Something to Use, Something to Risk

I have written critically in the past about James Davison Hunter’s approach to not really changing the world. In the last analysis, his tag phrase “faithful presence” ought to be a means to victory, not a goal in itself. If we make it a goal, it is as though the coach settles for getting his team to just show up for the games, and the end result of that approach is what theologians used to call a “losing season.”

But my purpose here is not to dig through those old bones. One of the points that Hunter made very well, and which I appreciated very much, concerned the role of elite institutions in accomplishing whatever transformation might occur. Quite properly he leans against the idea that reformation is necessarily a grass roots “proletariat” sort of thing.

I actually think that the necessity of this kind of grass roots reformation is a bit of propaganda from the other team that we have bought into, and which has been greatly debilitating. In Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, he has a powerful chapter that demonstrates the explosive growth of Christianity was actually centered in the middle and upper classes of Roman society. The idea that Christianity grew so rapidly because it appealed to the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the outcasts, and so on, was an idea that was floated early on by Friedrich Engels, and yes, that one, the Communist Manifesto guy.

The problem is that the data just doesn’t back that idea up. Christianity was an urban movement, and it was dominated by the educated and literate. Paganus was a word that referred to country bumpkins, and became associated with attachment to the old ways — hence, pagan. The preaching of the gospel attracted not a few prominent women (Acts 17:4). Members of Caesar’s household believed (Phil 4:22). Erastus, an important city official at Corinth, was a believer (Rom. 16:23). Lydia and Philemon were good examples of wealthy householders who were attracted to the gospel. One of the leaders of the church in Antioch had graduated from Eton with Herod (Acts 13:1). Stark shows how 1 Cor. 1:26-28 has been over-interpreted, and besides, Paul there says “not many,” not “not any.”

The same kind of phenomenon occurred in the Reformation. As C.S. Lewis put it, “The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists” (Eng. Lit. in the Sixteenth Century, p. 43).

But this brings us to the rub. Why does the idea that only the dispossessed would risk everything for Christ seem so compelling to us? Well, we think it is easy for them because they have nothing to lose. But while it is true they have no influence to lose, they also have none to use.

This is why, for well-placed Christians, there is resistance to overcome. We know for a fact that the world is sticky, like pine sap, and we do get attached to it. When we are attached to something valuable, we could use it, but only by risking it. Thus the well-connected are in a position actually to do something, but they are also a group of people who really do have something to lose. But once that resistance is overcome, and many of the well-connected believers start to push their chips to the middle of the table, reformation begins.

This is another way of saying that the work of reformation requires leadership, but there is no such thing as Christian leadership without sacrifice and risk.


C.S. Lewis observes somewhere that there are two different motivations for spreading the political power as thinly as possible. The first is the motive of the sunny democrat, one who believes that man is the repository of wisdom, and that before we do anything of a civic nature, we ought to check in with as many of those wisdom nodes out there as we can.

The second motivation is driven by a Christian view of man, in which the radical nature of sin is acknowledged, and we confess ourselves unwilling to deposit too much power in any one individual or institution. And why? Because Lord Acton knew his onions, and aptly said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This adage does not apply to God, obviously, who is untempted and uncorrupted by His omnipotence. It does apply,  however, to all those little creatures who are still affected by the aboriginal temptation, which is “to be as God.”Taxes This Year

The former view is trying share the power with all those out there who are worthy of it, and the latter view is trying to keep the power from accumulating in any one place. The former view is pagan, and the latter is Christian. In this latter view, given the nature of the case, we are not trying to spread as much power as possible across the entire population, but rather trying to take essential precautions by limiting the exercise of any essential power by spreading as far as we reasonably can, separating the powers and checking the balances.

Now it could well be objected — and it is quite a reasonable objection — that if man is not to be trusted, then why should we trust him with liberty? Can a sinful man not abuse his liberty? He certainly can, which is why we want to limit the damage to what he can do to himself and those foolish enough to associate with him. Precisely because he is corruptible, we don’t want to put him in charge of the life, liberty, and property of everybody else.

The Problem of Tiffany Sugartoes

Scripture refers to that kind of ruler who frames “mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). Those who do this kind of thing are men who sit on thrones of iniquity, and God refuses His fellowship with any such thrones.

