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Protesting the Tax Protests

I just saw something that disturbed me...hundreds of people, including many Christians, friends of mine, out in the city square protesting taxes and deficit spending and the like. Now, it was odd to me that this was so disturbing, given that, until recently, I would've been among the most eager; heck, a few years ago, if there were a secession movement, I would've jumped on the bandwagon. I think our country's economic policies and deficit spending and all that are on the whole stupid; I think our taxation is ridiculous. I think the government has no right to do 90% of what it does, and I'm not sure about the other 10%. In other words, I agree with all those people who are out there protesting, in terms of all that there is to protest about. But it seems rather wrong to me that they are out there protesting, and it seems to me a bad witness that a lot of them are Christians and from my Church. Now, why? I must figure out why I feel this way. Here are a few ideas.

First of all, it seems to be to be paradoxically exalting that which we want to bring down. As Christians, we know that we are citizens of another kingdom, serving the true King, Christ, and thus unjust governments have no true power over us. If we obey them, it is because loyalty to our King Christ requires it; if we disobey them, it is because loyalty to our King Christ requires it. Either way, we should be above the petty sentiments of fear and anger when we think they are behaving unjustly. Christ is righteous, and Christ will judge them, and our rebellions, passive and active, will never be effectual in fixing the problem. This is not a gospel of quietism--I am not saying that Christ's Kingdom has nothing to do with this world, nothing to say to the kingdoms of this world. It has everything to say to them. But what it says, it says in the language of the gospel, not in the language of secular political activism. If we want to call upon our rulers to end our injustice, we must proclaim the justice of Christ from the pulpit, we must proclaim it by our actions in the world, and we must say to our rulers, "Christ is King, not you, so stop oppressing his people!" When we dress up in the costume of right-wing tax protesters, and say "Keep your hands off our money! Stop deficit spending! Get rid of the Fed!" then we are abandoning the specific, powerful message that we have to offer to our government, and, by adopting the language and methods of modern political activism, we are actually endorsing the political system; we are agreeing to play by our opponent's rules and thus, ironically, investing with power the very power that we wish to protest!

Second, this is not the kind of submission and subjection that Paul asks for in Romans 13. Paul calls upon Christians to subordinate themselves and pay their taxes--again, not because they are subjects of the rulers, but because they are subjects of Christ, and his way of ruling is not violent and self-seeking, but shows love to oppressors. Paul knew that the Roman authorities were oppressive--much more so than ours! That's the whole point--he has just said, "Love your enemies! Do good to those that persecute you!" Why? Because this is how you triumph over them--this is how Christ triumphs over them. Therefore, be subject! Therefore, pay your taxes! If what Paul was saying is, " owe them obedience, so go ahead and give them what you owe, but you can grumble all you want about it," then that would be one thing. But that's not what he's saying!! He's saying, "Overcome them in love! Give them what love requires, even though they don't deserve it, even though they are greedy, even though they are unjust! Heap burning coals on their head! Pay your taxes, and do it with a smile on your face!" Any self-centered pagan can throw a fit about paying taxes--how do these kind of protests proclaim Christ? How do they identify us as Christian? The Christian protester says, "No, I'm protesting because I believe that this is Biblically unjust." But who sees that? Just because that's what you mean by the protest doesn't mean that that's the message you send! Such protest is indistinguishable from the ways of the world. If you really want to proclaim Christ's answer to unjust taxes, then shock everyone and smile and pay and pray and preach!

Finally, as I've posted before (on my Facebook), I think, neither Jesus nor Paul shows much concern at all about paying taxes. It seems like a big deal to us, and it did to the Jews, but Jesus was like..."Eh, sure, you're sons, and you're free, but don't be obnoxious, pay your taxes." The indifference that Jesus showed, and that Paul exhorted the Romans to show, would've shocked the Jews. But Jesus and Paul understood that money is the least of our worries; to make a big stink over money is to lose sight of the important things of the Gospel. If Caesar asks for your children or your worship, then you defy him to his face. If he asks for your money, well, heck, is that really worth fighting over? Do you really want to endanger your Christian witness by throwing a fit about money?

So, going out there and protesting taxes is paradoxically proclaiming that the political powers we are opposing really do have power, it is proclaiming that the ways of politics and violence really do have power, and that money really is as important as the world wants to make it. Rather than proclaiming Christ's stand against the powers of this world, it changes into the uniform of the world and enlists under its banners, simply in order to carry on an argument with other worldlings in the ranks.


Interesting post.

I too have often found something unseemly about a certain kind of protester, even if I'm in agreement on the merits. And I think the unseemliness stems from the suspicion that, somehow, somewhere along the way, the act of protesting went from being a pragmatic means to an end to an end in itself, where the protester is actually deriving a sense of importance and meaning and life fulfillment from what is basically a kind of revolutionary aesthetic--an aesthetic of Heroes of History, of righteous underdogs, of Che t-shirts and tea parties. People have a yearning for their lives to be epic and important and historically relevant, and being a part of a grand political movement or revolution seems to offer them that.

But protest and revolution are false sources of meaning, because--whatever end they purport to be the means to--there is nothing essential to them that contains any actual, substantive goodness. To be sure, there are psychological payoffs to playing the revolutionary hero, just as there are psychological payoffs to being famous or, indeed, doing drugs. But making this the essential source of meaning in your life--living for it--is just a kind of nihilism. And while no Che t-shirter or tea partyer would ever cop to being more invested in the aesthetic of The Cause than that which The Cause is purportedly there to achieve, I think that in an honest moment a person like that might at least acknowledge that, if maybe they haven't crossed that line, the line is there to be crossed and something to be wary of.

So I think that, in the end, there might not be anything wrong with protesting or even holding radical views, but rather, what is wrong is when you lose yourself in that effort, and give over some essential part of your identity to it--and in doing so, turn away from Christ. So I think you nail it when you say they are "dressing up in the costume" of right wing protester--you shouldn't dress up in any costumes, you should keep your Christian clothes on at all times, in all contexts.

However, I will add that I disagree that by going out and protesting taxes, you are necessarily caring a lot about money in an unseemly or unchristian way. It is entirely possible that there could be someone who, in fact, does not care very much about money--who gives generously to charity and so forth--but who cares very much about a just tax code, because what is at issue is justice. I may not care very much about money, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't care if thugs are out there stealing people's money.

April 25, 2009 at 7:33 PM  

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