Monday, 15 October 2012

Moving on

After three year's of the Convener's Blog we are making some changes.  I'll now be blogging from Sally's Blog, which can be found on the main Church of Scotland wesbite.

I hope you like the changes to the look and feel of the blog, please bookmark the new page and check regularly with what's happening.  I'd also love to hear your comments!

I've you've not already seen it, my first new post is about the war on the poor and the language delployed by George Osborne which is driving deeper divisions into society...

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Today is World Mental Health day

Human beings are a wonder - so adaptable and resilient, yet so intricately complex and fragile.

It's this combination that makes each person unique- a one off, never to be repeated miracle.

I don't think we see each other that way often enough. I worry, that in today's busy, hectic rush, we don't see each other at all.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I hope we will use this day to see each other, to listen and learn.

A lot of what I get to do in my work is listen to people. One thing that resonates is the comment from so many sufferers of mental illness that they feel invisible and silenced. "How do I begin to explain my mental illness? The hardest bit is telling others – folk can see a broken leg but they can’t see inside your head." 

One in four adults in the UK suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year.

I believe we have to work to end the stigma around mental illness.  The burden which must be carried by those affected by mental health problems, and those who care for them, is not only heavy, but can be life- long.

How we, as church, as friends and family, support each other is at the heart of a culture of positive relationships that we seek to foster.

Our churches should surely be places where everybody can be sure of having someone to listen, somebody who cares and values each and every man, woman and child. The presence of the church as a community of people who care and who can simply ‘be there’ can be very important in times of need.

At parish level, individual and congregational prayer is powerful.  Support from pastoral care teams can provide invaluable ministry, promoting self esteem and a sense that a person’s and family’s journey and burden are shared.

The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly received a report on mental health in 2011

You can explore these issues further by using this Bible Study.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Food banks are for Life, not just for Harvest

Harvest represents not being hungry!

Sadly, we’ve got our work cut out for us and Harvest has just officially been extended: in Scotland today, the fastest growing voluntary sector is in food distribution: Food-banks.

Food-banks are opening all over Scotland and the ones already operational are running out of food as fast as they can get it in. In Alloa, the food-bank there gets up to ten referrals a week – referrals from the Citizens Advice bureau, the Police, Social Services, the Prison Service, Health Visitors and the schools.

Need has increased exponentially. Where they used to see mostly single men, they are now seeing more families. In Arbroath, the local Primary Schools now take it in turns to have a special collection on Fridays because the food-bank found that weekends were when people needed the most help. They struggled to make it through the weekend when the usual routes to assistance were closed. What is going on? How, in the same country where we throw away 566,000 tonnes of food each year, can so many people be going hungry?

From the perspective of the church, there has to be a two-pronged attack. Firstly our neighbours cannot be allowed to go hungry, so we have to step up in communities to make sure that these food-banks are consistently and adequately stocked; BUT and this is an important BUT, we have to continually ask the question – to the Government and to ourselves - how on earth can people be going hungry in Scotland today?

How can there be such incredible gaps between the rich and the poor, how can there be such yawning lags between applying for help and actually receiving it? With high unemployment levels and the introduction of the universal credit system and other benefit changes, there is genuine fear that things are only going to get worse – so we help plug the leaks by supplying food-banks, but we do so while consistently calling for change. Community is connection so we have to work for ways to reach out to those in our community who have fallen through the ever-widening cracks in the economic system we all participate in. Community is connection – we cannot stand by and say the problem is too big – the problem is too big to ignore!  

The Church has often used a phrase purported to Jesus as almost a “get out of jail free” card. When Jesus said “the poor are always with us,” did he mean that we should just accept that as the way it is? The statement could equally be seen as an indictment and a challenge. Do we accept that in a world so technologically advanced that we can speak to someone across the globe in seconds, where medical advancements have banished diseases which used to ravage, where we can genetically modify crops, that we cannot re-adjust our economic system to be more just and equitable - or is it a matter of corporate will? Will we accept hunger on our doorstep or hunger on our global stage? 

Or will we follow the example Jesus left his followers – he fed the hungry, but he also got into a lot of hot water by asking awkward questions to those in authority about why people were hungry and oppressed and compromised.  His words hit home all the more because he put his actions behind his words.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Friday: Tax - who is responsible?

All this week the Tax Justice Tour has been travelling around Scotland. This seven-week tour around 50 towns and cities across Britain and Ireland has a message of tax justice for poor communities locally and globally. The iniative has educated, inspired and equipped those who have boarded the bus and engaged with the complex issue of tax law.

