Our Letter in The Times
This morning The Times newspaper printed a letter we had drafted calling on the government to pursue a fairer tax regime in light of the covid-19 epidemic. The original text of the letter and its signatories are reproduced here:
We welcome the decisions of the Danish, Polish and French governments to refuse corporate bailouts for corporations registered in tax havens. The current crisis has shown the importance of our health and social security systems – and the taxes that pay for them year in and year out.
However, many of the most vulnerable people in our society are paying the price for a health and welfare system woefully unprepared for an epidemic. Meanwhile, some large corporations continue to avoid responsibility, making huge profits yet hiding their wealth in tax havens.
Over 80% of the British public believe that legal tax avoidance is morally wrong. This crisis demonstrates why they are right.
Today at least $8tn sits offshore, with its wealthy owners hiding from their tax and social responsibilities. Developing countries, who face problems from COVID-19 on a scale unimaginable in the richer nations, are deprived up to $400bn every year by tax avoidance.
When the pandemic ends we cannot go back to business as usual. If we are to build an economic system which prioritises the wellbeing of people and the planet then a fair tax system where all, including powerful corporations and wealthy individuals, pay their fair share is essential.
Specifically, this means that wages and working conditions are just and that we have a tax system in which big corporations and wealthy individuals can no longer dodge the taxes they should have paid.
We call on our Government to foster such a fair tax system that no longer only favours the excessive individual and corporate wealth of some, but serves the common good of all.
Lord Rowan Williams – former Archbishop of Canterbury
Lord Richard Harries – former Bishop of Oxford
Revd Dr Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference
Rev. David Mayne - Moderator, the Baptist Union Council
Paul Parker – Recording Clerk, Quakers in Britain
Mr Derek Estill, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church
Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church
David Haslam, Chair, Church Action for Tax Justice
The letter has been picked up and commented on by the following news outlets:
Tax Justice in a Time of Crisis
When the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was recently admitted to hospital with covid-19, spending a few days in intensive care, a number of British politicians and journalists talked about how the virus was the great leveller. Everyone from street cleaners to world leaders could get the disease, no-one was immune, therefore, we must all follow the same social distancing guidelines. But of course, as Iñigo Aymar of Oxfam has pointed out, covid-19 is not so much the great leveller, but the great revealer.
It has not demonstrated how we are all the same but has instead revealed how we are all very different. For the true significance of the crisis is the inequities it has highlighted in our social and economic landscape. One of the most striking of these are the financial inequalities that preceded this crisis. The most recent Oxfam inequality report showed us that just 22 men held the same wealth as all the women in Africa, and that if we taxed an additional 0.5% on the wealth of the richest 1% that could pay for the 117 million jobs in healthcare, education and social care globally that are required to deliver the SDGs. Such huge wealth disparities mean that as millions lose their jobs in response to coronavirus, the impact of that financial shock will not be felt equally. It is simply shocking that in their economic responses too many governments seem to be more concerned about the price of shares than the price of bread, more concerned about falling stocks for the wealthy than rising deaths among the poor. If you’re sitting on billions and lose a million or two your fundamental livelihood will not change; if you’re just about managing, but lose your job – especially in a country with an inadequate safety net – then your very life will be threatened.
Perhaps most troubling it has also revealed the global inequalities in our health systems. Many so-called developed countries have been able to rapidly scale up their existing, relatively strong healthcare provision especially in regard to intensive care beds. The United Kingdom has built a series of new hospitals in just weeks providing hundreds of extra ventilators for the most seriously ill. Inevitably, this will mean fewer deaths overall. By way of contrast, while Kenya has just a couple of hundred ventilators for approximately 50 million people, the UK has several thousand for a similar size population and these are being rapidly increased to tens of thousands.
In response to all this there is then an urgent need to develop both an immediate response but also a longer-term reframing of our economic and political systems. A number of excellent proposals have been made as to how to do this, especially in regard to cancelling global south debt, but I want to focus on how we can use the tax system to generate a more just political economy.
