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Friday, February 14, 2003

The Bible and Taxes-This Christianity Today piece that warrants a bit of skepticism. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page piece on a paper by Susan Hamill, an tax equity activist from Alabama making a biblical case for making the Alabama tax code less regressive. However, most of her case simply uses a biblical veneer in order to try to raise revenues. It’s fairly widely agreed that we should help the poor; that’s not at dispute. What might be in dispute is how to go about doing that. Most of the text isn't dealing with the theology of taxes but a center-left critique of the tax system and the timber industry which seems to be in her craw. On page 65 and 66 she distills her case down to the purist form, where she declares that
Moreover, in his declaration that he has come “to preach good news to the poor” and “release the oppressed,” Jesus himself, invoking Old Testament scripture and moral principles, elevated the specific instructions concerning the poor and needy as necessitating broader changes to societal structures.
She footnotes Luke 4:16-21
16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD." 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
She goes on to say
Although the degree of social change required by the teaching of Jesus is the subject of an intense debate, at the very least this passage, along with the other moral teachings of Jesus, calls for societal structures that provide the poor, vulnerable and powerless persons within the society a minimum opportunity to improve their economic circumstances. A community that operates in a manner consistent with the moral principals of Judeo-Christian ethics must foster the minimum well-being of everyone in the community and cannot be based solely on an economy driven by money and power that only guards the well-being of those with power enjoying access to sufficient money and material possessions.
She creates a good straw man, creating a ruthless and corrupt capitalist system to offset her more just alternative. Her basic thesis that a good education is a fair substitute for Old Testament long-term gaudiness of land is sound; I echoed the same basic idea back in December. Her primary proposal is to raise the property tax on timberland and other properties to the level that the property would be worth as fully developed land, if I’m reading the paper correctly. She also wants to raise the state income tax. The extra revenue has the goal of giving better funding of poor, rural school districts. Currently, residential and agricultural and timber property are to be valued as it is presently used rather than market value of the property as optimally used by the market. However, forcing market valuations of residential and farm property will increase sprawl, as farmland and older homes are taxed at the price they would sell for as new development land. If the law were changed to increase the tax base, many of her backers would decry the oldsters and farmers being forced off their land by having to sell to developers who will use the property to its "highest and best use." Owners of timberland would especially be hard hit if forced to pay taxes at developed-property rates, possibly prompting a cry of people to save the forest from development. I don’t know if Alabama is in the clutches of the timber industry as much as she seems to make it out to be; possibly some Axis of Weevil members can either confirm or deny Hamill's contentions. Unless the timber industry runs Alabama like Boss Hogg ran Hazard country, the people down there need to find a broad-based way to get solid schooling to poor districts. Would Jesus boost the top income tax rate or put the screws to the timber industry as she seems to suggest He would? I'm not sure The local Christian Coalition people mentioned in the Christianity Today piece didn't like her work; however, they are as much Republican as evangelical and their anti-big-government bias might color their view. However, Hamill seems to have an anti-big-business bias, or at minimum an anti-timber-industry bias. The tax code might need reform, but I'm not sure we can look to the Bible to figure out the details. Her desired hermeneutics (that progressive taxation is good and low taxes on agricultural and timber land are bad) seem to be overstate the exegesis of a basic call to look after the poor.

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