Faith, Politics, and Transitions in Brussels

The Least of These: Diaconical Taxation


 “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'” — Matthew 25:40

A social system will always have gaps in it; spaces and borders that cannot totalise the landscape of human life and society — there will always be spaces and the people who occupy them that fall outside the borders we draw for our social space and that we care for. There will always be the other, the poor and the outcast. Jesus promised and prophesied as much. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t create a system…

Within the Lutheran tradition, especially in its Germanic and Nordic strains, there is the system of diaconical taxation. Some have called this the welfare state, and they have tried to implement it in other regions and countries, with varying degrees of success. What, in part, enables the successful caring of people through health, educational, and social services in these countries is the strong foundation these services have in the church, in the idea of diaconia: caring for the least of these.

The taxes that have evolved over the course of time in these countries that support the unemployed, or the poor and ill, have links back to the church and her ministry. Now, at the state or societal level, borders are more easily drawn: only citizens can receive these benefits, or those under these conditions, et alia. In the church, the borders are much harder to draw and should be. It is always the definition of the “least of these” to fall outside the common space we care for and protect.

In this way, diaconical action — whether through an independent organisation or through the institutionalisation of welfare through taxation — must always be self-disrupting. It cannot settle, or else it becomes something other than diaconical action: it becomes a power-structure, or a system of inclusion/exclusion. This is what we can work against: the ossification of dynamic diaconical action. In the wholeness of society, in the space that our “here” occupies, we need to go to the edges, to the fringes, to the non-spaces (not the other’s space, for that would be linked to ours in a dialectic of the same): the spaces that belong to no one, no country, where the least of these gather, drain to, because they have no where else to go.

We should pay our taxes, especially those that support programs and institutions that aid ‘the least of these,’ but we should also, through action, advocacy, and admonishment seek out the least of these, and make sure that the space we share is common. That there is a common good between us, that we have common projects, and a common dignity. In this way, our societies become larger than themselves, more diverse, more spacious. We should also act on the personal level: giving to the least of these, because in the eyes of those in poverty, of those excluded by the powerful (whom we are) are the eyes of Christ, who himself was excluded, outcast, and killed outside of the space of the city. To see Christ in them will affect all of being: from our time and money, to our compassion and indignation. May we learn to see Christ in the least of these, and so care for them, love them, and share a common dignity with them, and push our societies and our institutions to do the same.

— Jeremy