I find myself in the unusual situation of liking a pope.
This is the first time I can say this in my life. For most of my early life Pope John-Paul II was in charge of the Catholic church. As popes go he was pretty well-regarded, but I personally disliked him for having made my life difficult. When I was born and named John-Paul in 1973 there was no pope called John-Paul, and there never had been. John-Paul was a pretty unusual name to have in New Zealand in 1973, but at least it was unusual without seeming to be super religious. Most people would assume I was from a French background and leave it at that. Pope John-Paul I (briefly) and Pope John-Paul II (lengthily) changed all that. From 1978 onwards people assumed I was from a particularly religious background. Never mind that I had been named before a Pope called John-Paul existed. This put me in the position of unfairly disliking the pope, who had unfairly hijacked my name. When he died I was (not so secretly) happy. This almost certainly reserved for me a spot in hell.
After Pope JP we got someone who was easy to dislike: Pope Benedict. So far so good. Now at the age of 40 I find myself liking Pope Francis and wondering how long he will last. Saying the kinds of things he is saying at the moment tends to shorten your life. It didn’t do much for the longevity of the careers of RFK or MLK to speak out for the poor, and attack the culture of money.
Pope Francis has called on world leaders to end the “cult of money” and to do more for the poor, in his first major speech on the financial crisis.
Free market economics had created a tyranny, in which people were valued only by their ability to consume, the pontiff told diplomats in the Vatican.
“Money has to serve, not to rule,” he said, urging ethical financial reforms.
I wonder if he is aware that “ethical financial reforms” is an oxymoron, like “reliable public transport” and “military intelligence”?
My Understanding Religion class has been doing the Sermon on the Mount. It’s quite eye-opening. Eye-opening because it’s really much better than singing hymns in church while a mild man in a cardigan prattles on about God. The Sermon on the Mount reminds you what was radical about Jesus, and why he is originally an anti-authority figure, and why it’s so odd that he is an establishment figure now.
It’s not enough, Jesus tells us, to obey the commandment not to kill, you shouldn’t be walking around angry with people, cursing people, you need to resolve these conflicts and find peace with people. It’s not enough to love people who love you; you need to find love for those who hate you.
“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
As messages go it seems a long, long way from the carryings on of the church over the last, let’s say, 1600 years.
If you were on the side of the established church then Jesus was a pretty prickly individual to have around, and it is easy to see why the established forces of Judaism wanted to see him gone. Jesus wasn’t happy with wealthy synagogues cozying up to the imperial oppressors; something he made quite plain. In fact, he wasn’t much a fan of money at all when it came to religion as we see not only in the Sermon on the Mount (“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money”), but in the famous scene where he chucks the money changers out of the temple (“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’”).
You cannot serve both God and money. This is a division that the church, and many Christian people really haven’t been into. The occasional anti money figure who crops up in the story of the church – like Francis of Assisi – ends up having massive, wealthy institutions built around their poverty after their death. Money does tend to co-opt and make comfortable. Let’s face it; it’s easier to take the money and have some nice things for a change than it is to think about the kingdom of a perhaps non-existent heaven and live hand to mouth.
A lot of Jesus’ message is very hard to fit into a normal life, and we should never forget that he was an unmarried man with no children who died relatively young. Sometimes he just reads like an unrealistic, youthful firebrand.
Sometimes though he feels perfectly right. We do need to – for example – learn to deal with our anger, strengthen our humility, and drive money out from where it does not belong.
Under current law, private schools, fee-charging hospitals and food giants reap the rewards of tax relief with no obligation to donate some of their profits. The Government is $600 million out of pocket each year as the charities sector swallows $400m through income tax exemption and $200m in tax credit refunds, yet Cabinet decided against reviewing charity law last year through “fiscal cost” fears.
It was fairly easy to find my old school on the charities register. Scots College is there as a registered charity. It costs $20,000 in fees to go to Scots College for one year if you are a Year 11-13 student. An education at that school from Year 1 to Year 13 must cost over $200,000 in fees. And yet we find that it is a charity. It has built an indoor cricket training facility, and is building a $600,000 recording studio and yet we find that it is a charity. We find that it already receives government subsidies as all private schools do to help it survive and yet I sense a lack of interest in opening up some of those facilities to the general public who contribute every single year to its continuing existence.
Legislation let charitable trusts benefit from tax exemption while public organisations were obliged to pay 8 per cent of their net worth to the Government as a capital charge, a cost that bled the Canterbury District Health Board of $15m last year.
The on the ground assets of Scots seem to be about $35m.
What exactly are its charitable works? It’s hard to say from its detailed report prepared by Deloittes. It seems, however, that “advancing education” is charity in of itself.
Goodhew (Community and Voluntary Sector Minister) admitted the New Zealand public “may not understand” the definition of charity under current legislation and that they might be “surprised” to find some charities listed on the charities register.
“The important thing for the public to have confidence in is that we have a robust system that ensures that within the Charities Act 2005 charities can’t actually be registered unless their purpose is charitable.”
Charitable purpose relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion or any other matter beneficial to the community, she said.
I feel like the cash-strapped state school that my daughter goes to should now be applying to be a registered charity. Surely a school with no zoning that has a focus on special needs and ESOL students does more good to the community than a school with a $20,000 per year barrier to entry?
Which is, as it turns out, why the law on charities has not been reviewed.
The Government decided against reviewing the law relating to charities last year through fears more organisations may have expected to be eligible for charitable status which could have “increased fiscal costs”, an Inland Revenue spokeswoman said.
And so it goes.
Former and current board members of Scots do legal work for the school and receive money for their efforts. It reminds me of the advice in the book Pay Zero Taxes. Want to take your spouse everywhere for free – make them an employee and apply for the deductions. You’d be stupid not to. Right?
Perhaps Scots College and it’s ilk have misunderstood the intent of Jesus’ advice about charity,
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
They may have heard the parts about secrecy, and missed the word “needy”.
As for the accounting firms, if I were going to set one up I can think of no better motto:
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.