War Tax Resistance in the Friends Journal in 1989

War tax resistance in the Friends Journal in

There were several references to tax resistance in the Friends Journal in , but many of them referred to some other time or country or religious denomination, and those that referred to American Quakers in the here-and-now lacked much urgency or enthusiasm.

Journal editor Vinton Deming marked the passing of Colin Bell in his opening editorial in the issue, and noted:

One spring at yearly meeting he spoke very movingly in support of young Friends faced with the draft. He challenged some of us over draft age to consider that not only our young people were being drafted; our federal taxes were being conscripted for the war as well!

I visited him once at Davis House in Washington with a friend whose house was threatened with IRS seizure for unpaid war taxes. Colin was keenly interested, shared a generous amount of time from his busy schedule, and was very supportive. As we left he walked us to our car. I still hear the cheerful sound of his words (and see the twinkle in his eye) as he leaned in the car window, shook our hands, and said, “Good bye, Friends. Take care of your spirit!”

In a letter-to-the-editor in the issue, Carole Hope Depp split hairs over whether or not war tax resistance is civil disobedience — claiming that since the Constitution, the highest law in the land, protects freedom of religion, then a law that purports to force people to violate their religious scruples by paying for war must be void, and so those who resist it are not being disobedient at all.

Pendle Hill Pamphlet Series: Timely, fresh, provocative: now in its 55th year, an enriching essay series devoted to current and continuing concerns among Friends and fellow seekers. New this month #287: War Taxes Among Friends: To Pay or Not To Pay? by Elaine Craudereuff. This careful account of Quaker questioning and commitment to war tax resistance in the United States in the 1700s will challenge modern Friends and others to test their arguments and choices against historical witness.

an ad from the issue of Friends Journal

In the issue, Paul Zorn took issue with “some traditional Quaker attiudes and institutions,” including war tax resistance, as representing “an attitude that somehow Quakers are different from the bulk of society, and that much of our institutional effort should go to maintaining that difference… [and] that maintaining certain aspects of our uniqueness is more important than finding a larger consensus in society.” Excerpt:

…Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is resisting an IRS levy on salaries of two employees to recover unpaid federal taxes because those funds would be used for military purposes. The more I have talked with individuals and attended large and small groups, both in my monthly meeting and in the yearly meeting’s Representative Meeting, the more troubled I am with the policy, although I realize it has been fashioned with much care and concern for the Spirit over 15 years or more.

As I understand it, a tax refusal contest with the federal government usually ends with the government getting the money. The main result of refusing taxes is to make a public witness, and to ease a conscience that is troubled by voluntarily supporting the military. I am troubled that part of the public witness consists of breaking the law and attempting to justify it, especially when tax refusal is as likely to reduce funds for low-cost housing, etc., as it is to reduce funds for the military. Regarding voluntary support of the military, I think it is part of the irony, tragedy, or reality of modern life that despite our best efforts, institutions to which we belong act on our behalf in ways that we consider wrong, evil, or disastrous. At the present time, we cannot effectively separate ourselves from all such institutions, and we would lose some of our humanity if we did.

He suggested that Friends consider “rethinking how much corporate energy we should put into tax refusal as an aspect of our peace testimony” and instead “ trying to deal directly with some of the major problems of society rather than trying to insulate ourselves from them.”

The issue also described the war tax resistance of Sharon Bienert, who wrote letters to the IRS, agitated for a legal peace tax fund, and meanwhile split her resisted taxes between a Quaker-run peace tax fund and an escrow account. That issue also mentioned that war tax resistance was “strongly supported” by the Lafayette, Indiana, Mennonite Fellowship. Fellowship member Ken Nagele redirected a military-percentage of his income taxes to a low-income loan program; Mary Ann Zoeller redirected hers to Amnesty International; other families have donated income to the church to keep their income low and resist taxes that way.

That issue also brought news of a peace tax fund legalization campaign in Australia which “would allow conscientious objectors to pay 10 percent of their income taxes into a fund to be used for nonmilitary purposes” but which had only gained the support of eight of the 76 Australian Senators thus far.

In the issue, Carolyn Stevens reviewed two books published by the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns: Handbook on Military Taxes & Conscience and Fear God & Honor the Emperor which were collaborative efforts edited by Linda Coffin, Peter Goldberger, Robert Hull, and J.E. McNeil.

The first of these books concerned “the history of military tax refusal among Friends and biblical teachings on the subject[,]… personal stories of military tax resisters, one about international war tax refusal campaigns, and another that chronicles efforts to enact Peace Tax Fund legislation. The book concludes with a series of study questions and a resource list.”

The second “tackles the difficult question of how religious employers may be called to corporate witness of military tax refusal, either organizationally or in support of staff members who are conscientious objectors. There is a survey of minutes, resolutions, and guidelines adopted by church bodies, Quaker and otherwise. A chapter on legalities, co-authored by Peter Goldberger and J.E. McNeil, calmly raises and responds to difficulties, real and imagined, that employers face when supporting a witness against military taxes. Robert Hull’s chapter on discernment blends a secular management perspective with traditional religious concerns.”