1. Change the global tax rules
The first issue is that we need to change the global tax rules. It has been estimated that tax dodging by multinationals costs the developing world up to $400bn each year –three times the amount that is given in aid to those countries. Reform of these rules is currently being discussed in a process led by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Proposals led by India, Colombia and Ghana on behalf of poorer nations will ensure that developing countries get more of the tax that they are owed but other proposals, including those of the US, will keep things as they are and developing countries will lose out. In light of coronavirus and its disproportionate burden on the poorer parts of the world it is imperative that when these rules are changed that this is done in such a way that poorer nations benefit the most, keeping much more of the tax that is owed to them.
2. Tackle the tax havens
At least $8 trillion is currently sitting in tax havens around the globe. Much of this money has been obtained by illicit means and / or by avoiding tax that should have been paid in other countries. Led by the UN, the global community could decide to tackle these offshore gold mines once and for all and so provide funds for tackling the current health crisis. This could involve a range of measures including one off (or even recurrent) taxes on net wealth such as Oxfam suggest; conditional corporate bail outs so that only those companies who refuse to use tax havens can access them; implementation of a global minimum corporate tax rate so that tax havens can no longer provide preferential rates; strengthening of national tax authorities so they can chase down those who hide their money offshore. As indicated, all of this activity could release billions of dollars to help fund a response to coronavirus
3. Institute an excess-profits tax
During the first world war, a number of Western governments instituted a temporary super-profits tax to help fund the war effort. Arguably, a parallel situation exists today. One of the things that is increasingly clear is that the impact of covid-19 is not being felt equally across the corporate sector. While many companies are struggling significantly with a loss of consumers, others are making huge gains in response to the crisis. Amazon, one of the worst corporate tax avoiders in the world, has seen its share price increase by over 30% and is currently making $11,000 a second from its customers. Government could then implement an excess profits tax – perhaps as high as 75% - on these extra profits, and then use that money to fund a global response to the crisis.
In 2 Corinthians 8:14 when the apostle Paul was encouraging the Corinthian church to help out their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who were dealing with their own famine-related crisis he said “the goal is equality”. I think that can be our mantra too. In whatever way we respond to coronavirus, the goal must be an equitable financial, health and social system – a just world in which we all have a chance to survive, if not flourish. That is the goal for which we must strive.
Dr Justin Thacker
Church Action for Tax Justice
More people think cheating on your taxes is wrong than cheating on your partner!
Earlier this week, Tax Justice UK released a poll of over 3,000 people exploring their attitudes to a range of tax justice issues. The poll revealed significant support for changes to the UK tax system, but one of the most interesting findings was the overwhelming dislike of tax avoidance whether this was done by individuals or companies. When asked whether such behaviour, even if technically legal, was morally wrong 83.6% of the public thought it was wrong for companies and 79.9% thought it was wrong for individuals. Very rarely do the British public agree with each other about a moral issue.
To give these figures some perspective, in 2019 the BBC also ran a major survey of over 3000 people asking them about their moral beliefs on a list of topics. Below are the percentages of those that thought particular behaviours were wrong:
Indeed, it was hard to find a single moral issue that the public thought was worse than tax avoidance. While we acknowledge that the questions were asked in slightly different ways, if we compare these results then it would seem that a higher proportion of the British public consider tax avoidance wrong than the proportion who think cheating on your partner, taking illegal drugs or paying for sex are unacceptable. This is really quite remarkable given that at least one of these is definitely illegal.
It is even more remarkable given the fact that many accountants and lawyers still like to claim that there is nothing wrong with tax avoidance and promote their tax avoidance schemes with no shame. Can we imagine any respectable company doing the same in regard to drugs, prostitution or infidelity?
As a number of people have pointed out one of the problems with the government’s response to covid-19 is that though the corporate bailouts have been welcomed, they should have conditionalities attached. It is simply unacceptable that a company receiving large sums of public money should still be finding ways to avoid paying tax. Fair Tax Mark in particular have said that all companies receiving bailouts should “publish a binding tax policy that explicitly shuns tax avoidance and the artificial use of tax havens”. We agree with them and think the moral case for saying so is now indisputable.
