Monday, January 23, 2012

Paying Taxes

I received my property tax bill today. I’ll be paying several thousand dollars. My assessment was higher—not by much, thankfully—than last year’s. Some of the taxes I pay will go to the Town of Cobourg, some to Northumberland County, and the rest to local schools. The bottom line, though, is that I’ll be paying several thousand dollars for things like policing, roads and engineering, transit, streetlights, and so on. I don’t mind one bit.

The truth is we need to pay our taxes if we expect the services that make Cobourg, and Northumberland County, a great place to live. I’ve lived overseas in Manila. People don’t pay much in the way of taxes there, and both the city and the national government are lousy at collecting taxes. That means that poverty is rife and that there is no safety net. A large portion of the population lives in shanties and slums unregulated by government. Road and public transit shortages mean traffic is jammed nearly 24/7. Tap water isn’t safe to drink. Power is intermittent during storms and even when you otherwise least expect it. If you really need to get something done, you pay a bribe to make it happen.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Filipino people are wonderful in every respect. But they are also victims of a political system that doesn’t serve them so much as it serves the rich family elites installed by Spanish and American colonial governments to keep people in line. Those entrenched elites continue to milk the system for all its worth, in spite of two or three popular street revolutions to throw the bums out. And a fair tax system just isn’t in the elite’s interest, since the country’s very dysfunction is what keeps them in power.

So I’ve lived in a country without much by way of taxes, and it is a disaster. And I’ve travelled all over the world and seen similar disasters in places like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia. And what occurs to me now is that I’ve been in a lot of countries lately where the problem is that there just isn’t enough government—and what there is is crooked. When I hear Republicans or Conservatives or Libertarians preach that less government is always better government, I’m not persuaded. In some situations, it may be that a bit less government is a good idea. I’d love less military spending, less bureacratic waste, fewer jails, fewer multi-million-dollar government-agency consulting contracts for former politicians like Newt Gingrich, and fewer gazebos in far flung corners of Tony Clement’s Muskoka area riding. (Yes, that last example does sound less serious than Newt's consulting, but it is so Canadian!) But less government is not an unqualified good thing. If you disagree, take a vacation in Haiti or Rwanda and see for yourself.

So, whenever I write a check to the Canadian or American governments, or my municipal government, I both wish it could be a little less, and I say a prayer of thanks for a system that works: for uncommon peace and safety by world standards, tons of fiscal transperancy, and the privilege to democratically engage in the process of government. There is just no sense in complaining about life in Canada. Our freedom to get involved and do something would be much wiser than complaining. In fact, in our democratic system, the submission to government that the Apostle Paul asks of Christians in Romans 8 has to be understood as a willingness to submit to our systems' need for responsible democratic involvement in government.

            Which brings me back to taxes. In the end, I believe that the Apostle Paul was exactly right about taxes too. “Pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” It is the Christian thing to do.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Did God Really Tell You So?

Late one afternoon, a few months ago, an apparently well-heeled young woman showed up at my church. She was neatly dressed, drove a nice car, and spoke with authority and confidence. I didn’t know her. She told me that while driving west along Highway 2, God told her to stop at our church because God told her we would provide a place for her to stay for the evening.

This presented me with a theological problem. You see I don’t believe that God speaks to people about where to spend the night. So, after making sure she wasn’t in trouble, I told her so. She wasn’t pleased. I offered to connect with the Salvation Army, which has provision for emergency shelter. She refused, but asked if she could use my phone to call another church. I wonder if she also told them that God had informed her that they would provide her lodging?

Does God tell you things? Put things on your heart? Give you dreams? Maybe, for example, God is telling you that it is time to change jobs or vote for the Conservatives. Or stop cheating on your wife? Or get a divorce?

I hear people say these sorts of things all the time. It is as if some people think they have their own personal pipeline to God . . . like this year’s group of Republicans running for President of the USA. One of the best tweets of 2011 came from comedian Kelly Oxford. She tweeted, “Cain, Perry, Bachmann all claimed God told them to run for president and all are out of the race. God is hilarious.” According to Rick Santorum’s wife, God also told him to run. She may even be right, because he still has an outside chance. But surely, they can’t all be right. Ironically, the candidate most likely to win is Mitt Romney, who most Evangelicals claim isn’t even a Christian, because of his Mormon faith. I wonder what God is telling him?

I’d be impressed with such claims except, as I’ve said, I just don’t believe them. Never have. Why not? Well, for starters, if there is one thing all pastors learn sooner rather than later, it is that the human heart—and mind—is deceitful above all things. And so we all have a tendency, when we believe in God, to want to believe that just about any intuition or hope or dream we have is from God.

Of course, this approach to faith is very dangerous because it adds up to giving our intuitions, hopes and dreams divine authority. When someone says, “God put it on my heart,” who is going to argue? Until, of course, the hollowness of such claims is too obvious to ignore, as when five or six Republicans all claim that God told them to run for president.

I recently read Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, he describes ten or twenty ways in which the human brain easily believes things it shouldn’t, makes up “just so,” stories to confirm its biases, and often makes quick intuitive judgments based on far too little evidence. To make matters worse, the slower, rational, deeply informed part of the brain that is supposed to keep odd beliefs and intutions in line is usually far too slow and lazy to do so. So people will say, “God told me so” and believe it long before the more thoughtful part of the brain ever has a chance to ask, “really?”

Is there an alternative to believing that you have a direct line to God when it comes to decisions, hopes, and dreams? Sure—though this is a more difficult—and truer—path. Use the values that God’s Word in scripture (as opposed to a private pipeline) are all about, values such as love, justice, mercy, and humility, to guide your decision making. And then use your brain to weigh the decision, thoughtfully and carefully. Because that is exactly what God gave us brains, rather than pipelines, for.