Burns Stanfield and Stephen Kendrick

As Mass. debates taxes, a lesson from John Winthrop

In 1630, John Winthrop crafted a sermon on board the Arbella for an early wave of Massachusetts Bay colonists from England. “We must be knit together . . . in brotherly affection,” and “make others’ conditions our own,” he preached. Invoking Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, he held high for the colony an image from the Sermon on the Mount: “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

For almost four centuries, that vision has continued to animate American public discourse; and today, Winthrop’s words are pertinent to the renewed debate on raising new revenue in Massachusetts. We faith leaders in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization congratulate Governor Patrick for initiating this debate, and we call upon our fellow citizens to be guided once again by our first governor’s vision of a Commonwealth grounded in justice, mercy, and provision for future generations.

Winthrop was speaking to a company of like-minded English Puritans, of course; but his core message resonates across the lines that often divide us. Our two churches work with Muslims, Jews, and Christians of all stripes on such issues as housing, education, and access to health care. We commit time and talent to enhancing this “city upon a hill.” And today, that work draws us directly into the debate on revenue.


Massachusetts has a problem. Between 1998 and 2002, the Commonwealth implemented income tax cuts that now cost us $2.5 billion each year in lost revenue. (“Taxachusetts” we are no more, ranking 25th among states in our per capital state and local tax burden.) We all know the appeal of tax cuts; but sustained cuts to the marrow of our community leave us weak for the future and diminished as a beacon of opportunity. Over the last decade, adjusting for inflation, funding has decreased 45 percent for local aid, 31 percent for higher education, and 25 percent for public health. The current budget path also leaves little room for needed improvements in transportation. We are deferring needed investments, neglecting posterity, loosening our hold on that vision where “we are knit together” in kindred affection.

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Deferred investment means denied prosperity. Massachusetts is successfully transforming its economy, but that success means little to the many in our state with inadequate access to education and workforce development. We’ve seen, for example, a 16 percent increase in the poverty rate. And while Massachusetts has continued to do well in national educational testing, there continues to be a stubborn achievement gap.

For Winthrop, the operative image was a shipwreck. His Arbella sermon warned fellow colonists of the seductive appeal of “superfluities” and seemingly profitable short-sightedness. Breaching the principles of mercy, justice, and community risk ruin. Our sacred commission — and our best hope — is to “provide for our posterity” and cast an eye toward future generations.

And it is precisely for our children and grandchildren that we make our call for new and fair revenue.

Both of us have stories of a greater community coming together to make possible our own thriving. Taxpayers made it possible for us to go to school, to get loans for college, to take the subway for internships and jobs, to live in homes protected by firefighters and police. Indeed, with all of us, individual stories bear witness to the power of a community which takes the long view and provides for posterity.


So now is the time.

Now is the time to engage in a rigorous debate about revenue reform in Massachusetts. Now is the time to tend to those deferred investments like education and transportation that will make it possible for our grandchildren to thrive. Now is the time to recall the vision of an early settler who imagined a community where we “make others’ conditions our own.” Now is the time to provide for our posterity.

As people of varied faiths, we in Massachusetts nonetheless share a common birthright from that passionate Puritan on the Arbella: a vision for community. May that vision inform this critical debate, and may we stand as a city upon a hill.

The eyes of all people are upon us.

The Rev. Burns Stanfield is pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The Rev. Stephen Kendrick is senior minister of First Church in Boston.