When morality becomes a taxing question
It used to be said that there was a clear moral distinction between what was termed “tax avoidance”, compared with “tax evasion”.
The distinction, if one ever truly existed, has seemingly become much less clear in recent weeks. Firstly, the comedian Jimmy Carr suffered the embarrassment of unwelcome media attention with the revelation that he (amongst numerous others) was avoiding payment of substantial tax by using complex off-shore account schemes.
Then it was reported that the Treasury were investigating over a thousand doctors and dentists who were allegedly making use of similar schemes. The latest contribution to the debate that has ensued comes from Treasury Minister David Gauke, who has said it is “morally wrong” to pay tradesmen such as plumbers, builders and cleaners with the intention of avoiding VAT.
Leaving aside the fact that many politicians seem to be highly selective about what they deem to be “morally wrong”, it certainly raises an issue which is probably as uncomfortable for Christians as it is for wider society. After all, who likes paying taxes? And if there are legal ways to avoid doing so, Christians could argue that they are not breaking any law if they avail themselves of such schemes, loopholes or opportunities.
The fact that Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) and the Apostle Paul unashamedly instructed his readers to “pay taxes” to the Roman authorities (Romans 13:6-7) is often rationalised in our minds by the conviction that if, in our opinion, the governing authorities are misusing and squandering our tax, then there is every justification for withholding as much as we can get away with. After all, it is “morally wrong” for MPs and government ministers, who themselves have been embroiled in a highly damaging expenses scandal, to waste eye-wateringly large amounts of money on grandiose but unworkable computer networks, surplus and obsolete equipment for the military, not to mention the bottomless pit of expenditure by the gravy-train Eurocrats in Brussels.
Some years ago I had a clergy colleague who would grumble every time an air force jet came roaring overhead that “they are burning up all my tax money”. And I meet a great many Christians who resent paying taxes to a government that they consider to be immoral, even corrupt, and definitely anti-Christian.
The inescapable fact, however, is that Jesus’ instruction to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” did not come with the proviso that this was dependent on Caesar exercising just, moral and principled government. I doubt if any of the Jewish subjects of Rome would have given any positive ratings to Caesar on those criteria. But Jesus nonetheless teaches that there is an obligation to pay our share of taxes to human government. It is part of being a good citizen.
After all, we do receive valuable provision of educational, security and social services from municipal and state authorities. If our house caught alight, we would expect the fire brigade to come and put it out. We expect appropriate medical and hospital treatment from the state when we are ill. These have to be funded by taxpayers, whether we like it or not.
Unfortunately Christians as much as anyone else have been conditioned into thinking of taxes and rates and revenue charges as something approaching extortion, and therefore the only moral thing to do is to evade as much as possible. It is somewhat contrary to Jesus’ teaching to his disciples that if the occupying Roman army force you to carry their packs for one mile, volunteer to do it for two miles.
For all the shortcomings of our form of government, we are not, as a friend reminded me this week, living in Syria. Or in innumerable other parts of the world where the blessings we still enjoy are almost entirely absent. Whatever the failures in our system, whatever the moral shortcomings of those who govern us, Christians should be those who are above reproach as good citizens of the state. In a culture where tax dodges and underhand deals are everyday occurrences, that’s easier said than done, but for the honour of Christ’s Name, it is worth striving for.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.