By Janelle Vandergrift
These days Canadians are more likely to hear ourselves referred to as “taxpayers” than “citizens.” But what if we viewed ourselves as citizens first? We might stop asking “what’s in it for me?” and begin to ask “what’s in it for everyone?”
If our approach to public life is deeply rooted in our faith, we will consider not only our own personal rights, but the responsibilities we have to one another.
Christians can use citizenship as a tool for justice. We can love our neighbour through political means, we can use the tools of advocacy and press our politicians to follow through with their commitments, and we can vote. As citizens, we can also pay our taxes.
Taxes are a way to pool our resources and develop common infrastructure that can have a positive impact on us all. Taxes build our roads and bridges, pay for our police and firefighters, offer support for raising children, provide income security and housing for the poor, contribute to foreign aid, and help to ensure our environment is clean and safe. All of these things are much cheaper and more effective when we pay for them collectively.
Various governments and individuals have promoted lower taxes as the solution to all social problems without mentioning the risks. They leave out the good and potential of programs paid for with tax dollars. We often forget the fact that we are the ones who benefit from the services and infrastructure that tax dollars provide. Experts suggest that more than two-thirds of Canadians receive a benefit from public services greater than 50 per cent of their incomes.
As Christians, we are called to pay our taxes. Luke 20:25 includes the command to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Taxes are about giving back and contributing to the common good. We recognize that we are not solely responsible for the wealth that we generate, nor does it belong to us alone. We share a portion of the income that we have received as an expression of our gratitude and a contribution towards our community and collective care for creation.
Taxes are also a part of caring for the poor. The Bible holds more than 2,000 references to poverty. Psalm 82:3-4 calls us to, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Christians, as citizens, have a role in pressing for justice and measures that prevent the causes of poverty. Part of that responsibility means encouraging government to promote justice and fairness, recognizing that preventing poverty is more charitable that alleviating it. We should question if our government budgets and tax system reflects these priorities.
Recognizing the good that taxes can do is not to suggest that we be naive about their misuse. Taxes should not be used to line the pockets of any kind of political elite or merely benefit the wealthy. Taxes should not burden the poor. The use of our common purse must be transparent and there must be open and honest debate about its use. This requires accountability; active citizenship includes ensuring that government is doing the work it should be doing.
You know what they say (usually with a sigh): nothing is certain but death and taxes. But perhaps the negative assumptions behind this common saying deserve some second thought. Taxes can be a positive way for us to fulfill our Christian calling to do public justice. It’s time to expand the conversation on taxes and consider it within the context of citizenship.
"Taxes for the Common Good," CPJ’s latest report on taxation in Canada. This series of six fact sheets highlights the positive role taxes play in our society and summarizes up-to-date information on the costs and opportunities afforded by various federal tax policy options. Public justice recognizes that citizens have both rights and responsibilities. We all have a right to live in dignity and to be respected by others. But we also have a duty to contribute constructively to society to ensure that others can also do so. CPJ believes it’s time for a serious public dialogue about taxation that takes into consideration the vital ways that public revenues help us build a healthy, more vibrant Canada.
Janelle is a former policy analyst at CPJ. A similar version of this story appeared in Christian Week.