Government also answers to the poor

Published March 1, 2001

Michael Peers

A FEW WEEKS ago some works of art were stolen from a provincial legislature, and a local radio show interviewed the legislature’s curator on the subject.

In introducing the topic, the interviewer said that this incident was not just a matter for the legislature but for us all because the paintings were owned by us, the taxpayers.

With those words he neatly fell into a trap carefully laid for him over several years by the provincial government.

The government in its reporting to the public always addresses us as “taxpayers” because of their belief that it is only to taxpayers that they are accountable.

But why do I think that I would rather be addressed as a “citizen” than as a “taxpayer”?

I would like to think the government should feel some obligation to me even if, for some reason, I became poor enough that my income fell below the minimum for taxation purposes.

The poor among us, the children who are without income, are citizens, though not taxpayers. Is there no obligation to them? Are they not owed some accountability by their political masters?

When St. Paul was involved in one of his brushes with officialdom because of his teaching (Acts 21 ff), in the course of his interrogation he invoked the proud affirmation of citizenry, “Civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen).

This affirmation gained him the immediate attention of the government. (He had earlier invoked his status as a citizen of “a great city,” Tarsus, but this did not impress the officials; it was membership of the wider society, the empire, that engaged their attention).

I wonder how he would have fared today. Would he have had to produce a certificate of last year’s taxes paid in full? Would he have to declare instead, “Tributarius Romanus sum (I am a Roman taxpayer?)

Don’t get me wrong. I do not disparage either taxpayers or the paying of taxes, and I would be on the outs with St. Paul if I did. He was most likely a taxpayer; in Romans 13: 6-7, he not only exhorts people to pay their taxes, but even refers to those who receive them as “God’s ministers.”

And he was writing at a time when taxes were collected on a ruthless, absolutely-for-profit basis.

All this is just a new twist on the eternal temptation to judge people, ourselves included, not on who they are as persons but on how much they own.

I remember the comment of a Roman Catholic priest speaking at the opening of a provincial legislature about the kind of neighbours who come to call not really as friends but as furniture inspectors. It’s the same temptation in a different form.

Jesus told a parable (Luke 12:16-20) about a self-congratulatory wealthy man boasting to himself about his possessions. God’s first words to the man are “You fool!”

Each generation provides new shapes for this temptation, and governmental encouragement to this particular form of self-deception merely gives it a more official social approval.

But if I fall for it, I am a fool, at least in the eyes of the One who sees me as I truly am, and whose opinion of me matters everlastingly.

Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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