What Would Jesus say about the Tax Credits Debate?

 

Well what I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t say is, “Constitutional crisis! How dare the House of Lords oppose the elected government!”

 

Some would object, surely Jesus is above grubby politics. He doesn’t concern himself with that sort of thing. Really?

A Reality Check

Days before an election on national television a Prime Minister reassures the public that he is not going to cut tax credits. Weeks later his Chancellor announces £4.5 billion cuts to tax credits. This will leave 3.3 million families on average £1,300 worse off a year. Many thousands of hard-working but low paid people simply do not know how their families will make ends meet, without going heavily into debt.  

This can only add to the long list of other miseries the current and previous governments had already visited on welfare recipients, including:

  • benefits freezes
  • benefits caps
  • the bedroom tax
  • the withdrawal of council tax support
  • thousands having welfare benefits withdrawn for being wrongly assessed as “fit to work” or “sanctioned”.

Such policies had already swollen foodbank users to over 1 million a year, increased the numbers living in poverty by over ¾ million (including 300,000 children), raised homelessness by one third in five years and led to 2,380 people dying within only 2 weeks of being assesses as “fit to work” (a truth the DWP tried to keep quiet for months). Oh and not to forget the “social cleansing” of the benefits cap. This is forcing the unemployed from whole areas of London and the south east, because their benefits will no longer cover the high housing costs. At the same time the richest thousand people in the country in only four years have seen their wealth more than double to over £1/2 trillion (and now own more than the poorest 40% put together). And yet the Chancellor plans further tax cuts for the richest to enjoy on their corporations, income and estates.

Well I would suggest Jesus is very much concerned with “that sort of thing” and so should His followers be.

 


 

 

Jesus’s Law of Love Your Neighbour

Jesus tells us “in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and prophets” (Matt 7:12).  His “law of love” therefore should be applied to every aspect of our lives; how we treat our family, our next door neighbours, our work colleagues, the ordinary man or woman walking the same pavement, sitting on the same train or driving on the same road as us. Jesus also applied it to those who we might not see as the “same” as us, as He illustrated in his parable of “The Good Samaritan.” (Luke 10: 25-37). Going beyond that He even encouraged us to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). And His “law of love” was not just about thoughtful prayers, warm words and gentle smiles. He expected His followers to put that love into action and literally put their money where their mouth was. On more than one occasion He challenged rich men who would follow him to sell all they had to give to the poor (e.g. Mark 10:21). And He commended the repentant tax collector Zacchaeus for giving away half of what he had (Luke 19:1-10).

But isn’t Jesus’ law of love just about how we behave as individuals? It has nothing to do with government and politics. Does it? It certainly is about how we behave as individuals. But why does that not apply to how politicians as individuals treat others in the decisions they make? And as, unlike Jesus, we live in a democracy, why does that not apply to how we as individuals exercise our votes and how that in turn affects others? Jesus’s law of love recognises no barriers. It applies to “everything” we do. Just as it does not stop at our national borders or our bank accounts, it should not stop at the ballot box or the parliamentary dispatch box.

Being My Brother’s Keeper

The bible shows us that God has always been concerned about how we deal with the resources of this world and how those resources are distributed between our fellow men and women. The key starting point is that everything we have in this world is ultimately not our property but His (Psalm 24:1). We are merely tenants and stewards of it and we shall all one day have to account to Him for how we have managed the resources we have been given. (Matthew 25:14-30- the Parable of the Talents). And God expects us to use those resources fairly and to take care of others. (Matthew 24: 45-51)

Very early in the bible-in only the fourth chapter - Cain asks God a question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4: 9). In the rest of the bible God writes His answer, a resounding yes. (I once heard Tony Benn at Nottingham University say that affirmatively answering that question was the crux of Socialism. I’d say it’s part of the crux of Christianity).

A Fair Allocation of Resources

Part of looking after each other, as God sees it, is ensuring a fair allocation of the resources He has given us. And where that has not happened He expects us to use our resources to provide for the welfare of the poor and needy. I would suggest God’s expectations of how we should allocate this world’s resources are seen best when His people first came together. First, how the new people of Israel were to share out the resources of the Promised Land. Then how Jesus’s followers shared out their own resources at the start of His church.

Numbers 26 clearly sets out how the Promised Land was to be divided fairly and evenly between all tribes, clans and individual families, “based on the number of names”. Everyone was to have their stake in it. And in an agrarian society a fair allocation of the land should have ensured everyone had enough to live on. (Looking at it through twenty first century eyes, this new society He was instituting might almost be seen as a form of socialism). It was actually very radical stuff when you compare it with how successful invading armies in the rest of history have distributed land and wealth. It’s usually the men at the top who take the most and the lowly foot soldiers often get nothing. (William the Conqueror literally seized ownership of the whole of England and to this day technically we’re all the Crown’s tenants. As I was taught in Land Law lectures 29 years ago, the concept was given the rather apt name, “seisin”!).

