Since the congressional elections of November 2018, a number of young, progressive new legislators have aimed to reshape public discourse surrounding wealth redistribution.
Perhaps most prominently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) garnered attention for proposing a marginal tax rate of 70% on income over $10 million. Ocasio-Cortez was met with backlash from conservatives who argued that such policies are unfair and “castigate” the rich.
Such arguments are consistent with the tendency of many conservative Christians to oppose government-sponsored welfare programs in favor of helping the poor through intermediaries that include the family, the church and individual charity. To defend these views, they often cite passages from the Gospels in which Jesus compels his followers to give secretly to charity through religious alms.
However, the Gospels’ support for voluntary wealth redistribution does not imply a prohibition against government policies and programs that address the same goal, and a closer reading of other passages, such as Matthew 19:24 and 25:31-46, provides a defense of mandating that the rich contribute to them generously.
The most basic underlying sentiment of the Gospels toward wealth redistribution is clear. Wealth redistribution is consistently portrayed as unequivocally morally good: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” according to Matthew 19:21. The overarching notion of challenging inequality is not the disagreement at stake — it arises more specifically over governments’ rights to facilitate wealth transfers, which some Christians argue is unbiblical.
While verses like Matthew 19:21 specifically name the importance of individual acts of charity, the importance lies in how effective they are at actually helping their intended recipients. This idea is evidenced by Jesus’ explicit self-identification with those in need in Matthew 25:31-46 — the centrality of this idea of treating the poor like Jesus by providing them with the basic necessities of life, such as food and clothing, suggests that the importance of welfare, by biblical standards, lies in its impact.
Wealth redistribution doesn’t exist so the rich can feel a sense of moral comfort — it should have a concrete effect on the well-being of those it aims to benefit. Given that actions from families, churches and individual charity programs have obviously not solved financial inequality, it seems as though the Gospels’ basic message must support significant government-sponsored wealth redistribution programs in order to better address this problem. The Gospels are demonstrably more concerned with the effects of wealth redistribution rather than the means; if voluntary programs are not working, these texts point to the government’s obligation to step in. The idea of fixing inequality through voluntary donations is nice, but it hasn’t taken shape in reality — compulsory systems of taxation are the only realistic option.
Moreover, the Gospels not only discuss the mandate to help the poor, but also explicitly condemn extreme wealth accumulation: Jesus states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” in Matthew 19:24. While this verse is sometimes interpreted to allude to spiritual poverty, a literal reading is consistent with the Gospels’ other teachings about wealth. If conservative Christians truly want to live by the Bible, they should have no qualms about rich Americans surrendering a large proportion of their wealth to government programs. Next to Jesus’ own assertions, Ocasio-Cortez’s marginal tax rate proposal seems quite mild.
The spirit of these biblical passages clearly carries broad implications about implementing fair tax rates and financing projects that take on income inequality. Individual charitable donations cannot realistically make a dent in the massive problem of financial inequality. Requiring people and corporations with exorbitant amounts of money to pay taxes at a reasonable rate would be a much more effective means of addressing this problem.
Many conservative Christians ignore the unavoidable fact that the Gospels’ mandates to help the poor are not abstract, theoretical notions but rather concrete calls to action. When it comes to many other heated political topics, they readily assert that the government should be able to enforce whatever the Bible has to say. A careful reading of the text confirms what progressives, Christian or not, know well: If public goodwill cannot solve a problem as significant as financial inequality, the government can and should step in to do so.
Haley Talati is a senior in the College. Between the Lines appears online every other Wednesday.