Paul, Jesus, & Trade Tariffs

4 February 2010

Today this trip concludes and we return to the States. We endure two security checks in Istanbul and then four more in Frankfurt before we land at Newark to go through U.S. Customs and Immigration. The Customs officials will screen our bags and ask us the same questions we have answered three or four times already today. If we bought anything of value while abroad, they will require us to pay a tariff. Then we’ll find our way to the plane for Cleveland and pass through one more security checkpoint in order to board the final flight home. My first reaction to all this was boredom and mild frustration—in the three hours between flights in Frankfurt, it took fully two hours to run the gauntlet from one plane to the other—and I found myself thinking that Paul would never have had to endure anything like this. Then I started to wonder if that was really true.

A contemporary Turkish pleasure yacht, about the size of an ancient fishing vessel

What was it like to get off one of those trading vessels at the harbor in Ephesus, Miletus, or Cenchrea? Merchants or tradespersons who were bringing goods to the market were interrogated and their goods inspected. They certainly had to pay a tariff, perhaps more than one. The Empire charged taxes, and the cities very likely did as well. Just for comparative purposes, think about the figures for today. In foreign countries like those of the European Union, on the other hand, the “Value Added Tax” (VAT) charged on goods and services runs at 18–20%. (“Value Added Tax,” eh? Really? One cynically wonders what kind of value a tax could add to anything….) At first glance one can see that the VAT is over twice our rate, at least 10% higher. However, the real differential between our tax and the VAT higher still: in Ohio, groceries, prescription drugs, and some other essential goods are exempt from the sales tax; the tax rate for services traditionally is about 2.5%, a third of the tax on goods; and the “usage tax” rate for Internet purchases is 5%. So Ohioans have sales taxes of 0­–8%, depending upon what you purchase, by what means, and in which county. My impression is that the tax rates in Paul’s day looked a lot more like the VAT than our sales tax. Imagine bringing your goods to market, and then standing there watching while some tax collector skimmed off a fifth of their value before you ever had a chance to sell a single item. No wonder the tax collector bore the status of persona non grata in the first-century Roman Empire.

borrowed from http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/plebians.html

A Plebian-class family in the first-century Roman world

Imagine further that you are one of the typical members of the Plebian class who earned a subsistence wage. One denarius was the average wage of a day laborer in Jesus’ time (hence the extravagance of the 300-denarii jar of oil with which the woman prophet anointed him; see Mark 14 & //). One denarius made the difference between survival and indigence (in contemporary terms, becoming a bag lady). One day’s wage minus this estimated tax rate is only 8/10 of a denarius; a prolonged pattern of such a shortfall means life on the streets (beggary or brigandage) or debt slavery. Alternately, a daily income of 1.2 denarii means surplus, the possibility of ever-so-gradually saving for the proverbial “rainy day,” thereby gaining financial and personal/familial/communal stability. Even better, as your income grows and you build your “nest egg,” this “regressive” tax on goods and services takes proportionally less of your income; it’s sting begins to fade from view.

Poverty tears the fabric of society, destabilizing families, neighborhoods, villages, and larger socio-economic structures; this can be seen in any age, including our own. Poorer neighborhoods have higher crime rates, poorer health, and lower educational achievement than do middle-class or wealthier ones. D’you ever wonder why Jesus ended up healing a lot of folks, especially poor ones? One of them was a woman “who had spent all of her resources on doctors” to no avail (Luke 8:43; note the footnote for this verse if your Bible does not include this phrase in the body of the text). Jesus is quoted as saying “the poor you will always have with you…” (Mark 14:7a). Some people read that as fatalism: there’s no point in doing anything about the economic disparities we see; but does it really make sense to think Jesus sent out his disciples to continue his healing ministry (Mark 6:7-13 & //; Luke 10:1-11) because he wanted his followers to do nothing about the poor? Perhaps instead he was commenting on the imbalanced socio-economic structures that, if left unchanged, will continue to create and intensify the disparities between the rich and the poor.

We know that the Roman Empire was marked by enormous economic disparities, with 10% of the population controlling 90% of the wealth, and the most affluent acquiring hundreds of times the annual income of the poorest persons. We don’t always recognize that the same statistics apply to the USA today, and the economic disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest have been growing wider and wider over the last several decades. Part of Jesus’ “economic recovery policy” was to heal those who were sick (the overwhelming majority of whom were of the Plebian class) and to feed those who were hungry (many of whom did not have the resources to buy their daily bread; viz. Mark 8:1-8). This has been part of the mission of Jesus’ disciples ever since. Another part of that mission, to a greater or lesser degree at different points in history, has been to work to change those socio-economic imbalances that cause and perpetuate poverty.

Unless you read Jesus’ remark as fatalistic, the New Testament as whole is consistent in teaching that the disciples of Jesus are to alleviate the causes and results of poverty. The last century of developments in the social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, political science) has given us new language to talk about the dynamics of poverty and a different set of tools to analyze the structures that cause and perpetuate it. Is a 20% sales tax the way to go? Do we put caps on interest rates for loans? Do we raise capital gains or estate tax rates, or do we eliminate them? Do we raise the minimum wage, or lower it for certain types of companies (e.g., start-up ventures)? Whatever we do, Christians have to remember that these questions require that economic considerations be evaluated within the context of the commitment to live as disciples of Jesus.

For millennia the poor mostly have gone without us. Instead, Jesus and the NT authors challenge us to live and stand with the poor.

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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