The difference between taxes and charity is the difference between compulsion and free will. Taxes impinge on our ability to give. The state takes the first bite out of our paychecks, reducing the amount from which we can give to the Red Cross or our church or our niece on her birthday.
Never mind that you would give to the local Catholic hospital but can’t because the state has squeezed you dry to fund, among other things, the public hospital. If you want to give to the public hospital, you can’t do even that, any more than you can give twenty dollars to a panhandler if before you can reach for your wallet he’s pulled out a gun and held you up.
You could argue that taxation is only the state enforcing a minimum standard of generosity, but coerced virtue is as much an oxymoron as is coerced religion: Under threat of the lash, you might mouth the words of a creed, but if you don’t mean them . . . Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Of course, many of us do believe in the roads and the bridges, the schools and the armies that the state compels us to pay for—and believe, with some justification, that they trump the principle that to give is more blessed than to receive and that to be deprived of that blessing is an injustice, or at any rate a misfortune.
As is neglect of the needy. In its most benign form, taxation is the surest method for ensuring that an otherwise homeless child is sheltered, clothed, fed, and schooled. It removes the risk that he would languish because his neighbors failed to step up to take care of him.
Taxation, then, is our concession to our fallen nature. It’s provisional, a necessary evil that we commit, and submit to, in order to prevent or at least mitigate the possibility of greater evils during this interim between our expulsion from Eden and our induction into the New Jerusalem.
Problems ensue when we forget that. Taxes, no matter how fair, are artificial. They’re substitutes for charity and goodwill—for love, really—and not vice versa.
Assumptions to the contrary bleed over into our spiritual lives: “If I tax God with my prayers, he’ll pay me, right?” Maybe, maybe not. And when he does decline to pay out, do you blame him?
This train of thought has been running through my mind the past few weeks as I watched Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos enjoy some improbable wins mixed in with some flat performances and a couple of blowout losses. Did God intervene in the wins? I think he did, though I couldn’t prove it any more than you could prove that your favorite sweater is a gift from your friend.
Scoffers enjoy the thought that God abandoned Tebow against New England on Saturday. Their error is in thinking that God was being a delinquent taxpayer rather than a doting father who likes to give things to his sons and daughters but keeps them guessing a little to preserve their capacity for wonder and surprise. It’s his way of reminding us that he has free will too: He doesn’t have to intervene. Were it otherwise, we would soon begin to consider answered prayer a law of nature. And miracles, those rare events on which we discern God’s astonishing fingerprints, would consist of disappointments that we would dread all the more because they would now seem fraught with dire significance.
Throughout the season, God showered his son Tim Tebow with little presents, tokens of his presence. The theological term of art for that is grace. Though half of us may deny it, we enjoyed the grace vicariously.