There are many ways to frame mischief with a law. Everyone grants that one example would be when a despot pillages all the poor peasants in order to fund his Belshazzarian kegger tomorrow night. That would be one example. That would be the big E on the eye chart.

But are there other examples of thieving mischief? While some established thieves are debauched, others are a bit more clever. If Suleiman the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to beef up the personnel department of his seraglio, then that is both tacky and theft. But if Obama the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to provide loan guarantees to Goldman Sachs, and they use it to provide a holiday bonus for a rising junior executive, who uses it on a weekend blowout in the Hamptons with a girl named Tiffany Sugartoes, then this is just as tacky, and just as much theft, but we can say that they cover their tracks better these days.

So let’s spend a bit of time distinguishing sins from crimes. When dealing with individuals, sins that ought not be crimes are either contained entirely within the person’s motives, or they are actual behaviors for which no scriptural case for attaching civil penalties can be made. An example of the former would be bitterness or lust. An example of the latter would be speaking rudely to someone in a crowded elevator.

A sin becomes a crime when we can make a scriptural case for attaching civil penalties to a particular behavior. Murder is a crime; hatred is a sin. Adultery is a crime; lust is a sin. With individuals, the distinction is relatively easy to make.

A ruler is not subject to the same applications of civil penalties, at least not in the same way. In a well-ordered biblical republic, it should be possible in principle to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, regardless of the office they hold. But even in a healthy society, bringing justice to bear in such cases is more challenging because rulers have supporters, and they often appoint their supporters to positions of influence over investigations of injustice. But enough about Eric Holder.

The “civil penalties” for rulers are not limited to the one process shared by all the citizens — indictment, trial, verdict, and so on. To whom much is given much is required. God holds rulers accountable by other means as well. He can do it by other means, such as natural disasters (1 Kings 18:17-19), military invasion (Dt. 28:48), a civil war (2 Sam. 15:10), or a coup (2 Kings 11:14). An average citizen can be punished for his crimes, and so can a ruler be. But when it happens to a ruler, there is a good deal more mayhem.

Property and Love for the Poor

I have written a great deal on how the framework provided by biblical ethics honors and preserves the institution of private property. The argument is not complex. Just as “thou shalt not commit adultery” presupposes and honors the institution of marriage, so also “thou shalt not steal” presupposes and honors the institution of private property.

The private property that is honored is that which comes to a man through the ordinary processes. “Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Cor. 9:10). God is the one who gives us the power to get wealth (Dt. 8:18), and it comes up to us from the ground. It does not float down upon us from the state.

We learn the principle when learning to love the haves — but it applies even more to the have nots. When a people are being liberated from covetousness, envy, and the larceny resident in every socialist scheme, they need to learn to mortify this sin in the presence of a neighbor who has manicured lawns, a red convertible, and a beautiful wife (Ex. 20:17). Learning what love means in this instance means learning how to hate the covetousness that arises so easily under every human sternum. Love that is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10) is a love that does no harm to its neighbor. Listed among the things that are harmful and destructive to our neighbor is covetousness (Rom. 13:9). This is why it is so necessary to elect men who fear God and hate covetousness (Ex. 18:21). And it should go without saying that you can’t hate covetousness if you don’t even know what it is.

But we must insist on something else. Mortifying covetousness is not just a blessing to the fat cats. In his magnificent book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto demonstrates how a societal refusal to recognize property rights by means of honoring and protecting clear title is one of the central reasons why poor people are locked in grinding poverty. Where property is not respected, property (whenever it is acquired) hides. And when property hides, it cannot come out into the daylight and do useful work. The useful work it could do is that of lifting the people involved out of poverty. But in order for property to be able to do this most beneficent thing, it has to be able to come out into public view and not be assaulted or confiscated. In short, property must be safe, and it cannot be safe whenever the people are envious and covetous. Perfectly Legal

This is why we must love liberty and hate every form of coercive theft. Making that coercive theft “legal” by sanctioning it society-wide only serves to make everything far worse. Legalizing activities prohibited by the Ten Commandments does not successfully whitewash the sin. If something is perfectly appalling, we do not fix it by nodding sagely and saying, “You know, the ways their laws are structured . . .”

