Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1959–1962

This is the eighth 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.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1959

Up until now, war tax resistance has either been treated as unscriptural and therefore unthinkable, or as a curious practice that a few particularly conscientious people from other Christian sects were experimenting with. But in something snapped, and the Gospel Herald began to consider it as a possible Mennonite response.

The issue noted that the closely-related Anabaptist cousins, the Church of the Brethren had turned the payment of taxes for military purposes into a problem that Christians needed to solve or work around:

Church of the Brethren leaders will approach government agencies in the interest of finding a “positive alternative” to the payment of taxes for military purposes. The Brotherhood Board voted to make explorations “with the appropriate agencies of government to the end that an acceptable constructive alternative be provided for all those persons who by reason of religious training and belief conscientiously object to the payment of that portion of income taxes going for military defense.” Several members of the Board pointed out that this matter would be much more complicated than arrangements already in effect for alternatives to military service, but the Board felt all possible explorations should be made.

The Mennonite Central Committee put this on the agenda at its Executive Committee meeting :

[The MCC Executive Committee actions included] Referring to Peace Section the invitation from the Church of the Brethren to study whether there might be a positive alternative provided by the U.S. government for persons conscientiously opposed to paying that portion of income taxes going for military defense.

Harold S. Bender did not address this tax problem directly, in his essay “When May Christians Disobey the Government?” This may be meaningful because this was a time when war tax resistance was clearly in the air and because when Bender had been given the opportunity in the 1930s and 1940s, he had said unequivocally that Christians pay their taxes period. Bender did, though, take a very conservative line on civil disobedience in general:

Jesus taught His disciples to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), thus stating a principle which goes far beyond the question of tax payment which was immediately at issue. The Christian owes allegiance and obedience to two sovereignties, both in good conscience. He must decide in all conscientiousness and earnestness when his allegiance to God requires disobedience to regularly constituted governmental authority and cheerfully take the consequences.

Opinion that a law or a requirement of the state is unwise or undesirable cannot be a ground of disobedience. There may be wide divergence as to whether legislation is good or bad or whether governmental policies are helpful or harmful to the general welfare. The Christian’s overriding obligation is to obey, even while he may seek to persuade or convince the authorities to change the law.

What then are the conditions requiring disobedience? Certainly the Christian must disobey (1) when he is required to perform an act which is clearly forbidden in Scripture or is a dear implication from such a prohibition (military training or service would be a case in point), and (2) when he is forbidden to do what the Scripture or the clear implications of it require.

In other words, the subject matter of an act required by the state must clearly be an evil in itself, which then becomes a sin when performed. We must consider it a sin to disobey the government (in the light of the above-cited N.T. teachings) unless a sinful act is required. The Christian is not at liberty to disobey the government for his own ulterior purposes, no matter how good these purposes may be in themselves… Nonresistant Christians cannot justify disobedience to law merely because they have good ends in view.

In the light of the above, it would appear that the desire to witness to the truth or against an evil cannot be a ground to disobey the requirements of the state which in themselves are not wrong. Nor may the supposed relative effectiveness of several kinds of witness be a ground for employing the type of witness that involves disobedience, rather than a type that is free of such disobedience.

For example, Bender wrote, in the case of conscription, it is not sinful to accept conscription into civilian service, so Christians must accept this if it is demanded. Registration is also not sinful, so Christians must register. If forced into military service, though, the Christian must refuse to obey. Refusal to register is a form of witness against the military, not a proper example of Christian refusal to commit a sinful act, and so it’s not an appropriate occasion for disobedience.

This distinction is worth keeping in mind as we move forward, as some Mennonite war tax resisters will come to defend their resistance as a form of witness against an over-militarized state, while others will defend theirs as a form of conscientious objection against (indirect) military service.

When the Mennonite Central Committee issued its Annual Report, the “Peace Witness” section made note of the growing concern among Mennonites about the propriety of paying for the military by means of taxes:

Emerging throughout our constituency is a growing uneasiness concerning our witness against such problems as discrimination, militarism, and war, in view of the frightful consequences these might have today. Concern is evident in discussions about possible participation in various protest actions and about the propriety of paying income taxes that are used so largely for war purposes, as well as the suggestion that perhaps nonregistration would be a clearer testimony against conscription and militarism.

The MCC Annual Report put it somewhat more strongly:

Serious discussion on the question of whether the nonresistant Christian can in good conscience pay income taxes which go so heavily for war purposes has continued.

Some decided the time had come to press the point. “A Concerned Member” had this to say in the issue:

Would you believe that Mennonites are giving many times more for military purposes than for missions? Sixty per cent of your income tax money each year goes for defense and yet per member we give only about $20 each year for missions.

The brought this news about A.J. Muste’s tax resistance (naming him this time):

A.J. Muste, well-known pacifist leader, has lost a court battle in his refusal to pay income tax because some portion might go toward the nation’s military establishment. United States Tax Court has ruled that Mr. Muste must pay back taxes plus a variety of penalties. The opinion stressed that Congress has specifically provided military service exemption for conscientious objectors, but has taken no similar action in the income tax field.

