“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him (Jesus) in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”
-Matthew 22:15-22 ESV
“But Jesus, Isn’t taxation theft?!”
Re-reading this verse as an adult I almost said the words aloud. I drew the same initial conclusion that most statist Christians do, that Jesus was implying all currency was the state’s, and if the state wanted to take it back then it was their right. After doing some investigating on the historical and religious contexts of this passage, I found this not to necessarily be the case.
To add some historical context, the Romans were the occupiers of Israel and the surrounding regions. The Jewish government at the time, (under King Herod) as well as the religious leaders and all the citizens were subservient to the rule of the Romans. A rule built on corruption, deceit, and tyranny. To speak out against Caesar or any Roman official carried with it severe punishments. The Pharisees and Herod’s minions were getting sick and tired of Jesus running around defying them, the Jewish laws, and the Jewish government at every turn and needed to put a stop to it. So, they set Jesus up to put the cherry on top of his savage behavior and defy the Romans.
However, Jesus one-upped this trickery with a mind distortion of his own.
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”
Ok yeah, his face is on the coin, after all, I guess Roman currency must belong to him. “And render to God what is God’s”
Wait, what belongs to God? If God created everything, then doesn’t that mean that everything belongs to God? and nothing belongs to Caesar? This translation says the statists, uh, Pharisees, “marveled” at what they heard. To me, this couldn’t be more of an understatement. Those dudes got stomped.
Jesus didn’t say that paying taxes to the Romans was right or wrong and responded in a deliberately confusing way in order to avoid the trap. In this passage as in several others, we see Jesus had some excellent debating skills.
So my question still remained “But Jesus, isn’t taxation theft?”. Surely I couldn’t have been the first to ask, so I turned to a time in history where many Christians and non-Christians were asking some solid questions of the Bible, the Reformation.
Martin Chemnitz, O.G. Lutheran reformer, wrote in the Loci Theologici the topic of almsgiving and charity, a hot topic at the time. The Anabaptists were advocating for the abolishment of all ownership of wealth and distinctions of individual properties. They proclaimed the justest system was one of a common ownership of all property. (hmm, where have I heard that before?). Chemnitz argues that individual property ownership is not only allowed for the highest personal freedom but was divinely ordained. He writes that the inclusion of the commandment “you shall not steal” is evidence that individuals can indeed establish ownership over property and that the exchange for such property must be legitimate and voluntary.
It is often stated by many modern advocates of wealth distribution (socialists and the like) that it is the compassionate choice for society. And that “Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civil society”. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun as Chemnitz saw similar arguments in the 16th century from the Anabaptists and their practice of extorting alms from their congregations. To combat this, He points to the 8th chapter of 2nd Corinthians, “I do not say this as if I were ordering you” (referring to alms giving) calling out the extorting of alms as being against scripture. The practice left out the individual’s’ choice to give or not and to love one’s neighbor or not. Thus removing the entire point of alms giving in the first place. Furthermore, a pastor forcing his congregation to “pay up” isn’t being very kind to his neighbor either.
From this, it isn’t outside the scope of reason to view taxation in a similar way to the forcible extraction of alms, with one notable difference. Taxation isn’t imposed by a church attempting to serve the needs of its community, using scripture as a guide all the while. Taxation is an institution of the state and uses this institution to whatever goal it sees fit. Whether this goal is determined by a majority vote between representatives, or by a totalitarian despot is beside the point. A state or church who would fly in the face of the commandment “you shall not steal” Or any commandment in scripture, knows no God but itself.
Taxation is Godless,
Taxation is theft,
Taxation is sin.
Wealth and property are not distributed equally among people. Not everyone was born into abundance and it is not the intention that everyone should be. From this, opportunities are fostered to help one another through voluntary methods of exchange and giving. It ought to be a goal of libertarians; Christians and nonbelievers alike, to come up with new and creative ways to voluntarily serve one another through our businesses, transactions, conversations, and every interaction.
You can read more by Chris Oglesby on Think Liberty here.