2008 or 1945 - Which crisis will we follow?
I’m sorry that my ‘Thinking Lunch’ talk on Tax Justice has been postponed, but that’s the least of our concerns in these troubled times. Like everyone else, I’m stuck at home, and very thankful for the radio, TV and internet. I was on the rota for Southwark Cathedral where we’ve been maintaining the Daily Office and Eucharist, with no congregation but streamed on FACEBOOK, but even that has now been put on hold. Nevertheless, we can carry on at home the worship of God, and the prayers of the people and for the people.
I’ve been asked whether the text of my talk could be circulated by email, but as with so much else at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say, and what to propose for the future, until we know when the present crisis will end, and what state our world, our nation, our economy will be in when we start getting back to normal.
But what is “normal”? Our last crisis, which now seems far less significant, was what happened to the Banks in 2008 and the threat of a financial meltdown. Then, as now, the Government intervened in order to prevent economic collapse. It bailed out the banks, but at a cost, neatly labelled “Austerity”, which has been borne largely by the poorer and more vulnerable members of society: benefits were frozen, public services were starved of funds, while Bankers’ bonuses were restored and the obscenities of corporate pay continued. And little has been done to stop companies and individuals who have the means to do so avoiding paying their fair share of tax.
If nothing else the present crisis makes it abundantly clear that the failure to establish a fair tax system which provides for the needs of everyone in society can have disastrous consequences. The Church Action for Tax Justice website - https://www.catj.org.uk/ - carries a damning statement from Pope Francis: “It has become evident that those who do not pay taxes do not only commit a felony but also a crime: if there are not enough hospital beds and artificial respirators, it is also their fault.”
So when all of this is over, will we just return to “normal”? Or could this be a moment, rather like 1945, when we look at the suffering and sacrifices which people have gone through, and ask what kind of world and economy we want to rebuild? Is it one where the rich must be allowed to flourish whatever the consequences for the poor? Or could it be one where the current rhetoric of “let’s come together” results in a much fairer, more equal society?
That would mean much lower differentials in pay, recognizing as we now do that care workers are more essential (and indeed skilled) than people who make a living by just moving money around. It means companies and wealthier people taking responsibility for the societies from which they benefit, and so paying more tax to sustain them. And it must mean looking again at those who are “at the bottom of the pile” – are they dispensable, or only entitled to what’s left over, or do we really belong together?
When we start to return to normality, there will be those who will say that the priority must be rebuilding the economy, encouraging business, and so the poor will need to wait until that starts to pay off. There is here a stark theological issue: is the world so evil than only by allowing inequality and injustice can there be, eventually and in some small measure, any hope for those left behind? To put it crudely, is the Christian belief in new life only a future hope for those who will die from the Corvid-19? Or does our Creator God, incarnate in our Saviour Jesus Christ, working now through the Holy Spirit, call us, and empower us, to start making that new life real in the present, in the way we organise our life together, including our economy?
What happened in 1945 was resisted by those with vested interests, and there have been many attempts since to undo the Welfare State, but who would now question the National Health Service? In our current crisis a Government is again intervening, this time to protect the economy, to hold society together and to care for those in greatest need. It can be done.
When we emerge on the other side of this dark period, the fundamental question will be: if we can do all of this when everyone is threatened, why can’t we do it in “normal” times, to create a society and economy where everyone matters? And more broadly - because all of this, including taxation, is more than a domestic issue - can we turn back from the “sceptered-isle” nationalism which has recently driven our country and instead play a leading role, as again we did in 1945, in forming a new international order based on peace and justice – including fair taxation?