In Deuteronomy 15 God makes the point that with the abundant allocation of the Promised Land’s resources to His people, “there need be no poor people among youfor in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you” (provided they continue to obey Him). However, in almost the same breath, knowing what men are like, God sees that things won’t stay that way. He sees there will be people who will end up disenfranchised of their share and fall into poverty. He therefore acknowledges, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward [the] poor and needy in your land.

 

 

Looking After the Poor and Needy

In Deuteronomy God sets out various commands to ensure that the poor are provided for, including leaving the edges of their harvest fields for the poor to “glean” their share and the Jubilee rules of the seventh year when they should leave their land fallow for the poor and cancel all debts owed.  Indeed, throughout the Old Testament God’s heart for the poor and needy is writ large, with dozens of commands and encouragements to look after the poor and needy and to avoid exploiting them.  Just a few of those:

 “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and He will reward them for what He has done.” Proverbs 19:17

“…uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4

 “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

“The Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Psalm 140: 12

“The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: … the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” Isaiah 3:14-15

“…with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” Isaiah 11:4

“Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.” Amos 8:4

“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” Isaiah 5:8

The Kings of this World- the Winners Take It All

A few hundred years after the people of Israel had settled in the Promised Land they asked their current leader/judge, Samuel, to appoint a King over them.  He objected, declaring they should just submit to God, their heavenly King. He nonetheless gave them what they asked for. However, he warned them that establishing an earthly kingship would result in an unfair and uneven allocation of the land’s resources, opening them up to exploitation. He warned, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.” 1 Samuel 8:11

After a false start under King Saul, with Kings David and Solomon generally the land and the people prospered, and although the Kings grew rich, initially the people prospered too. They continued to enjoy their stake in the land. “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” 1 Kings 4:25

However, as their kings turned away from the Lord, they oppressed the people and the kingdom was split. As the words of the later prophets showed (see the quotes above), there was a growing inequality in the land, with the kings and the rich accumulating great wealth for themselves on the backs of the poor whom they exploited. These and other sins led to the Lord’s punishment of his people who were conquered and forced into exile from the land.

A Fair Allocation of Resources- a Vision Renewed

Yet in exile, through prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Micah and Ezekiel, the Lord revealed that He still had plans for His people to return to the Promised Land.  And He made clear it remained His vision that once more His people should all enjoy their own fair share of the land’s resources (even the foreigners living among them).

 “You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord.”
Ezekiel 47:21-23

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. “
Micah 4:4

The Lord’s people did return to the land at exactly the time that Daniel had predicted. However, despite starting with a fair allocation of resources, men reverted to their old ways and inequality, poverty and exploitation returned.

The Kingdom of God- the New Jerusalem

And so to the time of Jesus, God’s own Son, come to earth not as a rich King, but born to a humble carpenter’s family. By this time what remained of God’s people were living under the yoke of the Romans and their own local oppressive kings. Jesus’s mission in one sense was completely apolitical and had nothing to do with how society was run or resources were allocated. Indeed, He disappointed many of his followers by not leading a violent revolution to kick out the Romans and establish His own kingdom. (John 18: 10-11)  Instead, He came to die a criminal’s death on a cross, to pay the price of our sins so that we could be reconciled to God. (Just as prophesied 500 years earlier in Isaiah 53)

And yet in one sense His mission was and is very political. In heavenly terms first of all He established a new order, the Kingdom of God, “where the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) Ordinary men, women and children were invited to the “top table”, to sup with the King (Matthew 22) and to be adopted as royal sons and daughters of God (Ephesians 1). And this invitation was extended well beyond the original people of God to all people on earth (Matthew 28). 

Ultimately that new order will be fully realised when Jesus returns in full power and establishes His new Jerusalem (Mark 14:62 /Revelation 21). In that Kingdom there will no more exploitation, poverty or suffering. Every citizen of that new Jerusalem will be a co-ruler with Jesus, enjoying to the full God’s abundant blessings (2 Timothy 12). This will be the final fulfilment of the Old Testament vision, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”  As it says in Revelation 21, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying for the old order of things has passed away…Those who are victorious will inherit all this… the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel…

But does any of it apply Here and Now?

But how does any of that apply to the here and now? The ultimate vision of the perfect society will only be fulfilled when Jesus physically returns to earth. And it will be based not on a democracy but a benevolent theocracy. And yet whilst Jesus’s Kingdom on earth will only be fulfilled when He returns, He announced that Kingdom as starting two thousand years ago with his declaration of “good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). And He expected His followers to live out His good news manifesto, following His law of “love your neighbour.”  (Matthew 25: 35-46).

How that should look like was seen best after His death, resurrection and return to heaven; at the birth of His church.  “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”  (Acts 4:32-35).

Seen through modern eyes, just as God’s new order of Numbers 26 might be seen as a form of socialism, His new order of Acts 4 might be viewed as a form of communism- a community living and sharing everything as one. But I’m afraid everything I have seen of this world and everything the bible teaches me about mankind tells me this perfectly equal society is not achievable on this present earth. Excepting a few small, mostly Christian, communes, all attempts to install such a communist society on a larger scale have failed in miserable totalitarianism.

A perfect equal society may be unachievable on this present earth. However, Jesus’s example and law of love and His Word’s teaching should compel us to strive for better; a country and a world in which as many people as possible feel they have a share and where the poor are properly cared for.

