Partiality to Poor and Rich, and Limits of Detachment

“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a  lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” – Exodus 23:2-3

It seems like a natural inclination doesn’t it? To modify justice, even if ever so slightly, to account for the wealth aspects of the case. I suppose in America we see it most often in frivolous lawsuits, whether medical or otherwise. The jury will take the position “no, the doctor or corporation involved was not wrong or negligent, but the plaintiff is poor by comparison – so what does it really hurt to give them a little something just this once? Besides, the insurance company that’s paying for this has plenty of money.” They mean well, but wrong is still wrong.

The topic will be coming up plenty in the next few days as Congress and the president wrangle over the 2011 continuing resolution process and the potential for government shutdown. How are we going to pay for all of this? One side says cut spending, the other says raise taxes (on the high wage earners). What does this have to do with siding with poor versus rich? Good question.

The Golden Rule, that beautiful, simple, elegant dictum of life, gives us a framework for detachment. We know full well that humans are self-interested and self-serving. No use hiding from it. As such, we cannot reasonably be trusted to make fair judgment on issues that impact us. In a court of law it might be called a conflict of interest. “If I just fairly, then I will not have something I want.” This isn’t always overt and planned – it creeps into the subconscious quite easily. Thus, the need for a means of detachment.

The Golden Rule gives us a framework for equality, for humility. It gives us a framework to understand that we are all equal before God. It gives us a simple means-test to judge based on empathy (even if only inferred) with the other – “put yourself in his shoes.”

And what of the rich and poor? The debate around budget issues, or social spending in general often reverts to “we need this or that service to be paid for – but who?” The answer, almost invariably, is “the rich” … with “rich” being defined as anybody who has more than me. The thought process goes like this: I make it by with x dollars a month, that person makes ten times as much, and therefore could be taxed 90% of their income and still have as much as I do – so they could pay for all of these services for the country and still be as well off as I am.

Is this fair? But what if they work harder than I do? “Hey, I work hard during the day!” OK, what if they worked harder 30 years ago when they were in school – while I partied – and now have a more developed career and capability to produce? “But, but, but … I work hard during the day!” (and I do).

The point is, when we make judgments about what another person can “afford” to pay, we have a very hard time distancing ourselves from our own circumstances. We have a hard time applying the Golden Rule – though it must be applied. Remember, in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” any tax-and-spend actions taken by the government are actions taken by me against you, and by you against me.

I know a guy (through a mutual acquaintance) who has a rather large bit of wealth. He owns quite a few properties in and around the area, and over the years has given quite large sums to various charitable endeavors. To this end he told our mutual friend a few years back “I don’t need any help to give away my money”. You see, we are quite good (comparatively) at recognizing needs in and around us – needs that often require money to address them. What we struggle with is applying our own wealth to the situation. It’s far easier to point to a rich man and try to get him to fund the whole thing – at least until he’s as poor as we are, then we’ll kick in. But the rich will respond “we don’t need your help – we are quite able to give our money away on our own.” To which I heartily agree.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I don’t at all believe we will stand before the Lord with an argument of “Lord, I supported tax policies that took from that wealthy man and gave to that poor man” and hear anything other than “what did you do with what you had?”

This is not to say that benevolence of the rich is beyond our judgment. At the very least the church has to promote the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and explain its implications for the wealthy surrounded by the poor. But we must first understand how to manage our own resources benevolently. Then, we must limit our control of the rich to our preaching – not enforcement of our view of benevolence with their dollars. We are unable to judge rightly or fairly when we have power to enforce behaviors, and we subvert the role of human conscience and the Spirit of the Lord in the process.

What then should our tax policy be? The simplest and most Biblical of these is easy to see – a flat tax. (Consider the case of tithing with regards to the temple/church or the 20% flat tax that Joseph levied on the Egyptians in Genesis 47:24.)

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