Michael Doe is Vice-Chair of Church Action for Tax Justice, and an Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. He was due to speak at the St Albans ‘Thinking Lunch’ on April 2nd
Did the Pope really call tax avoiders
There’s been an interesting debate in the last few days as to whether Pope Francis really did call tax avoiders “murderers” in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The Pope’s comment came in response to an Italian journalist who had written of the lessons he had learnt from the coronavirus pandemic. In responding, the Pope picked up one of the phrases used by the journalist and said “It has become evident that those who do not pay taxes do not only commit a felony but also a crime / murder [Italian delitto]: if there are not enough hospital beds and artificial respirators, it is also their fault.” The problem here is that some ambiguity is attached to the meaning of the word delitto. I am no Italian linguist but George Turner of Taxwatch has made the point that while reuters translated delitto as ‘crime’, it can also be translated as ‘murder’ and as such, the Pope is referring to those who avoid tax as ‘murderers’.
But is that possible? Is it right to call someone whose actions are somewhat remote from the harm they cause a ‘murderer’? Of course, in the history of the church and moral philosophy this is not a new problem. The hit-man who pulls the trigger is clearly a murderer, but what about the drug baron who orders the death? Clearly, they’ve committed a crime but are they still a murderer? Well in British law, they would certainly be convicted either for conspiracy to murder or as joint enterprise murderers. Either way, they can be classed as ‘murderers’. The case of tax avoiders however is more complex, and if one were to pursue a criminal case for the physical harm they have caused then if any charge is appropriate it is probably that of manslaughter (corporate or otherwise).
What makes this interesting in respect of the Pope is the parallels that can be drawn with the criteria for mortal sins, which is what murders obviously are. These are that they are grave, the person knew what they were doing, and did so with intent.
Tax avoidance is clearly grave. It is not mere tax planning. It is the deliberate act of failing to comply with the intention of parliament. In terms of intentional non-compliance, it might be compared to those who in the current crisis deliberately ignore the instructions we have all received to socially distance. Secondly, it requires that the person is aware of their actions – they know they will cause harm. It is here that the tax avoider might claim that they are simply trying to maximise their returns, and the harm that is caused by their theft from the public purse is not their responsibility. However, morally speaking wilful blindness is no defence. Wilberforce famously said “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Surely, that is true of those who choose to avoid paying tax. Amongst other things, tax does contribute to the provision of public services. To choose to look the other way by stashing millions of pounds in a tax haven is to choose not to fund public services. This is full knowledge in Catholic terms. And finally, it requires intent – that is the person was not under duress, but wilfully chose the action they undertook. Their intent may not have been to harm others, but they certainly intended to hide wealth that could have helped.
So did the Pope call tax avoiders murderers? Well, possibly, and from a theological point of view I think it quite likely that there was a deliberate ambiguity in the words he used. For whether their actions amount to murder or a crime, they are still in either case a mortal sin deserving of judgement – both God’s and, especially in the present crisis, the judgement of us all.
SANDWICHES FOR THE COMMON GOOD
The Times, Saturday March 7th, 2020
I was recently in Westminster discussing economic policy with senior aides from one of our main parties. Suddenly, the leader of the party popped their head round the door – not to chip in with a nugget of wisdom – but to tell us there was some food left over next door from another meeting. Sharing a few sandwiches and crisps round the office is what any of us would do in similar circumstances. This story is only unusual because it involves the leader of a main political party. Now on the one hand, we can reduce such offers to their utilitarian basics as merely the provision of calories and gratification. But exchanging food, perhaps especially in an office environment, is more about the value of relationships than it is about nutrition. It’s a reflection of our shared humanity.
I mention all this because when Rishi Sunak stands up to deliver next week’s budget, a similar determination of the good life will be on the table and each one of us needs to decide how to partake. For on the one hand, it is perfectly possible to interpret the budget through an individualistic prism. Under this guise, we analyse it for what it will do to my personal tax liabilities, whether private or via corporate rates and reliefs. We similarly appraise its spending announcements as to whether they align with my priorities and interests. In this way, the whole of the budget is refracted through the lens of my individual concerns.
