The popular Jesuit priest and writer James Martin reacted on Twitter to the cruel joke of a tax bill that passed the Senate in the middle of the night Saturday:
The US will soon face the consequences of a #TaxBill that takes money from the poor to give to the rich. Those who voted for it will face consequences later, when they are judged. Do you think Jesus's words about being judged on how we care for the poor don't apply? Think again.— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 2, 2017
That led to this bit of idiocy from the conservative extremist and all-around douche Eric Erickson, who’s been trying to remake himself as a Christian sage in recent years:
The Bible teaches it is an individual responsibility to help the poor. Shame on those who’d pass off their personal obligation to the government. https://t.co/WMEUgEIOWl— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) December 2, 2017
As many people have pointed out, this is complete crap. Setting aside the bit about “passing off” personal obligation, individualism as such didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, and he definitely had in mind a social orientation toward caring for society’s most vulnerable members. It’s fine (if wrong) to argue that care for the poor is best handled on an individual level. But is it inconsistent with the gospel to say that it’s a job best left to the government? Certainly not.
There’s all manner of ways to respond to Erickson, but I mostly want to say that many people don’t realize just how close we are to being almost literally in the same position as Jesus’ society. The sin he came to save Israel from, the slavery he came to redeem them from, was indeed a repressive tax scheme. To which the conservatives might say aha! Jesus would have been in favor of lower taxes! To which I would respond—stealing a page from the Portland Mercury—I’m going to stop you right there, dipshit. The tax system in ancient Palestine was profoundly regressive. It was a means to move wealth from the rural poor to the urban elite. Or as we would say today, it was firmly set for upward redistribution.
THEY STOLE FROM PEOPLE ON THE EDGE OF STARVATION TO GIVE MONEY TO THE RICH. Seriously: Jesus’ people were subsistence farmers and fishermen only one calamity away from going hungry. Yet the Romans, the Jewish puppet government, and the religious establishment all squeezed them for every penny they could.
It’s shocking to remind oneself of the parallels. What did the money go for, other than to pad the bank accounts of the rich? The military, mostly, some infrastructure. The first King Herod did a fair amount of economic development, but with cronies, and the profits didn’t trickle down to the little people very much. Jesus challenges the equity of this scheme, providing the evidence his own people use to sell him out to the Romans. If there’s no challenge to the socio-economic order, there’s no need for Rome to get involved in an inter-Jewish religious squabble, and Jesus lives.
But Jesus’ most proximate battles are not with the Roman overlords. They’re with the religious leaders of his own community. Because (no reflection on modern Jews), Jesus charges them with two offenses. First, they’re indifferent to the plight of the poor. This is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats: YOU SAW PEOPLE IN NEED AND YOU DID NOTHING. If you abstract out of that story that it’s about personal responsibility, well, God have mercy on you, because you’re too dumb to live and too callous to get into heaven. (Parenthetical reminder that the sheep & the goats is the only place in the New Testament where the standards for salvation are spelled out.)
The second count Jesus has against the trad religious leaders goes like this: the leaders use the teachings of their faith to marginalize people on the basis of race (Syro-Phoenicians), religion (Samaritans), sexuality (prostitutes and the divorced), even health status (lepers). They do none of this to maintain the health or integrity of the Jewish people. It’s to maintain a permanent underclass of Others, which makes it easier for the leaders to exploit the people and cooperate with a hostile foreign power. Not only do those religious leaders get to levy their own taxes, but they get a cut whenever someone needs a religious service, such as healing or purification and they reserve the right to be morally superior while they do it.
So who winds up on the bottom of the pile? Widows and orphans, or as we would say today: women and dependent children. And who’s going to be most hurt by the latest, greatest “tax cut”? Women and dependent children. Jesus cuts straight through the heart of the social order by announcing God’s concern for the poor and summoning all people to share in it.
I am not God, obviously, and it’s not my place to pronounce judgment on God’s behalf. But if you don’t think elected officials will have to answer for the obvious injustice perpetrated in a monstrosity such as the passed by the Senate Saturday night, you’re dumber than you look, and your soul’s twice as ugly. Remember what Jesus tells us in the gospel of Mark: he’s coming back, and he will know what we’ve been up to in the meantime. Repent, everyone. We’re going to need it if this bill makes it past the House.+ + +