Korihor’s Children: Part 6.5

I had intended my next post in this series to be a) a lot sooner and b) a continuation of the arguments made earlier. Illness has intervened, however, and I thought a brief side excursion first might be helpful. I want to talk about a challenge I see a lot. My conservative friends frequently ask this: where in the scriptures does it suggest that the coercive powers of government can or should be used to help alleviate poverty? Isn’t charity a private matter? Doesn’t the Church oppose public welfare; isn’t our obligation to the poor supposed to be a matter of agency? Everyone agrees that the scriptures urge us to help the least of these, Christ’s brethren. But do we partially fulfill that through a government program?

The difficulty is that the scriptures describe a variety of societies very distant from our own. We are a religiously pluralistic society, with a democratic republic governing. We believe in a separation of Church and state. Throughout most of human history–and certainly every society described in scripture–none of that was true. A public v. private understanding of charity would have been nonsensical in ancient Israel, for example. The predominant political structure throughout most of history was monarchy or, occasionally, theocracy. Most nations had, and enforced a state religion. And caring for the poor was rarely any kind of governing priority. And even so, there are still a number of scriptures in which political/governmental entities engaged in supporting charitable activities.

To begin with, the Israelite practice of Jubilee was surely intended to alleviate poverty. As described in Leviticus 25, every fiftieth year, all prisoners and slaves were freed, and all debts canceled. Fields were to lay fallow, and everyone urged to celebrate the bounty of the earth. It was to be a year of simple living, with class distinctions erased. Property would revert to hereditary ownership. What that means in practical terms is that you couldn’t really buy or sell land–you could only lease it.

The existence of jubilee years would seem to preclude the possibility of income inequality, or at least reduce inequality. After all, if land is money, and land is power, the fact that anyone would have to return land purchased from other people every fiftieth year would militate against the accumulation of wealth.

So what we have described here in Leviticus 25 is a divinely mandated, but legally enforced anti-poverty, pro-equality program. Every fiftieth year, everyone’s debts were cancelled, and purchased land reverted to its previous owners. Would you say that’s a private anti-poverty mandate, or a public one? The context is so radically unlike our own, those terms are close to meaningless. But it was, in pre-exile Israel, a requirement, not optional. The coercive powers of the state could be said to enforce it.

What about the practice of gleaning? Leviticus 23 is clear enough about it:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

Again, the practice of gleaning was not an option. It was a requirement of the law of Moses, legally enforceable. When harvesting, you were expected to leave the corners of the field alone, and the edges of the fields as well. The grain in those areas was free pickings for poor people. Farmers were not allowed to discriminate–decide which poor people they’d let into their fields, nor frighten away gleaners with dogs. They were required to harvest so that gleaning could follow, and they were supposed to allow gleaners in.

That practice is central to understanding the book of Ruth, which I consider one of the most beautiful works found in scripture. Boaz obeyed the law, and seeing Ruth gleaning in his fields, was impressed by her. And the rest of the story followed.

No one knows how long gleaning took place in ancient Israel, or by what legal mechanisms it was enforced. It’s quite possible that the book of Ruth was included in scripture to encourage the practice. Many European nations continued doing it up through the mid-nineteenth century, and in Israel, some communities practice it today. You could argue that this was an example of private, not public charity. But if communities enforced it, and likely some did, then it wasn’t optional. It was a mandate.

What conservatives really object to, of course, is tax revenues being used for charitable purposes, as legally required and enforced by a strong central government. That’s the system we have today in the US (and elsewhere), and the conservative argument is that coercion, with the threat of violence, corrupts the giving of alms. ‘Let me keep my own money, and I will use it to help the poor, as God requires of me.’ (I hope I haven’t misrepresented the conservative argument here–let me know if I have).

The difficulty is that the situation of today, with a large, centralized, somewhat distant central government collecting taxes from us (under threat of violence if we don’t pay) doesn’t really have much of a parallel in scripture. That didn’t really describe the political situation found in most of the Bible, or in LDS scripture.

There is, however, one exception: Rome. When the New Testament was written, Palestine was under Roman occupation. Rome was big, distant, powerful, violent and rapacious for taxes. Taxes were collected by publicans, public contractors, member of the conquered community, who took a percentage of taxes collected for his own use, and also maintained public buildings. So, Jewish publicans were, well, Jews. And the profession was much hated, as you can imagine. It’s no accident that the phrase ‘publicans and sinners’ so frequently is found in scripture.

And there were many kinds of taxes. Land taxes, estate taxes, taxes on manufactured goods and traded commodities, a tax on widows and orphans specifically earmarked to pay for upkeep of military horses, a tax on unmarried men, a special tax if you owned slaves, another one if you freed slaves, and a third if you sold slaves. So many taxes, for so many purposes. And all of them massively unpopular.

What did Jesus think about them?

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22: 15-21)

It was a verbal trap. Let’s ask this Jesus guy about taxes. If he says ‘taxes are evil; don’t pay them,’ the Romans will arrest him. If he says ‘taxes are fine; pay ’em,’ he’ll alienate everyone. Instead, Jesus presents a third alternative. Pay your taxes; obey the law. And worship God. It’s a beautiful answer.

The Romans had a tax for everything, and a use for every tax. And most of those tax dollars were spent on the military, or on civic infrastructure. But taxes were also used to . . . alleviate poverty. In fact, a major Roman expenditure was for what has come down to us as ‘panem et circenses.’ Bread and circuses.

Romans were conquerers, and brutal ones. Roman circuses–the Roman Games–were horrific, bloody, violent spectacles. But panem? The grain dole–the annona–was instituted by Gracchus in the second century BCE, and continued under the emperors, and literally could be the difference between life and death for the Roman poor. It was also, of course, a way to prevent civil unrest and the potential for violent revolution. It was hardly benign. But people who might not otherwise get to eat did get to.

Should we have to pay this tax? At least one of those taxes was used to feed poor people. Did Jesus endorse it? No, he sidestepped the question. But he did not condemn it.

Certainly, the scriptural record does not unequivocally endorse public charity. Nor does it condemn it. And there are scriptural passages that support at least some form of public assistance for the poor. Of course, our best, most relevant scripture on the subject is found in the Book of Mormon, with King Benjamin’s address. I’ll address that next.