This is the thirty-sixth and last in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of Gospel Herald, journal of the (Old) Mennonite Church.
Today I’m going to try to sum up what we’ve learned along the way. (Similar disclaimers apply to those I mentioned when I did this exercise for back issues of The Mennonite.)
First, the background: the (Old) Mennonite Church was a major Mennonite branch in the United States and Canada, distinct from the General Conference Mennonite Church (whose house organ, The Mennonite, I went over with a fine-toothed comb earlier this year), and from other Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren groups. It has roots in America that go back into the late 17th century, but began to coalesce as a distinct organization in the late 18th century.
The original publication of this Church was called The Herald of Truth. Another publication, Gospel Witness, began publishing in , and the two merged into Gospel Herald in . At least in the early years, editors of these magazines had a great deal of authority in shaping and reinforcing Mennonite doctrine.
The Herald of Truth began publishing in the middle of the American Civil War. This is helpful for us, as it is during war time that Mennonite doctrine about abetting war and bloodshed is most likely to come to the forefront and be made explicit.
As best as I can determine, the orthodox Mennonite practice during the American Civil War was neither to serve in the military nor to purchase a substitute to serve in one’s place if one were drafted, but instead, to take advantage of the (Northern) government’s policy that allowed draftees to be exempt from service on the payment of a $500 “commutation fee.” Mennonite congregations were urged to organize fund drives among their membership to pay the commutation fees of Mennonite draftees who could not themselves afford such a sum.
This policy is in contrast to that of the Quakers, who discouraged members from paying such commutation fees and instead counseled them to refuse military service outright and accept the consequences. (Some Quakers did exactly that, though others bucked the orthodoxy to serve in non-combatant roles or pay the fees.)
Mennonites were also discouraged from raising money to use as encouragement for non-Mennonites in their area to enlist (a technique meant to cause the local enlistment quota to be met and thereby stop the government from drafting others). This was considered to be too close to “hiring substitutes” and therefore also forbidden.
Those stands formed the baseline from which Mennonite war tax resistance would later develop. But at the time, it was accepted as a given that Mennonites should pay all of their taxes without question or complaint. Indeed this was often put forward as one of the reasons why governments should tolerate Mennonite conscientious objection to military service — after all, they’re good taxpayers.
This doctrine was supported by the “two kingdoms” interpretation of the Render-unto-Caesar episode and the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letters to the Romans. In that interpretation, Christians were to be primarily loyal to the Kingdom of God, but were to mostly leave worldly kingdoms to do their own thing. The kingdoms of the world were not meant to be reformed or to become Christian exemplars; instead, they were meant to wield the sword in a good old fashioned, eye-for-an-eye sort of way. Christians could and should pay their taxes to such governments without blinking an eye, as the governments had every right to exact tribute on their terms from their subjects, and what they did with the money afterwards was their own problem, not that of the Christian taxpayers.
For this reason, for instance, many Mennonites would not vote — thinking it not to be their concern to try to direct the government in any way.
While I never saw any articles in the Mennonite Church magazines at this time promoting tax resistance, I did notice that some of the articles promoting taxpaying seemed to be doing so with an implied audience of pro-resistance heretics in mind. So there may have been an underground current of tax resistance already running at this time.
World War Ⅰ brought the next big test for Mennonites. In my study of back issues of The Mennonite, it seemed that the General Conference Mennonite Church was utterly unconcerned about the implications of buying “Liberty Loan” war bonds. This puzzled me, as I knew from some earlier research that there were many examples of American Mennonites who were persecuted for refusing to buy such bonds.
I was eager to learn whether the Mennonite Church had been different in this regard, and from what I read in Gospel Herald, indeed it was.
Gospel Herald readers were counseled in no uncertain terms that they were not to purchase Liberty Bonds or in any other voluntary way to assist in supporting the war effort (which would include, for instance, even donations to the Red Cross). However, they were to continue to pay all of their taxes as usual, and should not resist if attempts were made to confiscate their property.
Mennonites were under a great deal of pressure (frequently amounting to violent coercion) to buy war bonds. As a result, there were a variety of attempts to find a way that Mennonites could demonstrate their contributions to the common cause in a way that would appease their oppressors without irritating their consciences. Some gave to relief efforts, and others tried to find some form of government bond (e.g. “Farm Loan Bonds”) that would not be so tainted by war. These had mixed success: the former had the disadvantage of being donations rather than loans, so it was harder for Mennonites to give in sufficient quantity to appease the mob; the latter was often frustrated — the Farm Loan Bonds never materialized, but some Mennonite groups were able to loan money directly to certain local banks in lieu of purchasing Liberty Bonds in a way that apparently was somewhat satisfying all around.
In Canada, Mennonites took the easy way out, purchasing their government’s war bonds, but with a provision that their contributions would be spent “for relief work only.” It was not specified how such an intention was supposed to be put into practice.
For the first time in this period I read a Mennonite suggesting that paying war taxes is problematical, and that perhaps a conscientious Mennonite ought to take legal steps (reducing income, buying fewer goods and services subject to excise taxes) to avoid them.
Little changed in the period between the World Wars. When I saw mention of war taxes, it was usually in the context of reinforcing the doctrine that Mennonites should pay any tax demanded under the “two kingdoms” principle.
During World War Ⅱ, Mennonites were again challenged by the pressure to buy war bonds. This time the Mennonite Church did not hold up so well, though by all accounts the pressure was much less severe (I don’t know of any examples of mob violence being directed against Mennonites who refused to buy war bonds during this period).
Instead of whole-heartedly refusing to participate in funding the war by purchasing government bonds, the Mennonite Church went through a long and largely pointless process of trying to get their hands on government bonds that weren’t labeled “war” bonds so that Mennonites could purchase those instead. This so-called “Civilian Bonds” program was a total fiasco, and resulted in Mennonites pouring millions of dollars into the U.S. war effort while at the same time congratulating themselves on witnessing to their “testimony of nonsupport of war.”
That said, during this period some of the rigidly pro-obedience-to-government interpretations of Romans 13 and the Render-unto-Caesar story began to be questioned. Writers might drop the hint that paying war taxes was not something Mennonites ought to do cheerfully, but that they must do regrettably.
A secular (or at least non-sectarian) philosophy of pacifism began to assert itself in Mennonite circles, and traditionalist Mennonites were at pains to distinguish the Mennonite doctrine of “nonresistance” from this seductive impostor
In the post-war period I start to notice writers urgently defending the traditionalist line on Romans 13 and Render-unto-Caesar when it comes to taxpaying — so hints that there were war tax resisters emerging among Mennonites came before they were permitted to speak for themselves in the pages of Gospel Herald
In the magazine begins to mention war tax resisters from outside of the Mennonite community, for instance from the Peacemakers group and the Society of Friends (Quakers). These mentions are typically neutral, neither condemning nor recommending war tax resistance, but they indicate a curiosity about the practice. Beginning in I also began to see periodic mentions of how much “of the taxpayer’s dollar” was being spent on the military. The combination of these suggested an atmospheric shift in favor of war tax resistance, but it took a long time before Mennonite authors endorsed war tax resistance or Mennonite war tax resisters were mentioned.
Mennonites may have been given a bit of a nudge by hearing about the tax resistance campaign waged by some Amish people who objected to the social security program. That campaign was covered in a series of Gospel Herald articles from and ultimately resulted in the government making some concessions to their conscientious scruples.
In the dam burst. The Church of the Brethren and Mennonite Central Committee each formally addressed the problem of paying war taxes — which is to say that each considered that it was a problem, which is a far cry from the former Romans 13 orthodoxy which held that Christians should pay all of their taxes without concern or complaint.
There was a great deal of concern expressed, and one author tried to find a suitable legal path for conscientious objectors to military taxation by means of legal charitable deductions. But it wasn’t until that an actual war tax resisting Mennonite surfaced in the Gospel Herald.
When John Howard Yoder’s “Why I Don’t Pay My Taxes” was published, Gospel Herald was aware that it was crossing the rubicon. It preceded the essay with a lengthy disclaimer pointing out that it was a heterodox opinion but one that “deserves prayerful consideration.” At that point, the debate came out into the open, as did other war tax resisters.
There was tension from the beginning between arguments for war tax resistance as a form of conscientious objection — that is, not wanting to participate in warfare by paying for it — and as a form of “witness” — that is, civil disobedience as a way of demonstrating to the government the seriousness of one’s concern. Yoder’s influential essay was firmly in the “witness” camp, and much Mennonite war tax resistance — particularly what involved refusing and redirecting what was uncritically called “the military portion” of one’s income tax — is most-easily interpreted as a “witnessing” sort of resistance.