But there is an entirely different way to view it. For when the chancellor appears at the dispatch box he is, to some extent, meant to be representing the gathered will of the people. As such, we can point to a range of collective ideas that are the real significance of national budgets. The first of these is that what we tax and how we spend is making a statement about the values we hold as a society. Perhaps the obvious example here is education. I am yet to meet a single person who does not think that the public purse should fund the bulk of primary and secondary schooling. This is true even for those who do not (and may not ever) have children. Of course, it is partly because they benefit from having well-educated doctors, lawyers and accountants, but it is also because we recognise the inherent value of education itself. This is the point that the recent analysis of graduate earnings by the IFS failed to address. People do not just do degrees in order to earn more money. Some do them because of their intrinsic value. I certainly didn’t give up being a doctor to study theology because I thought it would make me money!
How we tax and spend also plays a role in addressing the common problems that we face. The two current threats are climate change and coronavirus. Both of these require a national (if not global) solution. Yet while the budgetary decisions surrounding them may or may not benefit me as an individual, they certainly benefit us as a collective. Indeed, if I have a certain level of health and wealth, then it is quite likely that extra taxation to fund an expanded NHS, or imposition of carbon taxes may well not be in my personal interest. Nevertheless, at a time like this, it would be a strange sort of parsimony that would not want to channel our spending in this way.
Perhaps, most importantly, taxation actually works as a stimulus for democracy itself. Democracy is far more than just voting; it concerns the sense the populace has that its own government is accountable, that in the end it is the people who are in charge. This, incidentally, is why you can engineer multi-party elections in countries without a history of them, but you cannot so easily engineer democracy. It is about hearts and minds as much as it is about ballot boxes. That is why taxation serves the purpose of democracy. We know that citizens who are taxed are also more likely to vote. It is one of the mechanisms they use to ensure their money is spent appropriately.
Social values, national challenges, the democratic ideal – none of these will appear on an individual utility calculus. They are all, instead, a reflection of the common good, that which we, as a society, have chosen to value. Next week’s budget will offer us a vision of who we are. In a time of national crisis, when the need for a collective vision is greater than ever, I seriously hope that a common purpose is what the chancellor lays on the table.
CATJ ASKS CHANCELLOR TO INCREASE
TAXES ON THE WEALTHY
Ahead of his March budget, Church Action for Tax Justice has written to the Chancellor Sajid Javid asking him to increase taxes on wealth as part of a package of measures designed to make our tax system fairer and more equitable.
In an open letter signed by the Chair of CATJ, the Rev David Haslam and Vice-Chair and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark, the Rt Rev Michael Doe, a call was made to:
The open letter is available here
WE NEED THE CHURCH TO SPEAK MORE
LOUDLY ABOUT TAX
On 10th December 2019, our national coordinator, Justin Thacker attended a policy and advocacy workshop in Brussels hosted by the Presidents of the Jesuit Conferences in Europe and Africa as well as the Social Affairs Commission of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU. The meeting was attended by representatives of the European Parliament, the European Commission as well as tax experts from various NGO and church groups. The workshop built on the work already undertaken as part of the Tax Justice and Poverty project of the Jesuits in Germany, Zambia and Kenya. In particular, ahead of the workshop, we reflected on the implications of that project’s final synthesis report.
Key points raised at the workshop included:
The one take home message was that civil society pressure does work. It just takes time, patience and resilience. There was almost a sense that EU officials need the cover of civil society pressure to press for the changes that they also want. The moral case for change is overwhelming.
As our politicians campaign energetically ahead of the 12th December deadline, it has become clear that alongside Brexit, the NHS and environmental issues, tax has become a central issue in this election. All of the main parties have been highlighting their promises on tax and spending as a way of capturing voter interest.
This briefing considers what we at Church Action for Tax Justice consider to be the three key questions to ask of any tax and spend policy, and we do this, unashamedly, from a Christian viewpoint. Those three questions are:
1. What is the impact on inequality?
2. Does the policy meet the needs of the most vulnerable?
3. Is tax a good thing and do their policies serve the common good?
1. What is the impact on inequality?
We are all aware that inequality is a major issue both nationally and globally. The richest fifth of the UK population earn more than 12 times that of the poorest fifth, and while this inequality has been relatively stable recently, this represents a significant increase since the 1960s and 1970s. Wealth inequality is even worse with the wealthiest 10% of households taking up almost half the UK’s household wealth. Of course, globally the picture is far, far worse with just 26 people owning the same as half the world’s population.
