This is the ninth 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.
began with a bombshell. John Howard Yoder, who would become a very influential Mennonite ethicist and political philosopher (but who at the time was just finishing off his doctorate and working as part-time instructor), dropped his essay “Why I Don’t Pay My Taxes” in Gospel Herald readers’ laps.
The Mennonite reprinted the essay, and I reproduced it here when I was going through the back issues of that magazine (see ♇ 17 July 18) so I won’t do so again today.
In Gospel Herald, the essay, which appeared in the issue, was preceded by this editorial disclaimer:
In A Declaration of Christian Faith and Commitment with Respect to Peace, War, and Nonresistance, which was adopted by General Conference in as the official statement of the church on the question, we find this sentence: “Though we recognize fully that God has set the state in its place of power and ministry, we cannot take part in those of its functions or respond to any of its demands which involve us in the use of force or frustrate Christian love; but we acknowledge our obligation to witness to the powers-that-be of the righteousness which God requires of all men, even in government, and beyond this to continue in earnest intercession to God on their behalf.”
The statement on The Christian Witness to the State adopted by General Conference in contains this sentence: "The evils of war, particularly in this nuclear age, must ever be pressed upon the consciences of statesmen.”
The article by John H. Yoder which follows is the testimony of a brother who has come to the conviction that for him a necessary witness to the state is not to pay voluntarily all of one’s federal income tax (although in no way obstructing its forcible collection by the state), since so much of this tax goes for war purposes.
Neither General Conference nor the Peace Problems Committee have said that the Christian witness against war must include this procedure. To some, no doubt, it will seem that the procedure taken is contrary to New Testament teaching. To this position, however, Bro. Yoder has an answer which he believes is right.
Believing that his answer deserves prayerful consideration by all who disagree, as well as by any who might be sympathetic, the Peace Problems Committee is submitting it for publication. Both the author and the committee will welcome further discussion of the question in the same spirit with which it is here presented.
The Peace Problems Committee:
Guy F. Hershberger, Secretary.
(At the suggestion of the editor of the Peace and War Page, the following statement is made in the form of a purely personal testimony, such as was presented to the Peace Problems Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in . The writer bears no responsibility to represent the Mennonite Church as an organization or the Peace Problems Committee in the position he has taken nor in the reporting of it.)
It’s worth noting that Yoder defined his war tax resistance largely in terms of “witness” rather than conscientious objection: “The idea,” he wrote, “is not to avoid involvement in the evils of this fallen world, to ‘keep my hands clean’ morally… My concern is not to be morally immaculate by making absolutely no contribution to the war effort, but to give a testimony to government concerning its own obligation before God.”
Yoder’s essay provoked a great deal of response, as you might expect.
A letter to the editor from Daniel Hertzler () brought up a theme that would echo through much of the subsequent discussion in Mennonite circles: that war tax resistance was a way for conscientiously objecting adults to put some skin in the game, rather than merely advise conscripted youth what they ought to do:
I was much impressed by the article, “Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax,” by John H. Yoder… It seems to me the author shows a good attitude toward the government and toward his brothers in the church. He is not arrogant toward the government as are some nonviolent resisters, and he presents his case to the brotherhood for discussion. I hope this issue is taken seriously and discussed thoroughly.
One statement which impressed me most, and which I underlined…[:] “If action something like my own were taken by a significant number of mature Mennonite wage earners, this would be the first time in the history of our nation that the testimony to nonresistance was given primarily through the initiative of and at a certain cost to the most mature and responsible people in the church.”
Many times leaders in the church are concerned because young people seem to give an uncertain and wavering testimony. Part of the answer may be that they have not seen persons who are a little older giving a clear-cut and decisive testimony.
A letter to the editor from Abraham Gehman, Jr. () thought Yoder’s stance was unwisely confrontational and smacked of craving for martyrdom:
I applaud John H. Yoder’s efforts to do something about the present world situation… In response to his concern, I regret that I have not found a more appropriate testimony against the nation’s trust in the sword. With all respect to his convictions, I do, however, differ with his solution to this problem.
In principle, our government is doing nothing different from governments throughout history, including those of Bible times; that is, to defend itself by whatever means is necessary…
The author is concerned with alternate service not being a positive witness. I assume that if enough of us would refuse to pay a portion of our income tax, the government would work out an alternate program. Would the author then try, and keep on trying, until the government has finally had enough?
The time may come soon enough when we must take a positive stand against our government. Until that time, the cause of peace is not strengthened by goading the government into making martyrs out of us.