After the initial flurry of interest excited by Yoder’s essay and the reactions to it, there was a lull in coverage of war tax resistance that lasted .
In , though, the Mennonite Church met in General Conference and asked its Committee on Peace and Social Concerns to investigate how Mennonites ought to deal, in an acceptably Biblical way, with “the payment of taxes collected explicitly for war purposes and such other similar involvements in the war effort that they may find among us inconsistent with our profession as a peace church committed to Christ’s way and to suggest such remedial measures that will underscore our conviction and witness.”
An editorial titled “Dare We Pay Taxes for War?” followed shortly after, and the debate was reopened, but on much more favorable terms for the pro-resistance faction.
As the Vietnam War became more obviously awful, and the anti-war and civil rights movements erupted all around them, Mennonites began to be worried that they were missing the boat — that their timidity had kept them from making their vision of a peaceful and inclusive Christian community harmonize with what should have been a favorable moment for such a message. Ought they to become more assertive with their message of peace and brotherhood? To become activists?
Mennonite war tax resistance advocates became more bold, some asserting not only that war tax resistance was an acceptable Mennonite practice but that paying war taxes ought not to be — or going so far as to promote coordinated mass tax resistance on the part of Mennonites as a whole.
Don Kaufman gave respectable theological and historical cover to war tax resistance promoters with his book What Belongs to Caesar? At this point, the traditionalist arguments for taxpaying take on the aspect of tired clichés, and even the traditionalists tend to concede that paying taxes for war is something regretful even as they insist the Bible commands Christians to go along with it.
Mennonite Church-related colleges, subcommittees, and other institutions were increasingly taking up war tax resistance as a topic of discussion (or even instruction). The Gospel Herald editor came out in favor of war tax resistance in an editorial.
The dream of some sort of government-certified way for conscientious objectors to pay their taxes without paying for war — the equivalent of World War Ⅱ’s “Civilian Bonds” — congealed in the form of the World Peace Tax Fund Act. Early concerns about its value were soon stifled, and it would continue to attract attention from ostensible “people of conscience” throughout the years that followed.
In the Mennonite Central Committee created a “Taxes for Peace” war tax redirection fund, so to some extent war tax resistance was being formally endorsed and organized by a Mennonite body.
War tax resistance spread to other religious groups and to other countries (including, notably, a briefly-popular war tax resistance movement started by an Anabaptist pastor in Japan) during the 1970s.
Now with support from Gospel Herald editors, the pendulum had swung so far in war tax resisters’ favor that conservative foes were reduced to arguing “if you refuse to pay taxes for war, you should refuse to pay taxes for abortion and other bad things too.”
The magazine formally entered the lobbying game when it included pre-printed cards in one issue that U.S. readers could send to their Congressional representatives to urge them to support the World Peace Tax Fund legislation. Peace Tax Fund lobbying would become a Mennonite Church project, with paid staffers working alongside (or as part of) the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.
War tax resisters from the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, and Church of the Brethren began to coordinate their efforts, and then, through the “A New Call to Peacemaking” initiative and in other forms, they began to coordinate with Quakers and other Christian war tax resisters.
While there were many examples of Mennonite war tax resisters during this period, and while sympathy for the war tax resistance opinion seems to have become the dominant opinion in the pages of Gospel Herald, I don’t get the impression that the majority of Mennonites are actually practicing war tax resistance.
Whereas the Mennonite Church was way out ahead of the General Conference Mennonite Church when it came to conscientious objection to purchasing Liberty Bonds during World War Ⅰ, in this period they are largely playing catch-up to their General Conference cousins when it comes to war tax resistance.
In the Mennonite Church issued a statement “on militarism and taxation” that encouraged Mennonites to reduce their tax burden through simple living and charitable deductions, that endorsed some sort of legislation that would allow conscientious objectors to pay their taxes without paying for the military, that urged “careful biblical study” about taxpaying, that “recognize[d] as a valid witness the conscientious refusal to pay a portion of taxes required for war and military efforts,” and that encouraged Mennonite institutions “to seek relief” from the requirement that they withhold taxes from the salaries of objecting employees.
Conservatives regrouped, began to organize, and in the “Smoketown Consultation” of , issued a statement condemning tax resistance among other modern innovations. Conservative criticisms of war tax resistance began to become more sophisticated and more critics of war tax resistance started coming out of the closet.
