As inscribed on the iconic bell in Philadelphia, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land” is a biblical declaration (Leviticus 25:10) that heralds the time of jubilee: freed slaves, cancelled debts, redistributed land ownership. Far less proclaimed are the connections between this jubilee and the financial activities of daily life.
According to the Bible, the jubilee completed seven sabbatical cycles of release. The release of debts in each sabbatical year followed six years of tithing. Today, a tithe (one-tenth) is a voluntary giving rate — one possible percentage of what we earn. But tithing began as the original income tax.
As of this writing (4/16/18), most of us are gearing up to file our last tax returns under previous IRS rules. What are we really declaring when we declare our income? Aggregated data confirm our American generosity paradox: lower-income people tend to donate higher percentages of what they earn, while more affluent earners tend to give in lower percentages — regardless of the state of the economy.
This silent status quo is like the crack in the Liberty Bell that prevents it from letting freedom truly ring. Let’s turn our focus to the people across diverse communities whose smaller household budgets support broader social impacts. If we stretch beyond our usual ideological assumptions and divisions, we can share in the power of DIY (Do It Yourself) tax justice.
Tax justice really begins with how we approach our money beyond taxes. How are we literally spending our lives? It’s not yet part of our common vocabulary, but solidarity economics — financial practices based on fairness, cooperation, and sharing — can inform and transform our personal choices. A solidarity orientation highlights practical ways of moving our money toward greater equality.
One former bill collector was inspired by the biblical cycles of debt release while working in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. He went on to co-found a non-profit that, since 2014, has leveraged individual donations and statewide campaigns to abolish millions of dollars of medical debt for pennies on the dollar — with no adverse tax consequences for those whose debts have been abolished.
That’s one more solidarity investment we can choose to make! More globally, the effective altruism movement has directed secular attention to the power of percentage giving for a range of vital causes. To date, 3,335 people worldwide have taken the Giving What We Can pledge to support whichever organizations they believe are most effective in improving the lives of others:
“We give 10% (or more) because so many in the developed world give nothing or very little….We chose 10% because it strikes a good balance. It is a significant proportion of one's income, in recognition of the importance of the problem and the need to take real action. But it is also within reach of most people in the developed world. There is also a strong historical connection to the idea of tithing….”
Now more than ever, our American tax code privileges the more affluent at the expense of lower-income people. No progress on that front is likely in the near future. We can still support progressive tax reform initiatives, but we will miss our greatest opportunities if we limit ourselves to verbal conjecture and debate (characterized in modern Hebrew as “lip tax”). As proven by the longstanding generosity of lower-income donors, core money choices are never legislated out of our control. Giving What We Can offers a handy motivational calculator for anyone ready to stretch toward greater solidarity in financial decision-making.
The Hebrew word tzedakah is conventionally translated as “charity,” but is derived from the root word for justice. WAYS OF PEACE calls this just-giving: just give, AND give justly. It's an ongoing process of solidarity through personal finance. DIY tax justice can leverage deductions to channel more private money toward public needs — and even a half-tithe would exceed the new standard deduction for most affluent earners. But just-giving is much more than a tax deduction. It’s a voluntary, ethical tax that can power spare change into social change.
As it happens, we are facing these challenges of financial justice at a point in the sabbatical / release cycle known biblically as the Year of the Tithe. According to rabbinic tradition, Jews will be called to account a year from now with the Tithing Declaration:
“I have set aside the consecrated [tithe] from the household; and I have given it to the [landless] and to the resident-alien, to the orphan and to the widow….”
Will we be ready to make that declaration when the time comes?
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