Tuesday, July 3, 2012
A FAIR BALANCE
Democrats say the super wealthy 1% of Americans do not pay their fair share of taxes. Republicans claim the wealthy pay more than their fair share. I hear both sides. The whole question revolves around what is fair, regardless of who is right about the amount of taxes paid. Both sides agree on fairness.
Where do we get that? Why do we think a society should strike a fair balance when it comes to economic and social welfare? Did Karl Marx poison our minds? I don’t think so. I would point out that the answer to why we believe in fairness (if not a welfare state) can be found in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In Exodus 16 we have it spelled out, when Moses led ancient Israel out of Egypt and down along the east side of the Gulf of Suez, around the tip of the peninsula and up the western coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. Imagine a society of up to two million people trekking along that long desert coast, carrying tons of equipment, and treasures made of gold, silver and bronze.
After crossing the Aqaba side of the Red Sea into what is today Saudi Arabia (at the straights of Tiran, according to most reckoning today), and spending three days on the run without water, God and Moses finally brought them to the springs of Elim for a brief respite, only to leave them in trouble in the Desert of Sin, where the famous story of manna from heaven played itself out.
On their first night there God covered the ground with flocks of quail (alive, presumably, but quickly killed, cooked and eaten by God’s children.) In the morning the Israelites found a white covering on the ground, which turned into a crusty bread-like substance that they named “manna”, and which Moses told them to eat.
God warned his children (through Moses) that each of them should collect only as much of the manna as they actually needed. On that first day some of them collected more, so as to have leftovers for the next day. But that manna became rancid overnight. As a result, the ancient Israelites learned their first lesson from God about money.
Scriptures tell us that “no one who collected more had too much, and no one who had collected less had too little.” Just enough for one day, and not so much that anyone got short-changed. This went on each day until the sixth day, when God told them to collect two days’ worth of manna, because on the seventh day they should rest and keep the Sabbath holy.
We sometimes forget the significance of this story, I think, by focusing on its miraculous side rather than the elephant in the room, which is that we need to keep a lid on our greed and never forget those around us. Marx may have gotten his notion from God, but he clearly didn’t have God on his side when it came to making people do what God told them to do. People who believe in God need to be reminded.
I think that is just what the Apostle Paul set out to do, some 1300 years after Moses, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 8, when he referred to the book of Exodus in his warning to the people of Corinth (and us) that there must be a fair balance between rich and poor.
800 years after Paul, the Islamic Imam, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj of the Sunni tradition, reminded us of God’s teaching on the fair balance we must maintain, in Chapter 26 of his record of the Prophet Mohammed’s words concerning the story in Exodus, when he identified manna as desert truffles, a delicacy equal to the unleavened bread of the ancient Jews.
If indeed we all agree that a fair balance must be maintained, surely we can come to some mutual understanding about how to follow God’s law on this subject. That law is quite clear on the matter of giving all your wealth to the poor: don’t do that. But it is equally clear that you must not keep all your wealth for yourself. If you are wealthy beyond reason you are duty bound to work on a solution that will allow us to spread the wealth in society in some balanced way that does not leave it up to personal whim.
We in the United States have not found that solution yet. And as long as one side says we have and the other says we have not, a fair balance has in fact not been struck. Our economic system is based on the notion of more is better. But God says we need to think again. Lots of us agree.