Hopefully the impact will continue to unpack itself as they pass on what they’ve learned: that tax avoidance is a devastating wrong, morally unacceptable and something we can no longer tolerate. It has a particular sting in an age of austerity and spending cuts. It effectively amounts to robbing the poor, in the UK and in poor countries, of the money that should be spent on education, health and welfare.

But today, on the tour’s last day in Scotland, I pose the question: Whose job is it to make sure that people pay their taxes fairly?

On the one hand there is clearly an issue with very wealthy individuals, companies or institutions using immoral or unjustifiable (or even illegal) means to avoid tax.

There is also a question of what Governments can do in terms of regulations, enforcement, prosecution and closing tax loop-holes.

Christian Aid and the Church of Scotland have also asked for reforms to the international accounting system for large multinational corporations, to ensure transparency in reporting of how much tax they pay and where some tax dodging schemes are cloaked in secrecy and so making corporate accounts report what they do in each country would be one way in shedding light on dodgy practices.

And does society, the media, political and community leaders, the churches, have a role in setting out what is and what is not ok? We need to make the concept of tax dodging as socially repugnant as racism; it is sinful, it is evil, it is harmful. On this last day of the tour in Scotland - as the bus pulls out, we need to recognise that we all have a part in this complex mess. If there is a change coming, then we all need to get on-board! 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Thursday: Tax justice for you and me

Scottish Church Leaders in Edinburgh with the Tax Bus yesterday

The Tax Justice Tour continues its journey across Scotland today. Having had stops in Dumfries and Alloway, Glasgow and Edinburgh earlier this week, today it is in St Andrews before travelling on to Inverness tomorrow. 
Yesterday I got a chance to visit the Tax bus as it sat in Bristo Square in Edinburgh.  Now I have to confess that I find understanding finance “challenging!”  When it comes to numbers, I feel a cloud of confusion descending on my brain and a strong urge to bury my head in the sand follows; however, I have come to the conclusion that this issue is too important to ignore.  And I have begun to realise, as I meet and talk with others for whom the penny has dropped, others who have also begun to engage with the issue of tax justice, that perhaps my urge isn’t unique – perhaps big corporations actually count on our ostrich-like inclinations. 
We cannot allow that to be the case anymore – our brothers and sisters who are daily being more marginalised by the extreme profit margins of tax-dodging companies are counting on us to start counting the tax cost. 
As I visited the bus, I was struck by the potential impact of this awareness-raising, education- offering tool! I met dedicated people whose knowledge and commitment to seeking tax justice planted seeds in others who left more informed and more empowered. Hopefully, they will go out and spread the message; hopefully they will be encouraged to believe that their voice can make a difference - write messages to leaders or go on rallies or lobby centres of power. Hopefully they will not go back to the default position of adopting the ostrich position.
If you’ve not been able to get to the Tax Bus or if you’d like more information about tax justice, then Christian Aid Scotland and the Church of Scotland are happy to come to speak to your congregation or a group linked with your church.  Please get in touch by emailing  
We’ve also prepared some prayer and worship resources on the theme of poverty and tax which you are welcome to download and use.  October 17th is International Poverty Eradication Day - a great chance to use these resources to engage with this complex issue.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Wednesday: The Politics of tax dodging

I’ve been blogging about issues around Tax to mark the visit of the Tax Justice Tour to Scotland this week. 

Today the Bus visits the Scottish Parliament, where there will be an opportunity for MSPs, Parliamentary researchers and others to board the bus and find out more about what Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty are calling for.

Neil Findlay MSP, who represents the Lothians, has achieved cross-party support for his motion, which I’ve copied below.

If you are reading this and live in Scotland, please consider writing to your MSPs asking if they have signed the motion, and if not, to do so!

One of the challenges we face is that however sympathetic Scottish politicians might be to the cause of greater transparency, accountability and responsibility in the tax system, the only real change will come from wealthy individuals and institutions changing their attitude to tax dodging. 

As a lot of these issues touch on global trade and economic policy the UK Government and Westminster Parliament need to be convinced as well; but with support at every level of power, influence and leadership, hopefully the message that the system has to change can be heard loud and clear.

The Tax Justice Tour website allows you to sign an online petition to add your name to a list which will be presented at the end of the Tour to the Prime Minister.

Motion S4M-04217: Neil Findlay, Lothian, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 20/09/2012

Christian Aid, Tax Justice Bus

That the Parliament commends the work by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty in taking their Tax Justice Bus around the UK and Ireland raising awareness of tax dodging; notes Christian Aid’s estimate that the global culture of financial secrecy costs the developing world $160 billion every year, which is one and a half times what is delivered in international aid; understands that, in the UK, the poorest people are also worst affected by the impact of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance; notes that the Tax Justice Bus is in Scotland between 1 and 5 October 2012, stopping in Dumfries, Alloway, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Inverness and Inverurie, including a stop outside the Parliament on 3 October to allow MSPs and parliamentary staff to meet campaigners, and welcomes the opportunity for people to get on board the tax bus and find out why tackling tax dodging is so important in the fight against local and global poverty.

