Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1985–1986

This is the thirty-second in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we reach the middle-1980s.

The Mennonite

A conference held in and sponsored by the Mennonite Church General Board (I think this is distinct from the General Conference Mennonite Church’s General Board, but it gets confusing) concerned “The Church’s Relationship to the Political Order.” War tax resistance was among the topics discussed:

John and Sandy Drescher Lehman of Richmond, Va., told how they followed their conscience and decided a few years ago to withhold the part of their income taxes that they figure goes for military spending.

Now they have become employees of Mennonite Board of Missions in their role as co-directors of the Richmond Discipleship Voluntary Service program. “What should an institution do when its employees, following their consciences, ask that we stop withholding taxes from their paychecks?” asked MBM president Paul Gingrich.

A panel of four attempted to answer the question, including Robert Hull, soldier-turned-tax-resister who is peace and justice secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church. He explained how his denomination, with the instruction of its members, is now breaking the law by not withholding taxes from the paychecks of seven of its employees who have requested that.

In an editorial in the edition, E. Stanley Bohn wrote that war tax resistance is an example of Christians taking their doctrine seriously and taking risks for it, and that this is useful in missionary work. Excerpts:

While my wife, Anita, and I were in a language school in Mexico, we stayed with a family that claimed to have a faith but had no relation to any congregation. They had a good supply of humorous imitations of TV preachers and stories of inconsistencies of church people. They also had the feeling that churches were exploitive of people and supported the exploitive governments to the north and their manipulation of governments in Latin America.

When I explained one night at the evening meal that in my denomination people often took a different position than the government, they listened politely. But when I explained there were Christians who took the New Testament so sincerely that they accepted fines and jail terms, they wanted to know more. Accepting penalties for conscientious objection to war, non-registration, refusing to pay a war tax and offering sanctuary to Central American refugees caused at least the son in that family to reconsider a faith he had earlier ridiculed.

The second incident happened in Japan with a Japanese friend who had lived in our home as an MCC trainee. Christianity is not sweeping the country in Japan. Although the door is not closed to Christian missionaries, it may be that a large percentage of the people are closed to a Christ who has been identified with what the West did to Asians in Vietnam, their parents in World War Ⅱ and with the current pressure on Japan to violate its constitution and establish armed forces capable of international war.

Our friend had arranged for a meeting of a group of his student friends, some of them non-Christian. He asked me to speak while he translated on the topic of peacemaking efforts of Mennonites in the United States. Topics like draft registration, prayer vigils at missile sites or war taxes — that are controversial for us — were in his eyes exactly what was needed to make credible what the church was teaching and to open the minds of his friends to the Christian faith.

In Canada and the United States we often see the more controversial peace witness and overseas missions as opposite kinds of religious expression, having little to do with each other. Yet in some overseas situations the unbelievers we met were more open to the gospel if it included a peace witness that was clearly international and repudiated protecting ourselves at the expense of others (not that their governments would be any more receptive to that than ours is).

From their viewpoint it is clear that such witness efforts as those of Christian war tax refusers actually aid the work of overseas missions.

This may put our triennial conference action in a different light. At the Bethlehem conference our delegates voted that we would not accept the position in which the U.S. laws put us: that the church act as a tax collector, taking taxes for war from those who are conscientiously against war. That stand may some day require us to pay for legal assistance. Since our conference was not unanimous in taking this stand, it was agreed that costs should be covered by donations from those who believe this was the right path to take.

Those who contribute to such legal expenses, if and when they come, may feel they are paying a penalty for having a conscience. However, whether the ruling is favorable or unfavorable, their dollars may help our overseas mission dollars accomplish more. They may be helping to open some minds closed to national and tribal gods and hungry for the God of all nations who makes a difference in people’s lives.

This news comes from the edition:

About a year ago, Mennonite Central Committee established a task force to study how MCC should respond to employees’ requests that MCC not withhold federal taxes from their paychecks. This was to enable them to keep that portion of their taxes used for military purposes. After meeting with leaders from eight conferences, the task force reported in that none of the conference groups was in favor of honoring the employees’ requests. Even though the General Conference honors such requests by its employees, the executive committee of its General Board did not favor MCC taking similar action.

The edition reported:

The former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) has called for the creation of a peace army committed to withholding the 13 percent of income taxes that the British government spends on defense. Lord MacLeod of Fuinary hopes such an army will be able to persuade the government to allow people to give an equivalent amount of their taxes to relieve world hunger instead. Even if the government refuses to go along with the idea, he said, taxpayers should still withhold the money and give it to famine relief.

In the edition, Richard McSorley wrote about having taken “a vow of non-violence.” The Catholic peace group Pax Christi was encouraging people to take such a formal vow annually, and was encouraging the Catholic Church to support such vows by providing a ritual context for them.

In my formulation of the vow I said, “I, before the cross of Jesus Christ, vow perpetual non-violence in fulfillment of the command of your Son, ‘Love your enemies.’” It seems to me beyond doubt that I cannot love a person in the same act in which I kill that person. The vow means I will not take part in killing anybody. That means I will not pay taxes for weapons of death and be a part of the preparations to kill done by the military or the hangman or the abortionist. Neither will I hold, as morally acceptable, the program of killing some to save others.

The Mennonite Central Committee met in to consider the question of war tax withholding for its employees:

Discussion about payment of U.S. federal income taxes used for military purposes — or “war taxes” — was prompted by a request from four MCC Akron employees who asked MCC to stop forwarding the portion of their income taxes which go for military spending. In letters last year to the executive committee, the four cited deployment of missiles in Europe, U.S. funds for war in Central America, MCC’s support of conscientious objection during the Vietnam War and the deaths of friends killed by American-made weapons as basis for the request.

A tax withholding task force reported to the board that, after discussions with eight Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences, “no group counseled MCC to honor the requests.” MCC Canada indicated that payment of military taxes is not an issue among Canadians “at this time.” The task force recommended that MCC “continue to withhold and forward taxes to the (U.S.) government.”

Possible penalties for not forwarding an employee’s tax include the amount plus interest, a $10,000 fine and/or five years imprisonment.

Board member Phil Rich, who served on the task force, emphasized that conference leaders “agonized” over the decision and observed that “none of the groups said that civil disobedience is absolutely wrong.” Some of the leaders, he indicated, “are in favor but do not think their people will go along.”

He also noted that most conferences are open to dealing with the issue in the future.

During a lengthy discussion, board members wrestled with the issue. Ray Brubacher, a Canadian, indicated that his church allows him to withhold the military portion of his income tax. “I cannot,” he said, “vote against their request if I can [have taxes not withheld] myself. I don’t want to vote against the constituency, but I cannot vote against my conscience.”

Larry Kehler of the General Conference noted that his denomination had decided in not to forward the tax of individuals who had made such a request. As a member of that conference, he indicated that he “could not vote for the recommendation.” Both said that their vote would be made with “much pain.”

Other board members shared their pain but agreed with MCC Canada representative Ross Nigh that “we are bound by the process. We went to the conferences in good faith, and not one recommended that we withhold taxes. In the interest of the wider brotherhood, we must vote for it.” The recommendation passed with four against and two abstentions.

The board also passed recommendations that affirm the four and others who make a similar request and that encourage MCC to find ways for them to resist payment legally. Staff were also encouraged to increase efforts to educate the churches about the relationship between militarism, hunger, development and refugees.

The task force also suggested that MCC and the conferences hold a study conference on church/state issues.

In a prepared response, Earl Martin read a statement on behalf of the four that expressed appreciation for the process and deliberation but appealed to the conferences to discuss the issue at their next annual conventions. The four also asked MCC to help facilitate the discussion and invited the conferences to report their findings at the MCC annual meeting.

Martin also pointed out that while U.S. members of MCC’s seven constituent conferences donated $9.4 million to MCC in , they paid an estimated $159 million in military taxes. Approximagely $880,000 was paid during the course of the meeting.

When the General Board met in , however, they backpedaled from their own participation in this decision:

[The board] passed a motion brought by CHM U.S. that GB reverse its recommendation to the Mennonite Central Committee that it continue to withhold taxes from its employees even when they request otherwise.

Staff member Robert Hull… disagreed with MCC’s decision not to stop withholding taxes of employees. He said the General Board is partly responsible because it was contacted, along with seven other denominations when the decision was being made.

The MCC executive committee met in and continued to hash the question out:

The committee continued to struggle with the issues posed by MCC employees whose request not to have income taxes withheld was rejected after long debate at the MCC annual meeting in . It was decided at that time that, despite this decision, MCC should continue to affirm the integrity of those objecting to war taxes and establish a committee that would study and create broader awareness of the impact of militarism on refugees, hunger and development.

But the mandate of that group, which is to begin meeting in , was not clearly defined. Executive committee chairman Elmer Neufeld said that there seems to be a “strong expectation” from some that the special committee will continue to work specifically on the tax withholding issue. Others said the committee’s task was to struggle with congregations to find legal ways to express a Christian witness on the issue of militarism.

It was also reported that the General Conference Mennonite Church has had further discussion regarding how to counsel MCC to respond to the request from its staff on income tax withholding. At MCC’s annual meeting it was reported that MCC representatives had met with constituent conferences and that none had counseled MCC to honor the request of staff. In the General Conference’s General Board decided to counsel MCC “that they honor requests of their employees to not have their taxes withheld, in line with General Conference policy.”

An update in the edition noted:

As authorized by the triennial sessions, the conference is honoring the requests of four employees not to withhold income tax due to the U.S. Government. Thus far, Internal Revenue Service has not taken action against the conference.

Originally, seven such employees had requested not to have taxes withheld. This was later reduced to five. Now it’s four. I can’t tell whether this is from a general shrinkage of staff or from a flagging of enthusiasm for war tax resistance.