We know that such inequality matters. More unequal societies have been shown to have everything from worse mental health rates to lower life expectancies to reduced social mobility and lower productivity. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the scriptures repeatedly emphasize the importance of measures to bring about greater equality: the jubilee principle (Lev 25), believers shared all things in common (Acts 2&4) and Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian church (2 Cor 8:13,14).
As you look at the tax policies of the different parties, consider that question. Are they redressing the unequal balance in income and wealth that plagues the UK and the world, or are their tax policies making no difference or even making things worse? The technical phrase for this is whether a tax proposal is regressive (meaning it creates greater inequality) or progressive (meaning it creates greater equality). Look out for what independent fact checking groups say about the tax policies in regard to this and ask your MP: what is the impact on equality?
2. Does the policy meet the needs of the most vulnerable?
Over 14 million people in the UK live in poverty; 4.5 million of them are children. Those with disabilities and mental health issues are far more likely to live in poverty. Approximately half of UK households affected by poverty have someone with a disability. Around 600,000 people use foodbanks – a huge increase over the last ten years. Finally, one in ten schoolchildren have a diagnosable mental health condition. Once again, if we think globally, all of these statistics are much worse with a billion people still living in extreme poverty and one in every three children in Africa being malnourished.
Yet, meeting the needs of the most vulnerable is clearly at the heart of the Christian gospel. The command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is at the core of our faith. So what do the various policy proposals say about this: do their proposals meet the needs of the most vulnerable? There are various ways in which tax and spend policies can do this. They can raise funds through taxation to spend more on mental health or on disabilities. They can prioritise benefits or housing. And they can tackle climate change – because we know that climate change disproportionately impacts the global poor. So, ‘where do the needs of the most vulnerable feature in their policies?’ is another question to ask of our politicians.
3. Is tax a good thing and do their policies serve the common good?
Finally, is tax a good thing? In many ways, this question gets to the heart of the issue. For on the one hand, there exists the idea that taxation is bad, that it is stealing from workers their hard earned money. But if you think about it, taxation is actually really good. It pays for the things we cannot afford on our own. It funds our roads, our security, our healthcare, our education – and all of our emergency services. Without those things, our society would be hugely impoverished.
Taxation then is not our money that the government is stealing from us; it is the money of the midwife or the teacher or road engineer or the refuse collector – and the government is just passing it on for us. So tax is fundamentally a good thing.
But more than that, taxation says something significant about our values as a society. It communicates that we are not just a group of individuals who happen to be in the same place and time but rather we are community. The point about being a community is that there are some things we do collectively, and paying through taxation for public services is one of those things. That’s why our strapline at CATJ is ‘for the common good’, so ask your MP this question also: do their policies consider tax a good thing, and do they serve the common good?
On Sunday 3rd November, the Lectionary Reading is Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus. This reflection on that passage is intentionally linked to the World Council of Churches Zacchaeus Tax Campaign. That campaign calls for a range of global tax justice measures modelled on the reparations enacted by Zacchaeus following his encounter with Jesus.
[They] “used the apparatus of the state for illegitimate personal advantage…grew rich from perverting the state’s legal machinery to their private ends…[they are] the least attractive element of the educated elite.”
You might think this quotation is contemporary and referring to wealthy tax dodgers who hide their money in offshore accounts, and in the process accumulate huge amounts of wealth. In fact, it’s describing the “sycophants” of ancient Greece. I mention this because sycophantes is the word that Luke used in this story to describe the behaviour of Zacchaeus. At the time, sycophantes didn’t have the meaning it has today – of a servile flatterer – it in fact referred to those who extorted money, whether by legal or illegal means, in order to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was one of these. Luke 19:8 literally reads ‘if anyone of anything I have sycophantesa (defrauded / cheated), I will pay back fourfold’.
