New Jersey is my home. I live here, I farm here, and I pay taxes here. And that – those taxes, that is – can sometimes get on my nerves.
It’s not because of how much we pay. Really. It’s just this: we get so little back for the money we send to Washington. For every dollar in Federal taxes we pay in New Jersey, only 48 cents comes back to us. By contrast, our countrymen in famously tax-averse South Carolina receive a whopping $5.38 from the Feds for every dollar they pay. And they’re joined by fellow tax-haters – Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida, all of which get back more than double what they pay out.
At first, this really annoys me. But I’ve decided – after much soul-searching – that my reaction calls for more repentance, and less anger. Men and women in South Carolina are fellow citizens with us New Jersians. Why shouldn’t we give more to them, if we have the ability to meet their needs? They’re our fellow Americans, right?
In fact, our friends from Delaware are compelled to be even more generous, with benefits of only 31 cents on the tax dollar. And New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Nebraska aren’t far behind in subsidizing other states. But they shouldn’t complain either. This is what you do for the greater American family, right?
This issue came into focus last month as Greece teetered on the brink of default and expulsion from the European Union. Greece’s debts had run up to $323 billion Euros, and they just couldn’t keep up. Their European neighbors weren’t the slightest bit happy about it. But if the American states accounted for debt the way Europe has been doing it, then South Carolina and many of its neighboring states would be in a world of hurt. They’d never be able to repay what they’ve received, and the poor would become poorer yet.
Europe, it seems, is still grappling with the question of what it means to be one people group, where those who can afford it help out those who can’t. But this raises a deeper question, doesn’t it? Who, in fact, is my neighbor? Where does entitlement to neighborly generosity end? With my family? Or my church? Or my town, state or country? Who should be able to count on my help? Of course, this question lurks just below the surface of many of our national policy debates.
And into this debate last month, Pope Francis jumped with both feet. In a 180-page letter addressed “to all people of goodwill,” the Pope stressed the intimate connectedness of all living things all over the world – to each other, and to God. His letter bears the Latin title “Laudato Si’” (“Praise be to You, My Lord”), but its subtitle is more informative: “On Care for Our Common Home.”
That “common home” language in the title tells us a lot about where the world’s largest Christian church is headed: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” wrote the Pope. “There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”
A single human family? Even South Carolinians? Even Greeks? Where does it end?
Well, if you’re like me – prone to fret over your tax money benefiting distant strangers – then the Pope’s teaching may feel like a splash of ice-cold water. Each and every human has a right to the bounty of the earth. Christ-followers, particularly, are bound to recognize this in submission to their Lord: “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”
Consider a few of the Pope’s neighbor principles:
The fruits of the earth belong to the entire human family: “The gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.”
Each person has sacred, holy value: “We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
The poor especially deserve our care and attention: “The poor have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters…. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”
We need something like conversion to embrace our connection to people all over the earth: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.”
We in the developed West will have to bear many costs of harms for which others are suffering: “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.”
We must preserve and improve the earth for future generations, not extract and consume it for ourselves: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”
Simplicity, not infinite growth, is required to make the world livable for its entire human family: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes….”
Our vision for family loyalty must go beyond humanity, to all creatures that God creates and loves: “All creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”
Lofty words? Wishful naïveté? Well, maybe. But people can change. Let’s not forget that there was a time when people from my state would never have paid so dearly to benefit those strangers in South Carolina and Kentucky. But now, we think of them as something like family: one nation, under God – Isn’t that what we say?
Can we imagine a day when travelers on this wonderful, injured planet will begin to think that way of all God’s people and creatures?