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Love and Taxes: A Holy Week Lesson




Walking back from the SEIU-SOULA* demonstration for immigrant rights at the downtown Federal Courthouse, I am wearing my clerical collar and carrying a CLUE-LA picket sign slung over my shoulder. Just across the 110 Freeway on Sixth Street, an older, tall, rather dapper looking white man passed me. Then about 10 paces on, he turns and asks: “What club are you with?”

“Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice,” I say.

To which he he asks, “Isn’t there justice in this country?”

“If you’re part of the one percent,” I answer.

“Well, I am part of the one percent,” he says, “And I am not giving any of it to you!” Then he strode on at an increased gait.

“Give” I thought. Who said anything about “giving”? Apparently, he does not believe in giving one’s self to another for their nurture and for one’s own. That principle,  expressed in psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s book, The Art of Loving, formed Fromm’s definition of love. The African American public intellectual bell hooks used the same words to define love in her best-selling trilogy. The phrase reminds me daily of what I believe and try to practice.

But that sort of reciprocal relationship between people in the human community apparently does not fit the dapper man’s worldview. In fact, it isn’t the practice of many people, which is why governments collect taxes. Since people do not give generously to one another or toward the common good by their own choice, governments exact taxes. Taxes pay for the things we need to make society function, from streets to schools to “the common defense” and “the general welfare,” as the prologue to the United States Constitution puts it.

Taxes provide the basis for social stability, solid markets and regulated financial systems that make commerce possible, while enabling some people to become wealthy. Taxes cover the costs of security – military defense and police who protect property and keep people safe. Taxes pay for government to set trade and monetary policies that make wealth accumulation feasible. Taxes insure that health systems and work environments are relatively safe for everyone.

For a century the tax policy of this country has required more money from those who benefit the most from this arrangement. The richest are supposed to pay more, both as a percentage of their income as well as in real dollars. Americans do not ask the rich to “give” them anything. We tell the rich to simply pay their share of what it takes to defend the country and maintain social equilibrium. Taxes are about obligation and social responsibility. They are not about giving or about love.

But there is room for love in all of this. In this Holy Week of the Christian calendar, Thursday marks the day Jesus gave his followers his one and only commandment. Over a Passover dinner, he told them that they “should love one another as I have loved you,” a notion right out of his Jewish tradition. His signs of love – giving oneself to another for their nurture and for our own – was a reciprocal practice at once so shockingly interpersonal and communal that it upset the false calm imposed by the power of the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ closest followers were people whom the one-percenters would call “losers.” He fed people who were hungry because the empire system did not provide them enough to eat. He returned mental balance to people who had been driven mad by fear and terror. He upset the financial system that kept the empire and its collaborators wealthy and in power. Acting out love like that in the public arena is what we call justice, which every religion teaches, and which is why I marched with the union that day on behalf of undocumented workers. Which is what I would have told that dapper man that day, if only he had not kept on walking.

*Service Employees International Union-Security Officers United in Los Angeles.

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