It's tax filing time – are you cringing? My teens, still in school, don't make enough to pay tax, so their forms are simple to fill out. Yet they approach the task as a bothersome burden.
How can I help them ponder the benefits they've received and the societal opportunities their taxes can bring in the future? How can we use this opportunity to reflect together on what fair and responsible taxation could be?
Few among us stop at tax time to be grateful for the past generations of taxpayers who developed what we have today – schools, hospitals, roads, public transit, parks. Do we embrace paying our taxes today so that we can pass along those benefits to future generations – our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren?
One study revealed that the average Canadian household receives about $41,000 in public services each year. This is a tremendous bargain for the vast majority of Canadians, providing goods and services individuals could never afford.
Christians believe that all humans have the right to the resources necessary to respond to God's calling. We also believe that responsibilities accompany rights.
To ensure that God's wish for all to enjoy these rights is respected, we all need to contribute as we are able. We may do this by volunteer activities or charitable giving, but this obligation also involves collective action for systemic support for beneficial actions by our governments.
It isn't enough to demand action from people we do not know – the rich, corporations and even politicians. We need to be forthright in our own financial transactions, recognizing it is unlawful and unethical to hide income or evade taxes.
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the hypocrites laid a trap by asking Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The context was a decades old tax revolt in the region. Saying either yes or no to that question could have caused his demise.
By subtle sedition, Jesus provided another avenue for rephrasing the debate. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's" does not demand blind obedience to governments. Rather, Christ's followers should always place obligation to God first.
The moneychangers were in the Temple to profit because of the many varied currencies in use throughout the district. A coin with Caesar's head on it (that is, a false, Roman god) could not be brought into the Temple, so all observant Jews knew it had to be converted.
The listeners obtained new meaning: something with Caesar's image could not suffice everywhere (but might have its place). Dorothy Day was reputed to have gone further by stating, "If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar."
There lies the crux of the debate: What is fair taxation, at what levels, and what is not in the common good?
A new citizens' organization, which Citizens for Public Justice helped initiate in 2011, is asking Canadians to embrace more progressive taxation policies. Canadians for Tax Fairness (C4TF) believes, "Canada in the 21st century should be a society in which economic disparities are decreasing, common needs are met by investing in high-quality public services, and economic policies are designed to protect our environment."
This group places a critical eye on the cuts to public services and critical infrastructure while federal tax cuts for some individuals and corporations between 2009 and 2010 cost $34 billion in lost government revenues – or 63 per cent of the deficit.
In April C4TF is releasing a book called The Great Revenue Robbery. The hope is to get people thinking differently about taxes – and government. Various chapters in the book suggest alternatives to current economic dogma, proposing international cooperation to initiate a financial transaction tax and reduce tax evasion by wealthy companies and individuals in offshore tax havens (which cost Canada an estimated $5.3 to $7.8 billion a year).
My own chapter in this collection focuses on how Canada could encourage publicly beneficial behaviours through ecological taxes, thus advancing the "triple bottom line" of social, economic and environmental progress.
So when my kids and I prepare our tax returns this month, we'll also be counting our blessings.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)