Justin Thacker writes: A fundamental principle of biblical justice is that we are all equal before the law. The book of Leviticus reminds us: ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly’ (Lev 19:15). Yet a new report from TaxWatch reveals that such equality does not seem to apply to the way we pursue benefit fraud and tax fraud. While tax cheats cost the exchequer nine times as much as benefit cheats, you are 23 times more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud than tax fraud. This is surely unjust.
Both the Old and New Testaments are clear that partiality, especially partiality based on wealth and privilege, have no place in the kingdom of God. In particular, the scriptural authors were well aware of the perennial temptation we face to demonstrate such favouritism in our administration of justice. The following are just a selection of the verses that address this issue:
- Deuteronomy 16:19 ‘Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.’
- 2 Chronicles 19: 7 ‘Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.’
- Proverbs 17: 15 ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both.’
- Proverbs 17:23 ‘The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice.’
- Proverbs 31:9 ‘Speak up and judge fairly’
- Isaiah 5: 22-23 ‘Woe to those…who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.’
- Micah 3:9-11 ‘Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justiceand distort all that is right;…Her leaders judge for a bribe’
- Zechariah 7:9-10 ‘Administer true justice.’
- James 2:1 ‘My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism’
- James 2:8-9 ‘If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers.’
The scriptures then are clear: biblical justice must involve the absence of favouritism or partiality. Moreover, there seems to be a number of reasons given for this. One of these centres on the representative role we play in administering justice. Ultimately, the only true judge is of course the supreme law-giver God. This means that when we apply judgements, and we are called to do that, we are doing so in God’s stead. True justice then is justice which faithfully represents the character of God. In 2 Chronicles 19 when Jehoshaphat appoints judges in every town he tells them they must judge righteously ‘because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the Lord who is with you whenever you give a verdict’ (v6).
The one who administers justice is then God’s servant and just as pagan rulers (Cyrus is the obvious example) can be God’s anointed, God’s servant whether they recognise God or not, so too are our secular Justices to the extent that they administer true justice. Jehoshaphat’s admonition to render true justice is based then on the character of the one that the Judges represent. Just as there is ‘no injustice or partiality or bribery’ with God so there must not be any ‘injustice or partiality or bribery’ with you who administer earthly justice. In this way, there is a sense in which there is only one concept of justice – God’s justice – and either our earthly judges administer that true justice or they deliver no justice at all.
Related to this, and the second reason given for why true justice matters, is that to administer injustice is to reject the law of God. Of course, when we think about it, it’s obvious that the law flows from God’s character and so to judge unfairly is both to deny the character of God and to reject the law. Both Isaiah and James make this explicit. In Isaiah 5, the prophet declares a series of woes on a range of sin, but in the mix is this: Woe to those ‘who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent’ (v23).
The first point to note here is that injustice can take at least two forms: both failing to prosecute those who should be prosecuted, and declaring guilty those who are innocent. It is the first of these that arguably is the case in the TaxWatch report. Indeed, following on from this report, TaxWatch have recently launched a new initiative to examine precisely how it’s possible that so many tax fraudsters do escape justice. In highlighting this, I am in no way suggesting that our judiciary accept bribes to let off tax fraudsters (though of course that is possible). Rather, I am suggesting that bribery might work in a much more circuitous route. If a political party benefits from wealthy donors, and if those wealthy donors are able to retain a greater proportion of their wealth through lax tax laws, and under-resourcing of HMRC, then it is in that party’s interests to maintain laws with loopholes, and to keep the investigating body so poorly resourced. Hence, in highlighting this, I need to make it clear that I am in no way criticising the hard work of HMRC staff who diligently chase up as many tax fraudsters as they can. My criticism here is levelled at a succession of governments from both parties for their chronic failure to adequately resource HMRC, especially in respect of its compliance work which has seen a reduction of 800 staff over the last 4 years. This kind of mechanism which facilitates tax abuse is not direct bribery of judges as is envisaged in Isaiah, but it is certainly using financial leverage for advantage, and it remains wrong.
