Prelatical Tax Collectors

'It is profoundly irresponsible for priests, rabbis or imams to make excuses for breaking the law'

In Joseph Epstein’s short story “Second-Family Man”, the protagonist Futterman tells the rabbi at university that he is torn between becoming a rabbi or a lawyer. “Become a lawyer,” the rabbi tells him. “It’s morally much more challenging.” This would make a salutary text for some of the clergy of all denominations who have waded into the present debate about the morality of the market economy and found themselves out of their depth.

One of these turbulent priests is profiled in our “Overrated” column: the Anglican theologian Giles Fraser, who resigned as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in October, prompted by his support for the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest. This provisional wing of Occupy Wall Street, having pitched camp outside St Paul’s, soon became a kind of postmodernist installation, provoking schism in the Church of England and chaos in the City Corporation, all the while enjoying the spectacle without even suffering the discomfort of actually sleeping in their tents. Unlike the hand-wringing bishops and deans, this anti-capitalist inquisition has no qualms about claiming to be holier than thou, especially if thou happen to be making an honest living in the City.

How our ancestors would have treated such false prophets may be surmised from Professor David Womersley’s “Underrated” portrait of John Donne, sometime Dean of St Paul’s and as great a preacher as he was a poet. Though he would have heartily agreed with Epstein’s rabbi that lawyers, and for that matter laymen in general, are “morally challenged”, Dean Donne would also have seconded Dr Johnson’s view: “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” So for that matter would all the great churchmen of Donne’s day, from T.S. Eliot’s hero Lancelot Andrewes to George Herbert, the metaphysical poet and archetypal country parson.

Why, then, have today’s liberal clerisy so much less grasp of economics and morals than past divines? Why do they condemn the legitimate pursuit of commercial profit-unlike the authors of the Hebrew Bible or the Jesus Christ of the New Testament-but hesitate to vilify violations of the Judaeo-Christian moral law, from eugenics to euthanasia, by the state and other authorities? This moral confusion runs deep. In Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians (reviewed on page 61), the atheist former president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, summarises what he calls the descending trajectory of liberal ethics:

1) It is prohibited to violate the moral commandments.

2) It is prohibited to violate the personal autonomy of the individual.

3) It is prohibited to set moral limits.

In a world in which anything goes, those who profess to be the guardians of morality find themselves redundant; hence the frantic eagerness with which they denounce bankers or any other scapegoat, disregarding truth and justice. Anarchists in clericals, themselves careless of the moral resonance of language, do not mind that “occupation”, which used to denote a job of work, has been usurped by the otherwise unoccupied to glorify their attempt to deprive City workers of their livelihoods.

The Archbishop of Canterbury himself exhorts us to “take seriously the moral agenda of the protesters at St Paul’s”, but his own response-to advocate a “Tobin tax” on every financial transaction in the City-indicates that neither he nor they are motivated by anything more edifying than envy, or at best a sanctimonious inverted snobbery. For the eponymous American economist James Tobin intended his tax not to raise revenue for redistribution but to penalise speculation in the international currency markets of which he disapproved. No more efficient way of ruining the prosperity of the capital and the country is conceivable.

In this anniversary year of the King James Bible, we do well to go back to the original source of our moral code. Scripture is capable of widely varying interpretations, as Geza Vermes shows in his erudite account of the doctrinal divergence between Judaism and Christianity. But the Bible is also an essential common denominator of Western culture, as Pope Benedict XVI regularly reminds us. In his speech to the German Parliament in September, the Pope eschewed any specifically Christian text, instead citing the case of Solomon, who asked God for a “listening heart” in order to distinguish good and evil. For Benedict, an evil regime such as the Nazi one can and must be resisted; having grown up in the Third Reich, he knows what he is talking about.

Living as we do under the rule of law, however, it is profoundly irresponsible for priests, rabbis or imams to make excuses for breaking the law. They appease and flatter those who disguise their hatred of Western civilisation under the banner of “protest”. Such protesters defy private property rights, monopolise public spaces and prefer street politics to the ballot box. Those who live under tyrants are entitled to use “people power” to overthrow them, but those who claim the right to do so in a democracy are the enemies of liberty. The moneychangers of Wall Street and the City of London may be despised, but they too have rights. Above all, we should beware of tax collectors posing as prelates.

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