Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1987

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

The Mennonite

War tax resistance grew to be a front-and-center concern of the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s interest in the topic began to suddenly decline. I noticed a similar thing when I looked at how war tax resistance rose and fell in the Society of Friends.

Perhaps the topic had been talked-out and people felt there was little more to add to the arguments that had already been made: everybody had the chance to learn about the issue and take their stand, and there wasn’t much left to talk about.

Or perhaps the topic had left the pages of The Mennonite for other publications — like God and Caesar (a specialty publication for war tax resisters put out by a Mennonite group), or the newsletter of the recently-founded National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.

The energy Mennonites were putting into the fools’ errand of World Peace Tax Fund legislation was certainly a distraction. Certainly there were Mennonites who would have contemplated conscientious war tax resistance or argued for it, but who were instead content to lobby Congress to give them a box to check.

John R. Dyck wrote in with concern about this lapse of interest:

Thank you for picking up this important issue [military taxes] again (see issue) at a time when many of our people hoped it was a thing of the past. Must we look to other denominations or people than our own to take a bolder leadership position when it comes to dealing with governments? We have almost fallen asleep in the quietness and relative peace in our country, and the fairly consistent drop of dollars into our coffers has been an effective tranquilizer.

One of the articles in that issue was Edith Adamson (of Conscience Canada) and Marian Franz (of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund) promoting the Peace Tax Fund law idea. Such a law, they said “would remove the agonizing dilemma that forces conscientious objectors to either disregard their deepest beliefs or disobey the laws of their country.” They claimed the proposed law would “rechannel[] some tax dollars away from the military and into human needs programs,” and would raise awareness of “nations’ misplaced priorities.”

The issue also brought this news:

The Tax Court of Canada, in a recent 28-page ruling, held that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not permit taxpayers to withhold the “military portion” of their taxes. Jerilyn Prior, a Vancouver physician of Quaker faith who brought the case, had withheld 10.5 percent of her taxes and sent them instead to a peace fund. The court concluded, “Even if the assessment were objectively and in reality an infringement upon the appellant’s freedom of conscience and religion… the Canadian tax system… would be a reasonable limit which must be imposed in a free and democratic society…”

taxes for peace fund

Titus and Linda Peachey are directing a Pennsylvania project supported by Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section. Taxes for Peace is for those wishing to designate a portion of their tax dollars for a peaceful purpose. The section is also offering a packet of information about military tax opposition.

This year’s Taxes for Peace fund supports the Lancaster County Peacework Alternatives Project, addressing peace and militarism issues in Lancaster County, where 50 companies held prime military contracts worth $150 million with U.S. military agencies in .

The Peacheys hope to raise public awareness of the nature and extent of militarism in the Lancaster area and to work with local churches and groups about the theological and ethical questions of militarism. They also want to help defense employees deal with the ethical dilemmas posed by defense-related jobs and begin a dialogue with managers of local military-related industries.

Peace Section hopes that this one-year pilot project will serve as a model and inspiration for other peace groups interested in initiating similar projects in their communities.

In more than 40 people contributed $4,645.85 to the Taxes for Peace fund. This money was forwarded to a project in Guatemala that aided victims of violence.

European Mennonites: “as important as conscription”

Green party parliamentarian Petra Kelly called on governments to heed the example of Christian communities and churches during the opening address at the First International Conference of Military Tax Resisters and Peace Tax Campaigns held here . In particular she lauded the decision of the General Conference Mennonite Church not to force its employees to pay war taxes against their conscience.

Over 80 people representing most Western European countries, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States attended.

Most of those at the conference were tax resisters. Some redirect the military part of their income tax to peace-making purposes, others live below a taxable income level, and others symbolically withhold some of their taxes.

In West Germany and the Netherlands, for example, many take a first step by redirecting 5.72 German marks or Dutch guilders as a sign of their opposition to the deployment of the 572 U.S. Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe. They believe that the conscription of their money is as important as the conscription of young men in preparing for and fighting war.

Several participants shared their experiences with tax resistance. Arthur Windsor, a white-haired and mild-mannered Quaker from Gloucester, England, told how he could not reconcile his faith in Christ with paying tax monies that built nuclear and traditional weapons for oppressive Third World regimes. He smiled when he remembered the remark of the constable who came to take him to jail, “The law is not the same as justice.”

Work groups met on to discuss “Law and Conscience,” “Symbolic Actions and Publicity” and “International Cooperation.” Susumu Ishitiani, a Quaker from Japan, preached the final sermon in the Stepahanus Church, which hosted the conference.

Sponsors of the event included the German Mennonite Peace Committee, the German Quaker Peace Committee and the German Branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Mennonite participants included Marian Franz, executive director of the U.S.-based National Campaign for a World Peace Tax fund, Wolfgang Krauss of the German Mennonite Peace Committee and Andre Gingerich of Mennonite Central Committee in West Germany.

