Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1981

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we hit 1981.

The Mennonite

In our last episode, a proposal was briefly floated in which people would be allowed to become legal conscientious objectors to military taxation in exchange for donating their labor, one year out of every seven, in a “sabbatical service” program. Robert Hull, who developed this idea along with a young conscientious objector he was counseling, expanded on this idea in two articles for The Mennonite in :

  1. Sabbatical service: a new form of congregational ministry introduced the proposed program and showed how it fit into Mennonite ideas of service, ministry, and mutual aid
  2. Sabbatical service: a new legislative proposal described how this supplemented war tax resistance. Excerpts:

    Can it be that this misplaced respecting of institutions and laws rather than persons has come about because we have put the burden of Christian witness on 18-to-20-year-olds, who are perhaps least prepared through experience to detect the difference?

    Can it be that because of the risks to ourselves and our security, we who are older have failed to acknowledge that conscientious objection to military participation and conscientious objection to war taxation are Siamese twins? Just because we may have become too old to be liable to the draft does not mean our contribution to warfare is ended. We continue to serve the military through conscription of our taxes.

    In fact, governmental draft boards could, for reasons of administrative efficiency, take the position that everyone who is nonconformist enough to request a conscientious objector classification should be granted it, so long as he or she continues to work and pay taxes.

    So our rush to prepare our sons and daughters as Christian peacemakers to face the draft board and seek alternative service may be leading them only to “men-pleasing eyeservice” if we do not wrestle with our command to “make known the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers.”

    The difficulty which faces us in is that those among us who have recognized this danger have so far been given no option but noncooperation with conscription, and jail or emigration. (And let us recognize in due honesty the Christian service and witness that has frequently been given in these situations.)

    What we are called upon to propose in is a new option, a new model for Christian service in the midst of the demands of militaristic societies. Our proposal must be directed first to the church, and secondarily to the U.S. and Canadian governments. It must strike a new stance in the political arena where the demands of the state and the call of God overlap and frequently conflict.

    The congregational ministry of sabbatical service as outlined in part one would seem to be such an option. It would involve the whole congregation, including people at every stage of life, and would remove the particular burden of responding to militarism now largely borne by 18-to-20-year-old males. By acknowledging that we as Mennonites ought to face together the Siamese twins of military conscription and war taxation, which spring from the parent, militarism, we can unify the generational differences in our congregations.

    How can this be accomplished? Currently the World Peace Tax Fund bill is pending in the U.S. Congress, and efforts are being made to introduce a similar measure into the Canadian Parliament. By diverting from military to peacemaking uses an amount (equivalent to the military proportion of the annual federal budget) from each “eligible” taxpayer’s income and estate taxes, the peacemaker’s burden of conscience with regard to paying for war would be satisfied. (This does not answer the political problem of swollen military budgets themselves, of course, but only whether peacemakers shall contribute to them.)

    So the Peace Tax Fund bills speak effectively to the war taxation twin. They speak to the military conscription twin as well by defining as “eligible” taxpayers those classified as conscientious objectors.

    If it is true, as General Lewis Hershey and numerous U.S. Selective Service documents have claimed, that the CO provisions of were a good accommodation strategy for the U.S. government (by avoiding a direct confrontation with the peace churches as in World War Ⅰ), then one wonders why the U.S. legislators and Canadian MPs have not rushed to establish Peace Tax Funds and thereby avoid confrontations with the war tax objectors.

    Certainly one part of the answer is that our governments know that the peace churches are not unified on this issue, and they can continue to deal with individual objectors quietly and piecemeal in Internal Revenue Service and Revenue Canada offices.

    But perhaps the stronger reason is that taxation is more important for a high-technology military establishment than manpower. Peace Tax Fund bills allow the taxpayers some choice in directing the spending of their taxes. This could, as the minds of many legislators conceive, “open the floodgates” to a deluge of what they look upon as “special interest legislation.” Most of such tax legislation, or “loopholes,” is written to financially benefit individuals, groups, or corporations.