Stevens was enthusiastic about the first book (a “high level of sincerity and scholarship [that] gives us wonderful assistance”), less so about the second, which she described as “awkward,” “clumsy,” and “defensive” though “rich in necessary information.”

The issue brought an update on Canadian war tax resister Jerilynn Prior’s test case in which she was trying to get conscientious objection to military taxation legalized under the freedom of conscience portion of the (relatively) new Canadian Constitution. She wasn’t having any luck in the courts. The article claimed that “[m]ore than 500 Canadians withhold the portion of their federal taxes that would otherwise go toward military expenditures. Many instead allocate the money to Conscience Canada’s Peace Tax Fund.”

Beit Sahour

The story of the nonviolent tax resistance campaign against the Israeli military occupation of Palestine in Beit Sahour got some coverage in the Journal. Editor Vinton Deming wrote an article for the issue that was hopefully subtitled: “Nonviolent strategies may help to bring an end to the Israeli occupation.” It was based on his conversations with Mubarak Awad and Nancy Nye.

Awad founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in and published a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. “At first, people thought we were a bit crazy, that perhaps I had come back from my time in the U.S. with some strange notions. We started with just five people. We would sometimes go to a public place and carry a sign that said ‘Down With the Occupation,’ or, ‘Don’t Pay Taxes.’ People at first would laugh and make fun of us.”

The Center later advocated a set of tactics, including “a boycott among the Arab population of all Israeli-made products; refusal to pay taxes or to work for Israelis; insistence that all mail be addressed to people by using the Palestinian language, not Hebrew; and the initiation of many self-help projects.”

Beit Sahour was an example of where Palestinians decided to try out some of these ideas in service of the intifada. “People there,” said Mubarak, “to show their support for the uprising, decided they would refuse to pay taxes to Israeli authorities — no taxes at all. The Israelis wanted to punish them so they came and confiscated the ID cards of a number of the business men.”

So what was the community’s response? “Well,” Mubarak continues, “without your ID card you are stuck, you cannot go any place. When people in the village heard about this, they said, ‘If they are going to take the ID cards of these businessmen, we are going to turn in our ID cards too.’ And they did. So the Israelis called a curfew in the village and they said, ‘Here, please take your ID cards;’ they gave them all back!”

And the news of this incident spread to other communities? “Yes,” Mubarak says, “everybody began thinking it was a good idea to do it. You say, ‘OK, I’m not going to hurt the Israelis, but this is what I’m going to do.’ And people will get together and say, ‘Let’s do it.’ Palestinians are what I would call ‘trial and error’ in their approach. Like, if this works, well, we’ll try it and continue to do it; if it doesn’t, it’s all right, we’ll do something else!”

I found a few references to the Poplar Rates Rebellion in the archives of The Spectator which recently came on-line. Here are some excerpts.

First, from the issue:

Poplar and the Rates.

A great deal more is bound to be heard of the grievances of the ratepayers. Rates are taxes, and though the heaviest burden lies upon the Income Tax payer, and though that burden is the most demoralizing of all because it cripples industrial enterprise, the present terribly high rates are a great evil, and they would have attracted much more public attention if they had not been relatively obscured by even worse evils. There are people in this country who are now paying more in rates than they paid in rent before the war. Imagine what this must mean to a man who has carefully mapped out his expenses on the assumption that the rates will always be in an approximately steady ratio to his rent. Unhappily, a very large number of people are not allowed to see how vitally they are concerned in the levying of the rates because the taxes they pay in the form of rates are hidden away in an inclusive rent-charge.…

The whole question of the London rates has attracted particular attention this week owing to the case of the Poplar Councillors. The Poplar Council, with its majority of Labour members, has refused to enforce the London County Council’s “precepts” — that is to say, has refused to pay the sum demanded as the contribution of Poplar. The London County Council therefore proceeded against the majority of the Poplar Council in the High Court requiring them to show cause why their persons should not be attached. The Labour Councillors of Poplar, of course, made great play with what they called the iniquity of the unequal rating of London. They pointed out that if a very poor borough like Poplar paid its allotted sum to the London County Council — that is, the same sum as all the other boroughs pay — it would have to raise its rate to the staggering figure of £1 18s. 8d. in the pound. Mr. Lansbury and his friends demand that the London rates should be equalized, by which equalization they estimate that the uniform flat rate all over London would be 8s. 3d.

We are perfectly ready to admit that the Poplar case has certain elements of justice. A penny rate in Poplar produces only £3,200, whereas it produces £29,000 in Westminster. Obviously, money cannot be raised in the places where it is most needed except by a terrific rate.…

The truth is that in a huge place like London, with numerous boroughs, you cannot have simultaneously self-determination and equalization. If there is to be equalization, it will be necessary to make the wild Socialistic councils, which look upon the State as the universal provider and upon the Borough Council as only a lesser State, conform to a strictly limiting code of rules imposed from above.…

The High Court gave the Poplar Councillors a fortnight’s grace to think matters over. As Sir Alfred Mond announced in the House of Commons on Tuesday that he was taking steps to bring to an end the present stereotyped payment from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, and as this will appreciably relieve the poorer boroughs, we may hope that Mr. Lansbury and company will think better of their determination to be incarcerated in Brixton Gaol with all the accompanying honours of fifes and drums.