Zacchaeus then was an extortionist, one who used the machinery of the Roman state to obtain his huge wealth. No wonder the people despised him and called him a ‘sinner’, for that is what he was.
But then he met Jesus and his life was transformed, and it was changed in the one place where we are all reluctant to let Jesus go: his finances. I often wonder about the alternative ways in which Zacchaeus might have offered his ‘repentance’. He could have said he’ll pray more, or read more scriptures, or attend synagogue more often, or even tithe more. But Zacchaeus did none of these things – including the last. His acts of repentance were on a completely different scale.
The norm among Christians is that we often feel that if we have an economic responsibility to God it is that we tithe out of our income. We might debate the precise proportion, and whether it’s before or after tax, but we all agree that it’s out of our income that we give. But actually, on more than one occasion, Jesus challenges us to give from our wealth, those possessions we have accumulated over the years (Luke 12:33; Luke 14:33; 18:22). This is just what Zacchaeus did (v8).
What is also noteworthy about this first act of repentance is that Zacchaeus gave away “to the poor” (v8). In a moment, we’ll consider the reparations he makes to those he has cheated, but he has not, as far as we know, defrauded the poor in general. Yet, his major giving – half of all his possessions – is to them. Consider for a minute the alternatives to whom he might have donated his money. He could have given it to the Temple; He could have given it to the priests; he could have used it to fund the building of a new synagogue – but Zacchaeus chose to give it to the poor. Now maybe this was in response to Jesus’ teaching. Zacchaeus seems to have already heard of Jesus before he visited Jericho. But it is also possible that he was aware that as a wealthy man who had extorted money from numerous citizens in the area, it was the ‘poor’ that were most likely to suffer the consequences. If the middle class farmer has less funds – due to Zacchaeus’ exploitative tax collecting – the inevitable result is fewer day labourers that are hired. Economic injustice has a ripple effect in which our actions in one part of the economy actually impact many other parts. Rightly, then, Zacchaeus realised he had a responsibility to the poor in general, not just to those he had directly defrauded.
However, there was another act of justice that Zacchaeus performed in response to encountering Jesus, that of returning funds to those he had exploited . As already noted, the word used here – sycophantes – doesn’t necessarily mean illegal extortion or theft. It simply means any kind of corrupt extortion that impoverishes others. This matters because in the context of tax dodging, one of the repeated refrains of those who use tax havens is that there is nothing in their actions that is illegal. This may or may not be the case, but if the actions are not in line with the spirit or intention of the law, then they are morally wrong. Indeed, if you are using your economic power to impoverish another then that alone is unjust even if it is within the intention of the laws that are relevant. The starving man who ‘voluntarily’ sells his house to buy a loaf of bread is the victim of theft, not market forces!
So, in response, Zacchaeus returns to these folk four times what he took from them. Commentators seem to disagree as to whether this was generous or not on Zacchaeus’ part. On the one hand, Exodus 22:1 did require four or fivefold restitution in regard to cattle rustling. However, Leviticus 6:5 merely required a 20% increase in the value of what was restored. Arguably, the higher fine for rustling cattle is due to the fact they are much harder to protect. If that is the reason, then Zacchaeus’ four-fold response is exceedingly generous, going way beyond the 20% extra required by the law.
Finally, it is worth noting that one of the recurrent ideas in Luke’s gospel is that of salvation as status reversal. The low are brought up, and the mighty brought down. Perhaps this is most obvious in the story of Luke 7 when a dishonourable woman is held up as a model of virtue while the disciples are chastised for their lack of hospitality. In the Zacchaeus story, we see this kind of salvation impacting the ‘poor’, and those who have been ‘defrauded’ to the extent that they receive something of the monies owed to them, but we also see it in regard to Zacchaeus. Jesus’ declaration that salvation has come to this house is a reminder that in the context of rampant inequality it is the wealthy that need saving just as much, if not more so, than the poor. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once expressed it this way when talking about the need to fight poverty, “We are not trying to solve someone else's problem but to liberate ourselves from a toxic and unjust situation in which we, the prosperous, are less than human.” Before encountering Jesus, Zacchaeus was ‘less than human’. This encounter enabled him to discover his God-given humanity, and it was expressed in terms of giving from his wealth and making reparations to those he had defrauded.
