God, Taxes, and Societies. Exploring Intersections of Religion and Taxation in History

Korinna Schönhärl / Idris Nassery, Universität Paderborn (Historisches Institut und Paderborner Institut für Islamische Normlehre, Universität Paderborn)
Historisches Institut und Paderborner Institut für Islamische Normlehre, Universität Paderborn
Liborianum Paderborn
Heiseberg-Program der DFG
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
29.02.2024 - 01.03.2024
Kara Kuebart, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaft, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

What motivates people to pay their taxes honestly and fairly? And when are taxes “fair” at all? Answers to these questions are manifold and vary greatly over time and space. They are often linked to religious considerations. To explore this connection, Korinna Schönhärl (Paderborn) and Idris Nassery (Paderborn) invited participants to a conference entitled “God, Taxes, and Societies: Exploring Intersections of Religion and Taxation in History”. Experts from the three major monotheistic religions and Buddhism met in the thematically appropriate, simultaneously historical and modern atmosphere of the former Capuchin monastery “Liborianum” in Paderborn.

The first speaker was FABIO RAMBELLI (Santa Barbara). He presented the culture of taxes and levies at Buddhist/Shinto temples (it is not possible to distinguish between Buddhism and Shintoism in this context) in pre-modern Japan until 1886. After the fall of the Heian Empire, temples also became vehicles of political rule over smaller areas alongside the nobility and military. They received “offerings” from their subjects in the form of natural goods, labour services and monetary donations.

In the subsequent commentary, SARAH LEBOCK (Paderborn) raised questions about the differentiation of various paths of religious teachings in Buddhism, about the norms on the topic of taxation in religious texts such as the Vinaya Pitaka, and about the role of the redistribution of wealth through taxes in its legitimation. Rambelli explained that Japanese Buddhism differed from other paths because, like Shintoism, it was based mainly on verbal teachings, not written texts. The Vinaya Pitaka therefore had little significance in Japan. The aim was not to redistribute wealth and combat poverty, instead, the focus lay on the culture of giving. It was believed that donors received good karma and spiritual appreciation for giving up part of their property. The temple was therefore seen as a kind of “transformer” of material goods into spiritual goods. By accumulating wealth, the temples fulfilled their function of withdrawing this wealth from other cycles. In the open discussion, the question arose as to whether there were sanctions against people who did not pay the levies. As a rule, there were no such sanctions – the system was mainly based on the belief that refusing to pay levies would bring bad karma with consequences such as crop failure, curses and disease. Thus, this system functioned on a voluntary basis and without fixed rates.

ELISA KLAPHECK (Paderborn) then gave an introduction to the norms of the Jewish faith and Jewish history on the subject of taxes and levies that can be found in the Talmud. In addition to the general principle of “Dina de-malchuta dina” (Hebrew: “The law of the state/country is the law”), which generally obliges people to comply with applicable law, including tax law, the Talmud also provides standards for taxes and dues within a Jewish community. Taxes were largely earmarked – only those who benefited from the services being financed had to pay. For example, rabbis did not have to pay for defensive walls, as God was said to protect them, but they did have to pay for cisterns, as they also needed water. Taxes were not levied per capita, but in relation to wealth. Some taxes, such as those used for alms for the needy (zedaka), were only levied on homeowners. Only those who paid these taxes were considered full citizens and were allowed to participate in the collection process or criticize it if it was seen as unfair or corrupt. Thus, paying taxes was not a burden, but a privilege.

This was followed by a lecture by YORAM MARGALIOTH (Tel Aviv) on the Gmach, a unique charity organization of ultra-Orthodox societies in Israel. The Gmach is based on the idea of lending unused goods and money from wealthier members of society to others. Wealthy Orthodox Jews in particular are under social pressure to pay money into the Gmach, thereby forgoing the interest they could receive on other investments. The speaker argued that this waiver of interest is a tax enforced by social pressure – a theory that was disputed by other conference participants. Israel's legislation to regulate the Gmach and prevent tax evasion and money laundering through Gmach institutions was discussed in passing.

In the conference session on Christianity, JÖRG ALTHAMMER (Ingolstadt) opened with an empirical study based on “Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development” (OECD) data on the connections between religious denomination and the welfare state in the 20th century. According to him, Roman Catholic states built up costly welfare systems based on cash payments, while free-church states, such as the USA, provided significantly less state welfare in the form of benefits in kind, i.e. as goods or vouchers. He classified Germany as a prime example of a Roman Catholic state. This was questioned in the discussion, but many other variables were also pointed out that could be worth considering. Althammer referred to the limitations of the otherwise excellent and reliable OECD data set.

ALLEN CALHOUN (Atlanta) then addressed the views of early 20th century Protestant theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth on the subject of taxes. Citing Luther, they considered the traditional Catholic system of almsgiving to be reprehensible. According to them, it was a means for the rich to exploit the poverty of others through ineffective temporary aid in order to secure their own salvation. Instead, they considered an impersonal, regulated system necessary to combat and eliminate poverty, which should not exist in a perfect world. Justice would be achieved through a tax system in which only those who could pay would pay and in which the immoral inequalities of society could be addressed and balanced out.