So get on board by signing the on-line petition, by writing to your MP and MSP, by telling your friends and neighbours that they too can get on-board. There’s plenty of room on the bus! 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Tuesday: Tax and global development

I am blogging about Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty’s campaign for tax justice this week.  Like the Olympic Torch relay, the Tax Justice Tour is travelling to communities across Britain and Ireland seeking to raise awareness about the injustice of tax dodging.  For all of this week the Big Red Bus is in Scotland.
Christian Aid estimates that around $160 billion a year are lost to developing countries’ governments because of tax dodging by wealthy individuals and institutions.  This sum is greater than the global international aid budget. It means that poor countries do not benefit from the tax revenues they are entitled to, and these unethical practices are harming education, healthcare and infrastructure; keeping the poorest in the world poor while the rich avoid paying their fair dues.

Access to clean drinking water remains a major problem in Bangladesh. Yet the money Bangladesh lost between 2005 and 2007 as a result of trade mispricing with the EU and US – an estimated £184m – could have been spent on establishing safe drinking water for much of the population.

In Bangladesh, water is simply not on tap. A quarter of the population lives without sustainable access to improved water. Millions of women and children spend hours travelling just to quench their families’ thirst. As a result, children lose out on education because, rather than filling their brains, they are filling up buckets.

Minu Basar crossed a wide and sometimes dangerous river travelling up to 10km to buy fresh water at vast expense for her family. ‘I used to feel so scared going to fetch the water because it was often windy and it was frightening because of the waves.’

Christian Aid partner Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies has worked in villages across southwestern Bangladesh such as Minu’s to establish Pani Parishad, or village water councils, which provide community-based approaches to delivering sustainable water solutions.

Minu did not know she had the power or the voice to change things until she joined the village Pani Parishad. Through the Pani Parishad, Minu has learned how to safely gather and store rainwater and how to inspire others to do the same.

Taxes aren’t burdens, things to be “relieved” or “sheltered” from: they certainly aren’t there to be dodged. Taxes are an investment in the society you are part of and benefit from. It is time to call time on tax dodging!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Monday: Tax and Theology

This week the Tax Justice Tour comes to Scotland.  This big red London bus is travelling around the UK to promote awareness of tax dodging, it is being managed by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. 

Today I want to write about tax and theology, and to share with you the following ideas, adapted from the joint Church of Scotland – Christian Aid report on the subject, Paying their dues: how tax dodging punishes the poor.

Tax evasion – a challenge to citizenship and discipleship

The conviction that God is sovereign over every part of life, not just our religious or church life, is central to Reformed theology.  There is no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, no ‘no-go areas’ for discipleship.  The Church of Scotland has always held that our politics and economics are as much legitimate arenas for our Christian faith and practice as our prayer lives.

Widescale tax dodging, whether legal or not, is problematic from a Christian perspective. In a democracy, citizens enter into an unspoken contract with regard to taxation. Complain about it as we do, debate appropriate levels as we should, there is an implicit understanding that paying our taxes is part of our civic duty.

Jesus asked hard questions about taxation. He challenged people to make difficult moral decisions, and then live them out as adults who had the capacity for free will. How shall we live? Whom shall we serve? You decide. He asks the same questions of us today. What are your fair dues?

The gospel resistance to taxation was not to the principle.

Rather, it was based on two realities.  First, the taxation system weighed particularly heavily and unjustly on the people who could least afford it.  Jesus’ concern for the poor is central to the gospels; in Matthew 21, we read that he overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple, where the very poorest were subjected to a kind of loansharking in order to be able to make their temple offerings.  To fulfil the requirements of the law, it was necessary to make sacrifices of small animals, birds or money.  A brisk business trading in these went on, right inside the temple courtyard.  But the poor, the majority, had either to borrow the money to buy the offerings, or couldn’t afford them at all.  If you borrowed, you weren’t in a position to bargain – you just had to take the rate you got and stand a good chance of being fleeced.  So the only choice was either to get into debt to fulfil your obligations, or default on them, find yourself classified among the sinners, and be excluded from the number of the righteous.  You didn’t have to do anything we might consider morally wrong to be a sinner, you just had to be poor.