The Letter of James makes substantially the same point. The scenario envisaged is one where the wealthy patron enters your church and you treat them very differently to the poor person who is also present. In indicating why such favouritism is wrong, James says this:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it’ (James 2.8-10).
What is interesting here is not just the point that favouritism is to break the law of God, but also the contrast with the great command ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. James is making the point that to demonstrate favouritism—and in this scenario, it is merely concerned with levels of attention and where people sit—is to fail to love your neighbour. Why is this the case?
Well, part of the reason no doubt links to the fact that our neighbour has been created in the image of God, and to fail to show them the respect and dignity they deserve is to fail to recognise them as created in God’s image. Proverbs 14:31 reminds us that oppression of the poor is to show ‘contempt for their maker’ and there are in fact two counter-cultural realties expressed in this fact that we are all created in God’s image. On the one hand, the fact that everyone is created in God’s image (however marred that image subsequently is) means that we are all of equal worth and dignity in God’s sight. The second is that because everyone is created we are all under God’s authority and judgement. When we show partiality in law, we deny both of these realities. On the one hand we are treating people as if they are not equal – as if there is some significant, judgement-bearing difference between them. On the other hand, we are also setting ourselves up as some kind of authority in the place of God. We are claiming that we are able to determine someone’s value as opposed to the equal judgement that God has made. As such, partiality in law is simply an example of that age old sin – idolatry – in this case, a form of self-idolatry where we assume the place of God in judgement.
The final reason provided in Scripture against partiality in justice again links to these earlier points. It is the fact that just judgement can be a mechanism through which the poor, the disadvantaged are protected against the injustices of this world. There are accidents of history, there are evil people – all of which can serve to impoverish and alienate the widows, the orphans and the strangers. True justice can act as a bulwark against these injustices and ensure that those who are marginalised in this way are not exploited through their lack of bargaining power. Hence, to administer injustice, to show favouritism and partiality is to fail to defend the poor. Proverbs 31 makes this clear: ‘
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov 31.8–9).
Similarly, Zechariah says:
Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’ (Zech 7.9–10).
In both these cases, an explicit link is being drawn between the administration of true justice and defence of the marginalised. The reality is that those who are limited in economic and social power are frequently victims of those with such power and true justice can protect them from it. In regard to this it is worth noting that tax abuse is not a victimless crime. The global south, in particular, loses out approximately $200bn every single year in tax that they are owed but is not paid. That money could be used to fund healthcare, education or other essential services. It is more than is given in aid each year to that region. Tax abuse kills people in the global south, and impoverishes our public services in the global north. It is not a victimless crime.
Yet the injustice and favouritism that the scriptures rail against seems to be happening in the way we treat benefit and tax fraud respectively. As the TaxWatch report shows there is not a level playing field in the way these two crimes are treated. They point out how:
- There were 23 times more prosecutions for benefit related offences than tax related offences;
- The government employs 3.5 times more staff to tackle benefit fraud than tax fraud;
- You are 8.5 times more likely to receive a custodial sentence for benefit crime than for tax crime;
- Yet, tax fraud costs us 9 as much as benefit fraud each year (£20bn per year v £2.2bn per year).
Someone committing benefits fraud is more likely to face criminal prosecution and go to jail than someone engaged in tax fraud, this raises serious questions about whether the rule of law is being applied fairly across society.
The question remains of course why is this the case? Why is it that we treat tax crime so differently to benefit crime? In answer to that, I am unavoidably drawn to the question of who benefits from the relatively light touch given to tax fraud, and to the issue of party funding. As such, I wonder if Micah’s advice remains as pertinent as ever.
Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right;…Her leaders judge for a bribe. (Micah 3:11)
Here are four things you can do now in response:
1. Join the Fair Tax Now campaign and write to your MP about a fairer tax system
3. Share this post with others
Dr Justin Thacker is the national coordinator of Church Action for Tax Justice. He was formerly the academic dean and lecturer in public theology at Cliff College and continues to lecture on a freelance part-time basis at a number of theological colleges. His most recent book is Global Poverty: A Theological Guide (SCM Press)