With All Your Protections in a Binder on His Desk

After my Due Process post, I received a letter from a friend — a tax attorney — who agreed with my central point about the modern tyrannical state, but who did want to defend the IRS on the point I was making about due process.

“Although I agree with you that the modern administrative state is overreaching and Tyrannical, I believe it is untrue to characterize IRS assessment and collection processes as being ‘without due process.’”

As he defines his terms, I quite agree with him. And as I am defining mine, he (I think) would agree with me. By due process, I did not mean orderly process, or defined process, or published beforehand process. I agree with my friend that all that and more occurs during the processes of tax assessment and collection. Bureaucrats are nothing if not rule-guided creatures.

But before expanding further on what I mean by due process, I need to lurch off into this side paragraph for a moment to explain what I am doing. On this point, I am simply tracking and agreeing with Philip Hamburger’s foundational arguments in his Is Administrative Law Unlawful? This also addresses the objections of those who believe that I have inexplicably set myself up as an expert in constitutional law, har har har, doing so with a degree in philosophy from the University of Idaho, har har har. But Hamburger is a professor of law at Columbia Law School, and the book is published by The University of Chicago Press. Thus it is that I tentatively conclude that a man may agree with Hamburger while remaining clothed and in his right mind. Unless, of course, we have gotten to such a point of administrative tyranny that we are not allowed to decide on our own experts anymore, but must go with the constitutional experts who are assigned to us. These would usually be the living document johnnies, the ones who think that the right to keep and bear arms means that you can’t.

Where was I? As I mentioned, by due process I do not mean orderly process. I grant that the IRS gives us that. I am talking about three basic ways in which our interactions with the IRS — and the administrative state generally — violate the historical understanding of due process. First, the process is inquisitorial. Second, such processes tend to invert the presumption of innocence. And third, a man can get into serious trouble without ever coming near a court of law. This is a problem because the IRS is part of the executive branch. If I am in legal trouble, my troubles should begin in a judicial court, not end there, or miss a real court entirely.

Now as my friend pointed out, if a man plays his cards right, he can wind up in a legitimate tax court. But it is perilously easy for the average guy to not play his cards right.

In other words, if in one circumstance I am suspected of shorting the government by five thousand dollars in 2011, and in another circumstance I am suspected of shooting old Henry Spivvins in a bar fight in 2011, my legal exposure in these two scenarios is entirely and completely different.

Due Process, or Do the Process?

Some, like myself, believe that coercion without warrant from Scripture is a very bad thing. For others this category of coercion is largely invisible. It just appears to be part of the way things are.

In this installment, I want to explain how unlawful coercion is a very real characteristic of our governmental system, and also explain why it is so destructive. This is important for us to grasp because the “powers that be,” to use Tyndale’s phrase, are entrusted by God with the lawful power of coercion. They do not bear the sword for nothing (Rom. 13:4). At the same time, these authorities, who may lawfully coerce, can also cross over a particular line and become abusive and tyrannical. If we don’t know where that line is, or how to police it, then we are naifs, babes in the woods, tyros, despot-fodder.

Such a good question . . .

Such a good question . . .

I have been working off the phrase in the Declaration that says that men have certain inalienable rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This was a more elegant and poetic way of saying “life, liberty, and property” — a phrase that comes up in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. No one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Incidentally, while on this subject, the “due process of law” referred to here prohibits administrative agencies from doing a number on us. When an administrative agency (say, the IRS) conducts an inquisitorial investigation, finds against the one investigated, and levies a fine, it is acting like a prime example of the kind of government our Constitution was expressly designed to prohibit. Our current form of government is profoundly illegal. But while we are here, on the point of “due process,”  we can also point out that the word choice of unalienable in the Declaration was not strictly speaking accurate. The word means “impossible to take away or give up,” and what was meant — as the Constitution made clear — these rights may not be taken away without due process in each individual instance. It did not mean “impossible to take away.” A man may lawfully be deprived of his life, his liberty, or his property. That is what criminal courts do to felons.

Now recognition by the government that the right to life, liberty and property are rights that are given by God, and not by the Congress assembled in their majesty, is the first step toward the government doing its appointed job of guarding and protecting these rights. In effect, when the government recognizes that these rights are God-given, it means that the government is in a position to perform its God-given function, which is to protect the citizenry from being murdered, enslaved, or robbed. When the government does not recognize that these rights are God-given, this means that they are actually first in line to be the abusers of these rights.