In there had been something of a purge of gay Mennonites from leadership positions, after a resolution at the Saskatoon conference unambiguously condemned homosexuality. Robert Hull wondered why Mennonite institutions were being so selective about which sins they were going to condemn in this manner:

I… pointed out that the GC triennial sessions at Fresno, Calif. in declared that “all war and all that contributes to war is a sin.” Yet some GC congregations accept as members people who have served in the military and not publicly repented, who work in defense industries, who pay federal taxes.

The edition announced:

A new video program on war tax resistance is available for free loan from the Mennonite Central Committee Resource Library… War Tax Resistance Seminar includes a lecture and panel discussion presented in in Lancaster County, Pa.

The General Assembly of the Mennonite Church (confusingly not the General Conference Mennonite Church) took place in . According to The Mennonite: “Nearly all 260 delegates representing 22 conferences in the United States and Canada encouraged the church’s governing body to find a way for church institutions to respond to the consciences of employees who object to paying that portion of their taxes destined for military use, even if such action involves civil disobedience.”

Marian Franz wrote in the edition that in her experience war tax resistance and work on peace tax fund lobbying was a good form of outreach for the anti-war message. Excerpts:

In the national capitals. When you in the local areas and we in Washington and Ottawa continue to press the issue of conscience, our single acts have widespread reverberations. Often members of government and their legislative assistants feel compelled to examine their consciences. In my experience, as we explain why people cannot pay the military portion of their taxes, the member of government or the aide feels compelled to explain why their conscience does not agree with ours (something we did not come there to ask) or to admit that our witness has caused them to listen to their conscience in a new way.

Among religious bodies. The fact that a sincere expression of conscientious conviction is infectious is demonstrated by the burgeoning examples of conscientious statements among religious bodies. In North America a new “peace church” is emerging that spans virtually every denomination, confession and constituency. Most of the major church bodies and bishops’ conferences have made statements, many surprisingly forceful, against nuclear weapons and the spiraling arms race. At the congregational and parish level, Bible study, prayer and discussion around the nuclear question is occurring across Canada and the United States. Old distinctions between pacifists and just-war proponents are breaking down. The threat of nuclear war has raised, for an increasing number of Christians, a crisis of conscience.

At the corporate level. Until now in our history, conscientious objection was considered only an individual matter. Conscientious objection to paying taxes for military force was a matter between the individual and God, the individual and conscience, the individual and the courts, the individual and revenue collection agencies. Now another dimension has been added to the picture. It is called corporate military tax resistance.

Even in the face of large maximum penalties ($25,000 fine for each person and/or 10 years in prison), religious bodies are beginning to ask if they as corporate entities can any longer in good conscience withhold taxes from the salaries of those employees who ask for reasons of conscience that they not be withheld. To date such corporate action has been taken only by small groups in historic peace churches (e.g. the General Conference Mennonite Church; Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a six-state region of Quakers; and the Friends World Committee on Consultation). But that action is now under consideration by some of the largest denominations.

When we mention such corporate actions and considerations in Congressional offices, new interest is sparked. Conscientious objection as a matter of individual conscience is one thing, but when it occurs on a corporate level it draws a different quality of attention.

At an international level. The Canadian and U.S. Peace Tax Fund efforts are a small campaign as lobbies go. Yet small seeds continue to sprout and blossom. The exact wording of the U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill now appears in legislation introduced in the parliaments of several nations. How could David Bassett, a Quaker physician from Ann Arbor, Mich., who drafted the U.S. peace tax legislation with law faculty, have dreamed that one day he would attend an international conference of peace tax campaigns?

After five years as executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund in the United States, I was thrilled to attend the first international conference of peace tax campaigns and war tax resisters in Tubingen . One hundred participants from 15 countries gathered for the conference. They came together at the invitation of five German groups, including the Deutsches Mennonitisches Friedens Komitee (German Mennonite Peace Committee).

In workshops, panel discussions, and plenary sessions many participants expressed openly and in moving ways the Christian basis for their beliefs and actions. While the religious and political backgrounds of the participants varied, there was little diversity in their conviction of conscience. All found it a clear violation of conscience to pay the military portion of their taxes. All saw the connection between the 4 million people who starve each year and swollen military budgets. All noted that what the world spends in just 10 days for military expenditures could not only feed all the hungry on earth for a year but also provide them with clean water, housing and education. Even the setting for the conference was a reminder of why we had gathered. From the Tubingen church where we met, we could see a hospital for brain-damaged people from World War Ⅱ, now under conversion into a training center for the triage method of treating the victims of the next war.

I was struck by how many of the participants had known the trauma of war firsthand. The majority were Europeans and had lived under bombs and/or had grown up with family members missing because of World War Ⅱ.

Antje Spannenberg was one of the generation of children who had plagued their parents with the question, “How could you have allowed Hitler to come into and remain in power? Why didn’t you stop him?” Now Antje’s children are asking her, “How can you allow a world full of weapons so dreadful and dangerous?”

Ursula Windsor, a refugee from Nazi Germany now living in England and married to Britisher Arthur Windsor, admits, “I know if enough of us had resisted we could have stopped Hitler. For some it would not have been difficult; for others, a great sacrifice. Whether simple or difficult, there came a time when it was too late.”

Ursula knew that truth from experience. “I have watched my favorite possessions being taken out of my home as the British Inland Revenue Service claimed them in lieu of taxes we have not paid because we believe that Jesus forbids us to pay for war.”

Her husband, Arthur, went to prison for three weeks. On the day of Arthur’s release he was met at the prison gate by a member of the British Parliament who escorted him to the British House of Commons. With Arthur in the gallery, the member of Parliament introduced the British Peace Tax Fund into Parliament. On that day, for the first time, it received 10 minutes of official debate.

She also briefly profiled conference attendees Wolfgang Krauss of West Germany and Susumu Ishitani of Japan.

Military tax resistance. Are there conscientious objectors to taxes for military purposes in other countries, and do some refuse to pay the military portion of their taxes to their governments? Yes. Some withhold all, some the military portion and some a symbolic portion from their taxes. For some these actions are a political strategy; for many they are based on religious commitment.

Reports from the various countries echoed a refrain. In the Netherlands 5.72 guilders is a symbolic amount withheld by many. In Germany 5.72 Deutsche Marks is a symbolic amount. The number represents the 572 Pershing Ⅱ and cruise missiles on European soil and expresses abhorrence for the fact that they shorten the nuclear fuse to six minutes.

Legislative efforts. Has any country succeeded in passing peace tax legislation that would make it legal to have the military portion of their citizens’ taxes go into a separate fund? Not yet.

Countries working for legislation are the Federal Republic of Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Finland, Australia and the United States. Switzerland and Spain have no organized effort for legal recognition of conscientious objection to military taxes. France has a fund in which tax-resisted dollars are collected, as does Italy.

The Peace Tax campaigns of Canada and Japan, rather than promoting peace tax legislation, are challenging their governments in the courts based on constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience (Canada) and constitutional stipulations that not more than 1 percent of the gross national product be used for military force (Japan).

Other judicial efforts. Attempts to establish through the courts the legal right to redirect taxes from military purposes have been pursued in many countries. Except in Italy, these efforts have been without success. The standard response of governments to non-payment of the military portion of taxes (if they respond at all) includes trials, confiscation of property, fines and interest fees, and — in rare instances — prison.

The standard response of the courts to tax resisters who are brought to trial is that the issues raised present a “political question” that the courts cannot address or that constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and/or religion do not outweigh the duty of a citizen to pay taxes.

The greatest success and surprise story was that de facto recognition of conscientious objection to military taxes exists in Italy. Fifty war tax resisters have been prosecuted in six legal cases and have been acquitted in every case. They based their case on the fact that freedom of conscience is guaranteed in the Italian constitution. Participants from Italy reported at Tubingen that four years ago they knew of only 20 who did not pay the military portion of their taxes for reasons of conscience. That number is now 3,500 and growing. War tax resisters are no longer prosecuted in Italy.

I listened with anticipation to the featured speaker, Petra Kelly, founder of the Green party, and member of the West German Bundestag (Parliament). Referring to the Hitler years, she said, “Because we can recall the painful experiences of fascism in this country, especially when it comes to military violence, we cannot retreat into obedience by our citizens in relation to the state. In the domain of conscience there is a higher duty. The special status of human conscience and the fundamental right not to kill is set apart from other issues. Therefore governments should make allowance for tax redirection that they would make in no other cases.”

Then came the surprise. Kelly said that in searching for signs of some way out of the dark morass of military expenditures, she finds an example in the Mennonites.

She said, “An example for me is the [General Conference] Mennonite Church. A group of members decided the following: ‘The employees of the church administration are given the power to be true to the high demands of Christ’s Law of Love, in that they can resist withholding taxes from employees that have requested it and therefore open up the possibility to resist for reasons of conscience to pay for the preparation of war.’ ”

She continued, “This example should give us all courage, but it is also a clear signal of that which happens in many Christian churches and can give us hope.”

I thought back to the long struggle of conscience that culminated in the conference decision cited by Kelly. At the time we were not thinking of what the rest of the world would think of us, but only whether our action was consistent with obedience to Christ. I certainly did not expect to hear it quoted three years later by a member of a foreign parliament, at a conference of 15 countries.

Conscience is contagious.