A letter to the editor from Ray Slabaugh () threw cold water on the idea that Paul only counseled Christians to pay all their taxes because Rome was at the time an empire at peace:
Mr Yoder says, or seems to say, the reason Paul or Jesus recognized governmental authority was because Rome was at peace. Rome was at peace only to the extent that it had crushed the opposition. It held its people in subjection much like communism. Whether Jesus would have lived in America today or in the Roman Empire as He did, His message would still be the same, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Regardless of what our government uses the income tax money for (and I don’t think our nation is planning to blow up the other half of the world), it is still our obligation to pay our taxes. We can never change the attitudes of our statesmen or government by means like this.
A brief letter to the editor from Rebecca Longenecker promoted charitable giving as a way of lowering war taxes, and noted that “[t]he local Internal Revenue inspector treated me very kindly when I was called to his office concerning my charity deductions. Isn’t this another way of giving a positive peace testimony?”
Lloy A. Kniss was more thoroughly critical of Yoder’s ideas. In a letter to the editor, he wrote that war tax resistance is thoroughly unscriptural and that Christians have no reason to inquire about how their taxes are used after they gladly pay them. Furthermore, he felt, we should assume good motives on the part of our government and not be in a rush to see its huge military budget and armaments stockpiles as evidence of eagerness for war. There are wheels within wheels and all that.
He also identified a weakness in Yoder’s argument for war tax resistance, one that persists in many similar arguments today — arguments that use conscientious objection premises (paying taxes for war would involve me in bloodshed in a way I cannot condone) to justify a ”witnessing” action (I refuse to pay as a symbol to government of my disapproval, even though I know the government will collect the money eventually):
…[W]e have no New Testament teachings providing for the church to dictate or suggest to the state ways of bringing about reforms in methods of administering justice or in the kinds of weapons not to use in war. The Christian’s primary responsibility is not to improve or reform the world, but to preach the Gospel…
Another concept expressed in the article which seems incorrect is that by paying taxes we are making a contribution to the war effort. On the surface it seems plausible to interpret it that way, but the Bible teaches us that the tax money is Caesar’s and not ours. So what is Caesar’s we give to him to use as he sees fit, for it is his and we are not responsible or guilty of contributing to the war. Refusing to pay tax is not a real testimony of a non-resistant Christian. Also Rom. 13 tells us that “he” bears not the sword in vain. We know that God intends that he should use it. It does not seem to be in order for Christians to tell him he should not use a two-edged sword, or a fiery sword, or whatever else might be very destructive or horrible. Certainly the Christian shrinks from seeing such cruelty, but where have we Scriptural basis for dictating to the government on these things? Burning people alive at the stake was also very cruel and repulsive to think of, and throwing Christians alive to the wild animals was no better, but the New Testament does not instruct Christians to testify against those things which existed there then.
There are also some points in the article which do not stand the test of sanctified reason. If I felt that paying my income tax is wrong for me as a Christian, I would certainly not pay it, and instead of making it easy for the revenue officers to get it, I would refuse to pay and go to prison if necessary. Is it Scriptural to assume that we should yield to coercion in matters of right or wrong? The second-mile teaching refers to personal injury or offense — not to matters of conscience.
We must credit our government with the sincere desire to prevent war as its motive for increasing armaments. We must believe that our government holds no aggressive intentions. When we recommend to the government to cease making or testing bombs, we may be encouraging the opposite from what we intended to. I would rather pray God to direct our rulers as He sees best. In a case like this I believe we can do more good by praying than by protesting, for do we know what is best after all? I want to make it clear that all preparations for war, and all making of weapons is repulsive to me as a Christian; as much so as to the author of the article in question, but to promote reform in this area is out of my province.
The author says, “Involvement in one form or another [in the war effort] is avoided by no one.” This conclusion, it seems to me, is based on legalism. If one innocently raises corn, as he naturally does, to feed the hungry and to make a living, then it is not his responsibility if somewhere the corn he raises contributes to any government war effort. I would suggest that the motive in one’s act is what decides his innocence or guilt in this kind of situation. Of course, if a person holds all his scrap iron until there is a war on and the prices go up, and then sells it for greater profit, we conclude that here he is plainly guilty.
The New Testament injunction to pay our taxes is not conditioned on how the money will be used by the government. The teachings of the Bible were not given as applying only to local situations at that time. One of the features of Scripture is that it is never out of date. I believe we ought to interpret all Scriptures in that light.
The author of the article states that the object is not to keep the government from getting the money, and also in the same article he seems to imply that it is wrong for us to pay taxes that we know are used for military purposes. This appears to be a contradiction, unless he would propose a passive attitude toward wrong by “making it easy” for the revenue man to get the money. I believe our brother would not favor taking such a passive weak attitude toward sin.
By a general analysis of the article, it would seem to favor interference by the church in state affairs. Again, one can see in it the promotion of simple worldly pacifism. Furthermore, the emphasis that is placed on objection to nuclear weapons seems to betray a lining up with popular sentiment in the world today, rather than Bible-based conviction against taking life. The principle is the same whether one life is taken, or a thousand. It reminds one of the difference between a white lie and a big lie; or a petty theft and a bank robbery. The wrong is the same in both kinds of cases, but the antisocial aspect of the latter is worse than that of the former.
A letter to the editor from A.M. Moyer () mapped out the reluctant and waffling middle-ground:
It is debatable… how much a Christian should do to bring about persecution. Perhaps we should do more than we now do; I don’t know. It’s too easy to become passive and unconcerned about it. But doesn’t persecution come to the genuine Christian without his “going out of the way” to get it? It is this “self-effort” to deliberately try to bring persecution that I feel will only result in stirring up antagonism. This, in turn, will leave a poor — rather than a positive — witness. I don’t think we should try to avoid persecution, but neither do I think we should try to create it.
I don’t quite see the individual Christian’s responsibility for our nation’s actions in the same light as Bro. Yoder does. To voluntarily pay our taxes doesn’t necessarily mean that we approve of the government’s use of that money. For example, when we pay a bill to the man who delivers coal to us, we don’t ask him what he will do with the money. We are not responsible, since it no longer is our money, nor can we decide how it ought to be spent.
In the same way, I feel we are not responsible for our nation’s use of money to the degree that Bro. Yoder implies. There is one technical difference, however; since we are American citizens and thereby indirectly a part of our democratic form of government, we are not completely free from all responsibility in this matter. I think we as Christians ought to “voice our opinions” (convictions) against the unwise spending of money in America for destructive and defensive measures. However, could this not be done through personal letters to congressmen and other government officials, who have more say in these decisions than ourselves, rather than by Bro. Yoder’s method of temporarily withholding some tax money (apologies to Bro. Yoder)? Besides, I feel as though we owe a certain amount of tax money to our government in return for the many freedoms and privileges we enjoy because of it.
I realize that Bro. Yoder fully intended that the government should have the whole amount of tax due, but it was a matter of time and means, of how and when he felt he could give the best possible peace witness. Though I would not do the same myself, I respect anyone daring to be different for a reason; one has to wonder how different our Bible might be if persons such as Daniel had not dared to be different for conscience’ sake. I do not condemn Bro. Yoder at all, but I seriously wonder what would happen if every Mennonite Christian (or a high percentage of them) would do likewise. I personally could not conscientiously withhold some due tax from the government, because I feel that I am obligated to pay it, both as a Christian and as an American citizen.
…Bro. Yoder mentions the difference between the Roman government and our own… However… there must have been some things about the Roman government of which Christ did not approve. And He apparently paid His taxes with no comment to government officials as to His objections to their possible use.
…I admire Bro. Yoder for living up to his personal conviction, even though in this instance it differs from my own. And I do appreciate the main result of the article — that it makes us aware of the high percentage of tax money which is used for purposes contrary to New Testament teachings, and therefore contrary to our Christian convictions. We dare not ignore this contradiction! It ought to concern every Christian; but what to do about it remains a basically personal problem, which each must solve as the Lord directs him.
A letter to the editor from Amos W. Weaver () began by explaining why the author does not vote in elections, feeling that such a vote would give his stamp of approval for the eventual immoral actions of those he voted for. But he felt the same logic does not apply to taxation:
But I can and do pay my taxes with a clear conscience and would have a guilty conscience if I did not. When Jesus said, “Render… unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” He gave no qualifications nor suggested any exceptions even though He must have been well aware of Caesar’s (and the Caesars in general) dissolute, profligate living and his cruel and wanton disregard for life. The taxes paid to the Caesars were used for wars of conquest, oppression, wanton destruction of life, and for luxuriant and sensual living. But he did represent law and order in general and so, in God’s economy for a sinful society, deserved support.
In Rom. 12 Paul, though the inspiration of the Spirit, plainly teaches against violence or taking vengeance by the believer, declaring that God will repay the evildoer and punish him. Then in the following chapter Paul continues by showing how God is taking vengeance and punishing the evildoer with the sword, in the hands of God-ordained government whose agents are declared to be, in this area of justice, God’s ministers, or servants.
Paul, through the Spirit, then most plainly tells us to pay tribute because of that very thing, suppressing evil with the sword, a thing the believer may not do but is commanded to pay the government for doing.
Paul calls for our full support of the official sword even though he well knew that official sword often took innocent lives, destroyed wantonly at times, beheaded John the Baptist, nailed Christ to the cross, and the Spirit knew would someday remove Paul’s head, destroy nearly all of the apostles and hundreds and thousands of faithful men of God in the centuries to come. Then he adds, by way of further emphasis, “Render therefore to all their dues.”
This strange paradox would plague Mennonites as it plagued other Christian conscientious objectors. History clearly showed governments persecuting, torturing, crucifying, beheading the early disciples of Christ, and yet Paul insisted “the governing authorities… have been instituted by God… [R]ulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad… [D]o what is good, and you will receive [the ruler’s] approval, for he is God’s servant for your good… for the authorities are ministers of God”. The most sensible solution to this Gordian Knot seems to me to lie in just recognizing that Paul was talking rot, but that’s a hard pill for a Christian to swallow. Paul was mistaken. Just say those three words and move on.
There was also some additional content around this time that was not directly in response to the Yoder article. Among these were news of war tax resisters from other Christian sects, such as this note about Arthur Evans ():
A Colorado Quaker who long has refused voluntary payment of that portion of his federal taxes earmarked for military spending plans the same course of action . Dr. Arthur Evans, a Denver physician, for 20 years has donated the amount of money equal to his tax burden of military spending to a charity and has sent the receipt to the Internal Revenue Service. And every year the IRS attaches his bank account, collects the amount due, and adds a 6 per cent interest charge.
, because the IRS was “using the information I was voluntarily giving for evil purposes,” Dr. Evans did not file any federal return. To make up for his tax liability, the physician sent the IRS five checks for $200 each — payable to the United Nations, the Peace Corps, and the AID program. Dr. Evans contends he is meeting his obligations by contributing to organizations such as the United Nations, which are supported at least in part by the U.S. government. The IRS, in returning the checks, stated “they have no connection with any tax liability and cannot be accepted by this office.” The Quaker, who terms military spending as a “Doomsday Machine,” continues to pay his state income taxes because they have no military spending connection.
…and this one about Karel F. Botermans ():
Karel F. Botermans, minister of San Anselmo’s Unitarian Universalist church, has declined to pay 61 per cent of his federal income tax on the grounds that it would go for “carefully planned machinery to kill millions of human beings.” The Dutch-born pastor, a leader in the Netherlands underground during the Nazi occupation, sent the remaining 39 per cent of his tax to the Internal Revenue Service. He also mailed copies of his protest letter to President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. In his message he asserted the belief that “I have international law on my side.” He referred to the Nürnberg trials, “where it was stated by our Allied judges that, in actions of genocide, every person in that society involved in those actions is to be held responsible.” Mr. Botermans said, “It is obvious that our ‘defense program’ is a preparation for genocide attempt, one which might be far more devastating than the Nazis ever dreamed of.” The pacifist clergyman pointed out he would gladly pay the withheld 61 per cent of his tax if the U.S. pledged to spend the money for other methods of settling international differences.
An article meant to refute the Biblical case for conscientious objection to war taxes appeared in the edition. The article, “Taxes and the New Testament” by William Klassen, seemed in context to be a rebuttal to Yoder’s article, but an editorial note said that “It was written before the author read the Yoder article and is not to be considered a reply to it.” But even Klassen’s article, though generally skeptical of Christian arguments for war tax resistance, offered an escape route for prophets who wanted to push the boundaries of Christian behavior in that direction:
It would seem… that any protest against income taxes in the United States on the basis of the proportion of taxes going into the military effort or the size of these taxes per se cannot appeal to the New Testament. Although one might adduce certain arguments for the nonpayment of taxes, the concern for the eventual use of this money finds no support in Jesus’ teaching. His followers pay taxes.
Nevertheless, it is possible that if He had lived today, He might have taken a different approach. We must endeavor to find the will of Christ for today, but it is difficult to deviate from the letter when the evidence in the New Testament is rather clear.
Yet we have done it in other areas. For example, the New Testament warns against drunkenness, but nowhere prohibits the drinking of wine. Does this perhaps mean that since Jesus drank and made wine, we should do so also? Generally we do not say so. Rather, we feel that we must go beyond the written word and allow ourselves to be impelled by the Spirit of Christ. Whether we always have the mind of Christ under such circumstances remains an open question. We do, however, engage in a search for God’s will without simply repeating the written word.
In the case of taxes we may ask: Would our witness as Christians be more consistent if we at least lodged a protest with the government about the use of tax money? Should we refuse payment, thus bringing an element of coercion into the situation? Should we request that our taxes be designated for such causes as the Peace Corps or foreign aid or the United Nations? Or should we continue to pay taxes, appealing to the New Testament as our guide in this?
It is clear that any attempt to arrive at consensus on this matter to the extent that we might be able to move ahead in anything like a united front would be a Herculean task. When our base no longer is a simple literalistic Biblicism, then we need a much more thorough period of instruction before we can have any kind of consensus. One of the immediate steps could be to sensitize our conscience on the matter by analyzing the real issues before us.
Perhaps a study should also be made of the Amish protest to Social Security. Did their concern, that the church cares for its own, really get a hearing or did they simply perpetuate their reputation for solidly resisting all change? Seen from the standpoint of the New Testament, witnessing has little value apart from the degree to which it communicates the lordship of Christ.