In practical terms, I think three points emerge from the story of Zacchaeus and intentionally I will link these to the calls of the WCC Zacchaeus Tax Campaign.
The first is simply this: who is being harmed by our economic decisions? Or, if we wanted to frame this more positively: for whom are our economic decisions good news? One of the calls of the ZacTax campaign is that churches “organize their finances in line with Zacchaeus’ principles for just taxation, sharing of resources and reparation for historical injustice.” There are a range of related issues here. As the campaign points out, the West in particular benefited economically to a huge extent from colonial slavery. We continue to benefit today from a global financial architecture that is geared overwhelmingly towards the interests of wealthier nations, and we benefit economically from an industrialised economy that continues to generate the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases. The global north has become rich at the expense of the global south, and the WCC is right to say that, in this context, reparations are due.
This is not though just about generous giving – though that is important - but in addition we need to ensure that our ongoing use of money isn’t contributing to those mechanisms that further impoverish our brothers and sisters in the global south. We do this whenever, as individuals, churches or denominations, we invest (either directly or through our pension funds) in companies that continue to pollute the atmosphere, or fail to pay their fair share of tax. Making charitable donations to the global south while having an investment portfolio that exploits the global south can no longer be acceptable behaviour for Christians. We need to seriously look at the uses (and abuses) to which we put our wealth.
Secondly, we need to make reparations for what has been done. As noted, Zacchaeus had two particular groups in mind as he made his reparations: the poor in general, and those he had defrauded. The ZacTax campaign calls for progressive wealth taxes, the implementation of a financial transaction tax and an end to tax dodging by both individuals and corporations. All of this is designed to limit the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. It is not accidental that the WCC is calling specifically for a Wealth Tax, rather than just increases to income tax. It is well known that global wealth inequality is even worse than income inequality, and that if we do nothing then such disparities are only going to increase. Growth in wealth has always exceeded growth in income, and that is why tackling wealth inequality has to be at the forefront of any fair tax regime. Through encountering Jesus, Zacchaeus knew he had to give up part of his wealth for the poor, and those of us who know both wealth and Jesus should surely follow his example. The call to do this is both personal (give up some of our wealth), and collective (by showing our support to the ZacTax campaign).
Finally, the ZacTax campaign calls for serious attention to be paid to progressive carbon and pollution taxes. The reality is that what we in the global north have done in pursuing industrial societies has created a problem that might cause some inconvenience for us, but is literally killing tens of thousands in the global south. Indeed, it is estimated that over 5 million people in the global south will die because of the climate crisis in the next 20 years or so. In light of this, when global south debt is cancelled or when money is transferred to the global south for climate change adaptations, we should no longer think of this as generosity, but merely as paying back what we already owe. One of the church fathers, Basil of Caesarea, once said this:
Will not one be called a thief who steals the garment of one already clothed, and is one deserving of any other title who will not clothe the naked if he is able to do so? That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless: that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often you do them wrong?
If that is true in respect of our possessions, how much more is it true in regard to the climate crisis? We can no longer hide behind our ignorance. We know that what we do impacts the planet. Any response that does not include payment of reparations is simply inadequate. If Zacchaeus had chosen to keep the funds from those he had defrauded, we would not have considered him a model of salvation. Meeting Jesus meant generous restitution, and for us in the global north that means changes to our personal lifestyles and support for serious climate change reparations. Anything else, in the words of Basil, is thievery.
Zacchaeus shows what it means to truly encounter Jesus. His life and his lifestyle were deeply changed, and he sets before a model that we – as both individuals and as the body of Christ – need to hear and to which we must respond.
Dr Justin Thacker
Church Action for Tax Justice
 The Zacchaeus Tax Campaign is part of the New International Financial and Economic Architecture initiative of the World Council of Churches, World Communion of Reformed Churches, Council for World Mission and Lutheran World Federation
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice