Monday, 1 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Monday: Tax and Theology

This week the Tax Justice Tour comes to Scotland.  This big red London bus is travelling around the UK to promote awareness of tax dodging, it is being managed by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. 

Today I want to write about tax and theology, and to share with you the following ideas, adapted from the joint Church of Scotland – Christian Aid report on the subject, Paying their dues: how tax dodging punishes the poor.

Tax evasion – a challenge to citizenship and discipleship

The conviction that God is sovereign over every part of life, not just our religious or church life, is central to Reformed theology.  There is no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, no ‘no-go areas’ for discipleship.  The Church of Scotland has always held that our politics and economics are as much legitimate arenas for our Christian faith and practice as our prayer lives.

Widescale tax dodging, whether legal or not, is problematic from a Christian perspective. In a democracy, citizens enter into an unspoken contract with regard to taxation. Complain about it as we do, debate appropriate levels as we should, there is an implicit understanding that paying our taxes is part of our civic duty.

Jesus asked hard questions about taxation. He challenged people to make difficult moral decisions, and then live them out as adults who had the capacity for free will. How shall we live? Whom shall we serve? You decide. He asks the same questions of us today. What are your fair dues?

The gospel resistance to taxation was not to the principle.

Rather, it was based on two realities.  First, the taxation system weighed particularly heavily and unjustly on the people who could least afford it.  Jesus’ concern for the poor is central to the gospels; in Matthew 21, we read that he overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple, where the very poorest were subjected to a kind of loansharking in order to be able to make their temple offerings.  To fulfil the requirements of the law, it was necessary to make sacrifices of small animals, birds or money.  A brisk business trading in these went on, right inside the temple courtyard.  But the poor, the majority, had either to borrow the money to buy the offerings, or couldn’t afford them at all.  If you borrowed, you weren’t in a position to bargain – you just had to take the rate you got and stand a good chance of being fleeced.  So the only choice was either to get into debt to fulfil your obligations, or default on them, find yourself classified among the sinners, and be excluded from the number of the righteous.  You didn’t have to do anything we might consider morally wrong to be a sinner, you just had to be poor.

The second reality was that the taxes were being collected on behalf of an occupying power, the Roman Empire.  Tax collectors were not hated because they collected taxes, but because they were considered to be traitors by doing so for a foreign power.  And they were despised because they were also often engaged in malpractice and extortion.  Tax collecting was franchised – the tax collector paid an amount to the authorities for the contract to collect money.  Whatever he collected over and above the due amount was up to him.

Corruption was built into the system.

In Matthew 22, a loaded question about taxes was posed to Jesus. It was not just about money, it was about power. Jesus was being confronted here by a rather unlikely alliance. The Pharisees were nationalistic Jews, middle-class anti-Romans. Those of Herod’s party were collaborators with Rome, urbane upper-class people who knew and played the system well, and were adept at managing the compromises involved in sharing power with Rome. The two groups were traditional enemies. But even more than they despised each other, they feared the challenge presented by Jesus, the rural upstart who proclaimed the rule of God, which they purported to represent, and championed the poor. So they put aside their differences in another attempt to trap Jesus and make him stumble before their political power.

They began by trying to flatter Jesus into giving himself away. The question was: ‘Is it against our law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?’ If Jesus said, ‘pay’, then he would reveal himself as a collaborator, a traitor, and discredit himself in the eyes of most Jews.  If he said, ‘don’t pay’, then he was open to charges of lawlessness and criminality.  Jesus knew they were trying to trap him, so he answered their question with another question.  He asked for a coin. The unspoken implication was that he did not have one himself, and if he had no money, then he wouldn’t be paying any taxes.  But he never actually said so.  When the coin was produced, he asked them to describe it.  The face was the Roman Emperor, the inscription underneath ‘Son of the Divine’, blasphemy to any devout Jew.  The claims of Caesar, depicted on his money, were not only economically and politically oppressive, they were idolatrous, claiming an authority which belonged only to God.  But Jesus would not be constrained within the limits of the question he was being asked.  By calling for the coin, Jesus sprung the trap set for him.  And by turning the question back to them, he caught them in their own trap.

Now they were the ones who had to declare themselves.  In his final statement, ‘render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, Jesus drew another distinction between himself and the Pharisees.  They talked of paying taxes.  Jesus spoke of ‘giving back’ (and the Greek makes it clear these are different things).  What Jesus referred to was a submission to authority.

This text has sometimes been used to justify a rigid separation of faith and politics, to assert that God and money have nothing to do with each other, that the things of God belong in a spiritual realm while money belongs to a material realm from which faith must keep its difference and its distance.  But Jesus demonstrated that people’s values and motivations, their spirituality, showed up precisely in how they used their money.  And no Jew in Jesus’ audience would divide reality between the power of God and the power of Caesar.  On the contrary, many believed that Caesar had usurped God’s authority and must be driven out by armed revolt.

A spiritual challenge

Jesus’ words presented a huge challenge to his listeners, and they still do to us today.  Were the Pharisees, in their opposition to paying taxes, driven not just by nationalistic fervour but by their own love of money and indifference to the plight of the poor, whom they subjected to religious exclusion?  Were the Herodians really motivated by concern for good order and the safety of their fellow Jews, or rather by the power and influence their collaboration gave them?

Were the onlookers looking for easy answers from the party that would tell them what to do and save them having to make hard moral choices themselves?  Jesus’ words and actions depict a very subtle position.  He accepted neither the authority of the Sanhedrin, the religious power, nor that of Rome, the military power.  But neither did he sanction open, and certainly not armed, revolution. He changed the terms of reference, and questioned the very nature and legitimacy of authority.  Money, good order, political influence – all have a claim and a role.  But all are subject to the authority of God, to God’s justice and mercy, and that meant a radical reordering in favour of the poor and dispossessed.  If money was your god, you needed to be liberated from that attachment; if power, then that too was a chain.  And in the face of all these competing claims, no one was going to allow you to shake off your responsibility and hide behind others.  You had to decide for yourself as to the weighting you gave each of these claims.  And your choices would show up what your spirituality really was.

In the context of deep poverty and insecurity for the vast majority of the peasant population, disturbance and dissatisfaction were rife.  As Kenneth Leech writes: ‘The climate of colonial rule, oppressive taxation, accumulating debt and bankruptcy, forced migration and revolutionary uprisings, formed the background to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.’

His call resonates today with as much relevance.  Tax evasion by wealthy and powerful companies and individuals causes grief to those who can least tolerate it, misery to those who have more than enough share in that. Proper taxation is an investment into the communities we are a part of, whose flourishing means we too can flourish.  Companies who take advantage by embracing the benefits of a country and then refusing to put anything back into them are as guilty as the tax collectors and collaborators in Jesus’ day.  The characters may have switched places, but the result is the same: misery for those who have no way to fight back. Join Christian Aid in fighting for them.

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