When men who rule do not fear God, the people mourn (Prov. 29:2). To take these three categories as representative, our godless government is responsible for the murder of 50 million Americans (abortion), the enslavement of a million others Americans (our demented prison system), and the pillaging of millions of children yet unborn (our rapacious and absurd national debt).
The authorities that exist are charged by God to reward the righteous and punish the wrongdoer, and these categories are defined by the standard of what God tells us in Scripture. And when it comes to our own cases, we all know what these standards are. We know and protect our own right to life, our own desire for freedom, and our own stuff.

I want to argue that our right to these things is the right to the same things regardless of whether the one threatening them is a thug in an alley, or a bureaucrat behind a desk. Life means the same thing in both instances. So does liberty. This being the case, property refers to the same thing as well. What a mugger takes and what the IRS takes is, at bottom, the same thing — my hard earned cash.

The key difference is found in that a government official may possibly be doing what he is doing legitimately.

Now it is a funny New Yorker cartoon, but Charles the First actually tried it.

Now it is a funny New Yorker cartoon, but Charles the First actually tried it.

Even though it is possible for the government to behave coercively without being unrighteous, we have to recognize the potential for abuse here. Because of that potential, the burden of proof is on the government to show that they are not acting like thieving scoundrels. A high threshold, I know . . . So this is what due process means. In order for the government to be doing the right thing when it seizes property, and to be known to be doing the right thing, it is necessary for the laws to be grounded in God’s moral order as revealed in nature and Scripture, to be understandable in principle, to be published beforehand, to have been established by representatives of the people, and to be enforced even-handedly in open courts of law, and not by star chambers or high commissions. Our current form of government does not meet these standards.

And anything else is called stealing.

Stuff Inviolate

I have been arguing that property rights are human rights. I have been insisting that it is not possible to love your neighbor without respecting his stuff. I have been saying that the commandment thou shalt not steal presupposes the institution of private property in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes marriage. And in the same way, I cannot honor the command not to covet my neighbor’s wife if I cannot come up with a definition of “wife.”

But there has been some surprising pushback on this simple idea, so let us dig a little deeper.

So what do I mean by property? Within the boundaries of the law of God, property entails the authority to retain or dispose of material goods without the permission of another. If you are renting something, or leasing it, you do not have the right to dispose of it in the same way you would if you owned it. When you rent a car, you are answerable to someone else for the use. When you own a car, you can paint the passenger door turquoise if you wish.

This means that all property is ultimately God’s. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), and the earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains (Ex. 9:29; Dt. 10:14). So God is the only absolute owner of property, and in reference to Him, we are all stewards. We will all give an accounting to Him for what we have done with the goods He has entrusted to us.

So my argument does not neglect this relativization of property in the sight of God, but merely insists that no creature — especially including kings, parliaments, congresses, and presidents — may usurp and supplant God in this role.

This is why Jesus can tell the rich young ruler to give all his goods to the poor (Matt. 19:21), and if he did not do it, he was stealing in the eyes of God. At the same time, he would not be stealing in the eyes of man — any more than a lustful man could be charged with adultery in our courts, or a spiteful man with murder, despite the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:28; Matt. 5:21). We must, always and everywhere, maintain the distinction between sins and crimes.

“Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).

Tithes went, in part, to the poor. The same thing would be true of offerings. And offerings were entirely voluntary — but a man could rob God by refusing to offer them. He would be guilty before God of the sin of theft (greed, covetousness, and so on). But he would not be guilty of the crime of theft. Consider the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1). Peter told them that they could have sold their land, kept all the proceeds at home, sitting on top of the pile cackling like Scrooge McDuck, and they would not have bought the farm, so to speak.

“Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:4).

After he sold it, was it not within his power? Yes — as far as the authority of fellow creatures could reach. But could he do whatever he wanted with it, and not have to answer to God? No, of course not.

And this is what I am arguing. When any creaturely entity assumes the prerogatives of the Deity, assuming the power of control over the property of others, that entity has become lawless and wicked. And the Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” The Bible does not countenance the notion that two coyotes and a sheep can form a rudimentary democracy, and then vote on what’s for lunch.

