But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the LORD, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possession to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” —Luke 19:8
To initiate a campaign modelled on the transformative story of Zacchaeus that would advocate for tax justice, addressing social and ecological debts, including reparations for colonialism and slavery, at local, national and global levels. The campaign would at once serve to educate our churches about the issues involved while advocating for tax justice and reparations at the highest level.
Zacchaeus is a figure familiar to churches and Christians. He was a tax collector at the time of Jesus, allied with the colonial financial and military system of Jesus’ day. His encounter with Jesus when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home prompts Zacchaeus to conversion, repentance and reparation. Zacchaeus’ changed ways are signs of the changes needed to our systems so that through the fruit of our work and wealth the poor are lifted up and those who have been exploited are recompensed.
The global economic system is sinful and oppressive, delivering huge profits for the few and poverty for the many. These inequalities are rooted in a system of enslavement and exploitation of much of humanity as well as the natural world. Spearheaded by the World Council of Churches, World Communion of Reformed Churches, Council for World Mission and Lutheran World Federation, the NIFEA initiative views tax justice and reparations as fundamental to challenging this system and creating the grounds for a new one.
We cannot ignore how deeply implicated and indebted the current economic order is to the world shaped by the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial powers who profited so richly from it. The transatlantic slave trade, which forcibly removed up to 15 million people from Africa, had destructive consequences on the region’s economic production, social life, and ecological fabric, while enriching western, colonial powers. Financial institutions such as JP Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Barclays, AIG, and Aetna have their origins in the trade. A number of nations, movements and churches have called for reparations as an important mechanism for redressing the historical injustices of slavery and the ongoing systematic economic inequalities that are the legacies of slavery today. And the Zacchaeus Project seeks to join this echoing and amplifying the promise of reparation made in that story.
Our system and prosperity are also indebted to and implicated in climate change. Climate-related costs arising from a high carbon consumerist economy are mounting, especially affecting small island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The principles of climate justice demand that these costs are not borne by those who contribute least to greenhouse gas emissions as well as possess scant resources to mitigate, adapt and build resilience to climate change. Churches have therefore called for the transfer of resources from affluent nations to impoverished ones as well as for debt cancellation as reparations for irreversible loss and damage arising from a warming climate.
Taxation is an important tool for sharing wealth equitably within and across countries as well as for holding corporations and citizens accountable for their responsibility towards upholding the common good, including care for the global ecological commons. It should be the mechanism by which restorative and reparatory action can bear fruit. Churches can and ought to play an important role in encouraging national and international systems of taxation that: reward work and redistribute gains, promote gender justice and ecological sustainability, and penalize “public bads” such as speculative, polluting and resource-depleting activities. These systems would include, among others: progressive taxes, tax relief for the poor and for ecologically-nurturing activities, capital gains and other wealth taxes, financial transaction taxes, carbon taxes, the elimination of tax havens, country-by-country reporting of profits and taxes, unitary methods of corporate taxation and the creation of a global tax body under aegis of the United Nations (UN).
Our financial system rewards the perpetrators of injustice by privileging capital. We notice how those who were compensated for the transatlantic slave trade were slave owners, it was France that had to be indemnified by its former colony Haiti for emancipation, and it was the British slave owners who received reparations by their government. Reparations only finally repaid in 2015. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/2008 it was the transnational banks which received tremendously costly bailout packages, many of the same banks which, like Lehman and Barclays, benefited from enslavement. The banks and financial systems received bailouts while whole nations and economies have been forced into austerity measures. In both cases the victims have been and still are systematically ignored and excluded. Therefore, the Zacchaeus Project aims at turning upside down these scandalous mechanisms of both historical and contemporary enslavement and exploitation and seeks to transform its underlying power structures.
The project therefore calls for a global tax and economic system that acts like Zacchaeus, which delivers equity and makes reparation for exploitation and injustice. Central to this is a redistribution of resources towards impoverished communities in order to deliver social and public good. In addition to this a Zacchaeus system calls for measures such as debt cancellation as reparations for enslavement and colonisation and for irreversible loss and damage arising from climate change.
The Zacchaeus Project is funded in part by Otto per Mille, through its support of NIFEA.
Image courtesy of Lutheran World Federation.