The second reality was that the taxes were being collected on behalf of an occupying power, the Roman Empire.  Tax collectors were not hated because they collected taxes, but because they were considered to be traitors by doing so for a foreign power.  And they were despised because they were also often engaged in malpractice and extortion.  Tax collecting was franchised – the tax collector paid an amount to the authorities for the contract to collect money.  Whatever he collected over and above the due amount was up to him.

Corruption was built into the system.

In Matthew 22, a loaded question about taxes was posed to Jesus. It was not just about money, it was about power. Jesus was being confronted here by a rather unlikely alliance. The Pharisees were nationalistic Jews, middle-class anti-Romans. Those of Herod’s party were collaborators with Rome, urbane upper-class people who knew and played the system well, and were adept at managing the compromises involved in sharing power with Rome. The two groups were traditional enemies. But even more than they despised each other, they feared the challenge presented by Jesus, the rural upstart who proclaimed the rule of God, which they purported to represent, and championed the poor. So they put aside their differences in another attempt to trap Jesus and make him stumble before their political power.

They began by trying to flatter Jesus into giving himself away. The question was: ‘Is it against our law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?’ If Jesus said, ‘pay’, then he would reveal himself as a collaborator, a traitor, and discredit himself in the eyes of most Jews.  If he said, ‘don’t pay’, then he was open to charges of lawlessness and criminality.  Jesus knew they were trying to trap him, so he answered their question with another question.  He asked for a coin. The unspoken implication was that he did not have one himself, and if he had no money, then he wouldn’t be paying any taxes.  But he never actually said so.  When the coin was produced, he asked them to describe it.  The face was the Roman Emperor, the inscription underneath ‘Son of the Divine’, blasphemy to any devout Jew.  The claims of Caesar, depicted on his money, were not only economically and politically oppressive, they were idolatrous, claiming an authority which belonged only to God.  But Jesus would not be constrained within the limits of the question he was being asked.  By calling for the coin, Jesus sprung the trap set for him.  And by turning the question back to them, he caught them in their own trap.

Now they were the ones who had to declare themselves.  In his final statement, ‘render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, Jesus drew another distinction between himself and the Pharisees.  They talked of paying taxes.  Jesus spoke of ‘giving back’ (and the Greek makes it clear these are different things).  What Jesus referred to was a submission to authority.

This text has sometimes been used to justify a rigid separation of faith and politics, to assert that God and money have nothing to do with each other, that the things of God belong in a spiritual realm while money belongs to a material realm from which faith must keep its difference and its distance.  But Jesus demonstrated that people’s values and motivations, their spirituality, showed up precisely in how they used their money.  And no Jew in Jesus’ audience would divide reality between the power of God and the power of Caesar.  On the contrary, many believed that Caesar had usurped God’s authority and must be driven out by armed revolt.

A spiritual challenge

Jesus’ words presented a huge challenge to his listeners, and they still do to us today.  Were the Pharisees, in their opposition to paying taxes, driven not just by nationalistic fervour but by their own love of money and indifference to the plight of the poor, whom they subjected to religious exclusion?  Were the Herodians really motivated by concern for good order and the safety of their fellow Jews, or rather by the power and influence their collaboration gave them?

Were the onlookers looking for easy answers from the party that would tell them what to do and save them having to make hard moral choices themselves?  Jesus’ words and actions depict a very subtle position.  He accepted neither the authority of the Sanhedrin, the religious power, nor that of Rome, the military power.  But neither did he sanction open, and certainly not armed, revolution. He changed the terms of reference, and questioned the very nature and legitimacy of authority.  Money, good order, political influence – all have a claim and a role.  But all are subject to the authority of God, to God’s justice and mercy, and that meant a radical reordering in favour of the poor and dispossessed.  If money was your god, you needed to be liberated from that attachment; if power, then that too was a chain.  And in the face of all these competing claims, no one was going to allow you to shake off your responsibility and hide behind others.  You had to decide for yourself as to the weighting you gave each of these claims.  And your choices would show up what your spirituality really was.

In the context of deep poverty and insecurity for the vast majority of the peasant population, disturbance and dissatisfaction were rife.  As Kenneth Leech writes: ‘The climate of colonial rule, oppressive taxation, accumulating debt and bankruptcy, forced migration and revolutionary uprisings, formed the background to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.’

His call resonates today with as much relevance.  Tax evasion by wealthy and powerful companies and individuals causes grief to those who can least tolerate it, misery to those who have more than enough share in that. Proper taxation is an investment into the communities we are a part of, whose flourishing means we too can flourish.  Companies who take advantage by embracing the benefits of a country and then refusing to put anything back into them are as guilty as the tax collectors and collaborators in Jesus’ day.  The characters may have switched places, but the result is the same: misery for those who have no way to fight back. Join Christian Aid in fighting for them.