Andrew R. Shelley was among the first Gospel Herald writers to try to provide a solution for concerned Mennonites. He proposed using legal deductions for charitable donations (which were apparently more generous then than they are today) to reduce or eliminate income tax liability ():

Taxes for Military Spending

By Andrew R. Shelley

Practically all thinking people are disturbed about the arms race in our world. This does not mean there is common agreement as to exactly what should be done about it. In the United States many people of various denominations, and some who do not claim to be Christians, are very much concerned over the proportion of the national budget which goes for military purposes. There have been those who have felt that Christian people should withhold the portion of the tax which goes for military purposes. These people reason that to pay the tax is a violation of conscience.

Our government has been petitioned numbers of times to provide an alternative to paying tax for military purposes. During World War Ⅱ the Canadian government did provide what was called a “Sticker Bond.” This meant that a conscientious objector, if he desired that his money be used for other than war purposes, could request that a sticker be attached to his bond which would indicate that the money was to be used for nonmilitary purposes of government. While this eased the conscience of the conscientious objector, it was purely a bookkeeping matter as far as the government was concerned, because it provided for essential phases of the work of the government.

Recently in various periodicals there have appeared letters and articles regarding the paying of the portion of tax that goes for military purposes. It has appeared to me that one phase of the solution of the problem has been overlooked in almost all of the letters and articles which I have read.

In our desire to find a full solution to the problems involved we should not be unmindful of that which we do have in our power to do. The government of the United States is the most liberal government in the world in regard to giving recognition for giving to charitable purposes. Our government allows a tax deduction of 30 per cent for charitable giving. (The last 10 per cent must be given to certain phases of charity which fall into the category of the general giving of Christian people.)

All of us are aware of the unnatural and unwholesome nature of American living. Yet, most Christian people choose to go along with this way of life which even many non-Christian leaders say is unwholesome. It is possible for Christian people to sharply reduce the amount of tax which they pay for military purposes through the simple and legal expedient of charitable giving. Here, our government gives us the marvelous opportunity to choose that phase of charitable giving to which we desire our money to go.

While it is certainly true that not all Christian families can give 30 per cent of their income to charitable purposes, certainly those in average circumstances can do so. (Those in higher income brackets can go far beyond this.) It is at once evident that we need not go along with some of the extremely wasteful practices of the American public. For every hundred dollars more that the Christian family gives to the work of the church, they can save twenty dollars’ tax and approximately fifteen dollars which would go into the general category of military spending (on the basis of 20 per cent taxation). Consequently, it would seem that those directly concerned with the problem of taxation for military purposes would go the very limit in reducing the amount of money which they give to military purposes through taxation.

For those who are concerned about this matter, I would urge that careful records be kept of every phase of living having to do with taxes. Thus it will be seen that through careful expenditure of the money God has entrusted to us, it is astounding how much we can give to the work of the Lord. Think of the prospects; the positive aspect of our modern America is the privilege of living full lives and yet giving largely to the work of the Lord.

I would like to clearly state that this is not the highest motivation for giving. We give fundamentally not because we want to pay less tax, but primarily because we love the Lord and we want His work to go forward. It is startling and it is wonderful that at this juncture of the history of the world, when the needs are great and the opportunities are beyond description, the Lord has granted us the greatest resources in the history of mankind. We can send forth the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly without Him there can be no peace. Without the saving grace of salvation which has been brought through the shed blood of Christ, there can be no lasting peace. Among the various things that might be said, we must realize that the primary consideration is the sending forth of the Gospel.

While this approach does not answer the total problem with which we began this letter, it does mean that we are beginning at a point where we have control. And from this point, which takes no more time than any other approach that we might use, we can do what we feel led to do further. But let us begin at this point and I am sure whatever else we do will be observed with greater sympathy than if we do not start at this point of personal involvement.

All of us believe it is right and proper that we should support many phases of our government. Whatever our differences may be on the attitude toward taxation in relation to the military part of our budget, certainly we recognize the need for government. We recognize our responsibilities. Rom. 13. Consequently, we gladly participate in that part of our government’s program which is essential for the welfare of our people.

A civilly disobedient war tax resister from the Church of the Brethren — Charles E. Zunkel — hit the pages of Gospel Herald on :

Charles E. Zunkel of Port Republic, Va., former moderator of the Church of the Brethren, wrote to President Kennedy and to the director of Internal Revenue that he and his wife would no longer pay a major portion of their federal income tax because 75 per cent of it goes for military purposes. He wrote that they would continue filing their income taxes, but would pay only 25 per cent of the amount. The remainder would be given to the church in quarterly payments, in addition to the 15 per cent or more which they already give. He writes that they hope some alternative tax plan may be worked out whereby conscientious objectors may give their tax money to peaceable pursuits just as young men serve in alternative service in lieu of the military service.

Finally, a poem by Rachel Horst, found in the edition, and titled “Render to Caesar” suggested that the Render Unto Caesar quotation was being abused by people who prefer Caesar to Christ:

He spoke the words, Himself, not long ago
While looking at a craven face upon the coin.
We paid our tax with hatred to a hated man
And waved palms for a King of love,
  Whose throng we hoped to join.

We shout the words from raucous throats today
While looking at a regal face upon the cross.
We acclaim the kingship of a loathsome man
As we renounce the Sovereign
  Without a thought of loss.

There was a bit of a gap in coverage of war tax resistance issues for the rest of the year that coincided with John Drescher taking over the editorship from Paul Erb in (I don’t know if there’s any connection). But then things heated up, as a genuine Mennonite declared himself a civilly disobedient war tax resister in . Tune in tomorrow!