John Calvin and the challenge of inequality


John Calvin’s explicit references to taxation are fewer than Luther’s. He inherited an operational system of public finance in Geneva when he first arrived in 1536 and evidently saw little reason to adjust it. Embedding Calvin’s few remarks about taxation in his overall political theology, however, can generate helpful insights into the shaping of modern assumptions about the institution of taxation. Because of Calvin’s distinctive emphasis on poor relief, his political theology is instructive for redistributive taxation in particular.

This chapter first briefly describes Geneva’s public finance system before and during Calvin’s time there. It then addresses the distinct place of poor relief in Calvin’s thinking, the place of redistribution in his overall conception of the economy, and finally Calvin’s explicit teaching about taxation in the context of his overall political and economic theology.

Taxation and poor relief in Calvin’s Geneva

The Reformation was officially proclaimed in Geneva, and the Duke of Savoy’s troops chased away, in 1536. By then, the city’s Syndics (magistrates) had been collecting the fines and penalties of the Prince-Bishop for almost ten years and had effectively completed a takeover of Geneva’s public finances.1 Once the Reformation was proclaimed, the new city-state tracked down all sources of revenue that had been available to its predecessor. In William Monter’s words, “Geneva was ‘secularized’ with a vengeance in 1536, and one immediate result was an astronomical increase in municipal revenues.”2 The Syndics and the Petit Conseil were especially successful in obtaining revenue from the gabelles on wine and meat.3 Nevertheless, it is estimated that at least one-fifth of Geneva’s revenue during the last years of Calvin’s life was used to pay interest and some principal on the city-state’s foreign debt to Basel.4

One reason for Calvin’s relative silence on the question of taxation is undoubtedly that he inherited a robust system of public finance in Geneva—one that had already been transferred from the church to the civil authorities. Other matters required more of Calvin’s attention, already spread far and wide as it was. Robert

Kingdon concludes that if Calvin “did not work hard to resolve Geneva’s social problems personally, it was probably because he thought they were already being handled by men of competence whom he trusted.”5

Calvin’s Geneva, in any event, became a model of the type of community that Luther sought. It was “one of the first attempts to establish a welfare state in modern Europe without the need for begging.”6 The theologian Graham Tomlin boldly asserts that Geneva is a prime, and successful, example of the Reformation cities that implemented “theologically motivated programs to eliminate destitution and poverty in favor of a much more egalitarian view of social life.”7

At the center of sixteenth-century Geneva’s social welfare efforts was the Hôpital-Général, a creation of the Reformation though not of Calvin.8 This “general hospital” was much more than a “hospital” in the modern sense of the term; it provided assistance of various kinds to people in need for all sorts of reasons—to orphans and foundlings, the old and the sick, disabled people, even visitors requiring food and lodging. In the reorganization of Geneva’s civic affairs accompanying the proclamation of the Reformation, the properties of five hospitals—formerly administered primarily by priests—were turned over to the new Hôpital-Général. The services of the five hospitals, the scene of financial and physical abuse, were consolidated in the new institution, which became considerably more efficient than the “quasireligious foundations” that it succeeded.9 Properties confiscated from churches, convents, and confraternities added to the holdings of the new general hospital.10 In fact, the headquarters of the new hospital were located in the former convent of Sainte-Claire, which had been closed (as a convent) under the influence of Calvin’s teaching.11

Direction of the Hôpital-Général was placed entirely in the hands of laymen. Its procureurs were selected in the same way as most other officials of the Genevan Republic; the retiring Petit Conseil nominated four or five procureurs each year, and the slate was then presented to the Conseil des Deux-Cents (Geneva’s largest legislative body) and the citizens for election (a mere formality). The procureurs became a sort of standing committee.12 By 1550, members of the merchant families that effectively controlled the city expected, and even sought, to serve this “single institution that cared for all the city’s poor.”13

Calvin, again, had little to do with the creation and operation of the Hôpital-Général. Laicization and rationalization of social welfare had been underway in Geneva since the mid-fifteenth century.14 Indeed, the inspiration for Geneva’s sixteenth-century welfare program seems to have been the Aumône-Général of Lyon rather than the Reformation cities in Germany that had responded in the 1520s to Luther’s call for welfare reform. Lyon’s institution was established in the early 1530s and bore many similarities to Geneva’s Hôpital-Général.^

However, the influence of the Reformation on Geneva’s civic welfare reforms must not be discounted. The city’s “decisive steps toward laicization and rationalization” were taken after 1536. Geneva’s reforms did not differ in kind from those of contemporary cities, but they “were more thorough, more radical in their break with the past.”16 The Reformation did not create new welfare institutions so much as infuse them with new theological meaning. The emerging pattern of civic reform and the simultaneous redirection of theological commitments in Reformation cities influenced each other.17

Calvin’s own concern for the social welfare of Geneva manifested itself in the creation of the Bourse française sometime between 1545 and 1550. The Hôpital-Général was not prepared to handle the influx of refugees—many of them French, like Calvin himself—that the Reformation triggered. The Bourse was a private institution, essentially a large fund collected from wealthy French refugees in Geneva and distributed to other French refugees who had trouble supporting themselves upon their arrival. In most years, Calvin was the largest individual contributor to the Bourse, and there is some evidence that he founded it.18 That Geneva was a refugee center was important to Calvin, as reflected in the dedication in his commentary on the Gospel of John to the Council of Geneva. He wrote there that Geneva’s role was “significant in light of Christ’s statement that he regards the taking in of strangers as something done personally to him.”19

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >