The Holiest Levy: Is The U.S. Tax Code Divinely Inspired?
Shawn Macomber
By

Parishioners are invited to bring their tax forms, or their tax guides, or other representations of their IRS returns, forward to put on the altar…

So begins the sample ceremony for a Tax Day Sunday Service prepared by Rev. Jim Burklo—and, alas, what follows is neither a request for a bottle of lighter fluid and a match nor tariff exorcism text, but, rather, an exhortation to “give thanks to a generous and loving God for the good that comes through our taxes.”

To many a believer and agnostic alike continuing that sentence beyond “good that comes” might seem limiting—worldly, even, if we want to go there. The ideological hobbyhorse-vibe makes more sense, however, when one learns Burklo is a board member of Progressive Christians Uniting, a “network of individuals and congregations seeking to express and embody a version of Christianity that looks more like the religion of Jesus than the religion of empire”; an organization committed to  “articulating and living out a positive alternative to the kind of religiosity expressed by such figures as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson” and building a “prophetic movement for social transformation” even as it rises to meet the “rising threat of theocracy.”

Because nothing says opposing a divine commission in government or rejecting empire like a “prophetic movement for social transformation” worshipping the bureaucratic paperwork that represents the at-gunpoint transubstantiation of the fruit of individual labor into the lifeblood of the Leviathan, right?

But, wait, there’s more! Taking a cue from the end-is-the-beginning opening sequence of Serpico, here is a glimpse of how the proposed sermon concludes:

(with hands placed on the tax forms on the altar) 

Dear God, may your blessing rest on these Form 1040’s this week. May our taxes well serve you and each other! And may you bless us with wisdom to shape the way they are spent. Amen.

“Theocracy,” it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

The most appropriate response to all of this, of course, would be to somehow convince Texas Gov. Rick Perry to announce a Day of Prayer & Fasting for Lower Marginal Tax Rates & Quadrupled Deductions then watch the Progressive Christians Uniting rank and file go into wailing and gnashing mode.

Barring that, however, readers will find the rest of the suggested “Blessing Our Taxes” prayer below, with occasional commentary…

Dear God, bless my taxes!

I think God would probably feel a bit more comfortable if that exclamation point were replaced with a question mark. After all, if the IRS has three to six years to decide whether to “bless” or audit, the Creator of the universe probably deserves similar leeway.

Give me peace of mind as I struggle to fill out the forms and determine the right amounts I should be sending to Washington.

Sam Kinison had a bit about what he envisioned as the lesser-known trials of the Son of Man entitled “Jesus the Miracle Caterer”—naughty language at link!—but even the late ex-Pentecostal preacher turned shock comedian never envisioned an indignity for the Lord so low as being peppered with requests for help with TurboTax.

Keep me calm, I pray, as I write out those fat checks on April 15.

Hey, if “rendering unto Caesar” is so awesome, why the need for help keeping calm? Are boisterous progressives getting thrown out of H&R Block offices for cartwheels and merrymaking?

And whisper a reminder to me, Lord, of all the good reasons that I send my money to my government every year.

As a retiring apostate myself, I pray it is not sacrilegious to here imagine a disembodied voice intoning, “Well…hmm…let’s see…have you ever thought of…wait, no, the private sector already does that pretty well…of course there’s…uh…sorry, I got nothing…”

Dear God, help me to recall that my freedom to pray as I wish is guaranteed by the legal protections paid for by my taxes.

This seems a bit suspect since the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”) was adopted approximately a hundred and twenty-two years before the Sixteenth Amendment (“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration”), though it is nice to know there is a reason why the federal government is gifting all that excess War on Terror military equipment to local police departments and SWAT teams—these masked men toting machine guns and arriving in armored vehicles are here to help you pray, friends!

Reveal to my mind’s eye the roads and the airports, the water systems, the magnificent parks and wilderness areas, the public health workers, the regulators of the environment and of commerce, the police and the soldiers, the scientists, and all the other people and things that my taxes make possible.

So there are, apparently, only two options for human existence: A total war of all against all Hobbesian state of nature or a technocratic wonderland of carefully managed opportunity. In the former we’re all stumbling around the plots of land upon which we were born, possessing no understanding of how to transport ourselves from one place to another, mewling, grunting, and covered in sores, cleaning pond scum out of our teeth, robbing and beating each other senseless, bereft of Internet-spawned social media sites for us to post our preening, idiotic I [email protected]*king Love Science pictures on—all because no representative of a controlling authority ever came around to civilize us.

In the other, we return to Clinton era tax rates and get to live in a virtual reality version of a Thomas Friedman column on China—though, thankfully, not in actual, for-real China.

They provide safety and comfort, protect natural resources, and enable enterprise to flourish for the benefit of all.

Man, remember back during the Bush years when progressives loved that one Benjamin Franklin quote: “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”? Good times!

Remind me of how hard and scary life was for the sick and elderly before citizens paid Social Security taxes and received its benefits.

I like to think in His response God might cut and paste in this (also quite frightening) paragraph from Kevin D. Williamson’s excellent broadside The Dependency Agenda:

Our current unfunded liabilities under Social Security and Medicare amount to more than all the money in the world, literally—more than every bill and coin in every currency around the world, along with all bank account deposits, CDs, and money-market funds.

Hmm. I wonder how hard and scary life will be for the least among us when the sovereign debt crisis comes?

Show me, dear One, just how expensive, difficult, and unpleasant life would be for me and everyone else without all the benefits that are funded by my tax payments. Dear Lord, remind me that my tax payments are a bargain when I consider all the good things that I and others receive back from our government.

So the author begin this couplet with what he openly hopes will be the feel-bad prophetic vision of the year—not, you know, an actual rendering of an alternate well-taxed universe—and then in the second half the man takes that same presumptiveness to a level that puts God in a bit of a pickle: Seriously, how is He supposed to respond to this? If we get to put words into His mouth where will it end? “Dear Lord, remind me how much fun my parties are”? “Dear Lord, remind me how fabulously good looking I am”? “Dear Lord, remind me how much cleverer I am than Jacques despite his promotion”? “Dear Lord, remind me how the caller at the bingo hall is about to pick out B-12, which coincidentally is the last stamp I need on my card”? It’s a gateway to madness!

Take me out of my selfishness and give me a spirit of gratitude as I write those tax checks. Inspire me to see that this is a sacred duty.

Okay, this is starting to tiptoe towards fanaticism. We’ve all had a snicker at the six-foot dollar sign floral arrangement famously adorned Ayn Rand’s funeral—but what’s this guy going to have? 1040 in carnations?

It is a way that I serve others who are vulnerable, poor, or sick, and especially dependent on public assistance.

There is another way to accomplish this, too: It’s called actually serving the poor and sick, not foisting that responsibility off on some bureaucrat functionary pushing papers in the most gluttonous, slothful enterprise in human history. Now imagine if the good Reverend’s checks to the IRS were a little skinnier and he had more resources to fund organizations with fewer degrees of separation between the money and the people it serves; resources that weren’t treated as huge IOU jars to fund whatever whim a congressperson might have before going off to K Street to earn his own play money; resources that weren’t going to service debt repayment because we are seventeen trillion dollars in debt? What if we all did? Would there then be less suffering in the world than under the current regime?

O dear One, there are so many ways I wish my taxes could be spent differently. There are many things I don’t like about what my government is doing, there are ways that the tax system could be made more fair, and there are many important things the government leaves undone.

Rev, everyone feels that way. Which is precisely why this Manichean system of political 51-49 victors tossing around the spoils of elections is so insidious and immoral. In a pluralistic, truly free society, it would be acceptable for you and I to set our own priorities in life—so long as those priorities did not harm the persons or property of others. Unfortunately, without accepting that basic tenet of liberty and agency, we are all damned to a constant cycle of compulsory economic and social arrangements we occasionally cheer and other times abhor. It’s a vile game, but the urge of one man to hold dominion over another has proven stronger than the desire for actualized civil society time and again.

Also: “More fair”; “important things”—these are completely subjective ideas. For example, I am in wholehearted agreement with PCU’s fight against the prison-industrial complex. Yet, the problem of ridiculous numbers of people being incarcerated for non-violent offense would not even exist were it not for widespread taxation and the idea that the whims of government are sacrosanct and deserve to be fully funded for eternity once 51 percent of voters swayed.

I’m willing, O Lord, to pay even more in taxes if it would work for the common good: it could save us all even more money and trouble, in the end. 

Again, define “common good,” please.  I hate to be one of those people, but God doesn’t set tax rates; government does. If you’d really like to pay more in taxes, the government will not refuse thine largesse. It would actually be a wonderful way to test the counterintuitive hypothesis that giving up a larger share of your income will save you “even more money and trouble in the end.”

So, more than ever, dear God, give me the strength and the vision to rise up and take action as a voter, pressing my government to act for peace and justice at home and abroad.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water….

My sacred duty as a citizen is only partly fulfilled as I write my tax checks.

A reading from the Book of P.J. O’Rourke: “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”

I ask for your guidance, God, as I join with others to change the priorities and values of our government, so that they may align with your divine creativity and compassion.

This, I feel certain, will never come to pass; not until every gagged dissident is herded into ever-shrinking “free speech zones” and every other interpretation of freewill is subdued and rendered impotent. This is not the nation James Madison or Thomas Jefferson helped usher into existence. But whether a Christian should prefer it at all to is an open question, at least according to Romans 12:2:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is...

While Burklo—a fine and earnest man, no doubt—in his preamble quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (“Taxes are the price we pay for civilization”), I find myself reminded more of Montaigne: “It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scale without their being trivialized.”

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