Monthly Archives: May 2014

How might Christian Values shape a country

How might Christian Values shape a country

I’m not the only who who has been thinking and writing about values recently. The link above is to a Theos blog describing what a Christian country might be like, based on the kind of values I’ve been thinking about. It sounds like the kind of country I’d like to live in!

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HMRC says I’ll Take That

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I’ve found the reaction to Gary Barlow’s failed tax avoidance scheme very interesting. As I understand it, the scheme he (and a few other people too) invested in (apparently to support up-coming musicians) has been ruled not to work as a means to off-set taxes due, so the tax on earned income invested in the scheme becomes payable. He hasn’t actually done anything illegal, unless he now fails to pay his taxes, and yet there have been calls for him to return his OBE.

Have we finally reached the point where trying to find and exploit loopholes in tax laws is considered morally wrong if not illegal? Perhaps it’s the OBE that upsets us – given for raising funds for good causes which would probably have benefitted from his tax revenues. Perhaps it’s just because he’s been found out – should or would we have felt the same outrage if the tax scheme had been ruled as legitimate?

However we look at it, it seems to me that we’re not keen on the idea that someone with lots of money isn’t contributing their fair share to the welfare and benefit of all society. This runs contrary to what our Government believes – that we mustn’t tax our so-called wealth creators too hard or they will run away and take their wealth creation elsewhere.

But wealth creators only benefit society if their wealth is shared around into the economy. The theory of trickle-down economics has collapsed under the pressure of the growing gap between rich and poor since the advent of Thatcherism. Rich people’s money isn’t circulated in the economy – it is hidden away in off-shore, tax-free investments. If we want the rich to contribute to the well-being of all, it’s going to be through taxes.

We seem to have the same attitude when it comes to companies too. Even our politicians are up in arms at the idea that the American pharmaceutical Pfizer wants to take over the British Astra Zeneca because they suspect the deal is all about stripping the assets from the British company and then benefitting from the low tax rate in the UK. In other words, using Britain as a tax haven. But it is the same politicians who have created the environment to make this possible. Attracting companies from overseas is one thing, but like with individual wealth creators, the wealth that is created needs to come into the economy.

So what do we really want? Do we create the conditions for individuals and corporations to pursue wealth for their own benefit (after all they have worked for it) and hope that we might gather up some crumbs from the table? Or do we want a system which works in the best interests of the whole of society, where each (individual and corporation) contributes to the good of all according to their means? The public reaction to both these stories suggests we want everyone to contribute to a better society. Let’s do what we can to make sure these principles are applied by those in power making our legislations, and think about these principles when we vote on Thursday.

Finally, thinking about contributing according to means and progressive taxation, I’m going to leave you to look up a story Jesus told about the offerings of the rich compared with a poor widow in Mark 12 v 41-44.

What are Christian Values?

Writing recently about whether hard work is a Christian value reminded me why I started this blog. I finished my dissertation and found myself with more questions than answers….

Thinking about values was a key part of my dissertation. Research by Schwartz in the early 90s identified values which are important to people and motivational to the way people live their lives. Further research identified that most of these values are consistently important across societies and cultures around the world. Plotting how much importance people attached to these values showed patterns where certain values cluster together – if one value in a cluster is important to someone, then all of them usually are. Schwartz called these clusters “value types” and identified an underlying motivational goal for each one. For example, values such as social power, wealth, preserving my public image and authority were grouped together as “power”. The value types also have a relationship to each other, with certain types being found together. This relationship brings all the value types together in a circle. So an individual with a tendency towards “power” values would also be likely to rate highly values within “achievement” and “security”, and so on round the circle:

Schwartz's Values Circumplex
Schwartz’s Values Circumplex

Other values are important to people in different cultures, but Schwartz concentrated on the ones which could be considered universal. They are values which are shared across humanity. We all place different weight on which values are important to us, and this weighting is not static. We change which values we consider to be important depending on what decision we are making and the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are also influenced by other people and the environment around us as to which ones we attach more importance to. The circle above shows how values influence each other. A situation which highlights security values will also raise the importance of power and tradition/conformity. At the same time, it will also diminish the importance of the values directly opposite in the circle – in this case self-direction and stimulation.

The weighting and importance placed on values influences the way we behave. Bringing it back to topics closer to my heart, research was carried out on the values considered more important by people who got involved with issues of social justice such as climate change, global poverty and human rights. People who placed an emphasis on “universalism” values were more likely to have modified their behaviour because of these issues, from recycling to buying Fair Trade. Universalism values are equality, unity with nature, wisdom, a world of beauty, social justice, broad-minded, protecting the environment, a world at peace. This doesn’t seem like rocket science when you see what these values are! Universalism is described as being concerned with the welfare of all people and nature. Second most strongly linked with pro-social behaviour was the “benevolence” value type, described as concern for those around you. These values are helpful, responsible, forgiving, honest, loyal. So far so obvious. But the value types on the opposite side of the circle – power, achievement and, to a lesser extent, security – were associated with not getting involved with this pro-social behaviour.

As I said above, we all have all the values, it is just the importance of each value that differs between us, and this is not static. This begs the question, if the balance of values changes, does this change behaviour? The research suggests that yes, it does. Remember that encouraging the values on one side of the circle diminishes the other side. This means that the emphasis given to power or achievement values can be reduced by promoting universalism and benevolence values. Researchers found effects could be achieved simply by exposing participants to words associated with universalism, and the opposite effect with power words, all compared to controls of neutral words.

