This Friday is our annual American monument to masochism: Tax Day.
Most of us recognize that being a member of a society as diverse as this means that our government is going to do some things that we don’t like. I don’t know of a single person who approves of everything the government does with their money, but we suck it up and pay our taxes anyway–Christians because Christ told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, most people because it’s the law, and all of us because we understand that in a democracy, elections matter, and when we don’t like what our representatives authorize in the way of spending, they can be replaced. Well, some of us do.
At Sojourners, Shane Claiborne of the Simple Way Community in Philadelphia indicates his belief that he is a privileged character who doesn’t have to pay for stuff of which he doesn’t approve:
I am one of those Christians who believes we should still have the right not to kill, even in an empire that has a military bigger than Rome’s. Perhaps that’s why it has been hard for me to navigate what to do as tax season approaches, with so much of our federal tax money going towards militarism. It was a crisis familiar to the early Christians who were accused of insurrection and tax evasion because they had an allegiance that subverted, or superseded, their national allegiance.
Only one problem with this notion: there’s no evidence that Christians didn’t pay their taxes to the Roman Empire, which undoubtedly used much of that revenue to support its armies.
So I respectfully filed my taxes this year, and I sent the IRS the letter below. My intention is to respect my country and contribute to the common good, but also to uncompromisingly follow the way of the nonviolent Jesus this Easter — in a world that continues to pick up the sword … and die by the sword.
The nonviolent Jesus…who told His followers to pay Roman taxes.
The letter is the sort of document guaranteed to get someone at the IRS asking, “does this guy know anything about the federal budget?”
I am filing my 1040 here. As you will see, I made $9,600 this past year, and found that according to the 1040 form, I owe $324.44 of that to federal taxes. While I am glad to contribute money to the common good and towards things that promote life and dignity, especially for the poor and most vulnerable people among us, I am deeply concerned that 30 percent of the federal budget goes towards military spending, with $117 billion going to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Further, when we include the 18 percent that goes towards past military costs, such as the $380 billion in debt payments, 80 percent of which are military related debts, that number goes up to a total military budget of $1,372 billion — nearly half of the federal budget).
This is like Chico Marx in the Florida land auction scene in The Cocoanuts: “He say seven, I say eight. He say eight, I say nine. I got plenty numbers left.”
Federal spending for 2011 is estimated to be $3.6 trillion (remember that no actual budget for fiscal 2011 has yet been passed). Of this, defense spending is about $515 billion. Grant Claiborne’s number for Iraq and Afghanistan, and add $117 billion to that. That makes $632 billion. That would be about 17.5% of the budget. Here’s what that looks like in graphic form (from the Daily Kos, hardly a bastion of neo-con thinking):
As for the last figure ($1.372 trillion), and the ones that lead up to it, he got them from the far left War Resisters League, and it includes things like veterans benefits (and of course Claiborne wouldn’t want to be caught dead paying for medical care and physical rehab for wounded vets) and a ridiculous 80% of the interest on the federal debt. The long and short of it is that Claiborne is basing his taxes on an imaginary portion of the federal budget. But that is not even remotely close to the biggest problem with this approach.
For this reason, I am enclosing a check for $227.11, which is, according to the form, 70 percent of what I owe. The remaining $97.33 represents 30 percent of my tax payment, the amount that would go toward military spending. I will donate this remaining 30 percent to a recognized U.S. nonprofit organization working to bring peace and reconciliation. My faith also compels me to submit to the governing authorities, which is why I am writing you respectfully and transparently here. I am glad to discuss this further if you have any questions.
Of course, he isn’t even trying to “submit to the governing authorities”; rather, he’s making a political point. But leave that aside. What he’a actually doing is saying that he–and by extension, all Americans–have the right to decide what portion of their legally mandated taxes to pay, based on their opinions of the way that money is spent. He tells the IRS:
While I am glad to contribute money to the common good and towards things that promote life and dignity, especially for the poor and most vulnerable people among us…
And what about taxpayers who have a different set of priorities? Should those who object to federal subsidization of Planned Parenthood (which apparently doesn’t bother Claiborne) subtract their portion of that subsidy? How about those who object to the National Endowment for the Arts, or National Public Radio, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s usurpation of congressional responsibility? What about those who don’t like any kind of foreign aid? how about those who think that the 2009 stimulus bill was misguided? What about TARP? How about those who object on principle to Medicare or Medicaid? Federal aid to education? Housing subsidies? What should those who don’t like the IRS do?
In other words, what if the large proportion of Americans who don’t share Claiborne’s moral and political perspective decide that he’s got a great idea, and that they are going to use their tax returns to defund the programs that he thinks are so important?
What then, Mr. Claiborne?