The Gospel, according to Luke, tells us that Jesus’ birth occurred during the time when Augustus Caesar had ordered the entire known world to be taxed.
According to the Emperor’s Decree, every person had to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. At the time of issuing the decree for the census for purposes of taxing all the people in the Roman Empire, the military expenditures for the widespread Roman legions had greatly exceeded its income.
As a result, Augustus had run out of funds to pay his troops as well as provide the essential supplies and ammunition his troops needed. Prior to this decree, there was no tax in the Roman Empire. Augustus was funding his military activities through a military treasury to which he made a contribution himself, and also accepted voluntary contributions from kings and certain communities.
He was not taking any money as of then from private citizens.
However, this proved to be inadequate compared to the amount he was spending on his military conquests and he started running a deficit.
To overcome this deficit, he issued a worldwide decree that there would be a 5 per cent inheritance tax on estates. This taxation required a census to register transferable assets, such as land, and to record a family tree to establish very near relatives.
The announcement was made a few days before Jesus’ birthday. As a result of this decree, Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem together with his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, to be counted. Joseph was of the house and lineage of David and his ancestral home was in Bethlehem of Judea.
While in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Probably due to the census, the inn was too crowded, and Mary gave birth in a crude stable. She wrapped baby Jesus in cloths and placed him in a manger.
My view is that if it was not for the need to expand the tax base in the ancient Roman Empire, Jesus would not have been born in a stable.
So as you can see, taxation has been with us since Biblical times. Even then people thought of taxes as a necessary evil. A colleague of mine who I describe as a Christian radical considers taxation as theft.
And to support his views, he quickly quotes the Bible, saying that God says “thou shall not steal.” When I point out to him that the same Bible tells us that we should pay our taxes, his response was even more radical.
He said “ ‘yes, but that does not make taxing people morally legitimate.’ ”
To support this he again quotes from the Bible saying that Jesus also says we are to “turn the other cheek” but that does not make cheek-slapping moral. It’s at that point that I rested my case.
Christmas is a time for giving and giving is the act of generosity. So as you get into the festive mood, spare a moment to think about the others who do not have as plenty as you do. What have you done to make their life better? I consider the tax I pay to the Government as one of the ways I give back to others.
Because of the redistributive nature of the tax system, paying taxes is one of the ways we all show, or can show our love and concern for the others. The Government uses the taxes you and I pay, to finance the costs of public administration and the provision of public services like health care, education, police, build roads, and so forth.
These are services enjoyed by all in the country regardless of how much contribution they make to the country’s total tax revenue. So in case you were feeling guilty about not being as generous as you think you can afford to be, think about all the taxes you have paid this year, and the many people who have benefited from it.
Have a Merry Christmas, or to use the politically correct language of these days, Seasons Greetings to you all. Until next year.
Paul Frobisher Mugambwa is a Tax manager at PwC Rwanda.