Tax collectors had a pretty bad name in New Testament times. And perhaps rightly so. At the time, taxation represented subordination and injustice – collected by a Roman regime stripping wealth from the territories they occupied to fund the machinery of their empire.
Religious leaders of the day debated whether it was morally right to pay these taxes. This is what led to the famous question put to Jesus in Mark’s gospel, to which he replied “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)
The common good
In January, when many of us are racing to fill in our tax returns, we might have similar feelings about tax collectors. We are asked to part with our hard-earned cash and to hand it over to the government, in the trust/hope that they will spend it well.
While we may have some concerns about precisely what happens to the money, few would say that tax itself is an emblem of injustice. Rather, taxation can be one of the best ways in which a society can share its burdens, duties and responsibility to provide the goods and services we need for our mutual “common good”. It is tax that pays for schools, hospitals, and the protection of the vulnerable – the stuff that makes us a decent society.
There has been huge indignation about the tiny amount of tax paid by many multinational companies, such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks. People are outraged because it seems to be another example of the rich and powerful acting with disregard for the rest of society. But also, if like me you have visited a country where women face a two day walk to a hospital to give birth, or where children are taught in the open because not enough classrooms have been built, then you know just how much difference this money could could make to those in desperate need.
Changing the law
One of the common defences put forward is that the highly complex reporting processes that companies have put in place mean that what they are doing usually is not illegal. However, as the public outcry confirms, just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean that it is moral.
Of course, boycotting Amazon or Starbucks is one way we can express our fury at a personal level but, as the law is meant to set out a society’s common view of morality, then if we don’t like what’s going on, then we need to push for a change in the law, and ask the government to close some of the loop holes which let companies get away with this.
A Tax Dodging bill
A campaign has launched this week which is seeking to do just that. A group including Church Action on Poverty, Church Urban Fund, Christian Aid and the Quakers, as well as Oxfam, the NUS and others, are asking all political parties to introduce a Tax Dodging Bill in the first 100 days after the election. This Bill would tackle some of the loopholes and could help make billions more available to tackle poverty both in the UK and overseas. You can read more about it and sign up here.
Tax may have felt like an injustice in the Roman empire 2000 years ago. But fighting for tax justice looks a bit different today. Rowan Williams summed it up well recently when he said:
“The campaign for tax justice has a moral foundation. A just society expects companies to contribute their fair share towards the common good. When some multinational companies find ways to manipulate their profits to avoid paying tax where it is owed, this has a real and direct impact on others, particularly the poorest.”
Laura Taylor is Head of Advocacy at Christian Aid.