In the third and final lecture of this session, KORINNA SCHÖNHÄRL (Paderborn) compared the moral standards of three Catholic scholars of the 1940s and 1950s from Francoist Spain, the USA and West Germany. At that time, the Catholic Church's attitude had already come a long way from condoning tax evasion to condemning it, as the taxes collected by the state were primarily used for charitable purposes. While papal encyclicals already dealt with the welfare state and its tasks, the subject of taxes initially received little comment from the Vatican. However, some Catholic theologians outside of the Vatican did address the issue. The lecture showed that, based on the same theological premises, they were able to come to very different conclusions with regard to the instruction of the faithful in different political systems. While the American theologian Martin T. Crowe saw a fair tax system, theoretically legitimized/justified by social activities, as an obligation for all and a patriotic duty that should always be fulfilled, the German Jesuit Oswald von Nell-Breuning saw taxes as part of a social contract that should be fulfilled as a rule, but which could be questioned and changed democratically in the event of dissatisfaction. He condemned tax evasion as unfair competition. The Spaniard Joaquín Aspiazu, on the other hand, argued that although believers were obliged in conscience to pay taxes, tax evasion was legitimate in an unjust tax system (as he diagnosed in Francoist Spain). The analysis shows how strongly the development of religiously motivated norms depends on economic institutions.

The third session of the conference covered the Islamic world. IDRIS NASSERY (Paderborn) explained the importance of zakat in the Islamic legal system and the associated theological and moral implications. As one of the five pillars of Islam, zakat is of vital importance. It is an obligatory tax that devout Muslims must pay once they reach a certain level of wealth, and which must be used to provide for Muslims in need. The question of whether zakat must also be paid to unjust rulers who misuse this tax was already disputed among scholars of the 10th century. Ibn al-Farrā' argued that zakat should not be paid to a ruler who misappropriated it. Ibn al-Hajib, on the other hand, argued that zakat should be denied to an unjust ruler, if possible, but that it could be paid under duress. Leaving the territory of the ruler was one option for paying zakat more fairly. In other contexts, tax misappropriation was seen as a sin against Allah, from which a mandatory obligation to refuse was derived to prevent becoming complicit in the ruler’s sin. In the 19th century, Ibn Abidin stated that an unjust ruler had no right to collect zakat; believers were obliged to use their influence to change unjust systems. Nassery classified the various approaches into three categories according to their recommendations for action: Quietism, Exitism, and Activism. Which of the three categories a scholar is assigned to correlates with his position in society. All scholars agreed that zakat should always be given to the needy, if not by the ruler, then by private means.

This was followed by the presentation by EMANUEL SCHÄUBLIN (Zürich), who had observed in a field study in Nablus (Palestine) how zakat was given to poorer families by wealthier families without the involvement of the government, which was perceived as corrupt. Here, shopkeepers played an intermediary role, as they had a good overview of their customers' financial situation. The actual transaction was often carried out by the women of the households in order to maintain discretion. Receiving zakat was and is often perceived as shameful and therefore took place in secret.

ANTONIS HADJIKYRIACOU (Athen) described the tax system of the Ottoman Empire, which he described as simultaneously Islamic and secular, characterized by the dialectic between siyasa (sultanic law) and Islamic jurisprudence, legitimized both by its necessity to preserve order and prosperity, as well as by religious commandments (zakat, jizya). Over time, there was a transition from locally adapted per capita taxation to lump-sum taxation, tax farming and land/wealth taxes, which were also levied in the non-Islamic parts of the empire.

The conference demonstrated the diversity of both the religious legitimization of taxes as well as dues and the handling of tax evasion. Two concepts recurred throughout time and in various religions: On the one hand, the gift of a wealthy person to a poor person out of spiritual self-interest, whether with a view to the afterlife or to improve karma, and on the other hand, the necessity of levies for the purpose of social equalization and the alleviation of poverty. From antiquity to the twentieth century, spiritual doctrines, adapted to social and societal conditions, have repeatedly gone hand in hand with the legitimization of taxes, thus demonstrating the importance of religion in the history of taxation.

Conference overview:

Eva-Maria Seng (Paderborn): Welcome

Korinna Schönhärl (Paderborn) / Idris Nassery (Paderborn): Introduction

First Session: Buddhism & Judaism
Chair: Gisela Hürlimann (Dresden)

Fabio Rambelli (Santa Barbara): The Buddha’s Dues: Taxation in Historic Buddhist Societies in East Asia, with Special Focus on Japan

Sarah Lebock (Paderborn): Commentary

Elisa Klapheck (Paderborn): Taxes and the Positive Role of Debts in Rabbinic-Talmudic Discourse

Ekkhard Reimer (Heidelberg): Commentary

Yoram Margalioth (Tel Aviv): Recent Legislative Regulation of Interest-Free Loans in Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Communities: A Case Study of Government Involvement in Communal Finance

Lars Döpking (Rom): Commentary

Second Session: Christianity
Chair: Martin Schmitt (Paderborn)

Jörg Althammer (Ingolstadt): Religion and the Welfare State

Regina Ortmann (Paderborn): Commentary

Allen Calhoun (Atlanta): The Re-enchantment of Taxation: Protestantism, Divine Sovereignty, and ’Responsive’ Taxes

Gisela Hürlimann (Dresden): Commentary

Korinna Schönhärl (Paderborn): Tax Morale and the Church. How Catholic Clergies Adapted Norms of Paying Taxes to Secular Institutions

Sebastian Huhnholz (Erlangen): Commentary

Third Session: Islam
Chair: Christin Hansen (Paderborn)

Idris Nassery (Paderborn): The Islamic Ethics of Tax Evasion: Interdependence of Law, Theology, and Practice

Marc Buggeln (Flensburg): Commentary

Emanuel Schäublin (Zürich): Zakat Without the State: Giving as a Social Duty in Nablus (Palestine)

Abdul Rahman Mustafa (Paderborn): Commentary

Antonis Hadjikyriacou (Athen): Ottoman Fiscal Records, Practice, and the `Circle of Justice´

Christine Osterloh-Konrad (Tübingen): Commentary

Idris Nassery (Paderborn) / Korinna Schönhärl (Paderborn): Final Remarks