What is the truth about Christmas’s unjust tax policy?

tax policy

Memorized by some, well known by others, the Christmas story begins, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Lk 2:1 KJV.  Did you ever think about how Christmas began with an unjust tax policy?

Was it a tax policy?

Most modern translations use the word “census” instead of tax.  While a census did not have to mean a tax, Luke shows it was a tax by using the same word in his follow-up book, Acts.  Luke records Gamaliel saying, “Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt.” Acts 5:37.  The revolt in 6 AD was over taxation.

Many historians believe Luke was wrong in the birth account because the census which sparked the revolt took place years after Jesus birth.  But Luke refers to “the first census” in Luke 2, and refers separately in Acts to the additional tax census that sparked the revolt.  There is nothing contradictory in Augustus issuing a decree that was gradually rolled out in the different providences or that Quirinius held more than one post over his career.

Why call the tax policy unjust?

In Biblical Economic Ethics the author covers well the conditions of Palestine under Roman occupation.

“Roman taxes were oppressive and harshly administered.  Herod the Great and his sons were merely following the example of their Roman overlords in maltreating their subjects.” P. 135.

The book describes how archeological evidence confirms the widening gap of inequality as the wealthy consolidated power through tax policy.

Luke demonstrates this through the tax collector Zacchaeus. Lk. 19:1-9.  We know tax collectors were despised because of the onerous burden placed on the poor.  Historically tax policy that consolidates power in the wealthy at the expense of others leads to rebellion.  The founding of America is a great example of this.

Bad tax policy

tax policy

Rome is not alone in adopting bad tax policy.  David took a census which was a bad tax policy in 2 Samuel 24.  He was proud and rash.  1 Chronicles 21:1 tells us Satan incited David.  David did not take time to listen to Joab or seek the Lord but exerted his wealth and power to exploit others.

 “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.” Ex. 30:12.

That’s a tax Israelites paid when counted in the census.  Ex. 38:25.  Rather than wait on the Lord as in Numbers 1 and 26, David looked to consolidate his power by ordering a census.  As a result of David’s disobedience a plague took the lives of 70,000 people.  2 Sam. 24:15.

The poor suffer the consequences of wealthy pride.

Relevance for tax policy today

The Bible demonstrates the age-old problem of wealth and power misusing tax policy to benefit themselves at the expense of others.  Jim Wallis recent article stresses the need to stand for the marginalized.tax policy

Today’s tax policies are complicated.  All the more reason to not fall into the trap of King David and rush a policy through.  Regardless of where you stand politically it can’t be a good thing to pass a 479 page bill with handwritten notes and with such speed Senators admitted they didn’t read it.

The present tax proposal will add 1.7 trillion dollars to the deficit. That’s not paying a ransom for my life but the life of myself, child, grandchild and great grandchild.  We are robbing from the future.

To help pay for that debt, it is widely anticipated Congress will make cuts to medicare and safety net programs.  Republicans are fond of arguing charities can fill the role of government.  But this tax policy is estimated to cost the not for profit sector billions of dollars in lost charitable donations every year because of the doubling of the personal exemption mostly eliminating any benefit to itemizing donations.

While some middle class families in low income, low property tax states may benefit initially under the tax policy, those provisions all expire in five to ten years.  Many middle class families will actually be hurt immediately.  The best analysis is available here.   Regardless the disparity of impact is great between the wealthiest who receive the most benefits and the poor who receive the least.

Christmas and Taxes

Tax policy in the Bible never went well when the wealthy exploited the poor.  However, that baby born in Bethlehem because of an unjust tax policy refused to lose sight of what was most important.  Though exempt from the temple tax, He miraculously provided through a fish the means to pay the tax.  Mt. 17:24-27.  He refused to get trapped by the religious leaders over tax policy.  Rather He said, “Pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Luke 20:20-26.

We know the consequences of bad tax policy and should advocate for just policies.  But we must never lose sight that the Christ child is our provider.  We must never lose sight of the importance of the gospel represented by the Child of Bethlehem.  Jesus could have worked to overthrow Rome.  He could have incited another tax rebellion, but He knew and always taught that His kingdom was not of this world.

Speak out against unjust policies, but never fail to speak up for the poor and vulnerable.  Don’t let them get lost in the advocacy.  Let all neighbors know the hope of Christmas which survived an unjust tax policy.  Help us spread that hope for those caught in unjust systems.

Please consider a year-end gift before you lose the deduction next year.