American Brethren and War Taxes in 1969

The debate about war tax resistance continued among Brethren in , and for the first time a Brethren church began resisting taxes corporately.

Church of the Brethren: Messenger

In , representatives from Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren congregations — the “historic peace churches” — met in New Windsor, Maryland to figure out how to be a peace church in the middle of the Vietnam War. According to Messenger coverage of the event , war tax resistance was a footnote (source): “Spurred on by the youth delegates to the consultation, a group at New Windsor prepared a brief statement calling for… ‘counseling on the draft and nonpayment of war taxes for those who need it.’ ”

In (see yesterday’s Picket Line), the Messenger had invited four writers to explain their diverse ways of confronting taxes for war. One, Russell Bollinger, paid his taxes willingly and thought tax resistance was dangerously corrosive of democratic cooperation. That led to a rebuttal from David Coppock in the issue (source). Excerpts:

Mr. Bollinger expresses a fear that no government can exist as long as the people pay taxes only as their conscience guides them. Since I put the conscience first, I am more afraid of a government that does not allow the people to live as their consciences guide them.

Our first concern as Christians should not be to see that our moral inclinations are in harmony with man-made laws. We don’t have to answer to man for our acts if we believe we have been guided by God. We need only to answer to God.

To allow one’s personal convictions to be molded and shaped by society and government is to allow one’s very being to be taken from the hands of God and placed into the fallible hands of man.

Mr. Bollinger states, “All attempts to change the behavior, attitudes, or values of mature responsible persons by force are degrading and destructive to personhood.” When I think about Vietnam, Biafra, race prejudice, and a so-called Christian nation with Dow Chemical and A-Bombs, I ask where are all the mature and responsible people? And by paying taxes don’t you willfully and knowingly give most of that money to a war that is as degrading and as destructive to personhood as anything can be?

He challenges tax withholding on the basis of whether or not it can be universalized. Since he doesn’t believe that it can, he rejects such ideas. Does this mean that he believes that a willful support of the war effort can be universalized into a law for all men?

I certainly want to challenge his last main point. “Our impatience to reconstruct the world after our own particular blueprint must not lead us into betraying noble ends for unworthy means.” The Christian must recognize that America’s blueprint is being felt right now in Vietnam. Our government would have us believe that the Vietnam war is being fought for noble ends — democracy, freedom, end of communism. And since it found no other alternative but war, it would have us believe that this is a worthy means.

The Christian can never accept war as a worthy means. And the Christian must recognize that the noble ends which he seeks are higher than those which the government seeks. Therefore, withholding taxes can hardly be considered an unworthy means when that money would have been used for the most degrading and evil acts of man.

In the issue, Richard G. Young raised a dissenting voice against the attempt to lobby the government to accommodate conscientious objectors to military taxation. “A hard line should immediately be taken against any suggestion to seek tax exemption for pacifists,” wrote Young (source). According to Young, war tax resistance is only a pacifist action if it confronts and resists militarism. “Once the military power accommodates (removes the confrontation of) an action, it is no longer antimilitaristic.”

We can be sure that if all young men eighteen years old demanded alternative service, our government would rescind the conscientious objector alternative. It should be recognized also that our militaristic government embellishes itself with the boast that it offers a conscientious objector alternative in the “true spirit of democracy.” In this manner the antimilitaristic action, well intentioned as it may have been, has ceased to be pacifistic in that the military system has neutralized its effect.

Similarly, any agreement with the government to exempt pacifists from paying war taxes would not be pacifistic. We would not be threatening the military but perhaps adding another plume to its hat.

The edition brought the news that a Brethren church had decided as an institution to begin war tax resistance — the first such example that I am aware of (source):

Both as a witness and as a protest, the Wilmington, Del., Church of the Brethren decided by board action to refuse to pay the federal excise tax on telephones.

In a letter to President Richard M. Nixon from the board of the Richardson Park congregation, Dale W. Good, board chairman, and Robert D. Cain Jr., witness commission chairman, noted that the 10 percent federal telephone tax was restored by Congress in to help pay for the war in Vietnam. They also quoted from the Statement of the Church of the Brethren on War, in which the denomination stated its opposition to the use of taxes for war purposes and called upon congregations and boards to study the issues and press for alternative uses for tax money.

Meaning: “We recognize that the act of refusing to pay this tax is small, but the meaning is large in that it is a direct and tangible means of expressing our dissent to the United States’ action in Vietnam and also a protest to the enactment of taxes for war purposes,” the letter stated.

It further urged Mr. Nixon “to use all resources and power available to you as President of the United States to achieve world peace” and to give consideration to a government provision for an alternative use of tax money for peaceful, nonmilitary purposes.

