Do you know that the IRS, beginning under the Bush administration, has hired private debt collection agencies to go after delinquent tax payers? Think about this for a minute .... especially in light of what the Bible has to say about taxes.
Even as it began educating the public about this practice, the IRS warns tax payers to be on guard against “scam artists” who may “impersonate” the IRS in an attempt to defraud unsuspecting citizens under cover of its own collections efforts. There’s an additional reason for anxiety. The last time most Americans heard the term “tax collector” may well have been in church. The idea of governments hiring private citizens to collect taxes for profit is nothing new. Indeed, it was a practice of imperial Rome in biblical times.
What the Bible Teaches Concerning Tax Collectors
Rome's method of collecting taxes has some eerie resemblances to the program now being undertaken in Washington. A country, province or territory was divided into manageable tax districts. Individuals would then bid for a contract allowing them the authority to collect taxes in a particular district on behalf of the state. Competitive bidding was also used by officials in Washington this time around, a system that tends to favor those highly motivated to make a profit and organize their activity with their own bottom line uppermost in mind.
In the present example, the debt collection agencies take 22-24% of the amount they collect. Compensation formulas were different in the first century, but the principle was the same. The system was one that led to abuse and corruption then, and similar abuses may be expected today. Hence, the IRS’s own warnings of potential fraud. In the Ancient Near East, the individuals contracted to do Rome’s tax collecting became a despised class. The religious authorities branded them ritually “unclean,” in the same group with prostitutes or lepers. It was in defiance of this religiously sanctioned shunning that Jesus welcomed such people into his own company, including the tax collectors. He appointed one of them an Apostle (Matthew). Consequently Jesus was castigated as being "a friend of tax collectors and sinners."
At one point a former tax collector who had become a disciple hosted a banquet for Jesus at his home. Among the invited guests were a large number of his first century colleagues. The local religious leaders complained to the disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered the criticism, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The words of Jesus indicate that even as he welcomed tax collectors into his following, it was clear he expected them to resign their profession, just as he expected prostitutes to quit the trade as a condition of continuing as his disciples.
All of this might lead American citizens to wonder why the US government has embraced a method of collecting taxes practiced by imperial Rome.
There is little evidence to support the view that private companies can collect money at lower cost than IRS agents. So this project is indeed
'faith based," as the Bush administration was wont to describe many of its initiatives. But the faith being put into practice here is not the faith proclaimed in the Bible. Indeed, the biblical examples point to the problems associated with privatizing tax collections. The faith being exhibited in this case is that private companies are to be preferred to government agencies, even when it comes to raising the revenue required to carry forward those responsibilities belonging to the public realm and performed for the common good.
The combination of the profit motive and the system of private enterprise, for all its strengths, is not a magic elixir capable of solving every human problem, though some proponents of privatization appear to believe it is. Treated as such, privatization becomes a substitute for genuine faith, and a poor stand in for the more subtle principles upon which this republic was founded.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.