The Panama Papers have caused quite a stir. A huge leak has lifted the lid on how the rich and powerful use tax havens to hide their wealth. The files were leaked from one of the world’s most secretive law firm in Panama. Great investigate journalism makes for uncomfortable reading. And, as Channel 4 News presenter John Snow reminds us, the UK “actually harbours the largest tax avoidance havens in the world…. I think the ordinary punter is only just beginning to discover about tax avoidance’.
And so we are. Two years ago, I watched “The UK Gold” documentary about tax havens. It followed a priest from a parish in the poor London Borough of Hackney. William Taylor, vicar at St Thomas Clapton, ran for election in the City of London, standing on issues like tax avoidance. He was later indeed elected as councillor. His political stance is actually undergirded by a biblical understanding that such avoidance constitutes theft, as the wealth is not serving the common good but enriches the privileged few.
One of the first centuries’ Church Fathers – Lactantius – already spoke of “the perfect justice … that sustains the human society” in which wealth is being used “not for present profit but for justice, which alone endures forever” (The Divine Institutes, 6.12). In the 17th Century, Protestant reformer Gerrard Winstanley argued that land is meant to be ‘a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons’. Motivated by their Christian faith, The Levellers’ argued for working “in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor.”
Tax havens constitute ‘a mortal threat to the world economy’, It is a stark warning by the UN adviser on economics, Professor Jeffrey Sachs,. It creates gross inequality that has massive repercussions for the developing world. In their publication Who pays the price? Hunger: the hidden cost of tax injustice, Christian Aid highlights the costs of corporate tax dodging as it robs poor countries of billions they could invest in feeding their people. Food provision is intrinsically linked to justice issues.
The Levellers were right. The earth is the ‘common Treasury of livelihood to the whole of mankind’. And it needs pastors, prophets, professors, politicians and punters to pursue the welfare of all and address injustice on a local, national and global level.