The decision to take the action followed a recommendation from the witness commission and was voted 8 to 6. Individual members of the parish were asked in turn to consider withholding the excise tax on their personal telephone bills.

The pastor, Allen T. Hansell, said that he personally had been withholding the 10 percent tax on his own telephone bill payments since .

First: Ralph E. Smeltzer of the World Ministries Commission commented that to his knowledge the action is the first taken in the Church of the Brethren by a congregational board. In several areas Brethren individuals have practiced telephone tax refusal for up to two years.

A lengthy interpretation of the action taken by the Richardson Park church board appeared the next day in Wilmington’s Morning News. The article stated the Church of the Brethren believes that its historic opposition to all war “is compatible with good citizenship” and that the church endorses support of “worthy government functions.” But the article also cited Brethren concern over the trend toward a permanent militaristic outlook by the nation.

That news was interesting enough that it was also covered in The Brethren Evangelist , interrupting that magazine’s silence on the issue (source).

In the “General Board” had put together a policy statement on civil disobedience that it hoped the Annual Conference would adopt. The Messenger published it (source). It alluded to “laws which require payment of taxes for war purposes” as an opportunity for “reactive” civil disobedience — conscientious objection — as opposed to “initiatory” civil disobedience, which is designed as a pressure tactic to change government behavior. And it gave favorable mention to “the Christians who refused… to pay taxes to Caesar’s pagan temples”, “Quakers who refused to pay taxes for war against the Indians”, “Henry David Thoreau”, and, within the Church of the Brethren, “refusal to… pay war taxes during the Revolutionary War”. But it did not come down on either side of the question of whether war tax resistance ought to be recommended. It instead recommended a careful process for assessing proposed individual and corporate civil disobedience actions.

Merlin G. Miller wrote in to the issue to say he had avoided paying war taxes legally by means of “an alternative service for that portion of our taxes which would have gone to war purposes.” He explained:

[We] separate our total tax obligation into two parts. That portion required to pay our part of the indispensable, nonwar services of our government as loyal citizens we gladly pay. The part that would go to war purposes, which we cannot conscientiously support, we withhold by making contributions to relief, to the church and her ministries, and to other worthy, nonwar causes — contributions large enough to wipe out our war-tax obligation. If the government takes part of the tax dollars we pay for non-war services and uses them for the war, we can’t prevent that. We couldn’t prevent it if we refused to pay all taxes and went to jail. Our alternative service for tax dollars is a matter of conscientious objection to the war, and we so state on our tax return.

This is not just “tax avoidance.” It is costly. It costs far more than a dollar to divert a dollar from the war. Since the tax rate begins at fourteen percent of taxable income and increases with larger incomes, we have to give away six or seven dollars to withhold one dollar from the war. But wouldn’t you gladly give seven dollars to lessen a little the suffering of a wounded refugee child rather than to pay one dollar to buy napalm to burn more babies?

How much should we withhold? Should we proportion our withholding to the direct cost of the Vietnam war (fifteen percent of the national budget)? Or should it be in proportion to the total defense budget (forty to fifty percent of the total national budget, depending on whose analysis you accept)? One’s own conscience must be the guide. One legal limitation will affect those with higher incomes: deductible contributions cannot exceed thirty percent of total income.

The legal withholding of war taxes by contributions is especially suitable for retired citizens, for most of them have a nontaxable income on which to live. Social Security for a retired couple, both over sixty-five, now is approximately $3,000 a year maximum for those who have been fully employed at average or better-than-aver-age incomes. In addition, there is a nontaxable exemption of $2,400 on any other income they receive from pensions or investments. And Medicare pays major health care expenses. In short, a retired couple who have any income tax at all to pay have a nontaxed income sufficient for a modest but comfortable living. Their income taxes come out of the surplus which they have for hobbies, travel, gifts to family or church, or other good causes. It is out of this surplus that we “lay up treasure in heaven.”

Perhaps we oldsters who conscientiously oppose war should, by choosing alternative service for our tax dollars, prove ourselves worthy brothers to our young men who choose alternative service to the military.

What I was hoping to see in but didn’t was the results of the survey the magazine had sent out the previous year asking readers how they were responding to war taxes.

The Brethren Evangelist

The Brethren Evangelist was again much more reluctant than the Messenger to discuss war tax resistance in .

There was a mention of the Richardson Park Brethren Church’s corporate phone tax resistance decision.

In the issue, Steve Haller addressed “Christian Pacifism”. He mostly reflected on his own experience in Brethren alternative service for conscientious objectors, but also approvingly quoted Larry Kuenning who took the perspective that to a Christian, war is already over, and so:

In a war you have to pay taxes to support the army. But the war is over: you don’t have to pay taxes for war. You can use the money to help the victims of war instead.