Taxes, Government and the Church – Part III

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Afamasaga M. F. Toleafoa

Due to travel, it hasn’t been possible to respond earlier to the letter (15 February 2018) by Reverend Lale Ieremia on taxing the clergy in Samoa.

Reverend Lale Ieremia, a former Chairman of the powerful Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) and former faa-feagaiga of my own village Fasitootai, is someone I have always held in high regard, and perhaps more importantly considered a friend.

As such, I respect his right to make a contribution to the public discourse on this potentially divisive subject even if it is to disagree with my support for taxing the clergy in Samoa. 

I must also admit there were parts of Reverend Ieremia’s piece, like my use of the English language for instance that were hard to follow. But I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves what to make of Reverend Ieremia’s valuable contribution. 

Government’s decision to tax the clergy was always going to raise strong views and one might have hoped, not too much resistance from the church. After all, as the self-professed representatives of God (Sui Vaaia o le Atua) on earth, one might have also expected to see more of the benevolence and giving and self-sacrificing qualities of heaven shown in the clergy’s response to their being taxed like everybody else. The reality is that no one wants to pay taxes. And being human like all of us, the clergy in Samoa is no exception it would appear, if one were to go by the few that have expressed a view on the subject. 

My friend Reverend Ieremia is correct that I have not always written in support of government. In fact I don’t write to support or to oppose government. I write to express a view and contribute to the discourse on issues of public policy and action that I believe are not in line with the principles of government laid down in our nation’s Constitution and laws. It is said that war is too important to leave to the generals only. So is with government being too important to leave to the politicians only. Democracy works best when the general public also do their part.

We have adopted for ourselves a constitutional parliamentary democratic system of government where the rule of law (and not of men) prevails. The process of making public policy starts in parliament with government and the opposition, and then continues in the public arena with citizens having their say through the media and through other means and using their fundamental right to freedom of speech. The result of that democratic decision making process as we see in functioning democracies like New Zealand is a transparent and more vibrant system of government, and public policies that stand the test of time and don’t flip-flop around in circles like some of ours  are doing.

Readers with long memories may recall a series called “Elections maketh not a democracy” that ran for some years in the Samoa Observer. Its main purpose was to track and comment on significant changes in our electoral laws that were being made beginning in the mid-1990s when the government of the day commandeered for the first time a two thirds majority in parliament. The underlying message in that series was that the changes then being made on a totally partisan basis to our Constitution and to our electoral system would have the effect of progressively accumulating all political powers in the hands of the ruling party with unfortunate implications for our fledgling democracy. 

That process is now completed and today, we have one party rule with a mock opposition in a mock parliamentary system with all effective power in the hands of government. Late last year, a brand new Electoral Act 2017 was passed. The old electoral act had done its wrecking job and can be thrown on the scrap heap of history where it belongs.

The issue this time is not our system of government but our system of taxation and of taxing the clergy, and as Reverend Ieremia correctly pointed out, my views are this time in line with what government is proposing, for which he congratulates me. But I make those views known not to take sides or to support government as suggested, but more to make a meaningful contribution hopefully to a discussion that will continue for some time if what one is hearing from the pulpit is any indication. It’s also a decision that has yet to be implemented. The principles at issue here are of much greater significance than whether one supports government or not. 

They are about fairness and social justice, principles for Christian living that emanate from God himself who we as a nation claim to worship and follow.

As set out in my last piece on “Taxes, the Clergy and Government,” the institution of government is God ordained. God is not a God of confusion. If governments follow Biblical guidelines, they will instill order, justice, peace and security and in societies. These are the conditions we all crave, and that that make countries like NZ and Australia such magnets for migrants from countries such as Samoa where conditions are not quite the same. It is also the lack of those conditions in their own countries that are driving thousands of refugees to Europe from Africa and the Middle East at great cost and risk to life and limb.

 Governments in turn need to be supported and funded and taxation is the legitimate means to do that. As set out in my earlier comment on “Taxes, the Government and Church,’ the Bible is clear about Christians and taxes. Christians including the clergy are to pay taxes like everyone else, which is also the situation in those nations where the missionaries who first brought the Gospel to Samoa came from. Samoa is the exception, but an exception with no Scriptural basis, so it must be manmade. And if it is manmade, we know what Scripture says about worshiping God according to men’s traditions.  If it is manmade, then there is also no Scriptural basis for some of the clergy preaching a theology that portrays a vengeful God and instill fear in people in order to retain their tax free privilege.

My final comment is about putting a value or worth of the work the clergy do in Samoa as raised by Emmanuel in his response to my original comment on taxing the clergy. There is no questioning the value of pastoral service. There is also no questioning the need for those who work as pastors to be paid. God has provided for that to be done through the system of tithing and freewill offerings. But the issue here is whether the clergy should pay taxes like everyone else and that’s already been answered. 

Should pastors from the poorer parishes also pay taxes as posed by Emmanuel? Only if their income reaches the taxation threshold, and even then at the lowest possible starting tax rate. And if their income should rise if they are assigned to a more affluent parish, their ability to pay rises and so will their level of tax. This is putting into action the principle Jesus gave in Luke 12:48 about “more being expected from those to whom more is given.” The system is designed to accommodate the needs of the poor, but at the same time also allow governments to perform the functions mentioned earlier that we all want our government to provide.

As for poverty and the clergy and the latter’s ability to pay taxes, poverty is not a word or condition normally associated with the clergy in Samoa. I suspect the parishes of Manono, Fagaloa and Tufutafoe mentioned by Emmanuel would not readily agree with that designation for their pastors. In fact the word affluence would be a more honest and fitting description of the profession in Samoa, a situation that is reflected in the growth and popularity of this line of work and of religion in Samoa and in Samoan communities overseas. 

Proud of you Carmel Sepuloni 

 

Dear Editor,

Re: Carmel Sepuloni daughter of Samoa 

Such a nice story on Carmel Sepuloni. Congratulations to you Carmel Sepuloni!

Nice to see our people reach that level in the political sphere no matter where in the world. Good luck with your endeavors.

 

Galu

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