    One answer to this mindset of legislators is to point out the distinct history of conscientious objection and its recognition in both legislative acts and judicial decisions. This argument is usually helpful but not sufficient. Many legislators and MPs still see little distinction between CO alternative service and “draft dodgers,” despite its legal status. It seems to them a special interest provision, the “easy way out.”

    If a young person were to covenant as a sabbatical servant, pledging to perform subsistence-level VS periodically throughout his or her working life, and willing to undergo repeated financial sacrifice for this purpose, would this help change the mindset that “these COs are parasites on the U.S. (and Canadian) economic system”?

    For this reason, a “Sabbatical Service Act” may have considerable appeal in the U.S. Congress or Canadian Parliament where the Peace Tax Fund bills alone have not. How can one consider that a people who are willing to accept seven years of service spread throughout their working lives, and thus accept substantial limits on their income growth, are seeking “special interest legislation”? Are such a peculiar people unpatriotic, who are willing to reduce the benefits they receive from North American economic systems in return for recognition of their conscientious objection to military service and military-purposes taxation?

    How could this be done? A “Sabbatical Service Act” could be introduced into the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament which would provide legal recognition for persons who covenant with their congregations (or agencies established for the purpose of receiving such sabbatical service covenants from conscientious objectors). In other words, a form such as the Christian Peacemaker Registration, which has become familiar among U.S. Mennonites in recent years, would then be the registration. Congregations or conferences would then simply report those who so covenant to the appropriate government, and they would then be omitted from military conscription rather than registered, and their beliefs classified by the governments.

    The “Sabbatical Service Act” would further incorporate the Peace Tax Fund provisions (which may differ in Canada and the U.S.). When a sabbatical servant performed his or her periodic VS, their income would be below taxable levels. During the six intervening years, when their income would be taxable, the Peace Tax Fund mechanism would operate to divert the military-equivalent proportion of their taxes to peacemaking efforts (such as National Peace Academy, funding an Ambassador for Disarmament, conflict resolution research, economic conversion plans for military installations, etc.).

    The concept of sabbatical service thus envisions a response to militarism (represented by military conscription and war taxation) which is voluntary in the sense of being self-chosen by peacemakers, yet structured into enabling legislation by governments. It is a proposal which could be both faithful and legal, with the potential for generating a Jubilee of enthusiasm for service in the name of Christ.

A brief note in the issue read:

Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section’s “Taxes for Peace” fund experienced an increase in contributions during . The fund was established in late . “Persons whose consciences forbid them to yield money on request to the government’s death-by-technology militarism are contributing the military portion of their income tax instead to the life-supporting work of MCC U.S. Peace Section,” says John K. Stoner, executive secretary of the section. “They see it as a way of fulfilling the scriptural command to owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Paul Leatherman explained why he and his wife Joan had started to dip their toes into tax resistance, in the issue. Excerpts:

A willingness to allow the ongoing conscription of our tax dollars for war purposes — without witness against it — is surely a tacit support of the arms race.

This reality is crucial to Mennonite witness today. The fuel that supports military madness is tax dollars, not the conscription of our youth. Previous conscientious objection (CO) patterns — expressed mainly in alternative service by our youth — are inadequate. We must find new ways to show our personal CO witness.

Several options have some validity. (1) Leave the country and find a place not given to the madness of war. Our forefathers have done this more than once. (2) Decrease our earnings so we have no tax obligation. (3) Increase our giving to the church; that which otherwise goes for the arms race. (4) Do not file an income tax return. (5) Withhold payment of that portion of income taxes used for military purposes. (6) Symbolic withholding of income tax. (7) Pay taxes under protest. (8) Do nothing at all.

We personally have tried various ways to withhold a portion of our income taxes we considered to be used for military purposes. This has opened unique opportunities for witness. But in the end the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) took the money.

What next step might a larger group of Mennonites take? Many have done nothing; some have written letters of protest. A lot of them feel quite uneasy.

This year we withheld $7.77. There is no place on U.S. tax form 1040 — nor is there legal provision to take such a deduction; just as there was no legal provision for our youth to register as COs. But Mennonite churches encouraged those who registered to do so as COs. To us, it seems that a symbolic $7.77 war tax deduction helps us to be counted as COs. We used line 46 on page 2 of the form and wrote in the words “war tax credit — see letter.” An attached letter explained the deduction.

Our proposal of a $7.77 deduction may be as little as one can do and still be counted. It is not more radical or illegal than asking our youth to register as COs when there was no legal provision.

Why $7.77? Seven is the perfect number in the Bible. Jesus tells us to forgive 70 times 7. While any amount might do, $7.77 has special meaning to us.

If you withhold $7.77, it is necessary to explain top IRS. Seven dollars and seventy-seven cents becomes a frustration to IRS. It is too small and too costly to collect. Much discussion can follow.

We are proposing — to our elected officials — passage of the World Peace Tax Fund (WPTF) so we can designate taxes for peaceful purposes. We sent our $7.77 to the national council of the WPTF in support of its efforts.

If nobody joins us in this symbolic withholding, IRS will be glad for one less war-tax resister to deal with. In the past they came to take from us what we withheld. This year they may ignore us. But if 1,000 or 10,000 or perchance 100,000 would join us in this symbolic action, it could not be ignored. Provision would be made to accommodate these COs.

We know symbolic withholding of $7.77 is timid. But by this act we can be counted as COs. It is our attempt to follow Christ’s teaching to be peacemakers.

The midtriennial in Minneapolis where the war tax resistance idea came to a head in the General Conference seems to have planted some seeds in the local faith-based peace community. From the edition:

Twin cities peace group issues war tax protest

An interdenominational clergy and lay group in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area has sent a statement of protest against the world arms race and the taxes levied to support it to U.S. senators, representatives, and President Reagan.

The group, called the “People of Faith Peacemakers,” sponsored a public meeting on the arms race and war tax resistance recently at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis. The statement, entitled “Covenant of Witness and Mutual Support,” grew out of the meeting and was attached to a list of 50 supporters, with signatures and addresses.

The statement reads as follows: “We, people of faith in God as our sustainer and source of peace, hereby register our protest against the world arms race and against taxes levied to support that race. As stewards of life we are compelled by conscience to oppose the use of our money for the infliction of suffering and destruction of humanity.

“We therefore support each other as we select various means, such as the following, to protest this payment for war, recognizing our responsibility as American citizens and members of the larger global community: (1) Deliberately choosing to earn less than a taxable income; (2) Payment of taxes accompanied by a letter of protest against their use to sustain the arms race; (3) Withholding a token amount of taxes as a symbol of opposition to the use of any funds dedicated to military purposes; (4) Refusal to pay the entire portion of taxes used for military purposes; and (5) Refusal to pay the telephone tax which is levied for military purposes.”

The last three measures were coupled with a clause whereby the withheld amount could be donated to an escrow account for the World Peace Tax Fund, the Minnesota Alternative Fund, or some other peaceful purpose.

The interdenominational group took shape shortly after the General Conference Mennonite Church held a special midtriennium session in the Twin Cities on the theme of Christian civil responsibility in .

Myron Schrag, pastor of Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis, is one of the coordinators of the interfaith body.

A conservative backlash to changes in the Mennonite General Conference, including but not limited to the emergence of war tax resistance, resulted in the “Smoketown Consultation.” A “Consultation on Continuing Concerns” grew out of that, and held another meeting in . An article on the meeting included this section on taxes:

[Myron] Ausburger said we are unfair when we expect the state to operate at a Christian level. It is a people’s franchise. The church is Jesus[’] franchise. We need to relate to the state as we do to the world — in loving responsibility first to God but also to our fellow persons.

Augsburger also presented his tax-proposal: (1) Get giving high as possible, so taxes are low as possible; (2) pay taxes; (3) calculate amount used for defense and give an equivalent amount to a peacemaking fund.

Dean Denner wrote to the IRS to explain his tax resistance, and portions of the letter were reproduced in the edition:

Of the United States income tax collected, approximately 50 percent is used for the military. Such use is in violation of my constitutional rights and responsibility. The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise (of religion)…”; i.e. my religious beliefs preclude my paying for the genocide or mass suicide… The Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”; i.e. I maintain the right not to participate in (by paying for) governmental mass murder… International law as ratified in Congress and signed by the President is U.S. law; e.g. the Nuremburg Principles state each individual is responsible for not being complicit in crimes against peace, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Therefore, it is my responsibility as a United States citizen not to be complicit in such crimes by paying for U.S. first-strike nuclear war preparations. Therefore, I have used Schedules A and B for a war tax deduction which results in the necessary 50 percent adjustment in my income tax… For further clarification please contact me at…

The edition brought the news that the war tax resistance bug had reached the Netherlands:

[N]either the Mennonite church nor the IKV [Interchurch Peace Council] feels comfortable with individual radical action.

Dirk Visser, a Dutch Mennonite journalist working for the equivalent of the Associated Press wire services in the Netherlands, called my attention to Willem-Jan Maas, a Mennonite minister serving in Opeland. This minister tried to funnel what he considered the war tax portion of his income tax to the Dutch Mennonite Peace Group via the local income tax office.

This effort was halted by the tax officers, but even had it been successful, the minister would not have been applauded by the IKV, according to Visser. The IKV has taken the political action route, and with that the churches can cooperate.

An interview with popular Christian speaker Tony Campolo in the edition asked him “What do you think of war tax resistance?” He answered:

I think war tax resistance is a viable means for Christians to express their opposition to a system that is requiring unchristian behavior. The Anabaptist tradition calls us to noncooperation if the state asks us to support something that we believe is contrary to the will of God.

The edition brought the news that the General Conference Mennonite Church was going to federal court to ask a judge to order the IRS to stop requiring the Conference to withhold taxes from the income of conscientiously objecting employees. Mennonites have traditionally eschewed lawsuits for biblical reasons, for example:

Matthew 5:39–40
“…I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”
1 Corinthians 6:1–8
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? … But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren!

So the General Conference had to explain why this lawsuit was different. First off, it wasn’t a case of brother going to law against brother, but an institution asking a judge for a ruling on a constitutional interpretation. Secondly, if the Conference did not initiate such a suit, the only way to get such an interpretation would be for it to break the law, be brought into court by the government, and then defend itself, but “the majority does not want to break the law in order to test whether the law violates the constitution [so] the only alternative is for us to take the initiative”.

That didn’t completely settle the debate. In particular, the Deacon board of the Eicher Emmanuel Mennonite Church wrote in to say they wanted nothing to do with the suit. Their objections “in the order of their importance” (my summaries):

  1. Christians are under Biblical obligation to pay taxes.
  2. Lawsuits fly in the face of Mennonite nonresistance.
  3. The ostensible separation of church and state Constitutional issue in the lawsuit disingenuously masks the real purpose of the suit, which is to defend conscientious objection to military spending.
  4. The lawsuit is doomed to failure and will only have the effect of enriching lawyers to the detriment of other church functions.
  5. Even if it were won, the underlying issue would remain unresolved.
  6. Member congregations should not be compelled to support a position like this that they don’t agree with.

The MCC Peace Section (U.S.) met in , and a majority resolution on the nuclear arms race from the 225 members there included this statement:

We were repeatedly reminded in this assembly that the conscription of our income supports the nuclear arms race. Moreover, we saw that the government is increasing expenditures for nuclear and other weapons by decreasing expenditures for human services for the poor and oppressed. We encourage people to consider ways to witness against this evil use of the power of taxation, such as refusing to pay the military portion of the federal income tax.

An accompanying article said that the original draft of this statement “was criticized for not being specific enough, [so] the group moved to add a paragraph on the war tax issue.”