By , Mennonite Church bodies were under increasing pressure to take a stand one way or the other, and some did decide to endorse, to participate in, or, alternatively, to refuse to endorse war tax resistance.
The board of directors of the Mennonite Church voted to support the General Conference Mennonite Church in its lawsuit in which it was trying to free itself from the requirement that it withhold taxes from its war tax resisting employees. This is the case even though the board was not willing to take any such action regarding its own employees. That lawsuit died in infancy, leaving compliance or civil disobedience as the last tenable options for Mennonite employers.
When the General Conference Mennonite Church met in its triennial, the (Old) Mennonite Church was also meeting nearby, taking baby steps toward the eventual unification of the two groups. But while the General Conference voted to begin a corporate civil disobedience action by refusing to withhold taxes from its conscientiously objecting employees, the Mennonite Church more meekly called for “continued study and discernment on the issue of war taxes” while affirming both conscientious tax resistance and conscientious tax paying as valid Mennonite behavior and begging the government for a Peace Tax Fund law.
Another General Assembly of the Mennonite Church was held in , and war tax resistance was again back-burnered.
The momentum of war tax resistance was already flagging by the time the Mennonite Church general assembly met in to again take up the issue that the General Conference Mennonite Church had taken the lead on.
They again put in a good word for Peace Tax Fund legislation, again urged Mennonites to “prayerfully examine” the issue of war tax withholding and to “continue to support” conscientious objectors to war taxes. But there was no real meat on those bones. They asked their board of directors to come up with a recommendation for what to do about withholding taxes from the salaries of objecting employees. The assembly moderator spoke aloud a sentiment that I think was implicit in a lot of the noncommittal buck-passing: “Personally, I think the Peace Tax Fund is a way out of this.”
The process of deciding what to do about the withholding question bordered on the ridiculous. First, as noted above, the general assembly asked the board to present them with a considered recommendation at their next () assembly. The board conferred with other denominations who were wrestling with the same issue, and then took testimony at a General Board meeting in before voting (unanimously!) to recommend that war taxes not be withheld from the paychecks of conscientiously objecting employees. Sounds like a done deal, right?
Not so fast. When the general board met just before the assembly, they abruptly did an about-face, blaming this on the lukewarm-support their recommendation had gotten from district conferences. They replaced their recommendation with one that removed any suggestion of refusing to withhold taxes, and instead called for more “study of the… issues” and, of course, more hope that a Peace Tax Fund bill would make the problem go away. In other words: the same old same old.
But then when the General Assembly met, they surprised everyone by losing patience with this nonsense and calling the board’s original recommendation back for a vote — it passed with 59% of the delegates’ support.
Now it’s a done deal, right? Nope. When the general board met again soon after the assembly, rather than implementing the Assembly’s vote, they decided that “they would take a clear stand on military taxes and submit another recommendation to the next General Assembly sessions in ”!
In the general board tabled a motion to put the Assembly’s mandate into practice, instead deciding to wait until the conclusion of a “congregational study process.” When the general board met again later that year, after that study process was complete, the new excuse was that “[b]oard members noted a lack of clarity on what the [General Assembly’s] decision meant.” At the board’s first meeting , they finally agreed to honor requests from conscientiously objecting employees who did not want war taxes withheld from their paychecks, but only subject “to development of acceptable policies for implementation approved by the board.”
I saw no indication in Gospel Herald that any such policies were ever presented to the board for approval. My guess is that the stonewalling tactics worked and the Mennonite Church never implemented the will of its General Assembly delegates. When the General Assembly met next, at least as far as I can tell from the Gospel Herald coverage, the topic did not come up.
The foot-draggers had won. By this time the war tax resistance tide was clearly receding. Peace Tax Fund talk and attempts to get people to engage in safe, symbolic mini-resistance acts was swamping what conversation remained about whole-hearted conscientious objection to military taxation. The Gospel Herald editorial page shifted gears again, from promoting war tax resistance to a more standoffish on-the-one-hand / on-the-other-hand vagueness — and would eventually say of war tax resisters that “we generally dismiss [them] as too zealous.”
By things had gotten so bad that not only was paying war taxes no longer seen as particularly worrisome, but even serving the military as a uniformed soldier was seen as something a Mennonite Church member in good standing could do.
Gospel Herald merged with The Mennonite in .