Tax control

The letter we received from the Tax Control Department was preprinted. Handwritten had been added a date, a number and the addressee: Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen. It invited, or rather summoned, “an official representative of the organization” to appear before a duly appointed tax controller. Report to office number 7. Within thirty days, “otherwise the Department will take the necessary measures”.

The space for the reason had been left empty.

I was asked to handle it. At that time – many years ago – I was secretary to the Church’s legal association in Belgium. The reason for the letter? Of course, again some muddle in the mission office. Overdue car taxes? Unpaid real estate levies? Outstanding import duties for Church material? But it could be worse. Was the Tax Department considering an imposition on gifts because some members had applied for a deduction on their tithing? The letter fueled haunted inklings.

A decrepit tax building, breathing dejection. A waiting corridor, long and narrow, lined with exhausted chairs on both sides. Five seats next to every office door.

Office number 7. Three men and a woman were already seated. I took the empty chair, and adopted the posture of culpability that such places bestow.

People passed, hiding their apprehension under a sulky air. When an office door opened to let someone out, the seated crowd gazed insolently at his face to catch a glimpse of the outcome. Across from me, at office number 5, sat two men, ostensibly a businessman and his accountant, perhaps his attorney, holding a thick dossier and several binders. I noticed the businessman’s blue veins throbbing in his temples.

From inside office 7 we could hear voices, rising, quarrelling, then one broke into a pleading tone, punctuated by the crackling sound of an antiquated calculator.
– He sucks, whispered the woman next to me. He’ll get the last cent out of you.

My turn came. I entered into a pungent smell of nicotine and fading paper. The controller sat behind an aged metal desk, stacks of cluttered files on both sides. In front of him, a nearly full ashtray and a grubby thermos next to an equally grubby coffee mug. Plus the heavy mechanical calculator as I had imagined it. Cold and milky light, coming from the opal, acid-etched glass of the window behind him, stiffened the setting.

He was a tall, meager man, around fifty. The low-hanging corners of his mouth exuded both a drained and a defiant expression. The whole face seemed to dissolve towards those corners. Already years ago life must have left his listless eyes.

– Sit down. You have your convocation?

I handed him the letter the Church had received. From an eroded cabinet with rusty sides he pulled a file, amazingly thin and light compared to some of the bulging dossiers. He opened it with a gloomy sigh.
– We never had a case like this.

He paused, staring into the file, slowly reading a cover page, in utter silence. I recognized the tactic to put his opponent off balance. Years of experience had made him master of the game. From dealing day after day with cheaters, swindlers, liars, he had acquired an impudent confidence, fiercely conscious of the power emanating from his humble clerical rank to confront undeserved opulence. But a finger of compassion touched me too, as I realized the desolation of his task. His work was to dispute and to penalize. His calling was to be uncherished.

Finally, from a slit envelop in the file he took a folded paper and handed it to me. The note, handwritten in Dutch and in neat capitals, read:

“Dear Sirs. For several years I have cheated on my taxes. But my life has changed. I have become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to make amends for my wrongdoing. Enclosed is 37,800 francs in cash, late interest included.”


The tax controller took a dispassionate sip from his mug.
– It took us time to find an address for your organization. The official domicile has not been updated properly. That must be normalized within thirty days, you understand?

He paused again and lit a cigarette.
– I presume you do not know who this individual could be?
– I have no idea. Besides…
– This individual should have asked for a regularization. There is a form for that. Also, if the Administration determines that this individual has fiscal arrears, he will not be able to claim this irregular disbursement.

An unholy thought crossed my mind: this good brother should have given the 37,800 francs for our struggling fast offerings.

– Anyway, the Administration must acknowledge reception of the sum. It was decided to hand that note to your organization. Please sign here for reception of the receipt.

As I signed and stood up, I risked:
– Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone wanted to amend like this, if they all wanted to pay their taxes honestly?

He stared at me, motionless. The smoke of his cigarette, held loosely between his stained fingertips, was curling up against the translucent backdrop of the window. Seconds ticked by. Suddenly the corners of his mouth rose, the creases in his face followed upwardly and sparkles sprang from his eyes. A fleeting moment of joy. Perhaps the vision of a smiling throng scurrying to his office with flowers, contributions and confessions. A taste of mercy. A taste of paradise.

The delight vanished as the corners of his mouth regained their position.

– Good day, he said dryly.

24 comments for “Tax control

  1. Oh, my, oh, my. So even the tax man is vanquished by charity, if only for a moment.

  2. Thanks, Tatiana, Adam, John! Little comments like that are always appreciated.

    I expected to hear more about the fact that a church member would want to amend for taxes not paid. When this story got known in Belgium, the reactions from non-members, but also from members, were total disbelief. How would anyone want to pay that sum to the State, known for its irresponsible spending and squandering (especially in Belgium), unless obliged to do it? Trying to dodge taxes as much as possible is known as a Belgian “national sport”. Church members said: We have to be honest in all our dealings, but does that extend to a system that mostly steals from us and wastes a lot?

    Well, that aspect is also part of the background of this story.

  3. Thanks for asking, Julie. This event took place in the mid-seventies. As far as I can remember the dollar was then around 44 BEF, so the sum would have been 859 USD. Not a huge amount, but I presume it must have represented a fair sum for the person involved. We never learned who it was. The envelope had been deposited at a Brussels tax office. It may seem like a little incident, but the fact that conversion to the Church would actually drive someone to this point of honesty remains a most remarkable feat considering the tax culture of the country.

  4. Concerning the Belgian attitude toward taxes: when I was teaching in Belgium, we bought a car to have it delivered to the U.S. when we returned. The deal was that I could get a very good price if I bought it and kept it in Belgium less than a year, and I didn’t have to pay the EU and Belgian Value Added Tax (27%). In addition, if I kept it for more than three months in Belgium, I didn’t have to pay sales tax (6 1/2%)on it when I took it to the U.S. My colleagues at the university incredibly admiring of me because I’d managed to avoid nearly a little more than 33% in taxes–and to do it legally! That gained me more respect with them than anything I had done philosophically.

  5. You have my admiration too, Jim.

    But dodging taxes is also a philosophical endeavor in Belgium.

  6. Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasars–what he does with it is his problem. I think this new convert did what he/she thought best, and I would guess his/her tithing and fast offerings were paid with joy, knowing that those funds were being used wisely. What a wonderful recounting of a probably very initimidating situation. merci beaucoup,Wilfried.

  7. Avec plaisir, jp. Your reference to the scriptural “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars” is certainly an apt criterion in these matters. Now if we could just bring Caesar’s officers to appreciate believers’ honesty… And what a change it would make to the national deficit if all were paying honestly. Or would that only encourage the government to spend even more?

  8. If everyone started paying honestly you’d see some real changes in the tax code, that’s for sure. Certain aspects would just get too onerous.

    Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court has concluded that a citizen has no moral duty not to try and find every techical, legal loophole in the tax code he can. That’s one opinion.

  9. I read an interesting tidbit in the book Freakonomics. When the US started asking for children’s Social Security Numbers when you file for tax deductions suddenly a very large number of children seemed to dissappear.(I forget the exact number but it was pretty incredilble) Thank you for your great post Wilfried. You are my favorite!

  10. This is a great story.

    Am I correct in thinking that there is no tax write-off for tithing?

  11. In a family finance class I took, my prof said that tithing could be considered a charitable contribution.

    Merci beaucoup, Prof Decoo, pour vos belles histoires/mémoires!

  12. I was refering to Belgium in particular and Europe/cananda in general as far as tithing tax write-offs.

  13. Thanks all!

    Yes, indeed, in Belgium tithing is not deductible, only money given to officially recognized charities (Red Cross, Caritas Catholica…) and academic and cultural entities can be deducted. As far as I know, Church gifts are deductible in the Netherlands (there are also advantages to open-minded and liberal societies, yes), but not in France. It all depends on the country and their historical setup. How is it in Canada or in Latin American countries?

    Adam, you need to explain “the United States Supreme Court has concluded that a citizen has no moral duty not to try and find every techical, legal loophole in the tax code he can.” I’m lost with the two negations… If we take them both out, since both neutralize each other, the sentence would mean (passively) that a citizen has a moral duty to find loopholes. Yes?

  14. I think he meant that a citizen doesn’t have to refrain from exploiting loopholes, regardless of whether or not it is admirable to do so.

  15. I admire the honesty of the person who willingly paid back taxes.
    However, I don’t think it is necessarily better to intentionally pay more taxes than necessary by ignoring legal ways to not pay taxes. Is it immoral to use a coupon when you go to Subway? Is it immoral to get two for one pizzas on Tuesday, when you have to pay full price on Wednesday? All that is required is a little knowledge and planning, and you can structure your restaurant eating so the bills will be lower than they would be if you did no planning.

  16. to answer comment 10,..I would presume that the government would logically find more ways to spend the money, after all we live in an imperfect, corruptable world. To expect more of this worlds’ governments has usually been a disappointment to me. I think the honest feeling between oneself and God is a most important relationship, and that relationship is individual and obtained differently for all people. Wilfried, your insights are wonderful… you’re my favorite blogger too. jp

  17. What I loved so much was the contrast between the fallen world, so beautifully evoked by the atmosphere of the tax collector’s office and his dour countenance, and the celestial kingdom in which all dealings are honest and joyful. It was as though this dark world were briefly lit from heaven. :-) I can’t wait! How marvelous it will be!

  18. Again, thanks so much all for the comments.

    And for the suggestions to better understand taxation and our attitude towards it! I guess that for many of us, to achieve perfection, if we ever do, paying honest taxes will be the last threshold and the ultimate touchstone.

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