The Church Action for Tax Justice and JustShare staged a debate titled Tax for the Common Good, in St Mary-le-Bow, in Central London, earlier this week (10). Here Fr Simon Cuff, Tutor and Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College, who was one of the speakers at the event, shares his thoughts on theology and taxing for the common good.
The HMRC reminded us a few years ago as they encouraged us to file our tax returns on time: ’Tax doesn’t have to be taxing’. Any theological reflection on the nature of taxation might begin by recognising that few people relish paying their taxes, even if they see the value of them in promoting the kind of society in which we want to live.
One of the reasons the Bible again and again reminds us of the need to consider the poor, the marginalised, the alien, is that if we are left to our own devices we will most likely be concerned only with ourselves. We won’t leap at the chance to share our income for the common good.
In what follows, I want briefly to outline some views on taxation in the Christian tradition. Firstly, I want us to look at the biblical witness. Then one example of Christian thinking on taxation, as it appears in Catholic Social Teaching. Finally, I want briefly to raise some potentially creative means of progressive taxation and consider how we might shift attitudes toward taxation, in line with the Biblical witness, build a movement which enables people to rejoice at the kind of society which a progressive tax system enables.
A society which treats the poor not ‘merely as the objects of charity’ but as ‘agents of our redemption’, as my colleague Fr Angus Ritchie puts it. Or as the authors of the recent report published by Church Action for Tax Justice put it: ‘Decisions about taxation cut to the heart of our beliefs about the type of society we want to live in and how to live out our faith in the world’.
Ultimately, as we shall see, tax is about identity. How do we build a society where taxation is part of the identity of the good citizen and the good life - that life in all its fullness which Christ brings?
In an excellent article, Adam Chodorow surveys the biblical witness to see whether it supports our contemporary progressive taxation system. He focusses mostly on the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, as well as the material coming from the later Jewish tradition. He finds three parallels for contemporary systems of taxation: the temple tax; the agricultural tithe; and maaser kesafim (or charity) in the Talmud.
The temple tax was a half-shekel payment made by all adult males. Women and men could pay voluntarily, but pagans and Samaritans could not. The biblical basis for the temple tax is found in Exodus 30.13-15: ‘Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upwards, shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half-shekel, when you bring this offering to the Lord to make atonement for your lives’. Fundamentally this tax is about identity, who belongs to the people of God.
Agricultural tithing, meanwhile, is a flat rate extracted every third year, which includes an element of distribution to a class of religious figures (Levites) and the poor: resident aliens, orphans, widows. It stems from Deuteronomy 14.28-29: ‘every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.’
Finally, Chodorow points to the later rabbinic tradition of charity (maaser kesafim). He notes that this includes an element of progressive taxation akin to a modern system of taxation. It stems from the obligation to charity found in Deuteronomy 15.7-8: 'If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be’.
"Taxation is about identity about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in and the kind of people we want to be"
Chodorow notes: ‘While maaser kesafim operates as a progressive tax, it differs from a modern progressive income tax in three important respects. First, the progressive element is voluntary. Second, for those who choose to give twenty percent or more, the increased percentages apply to all income and not just marginal income above a threshold. Third, the rates are not designed to raise a specific amount. Thus, if the needs of the poor outstrip the resources of the community, the excess needs remain unmet’ (2008: 71).
What does this biblical witness mean for a theology of taxation?
Firstly, as Chodorow draws out, the purpose of the tithe and charity are primarily as a means of protecting the poor and the marginalised. In so far as a system of taxation delivers for the poor, this is an essential feature of any theology of taxation.
Secondly, in tithing there is an intrinsic connection between where wealth is earned and where tithe is paid ‘in your towns’. The modern international taxation system broke the connection between wealth is earned and where taxation is paid because it was in interest of developed countries in which most multi-national companies were based to be receive the taxes of those companies. Now, such companies have taken advantage of this to avoid tax. A theology of taxation should reinstate the link between where wealth is obtained and tax paid.
Finally, as the voluntary payment for the temple tax by women and children, and the impossibility of paying the temple tax by Samaritans and Gentiles, taxation is bound up with identity. A theology of taxation should write the payment of responsible levels of tax into our identity as Christians where they are the best means of delivering for the poor, the marginalised and the common good. We should be the encouraging people as Christians to be the sort of people who pay their taxes enthusiastically, because of the kind of people we are as Christians.
The New Testament witness reaffirms this connection between taxation and identity. In Matthew 17 we find a question from the collectors of the temple tax to Peter. Does Jesus pay it? Yes he does. He identifies as one for whom the temple tax applies. As we saw the temple tax was partly about identity, if you identify with the Jewish people you pay the tax.
Themes of identity also feature in Jesus’ famous remark about tax: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mark 12.17 and parallels). Many New Testament scholars think that this, and possibly the tax referred to in Matthew 17 too, refers to the fiscus Judaicus. The fiscus Judaicus was the punitive two denarii replacement of the Temple Tax that functioned as a war reparation after the Jewish War of 70CE which destroyed the Temple. This tax was humiliating not least because it went towards rebuilding the pagan Capitoline temple in Rome. To pay this tax, would be to identify as Jewish, and to make oneself vulnerable to the persecutions faced by the Jewish people.
This episode also reveals a final important element of a theology of taxation with regard to the source of our wealth. When Christ says ‘Render God unto God that which is God’s’, he’s not referring to some set of property which is Caesar’s and another which is God’s. The irony is thick here, because we know that everything is God’s.
Elsewhere in the New Testament we are reminded in 1 Corinthians 11.12 that all things come from God. This picks up a theme from the Old Testament from 1 Chronicles 29.14: ‘ all things come from you, and of your own have we given you’. All that we appear to have does not belong to us outright. We are custodians of that which God has given us, for the purposes he intends. This is sometimes known as the ‘universal destination of the goods’. Where taxation is a means to use the gifts that God has given us for the purpose for which he has given them, a theology of taxation sees the redistribution of wealth via the tax system as one means of delivering goods to those from who God intends them, of which we have been granted the privilege of being custodians.
I want to end by summarising what this survey of biblical material means for the building blocks of a theology of taxation. The purpose of taxation is for the benefit of the whole of society through benefit the poorest and most vulnerable in society. It is a means of returning to God what is God’s, using God’s gift to us as he intends. In a related sense, it is a returning to society that which we have benefited or stand to benefit from in terms of the public services that our tax receipts provide. Above all, taxation is about identity about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in and the kind of people we want to be. This means having potentially difficult conversations about levels of wealth and inequality.
Ultimately a theology of taxation focusses on the kind of people and society we want to be. Taxation is an important means of asserting and enabling a society in which wealth is held across society. How we set and pay our taxes demonstrates the kind of people we are, and as Christians we want a society which enables the flourishing of the poor and the marginalised. Tax is an important means to express the kind of people we are too, to show our solidarity with them, and to overcome the mechanisms of poverty and marginalisation. To put our money, and ourselves, where our mouths are and where Christ is too.
Guest Blog by Fr Simon Cuff, Tutor and Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College. Fr Cuff is on the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility
Church Action for Tax Justice, Tax and The Common Good (2019) available here.
Chodorow, A. S., ‘Biblical Tax Systems and the Case for Progressive Taxation’ in Journal of Law and Religion 23.1 (2007/2008) 51-96
Ritchie, A., ‘Taxing Theology’ in Christian Aid, The Gospel and the Rich: Theological Views of Tax (June 2009) 20 - 26 available here).