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To pay tax is to love our neighbour

18 February 2009

Tax avoidance by companies operating in poor countries is sinful, argues Paula Clifford

Not reaping the benefit: a man in Tanzania, where people have been displaced by gold-mining since 1998. The country has lost many millions of pounds because the royalties levied on extracted gold are low, and mining com­panies have reportedly minimised their tax liability by inflating their losses CHRISTIAN AID/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN

Not reaping the benefit: a man in Tanzania, where people have been displaced by gold-mining since 1998. The country has lost many millions of pounds b...

“Money”, said John Wesley, is “an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends”. The problem, as he saw it in his 1760 sermon, “The Use of Money”, is how that money is ac­quired and used: this is “largely spoken of . . . by men of the world, but not sufficiently considered by those whom God hath chosen out of the world”.

Christian Aid — like other devel­opment agencies — is committed to making the best possible use of the money it receives to benefit people who suffer as a result of poverty and injustice. But our ultimate aim is to remove the causes of their suffering and to make the need for aid redundant.

One significant way to advance that ambition is to ensure that poor countries are not denied the tax revenue that is their due, and that should eventually remove their de­pend­ence on international aid. This means urging our supporters to protest against tax avoidance, even though many people will be no more inclined to talk about finance than the congregations in Wesley’s day.

The theological model underpin­ning this work is one of relationships, and derives from the Gospel of John, and Karl Barth’s work on covenant and community. The ancient coven­ant relationship between the Old Testament God of justice and his people, and the New Testament revelation that Christians are “in Christ”, who is in turn “in the Father”, give us a model for human relation­ships.

So, for example, a challenge to development such as the HIV crisis demands that we recognise our one-ness with those affected — indi­viduals and communities alike — and respond accordingly.

A complicating factor is where we depend on the state to mediate our relationships for us. Deuteronomy shows us a right relationship between rich and poor, as farmers leave their surplus for the disadvantaged rather than accumulate crops for which they have no need.

This is what the state does, collect­ing some of the income that we have available over and above our im­mediate needs and using it both for services that are available to everyone and for redistribution to those in greater need, mainly at home, but also to a small degree overseas. So our rela­­tionship with the state needs also to be maintained, if we are not to damage our relationship with our fellow human beings.

If restoring relationships is a necessary part of removing injustice, the breakdown of those relation­ships, reflected in the lack of justice, must be sinful. This is the case whether we are thinking of indi­vidual acts or a community-wide struc­tural sinfulness.

When it seems that everybody behaves in the same way, or unques­tioningly accepts the same kind of behaviour, the impulse to question one’s own behaviour quickly dies away, and is replaced by a feeling of powerlessness. Early responses to initiatives on international debt or climate change were indicative of this: a view (which proved to be not beyond challenge) that this is how things are and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.

It follows from all this that the avoidance of tax, just as much as the illegal evasion of tax, constitutes a wrong or broken relationship be­tween people (as individuals and as corporate groups) and the state — as does the failure of a state to collect the tax that it is owed. The fact that probably the majority of individual and corporate taxpayers do not see tax avoidance in these terms is itself an instance of structural sin.

All this is reflected in biblical atti­tudes to taxation. In the Old Testa­ment, appropriating a tax in kind from those unable to afford it is roundly condemned: “You trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,” rages Amos (5.11), foreseeing terrible punishment for an unjust people.

In the New Testament, the duty of Christians to pay tax to the state, summed up in “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22.21) is developed further by Paul: “Pay taxes to whom taxes are due. . . Owe no one anything except to love one another. . . Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13.7-8, 10). The honouring of social obligations, in particular the pay­ment of tax, is here clearly set in the context of love for our neighbour.

The tax issue does not change Christian Aid’s basic theology, or demand a new one. Instead, it leads us to explore certain issues of social jus­tice within the framework we already have. So where we have argued for a prominent place for com­­­munities in bringing about change, we need to think about the place of taxation in building com­munities and in pro­moting social justice.

Where we have emphasised the importance of our relationship with the natural world, we need also to look at how natural resources, in­clud­ing mineral resources, are ex­ploited, and the profits from them distributed.

As a Christian development agency, we tend naturally enough to focus our attention on the gospel for the poor. It is time now for us to consider as well the nature of the good news for the rich. John Wesley would surely approve.

Dr Paula Clifford is Head of Theology at Christian Aid. Her book Angels with Trumpets: The Church in a time of global warming is published next week by DLT.

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