identity, it is possible to proscribe both ways in which brokenness arises and means by which healing takes place. In other words, it makes a certain kind of logical sense that one can list things as sin and, on the flip side, certain actions as ways to be forgiven.
The presumption of a specific kind of life, identity, or relationship is precisely what we lack in the radically individualized modern world. Sin and brokenness are meaningless terms at this point because we no longer have the language or assumptions with which to describe the kind of life or relationships that could be broken by action called sin. Without knowing what is broken by sin, it is a further impossibility to define forgiveness as that which heals what is broken.
Somehow, we have arrived at a point where more conservative voices offer the traditional language of sin as though it meant anything in a world that does not have a presumption of identity or relationship. More liberal voices, often having experienced the devastation and harm of emphasizing sin without the safety of relationship, tend to abandon more traditional biblical language altogether to focus on the kind of identity and safety that make healing possible.
What we lack is an appreciation of the power held by the stories that write us and an ability to define the life revealed by those stories before we begin to talk about those things that might lead to brokenness. In other words, sin means nothing in a world that lacks the presumption of tribe and identity. The church cannot assume that traditional language of sin and forgiveness is meaningful or helpful without first defining and embodying the ‘life that really is life.’ Only after aspiring to create Godly community can we appreciate the power of sin that breaks community and then seek the hope of forgiveness to restore community again.
Forgiveness is unfair because the one who is wronged is harmed far more than the one who does the wrong and yet the burden to forgive rests on the shoulders of the one wronged. Worse still, to hold a grudge is far more likely to deepen an internal wound than to inflict pain in return. Something deeply profound and necessary happens in a relationship when I have the strength to simply say, I screwed up and I’m sorry. To do so and to accept the consequences is one of the most deeply felt means of transferring power in a relationship. To freely give power to the one wronged is a vital part of restoring the relationship because it creates the space in which the burden of forgiveness is carried, at least in part, by the offender as well as the offended.
White guilt (especially as it creates the space in which we cannot simply allow black lives matter to be a thing) is at least in part the inability of a race with power to imagine surrendering power for the sake of reconciliation. To fear surrender is understandable because giving up power in the world we have created is to lay bare the fact that we are too weak to solve the problems and heal the wounds ourselves. To admit weakness is the greatest betrayal possible of the American dream that all it takes is a little elbow grease and we can fix anything. To admit weakness is to risk shame in vulnerability.
But the refusal to admit weakness is the absence of strength. Strength is born in giving up control, not holding on tighter. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is the strength of humility embodied by receiving whatever hurt or anger is offered when we look a child of God in the eyes and say it’s my fault, I’m sorry.
To remember is to experience the power of the past in the context of the present. To remember is not to picture a moment as it happened or to act like a computer reproducing the 1s and 0s that have been stored perfectly. Memory brings the past into the present once more and is significant not because of what happened, but because of what happens. Memory is alive not because of how we were affected but because of how we are transformed.
To remember our baptism has nothing to do with being able to picture the event and everything to do with experiencing the power of God’s love that comes to us even before we know we are in need. Baptism is about what God has done in us, and only then about our response.
To remember the night when Christ gave himself up for us has nothing to do with giving an objective report of the details on that night and everything to do with experiencing the power of God’s love that led God to give his own life for us while we were yet sinners. Communion is about what God has done for us, and only then about our response.
The significance of the cross is best thought of as the primary corrective to our current lens on life and faith. What needs correction obviously changes over time and space. In our day and time, the restoration of relationship is the absolutely crucial thing that we need to regain and is, thereby, the primary lens through which we need to view the cross.
Relationship is such a vapid concept in our day and time that we don’t even recognize there is no individual without the relationships that give shape and direction to the constituent parts of culture and community. In another day and time, when culture and community are the assumption and individuality is incoherent, models like penal substitution or christus victor may very well be the most important corrective lens through which to view the cross.
The meaning of the cross is not a static set of words or ideas – it is the means by which God loves and transforms the world. If we cannot view love and transformation through the dynamic lens in which we see where the action of God intersects with the needs of our present, then we have no hope of rightly understanding what the cross is and does, much less how to talk about it faithfully.
There is a thought that rings true in our quest to feed the hungry and clothe the naked – those who would receive assistance must do work to earn it. It makes sense when you consider that Jesus was a carpenter first and the book of Thessalonians even says something like the one who does not work does not eat. It’s at the heart of American idealism that the goal of what we do and go after is to contribute to the betterment of society and be good workers for the sake of the economy. But the notion that someone has to work to receive something is the antithesis to the Christian notion of grace.
In truth, it’s not really that we generically think someone ought to work to receive help – what we specifically mean is that they owe us something in an unspoken system of barter if they want anything from us. It’s hard work to beg for money. I’ve met some beggars who’ve done a better sales job on me than any other person in the mainstream corporate world. If we really just meant that people have to work to deserve charity, we would have to accept that some of the most deserving and hardest workers are the people we least desire to fund. What we wind up wanting is not “work” to express a desire for help, but a positive contribution to someone else. There is, of course, no “Christian” definition of positive contribution to which we turn, we just want to think they’re earning their keep.
Christian charity works in the opposite direction. Take the story of harvest gleanings from Ruth. I’d argue that the type of work the people do there to receive the leftover food is more like the ‘work’ we want eliminated than the work we think people should be willing to do – they simply come and get what they need and leave without contributing anything positive to the owners of the fields.
The very heart and soul of Jesus’ message is that what he offers we haven’t earned. When we include earning anywhere within the notion of giving, we’re already permanently off the track God desires us to follow. It’s not that we should give freely to anyone and everyone with no thought as to how or why – but that there are better and worse ways to share from the abundance we have been given. There are more and less effective ways to witness to the kingdom God is building rather than the economy upon which America runs. There are things we can to do let people into our hearts and find God waiting there rather than earn their way into our wallets and find the next quick fix. Charity is about building a kingdom – not earning a paycheck or creating walls between the haves and have nots.
Sin and righteousness are not helpful categories for understanding a faithful life because these categories presuppose the existence of a community that is capable of being broken and mended; exactly the kind of community that is lost in the radical individualism of modernity. We can’t get rid of concepts like sin and righteousness anymore than we can get rid of Jesus. But if we want to be faithful to the gospel message, we have to first learn to see and experience the kind of community that is presupposed by the entire world of the bible – only after learning to embody that kind of community life will concepts like sin and righteousness be capable of meaning anything.