How do Tax Credits fit in with this?

So how do tax credits fit in with this? In a perfect society there would be no need for them. Everyone would be able to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, enough to be secure in their own home and free from poverty and debt (The picture of Micah 4).  Sadly, so much of the country’s and world’s wealth is stored up in the “barn houses” of the very richest (much of it off shore). Without government support it would be practically impossible to ensure the economy works in such a way that everyone is paid such a fair and living wage.

The government’s increase in the minimum wage is welcome, but it will nowhere near compensate for the loss of tax credits. And the complete answer I’m afraid cannot be simply to increase the minimum wage. Certainly not in the shorter term anyway.  There are currently 6 million employees paid less than the living wage. There are many larger employers who could afford to pay their employees well above and beyond the living wage. (After all the CEOs of the largest companies currently can afford to pay themselves over 180 times the average worker's pay. 25 years ago it was only 40 times) . However, there are quite a few employers who could not afford to pay their employees much more, especially in smaller start-up businesses whose owners do not even pay themselves the minimum wage. Also, many relying on tax credits are self-employed with no employer who can increase their wages.

The Chancellor has suggested that in place of tax credits he will deliver an economy that pays workers sufficiently high wages without such state support. He is here either being deluded or dishonest or both. If the Chancellor really believed that rather than tinker with and rebrand he would have increased the minimum wage massively, so that it really did make up for the loss of tax credits. Instead the independent assessment is that in net terms 3.3 million families will be on £1,300 a year worse off on average. He also knows that many of the workers losing tax credits are public sector workers. To increase their pay enough to make up for the loss would doubtless wipe out any savings from the tax credit cuts (as the pay rise would also apply to many not receiving tax credits).

The tax credit system is not perfect, but in an imperfect world it is a very effective means of redistributing resources in this country and reducing the growing wealth gap and thereby reducing poverty.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that following the introduction of tax credits the numbers of children living in poverty fell from 26 per cent in 1997 to 18 per cent in 2010. The IFS estimates that without them child poverty would have risen to 31 per cent, meaning an additional 1.8 million children living in poverty. It is estimated that the tax credit reductions proposed would immediately increase the numbers of children living in poverty by 200,000.

The Chancellor and Prime Minister would have us believe that "there is no alternative" to such cuts if we are to get the "bloated" welfare bill under control and turn the budget deficit into surplus by 2019. But as the Shadow Chancellor pointed out there are plenty of alternatives. They could reverse the tax cuts they have made or promised to the wealthy and super wealthy and (at a time of very low interest rates) they could cut the deficit more slowly and moderately. And most economists believe that running a significant budget surplus is actually bad thing; reduced public debt invariably results in increased private debt, the very thing likely to trigger another crash (And it was this excessive private debt not public debt that originally led to the last crash).

Jesus Cares about How We Treat Others- that includes Government Policy

It might be that (like me) the tax credits cuts wouldn’t affect you. If so, you might not care about them. That is unless you care about inequality or poverty or about the debt, fear and insecurity this brings to millions. But, as the bible shows, Jesus does care about these things and He expects his followers to care too and to do something about it.

Certainly this includes many of the fantastic things that Christians (and others) do individually and collectively to help the poor and needy. Individually, there are countless personal acts of help, kindness and giving. Collectively, in my own town there is the work of street pastors and food banks and plans being discussed to develop a local homeless sanctuary and a Christian debt advice service with Christians Against Poverty. Sadly, I believe the need for such projects will only increase due to government policy to cut tax credits and other welfare benefits, which the economy cannot and will not make up for.

Yet many of the good Christian men and women answering God's call to help the poor and needy will have voted into power a government whose policies are directly increasing the need and poverty that they are fighting.

 I believe they must have misunderstood one or both of two things. Possibly, God's message through His Word about His desire that the resources of this world should be shared fairly and the priority of helping the poor and needy. But more likely, a misunderstanding of government policy; its effects on poverty and inequality and the alternatives to its policies. Sadly, for many the truth about the latter is too often hidden in a fog of distorted statistics, spin, soundbites and even downright lies.

Empty Arguments and Lies

Perhaps the biggest and most successful lies of all are that excessive government spending and borrowing caused the economic crash and that “austerity” is the only way forward out of “this mess”.  Virtually no serious economists agree with the former and most disagree with the latter. Yet through such deceptions I believe out of fear millions were beguiled into voting the current government into office. (Note less than a quarter of the electorate, but enough to win a small majority in our rather distorted electoral system).  Now that the Prime Minister's lie to the nation on 30 April this year has been so clearly exposed, perhaps more people will look at the alternatives? Perhaps they will start to recognise that a government that pursues policies so damaging to the poor and needy and then tries to cover up what it is doing, is a government that according to the bible’s standards is simply not fit for purpose.

When I think of the current government I have to say am reminded of the words of Isaiah 59:4,“No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.” Yet, as Jesus challenges me to do, I will continue to pray for them. Perhaps in response the government might even be moved to reverse, or at least soften the impact of, the tax credit cuts? We shall see.

 

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