Monday, January 23, 2012

Paying Taxes

I received my property tax bill today. I’ll be paying several thousand dollars. My assessment was higher—not by much, thankfully—than last year’s. Some of the taxes I pay will go to the Town of Cobourg, some to Northumberland County, and the rest to local schools. The bottom line, though, is that I’ll be paying several thousand dollars for things like policing, roads and engineering, transit, streetlights, and so on. I don’t mind one bit.

The truth is we need to pay our taxes if we expect the services that make Cobourg, and Northumberland County, a great place to live. I’ve lived overseas in Manila. People don’t pay much in the way of taxes there, and both the city and the national government are lousy at collecting taxes. That means that poverty is rife and that there is no safety net. A large portion of the population lives in shanties and slums unregulated by government. Road and public transit shortages mean traffic is jammed nearly 24/7. Tap water isn’t safe to drink. Power is intermittent during storms and even when you otherwise least expect it. If you really need to get something done, you pay a bribe to make it happen.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Filipino people are wonderful in every respect. But they are also victims of a political system that doesn’t serve them so much as it serves the rich family elites installed by Spanish and American colonial governments to keep people in line. Those entrenched elites continue to milk the system for all its worth, in spite of two or three popular street revolutions to throw the bums out. And a fair tax system just isn’t in the elite’s interest, since the country’s very dysfunction is what keeps them in power.

So I’ve lived in a country without much by way of taxes, and it is a disaster. And I’ve travelled all over the world and seen similar disasters in places like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia. And what occurs to me now is that I’ve been in a lot of countries lately where the problem is that there just isn’t enough government—and what there is is crooked. When I hear Republicans or Conservatives or Libertarians preach that less government is always better government, I’m not persuaded. In some situations, it may be that a bit less government is a good idea. I’d love less military spending, less bureacratic waste, fewer jails, fewer multi-million-dollar government-agency consulting contracts for former politicians like Newt Gingrich, and fewer gazebos in far flung corners of Tony Clement’s Muskoka area riding. (Yes, that last example does sound less serious than Newt's consulting, but it is so Canadian!) But less government is not an unqualified good thing. If you disagree, take a vacation in Haiti or Rwanda and see for yourself.

So, whenever I write a check to the Canadian or American governments, or my municipal government, I both wish it could be a little less, and I say a prayer of thanks for a system that works: for uncommon peace and safety by world standards, tons of fiscal transperancy, and the privilege to democratically engage in the process of government. There is just no sense in complaining about life in Canada. Our freedom to get involved and do something would be much wiser than complaining. In fact, in our democratic system, the submission to government that the Apostle Paul asks of Christians in Romans 8 has to be understood as a willingness to submit to our systems' need for responsible democratic involvement in government.

            Which brings me back to taxes. In the end, I believe that the Apostle Paul was exactly right about taxes too. “Pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” It is the Christian thing to do.


  1. Thanks, John. I heartily endorse your comments. I've preached on this in relation to Romans 12 and that in Edmonton, of all places. Funny thing about the reaction in that gov't town where at least eight families were supported by good employment by the government (provincial): Those civil servants were almost stunned that a preacher would speak publicly about this--even though it is obviously a public issue in Romans. Less civil was the response by some truly stereotypical Albertans in my congregation. You don't have to think long about their reactions.

  2. We tend to be very picky about the parts of scripture we take literally, don't you think!

  3. Hi Prof. John Suk,
    I am so delighted by reading this post and the excerpts of your book, Not Sure. I also watched your interview with Eerdmans.
    I am Dhon Parian your student in Asian Theological Seminary.


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