Extrapolating from research brings us to this: Issues of climate change, global poverty and human rights are not going away. We do not seem to be able to fully grapple with what we need to do across the whole of society to deal with these issues. If we could encourage the emphasis on universalism values, we would see more people willing to engage and act in pro-social ways. These values are part of every person’s value set, we don’t need to change people, just encourage what is already within. But a quick look around the influences in our society, especially advertising and the media, reveals that we are bombarded with messages emphasising the importance of power and achievement values. I’m starting to see articles in the paper about this, such as this one about the link between materialism and lack of empathy. It’s a big job, but one that can start wherever you are, encouraging values of equality, social justice, unity with nature etc by what we say, how we treat people, the metaphors we use, the motivations that drive us.

I came away from my dissertation enthusiastic to promote these values, and I still feel this way. I really want to encourage them in the church, and that is what set me thinking. If I am promoting justice, wisdom, equality etc am I not just promoting Christianity? Trying to embody these values feels to me like trying to be more like Jesus. Should I focus on the values, or focus on sharing my faith, because the values follow on naturally? Are they compatible or mutually exclusive? Just a question of emphasis? What are Christian values anyway? Are there other values in the circle which are Christian, and if there are, do they work against the values which encourage pro-social behaviour? I can see some conflict with tradition/conformity being seen as typically religious values, but which might limit a vision to see beyond ourselves and being willing to rock the boat (which the massive challenges ahead of us would seem to demand). But I get the feeling a lot of church leaders feel like this too!

The values of benevolence are also associated with pro-social behaviour and look pretty much like Christian values. Some groups involved in promoting this values-based approach to address global issues have not wanted to focus on benevolence values because the looking towards our neighbour sometimes closes the door to behaviour which benefits those far away if it harms or doesn’t benefit those close to home (eg paying more for Fair Trade). However, church is often one place where we do recognise that our neighbour includes those in far away places, especially churches which support organisations like TearFund and Christian Aid.

Below is a table of all the universal values, grouped in value types. Which ones are Christian values? Do we see universalism values in Jesus, in the Bible, in church? Is this what church should be like? Does it matter? I want to pursue these questions, and would love to know what you think?

Universalism Equality – Unity with nature – Wisdom – A world of beauty – Social justice – Broad-minded – Protecting the environment – A world at peace
Benevolence Helpful – Responsible – Forgiving – Honest – Loyal
Conformity Obedient – Self-discipline – Politeness – Honouring of parents and elders
Tradition Respect for tradition – Devout – Accepting my portion in life – Humble – Moderate
Security National security – Reciprocation of favours – Family security – Social order
Power Social power – Wealth – Authority – Preserving my public image
Achievement Ambitious – Influential – Capable – Successful
Hedonism Pleasure – Enjoying life
Stimulation An exciting life – A varied life – Daring
Self-direction Freedom – Creativity – Independent – Choosing own goals – Curious

Calling to Account

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Last Friday it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I posted on this blog a few months ago about a campaign training event I went to with ShareAction and Christian Aid. If we have shares in a company, directly or via pension funds, then the company is investing our money, and we have the right to hold them to account. I previously wrote about a campaign to challenge pension fund managers, but the training also dealt with attending a company AGM to ask a question as a shareholder.

So, on Friday, I found myself, standing at the podium, as a corporate representative for ShareAction, ready to ask a question at the RSA AGM. My heart was thumping and my knees were shaking, but my voice was steady and the room was listening.

RSA is an insurance company, better known as More Than for personal insurance. They’ve had a bad year, making as big a loss last year as their profit the year before. There was a lot of hostility in the room towards the board from shareholders who had seen their dividend disappear. I’d expected to be intimidated by the board, but it was clearly the board which was on the defensive.

Louise, who came with me from ShareAction, had met me outside the trendy building in Central London, prepared all the paperwork, including the question, and filled me in on the company background. We signed in and then registered our questions. We already got a positive response from the team registering questions to our plan to ask the company about its tax arrangements. “I hope you get a good answer”, we were told. As a veteran of these occasions, Louise made me feel at home, and introduced me to another AGM campaigner preparing to challenge the company about its poor performance.

I asked my question about the company’s business in places used as tax havens, wanting to know if RSA had substantial business there, or just used them for tax minimisation purposes. Despite identifying the need for transparency, and the risk to the business of a tax avoidance scandal, the best answer RSA could offer was that it complies with all appropriate tax law. I tried to follow up suggesting that the issue was about more than compliance, but the board hid behind the need to manage their taxes for the benefit of the shareholder. Louise asked about climate change, but also followed up my question for me, eventually getting the board to admit that some of these subsidiaries were there for “corporate purposes”.

It was good to be able to directly ask a company whether they were using tax havens. I wasn’t sure how much difference this would make to the company’s actual behaviour, but Louise seemed to think that the evasive answering indicated that RSA was embarrassed by our question. Asking questions at an AGM is not going change things over night. It is one campaigning tool among many, aiming to raise awareness of issues with companies which might not otherwise consider these things, putting things like tax and climate change higher up the agenda, chipping away at accepted norms.

Would I do it again? Yes! Fitting in a trip to London has its own challenges, but there’s always the free lunch! Next time I’ll bring a bigger bag, as snaffling a couple of napkins full of flapjacks and brownies would seem to be the order of the day.