If I am walking down the street and encounter someone begging alms, and I have twenty bucks in my wallet, and I receive an unmistakable burden from the Lord to give him that twenty bucks, and I suppress the impulse and walk on, am I being disobedient? Yes. Am I robbing God? Yes. Am I robbing the beggar? No. For if I were, he would have the right to chase me down and take the twenty bucks.

If a woman had her purse snatched by a bicyclist, and fifteen minutes later she pulls into a drugstore parking lot, and that same bicycle is outside with her purse hanging on the handle bars — the thief having run inside to buy smokes with some of her dollars — is she stealing if she takes her purse back? Of course not.

We must learn to distinguish that which is sin in the eyes of God, and that which should be a crime in the eyes of man and God. Being a selfish pig is a sin, but must not be made a crime. If we outlaw “being a selfish pig,” I have ten dollars here that says that within two weeks this crime of selfish piggery will be vigorously policed (and fined) by tribunals made up entirely of selfish pigs.

When we make something a crime without scriptural justification, and penalize it, we invert the order of God. When we make property ownership a crime, and fine people heavily for being guilty of it, we have a society as corrupt and as mendacious and as greedy as . . . well, as our own.

If we love people, if we love our neighbors, we will consider their stuff inviolate. We will form governments that respect our neighbors’ property as much as we ourselves do. But as it is currently, we form the kind of government we now have because we the people have larceny in our hearts. We are governed by thieves who represent us well.

Sure. Let’s Call It a Contribution.

So I have distinguished the payment of taxes that are owed, and the payment of taxes that is rendered out of a principled prudence. In the former instance, paying taxes is a matter of conscience and in the latter it is a matter of intelligence. When I give my wallet to the mugger, I am not granting him authority over my wallet, and still less am I giving him authority over any future wallets that I might come to possess. I am simply doing a cost benefit analysis, and his gun trumps my five dollars.

Now some want to argue that all taxes whatever are illegitimate. While this makes life simple on the conscience front, making every decision of whether to pay taxes or not a prudential one, the simplicity is, ironically, too easy. A good example of such an approach to the argument can be found here. While Joel and I would agree on a great deal on this general subject, we do differ at this particular point. It is an important point, so let me deal with it briefly.

In my argument for this position, I cited Romans 13, which tells us to pay taxes to those to whom taxes are due, and Joel reads this as simply as entirely circumstantial and prudential, telling us to pay taxes to whom taxes are — and please note the scare quotes — “due.” Since the one levying taxes always has the power to coerce, this reading is always possible and sometimes likely. He has the gun, so not only do I give him the five dollars, I also go along with calling it “my contribution.”

So the real test would be those instances when a godly ruler requires taxes (or the equivalent) be paid. Remember that I have no problem granting that the power to tax is routinely abused. All we are looking for are cases where it is not abused, establishing that as a possibility.

Take Joseph in Egypt (Gen. 47:13-26). He was a godly ruler who saved the lives of the people, but at the same time he was not exactly an instrument who introduced a libertarian paradise. To head off commenters, I am aware that Joseph presents a problem to my ten percent rule outlined earlier, which I hope to get to. The issue here is whether there were any level of legitimate taxation occurring. I am not here talking about Joseph selling the grain to the Egyptians in exchange for their land, but rather to the collection of a fifth of the harvest in the plentiful years (Gen. 41:34).

Here is another example.

“And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matt. 17:24–27).

Now Jesus is making an implicit distinction here between tribute money illegitimately collected (where most of our discussion centers), but He is also assuming that the collection of tribute from strangers is legitimate. He has Peter pay the tribute for prudential reasons (so as to not give offense, distracting them from their main mission), even though the tribute is not owed by them because they are “children.” But what happens to the Lord’s argument if tribute were illegitimate when collected from strangers also? His argument would simply collapse. This means there is a type of taxation that would be legitimate to levy, and therefore which would create a moral obligation to pay.

If there is such a thing as lawful taxation (as I believe) and if there is something which goes by the name of taxation which is rank theft (as I also believe), we have to do the hard work of determining where the line between the two categories might be. We also have to determine who makes the call, and what standard they must appeal to.