Whatever happens in this particular case, however, the larger question will remain. So long as the law is the law, it must be obeyed. It is just like Mr. Lansbury to suppose that millenniums are introduced by law-breaking. Every Borough Council is a body of trustees, and when trustees begin breaking the rules they have sacrificed all right to respect and show their unsuitability for a high office. It is like Mr. Lansbury, again, to pretend — though, for all we know, he has genuinely convinced himself — that the Poplar ratepayers all agree with him. In an immediate sense no doubt they do agree with him, because when he says he wants to ease the rates of Poplar by his action they are naturally all for the policy of paying less. But he is confusing the issue and deceiving himself if he thinks that the Poplar ratepayers, or any other ratepayers, are in favour of the sort of lavish expenditure which has brought Poplar into her present troubles. Every ratepayer wants lower rates, and in the long run, or as soon as he has understood the matter, the Poplar ratepayer will be on the side of those who administer affairs economically and set their faces like flint against extravagance. Probably if you asked the opinion of Poplar people individually they would tell you that they would be glad of any scheme, by whatever political name it might be called, which would save their borough from being always in financial arrears and would reduce the rates which they can no longer bear. They would be quite ready, for instance, to welcome a Commission which would put the Poplar house in order. And we can easily believe that such a Commission may be necessary before Poplar is free of the Soviet taint of financial insanity which Mr. Lansbury and his friends have spread over it.

And here’s an update from the issue:

About thirty members of the Poplar Borough Council, headed by Mr. Lansbury, have decided to go to prison rather than obey the “precepts” of the London County Council. They refuse to pay not merely the Poplar quota to the London County Council but their proportionate share of the cost of the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Police. The period of grace allowed by the mandamus of the High Court ends on , when we go to press, and it may be that Mr. Lansbury and his friends will be in prison when these words appear, as (see illustrated papers passim) they are ostentatiously packing up their trunks in readiness.

Mr. Lansbury announced that he and his friends are proud to suffer in such a cause, the cause being that of the unemployed. The Labour Councillors say that they cannot possibly pay out adequate sums to the unemployed through the Guardians and also meet the demands of the London County Council and the other superior authorities.

Now, we have frankly acknowledged on a previous occasion that there is some justice in Mr. Lansbury’s case. The very boroughs which are most oppressed by the poverty of the unemployed are necessarily those which are least able to raise money to relieve the distress. London is the only English city in which each separate district has to bear its own burden of unemployment. While Poplar with much unemployment is a poor borough, Westminster is a rich borough with little unemployment. A penny rate in Poplar produces only hundreds of pounds, while a penny rate in Westminster produces thousands. Yet Westminster does not share the burden of Poplar, nor does any other borough.…

Basing himself upon the moderate element of justice which we have tried to describe, Mr. Lansbury is working for a municipal revolution in London. He is trying to bring about chaos. If enough unemployed persons act on his suggestions, and, apply for relief from the Guardians, and a spoke is not put in his wheel, he will succeed. So much money would be spent in relief that municipal budgets would break down altogether. It is unfortunately true that there is no way of exacting the money due to the London County Council from recalcitrant Borough Councils. Members of a Council can be convicted of “contempt” for resisting a mandamus of the High Court, but that does not help us very far. The payment of the money depends in the, last resort upon good citizenship and a sound social sense. These are the “sanctions,” as the French would say; but just because they are not very oppressive ones, Mr. Lansbury has lightheartedly thrown them to the winds.

Acting on his advice the unemployed march in thousands and demand “full maintenance” from the Guardians. What a picture it is! With one hand Mr. Lansbury has done as much as any man in England to create unemployment by circulating noxious doctrines which have undermined trade, and with the other hand he makes a magnificent gesture worthy of a Saviour of the People. When he says that Poplar is grossly overrated — as no doubt it is, thanks to the mad policy of the Council and the Guardians — he does not press the point too far, as he knows perfectly well that the real ratepayers of Poplar, the people on whom the burden falls heaviest, are not the ordinary residents but the large companies which own factories and gasworks and docks. The rates in Poplar already stand at 27s. in the £, even without the demands of the London County Council and the other superior authorities which have not been met.…

Finally, this from the issue:

The Socialist councillors of Poplar, who refused to levy a rate for the sums due to the County Council and the police, were arrested in batches and committed to gaol for contempt of court. Some of them urged their followers to refuse to pay rent. It is clear that they sought to make a Socialist or Communist demonstration, in order to divert attention from the gross extravagance of their methods.

According to Wikipedia’s article on the action, “Eventually, after six weeks’ imprisonment, the Court responded to public opinion and ordered the Councillors released, which occasioned great celebrations in Poplar. Meanwhile, a bill, the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act , was rushed through Parliament more or less equalising tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.”