American Brethren and War Taxes in 1971

In , war tax resisters in the Church of the Brethren were eager to find precedent for their beliefs and actions in the history of the Brethren as they pressured the church to dip its toes into corporate resistance by divesting itself of U.S. government bonds.

Church of the Brethren: Messenger

In the issue, the Messenger reproduced an excerpt from the script of a play by Gary Rowe that dramatized a dilemma for Brethren conscientious objectors during the American Civil War (source). While, as far as I could determine, in historical fact Brethren typically paid the commutation tax to avoid service without complaint, in the play this became a contested issue. Excerpts:

The great house of this nation is torn apart into two hostile camps. I fear that tonight I will divide the house of my own father. For that, I pray forgiveness. I cannot stand with my brother [who joined the military]. Nor can I accept the offer my father made to me today, the offer to pay the tax to exempt me from service in the army.
(Jumping up) Then let us pay it!
Thank you, but I cannot permit that either.
You are aware, Brother Thomas, that our brotherhood has recommended that each church help its members who are drafted to pay the tax?
I know that, too. But I want to stand before you now, not with you but in front of you, to bear witness to my own faith. I hope that some of you may find it in your hearts to stand with me.
But Sister Wolfe does have a point, Thomas. Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the tax and avoid this danger?
Yes. It would be easier. But would it be true to our faith?
Our churches have declared that our members may pay the tax in order to avoid military service.
But is that why our fathers came to this country? They came to get away from coercion. They came to a land where they could obey their conscience, without being punished by the state! Now… are we to bear arms in violation of our covenant as a people of God? The answer must be no. But are we also to pay taxes levied on us to avoid that service, taxes that burden us for holding fast to God’s Word? Does the state have the right to punish us, in any way, for our faith? To tell us we can believe what we like as long as we pay for others to violate those beliefs?
(His head still lowered) Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God—
(Retorting) Shall I give my life, my blood, to serve Caesar, or shall I lay it down for God? (Pause) This matter involves more for us than the simplicity of giving up a coin in our pocket!

Brethren peace activists were eager to find or imagine precedents for their stand in Brethren history. Later the same year, T. Wayne Rieman would write (source):

The early Brethren were conscientious objectors to the coercive practices of the state and church: compelling people to join or leave the church of Christ, baptizing children before they understood its meanings, forcing people to take oaths, conscripting for the military, and levying war taxes.

To all of these the Brethren answer was: No! The overruling of the conscience is wrong — always wrong.

The Brethren… supported government, paid taxes without opposition (except war taxes)…

But the older Brethren practices I have noticed around war taxes (though I’ve only been looking at the U.S., and only back as far as the mid-19th century) were much more ambiguous than this, and if anything, promoted paying taxes willingly whether they were called war taxes or not.

“An Open Letter to IRS from “S.K. and M.K.” appeared in the issue. Excerpt:

Please be informed that as a matter of conscience we cannot pay that portion of our income tax which has not been withheld. We would hold ourselves unjust if, after having seen how this war has been both reflection and cause of the unwholeness of Americans; having seen almost daily the evidence of the vast destructiveness of the war in terms of human life and the ecology of Indochina; having recognized the militaristic use of a large percentage of public monies — a use which makes war more not less inevitable; after having been taught by Anabaptist Brethren heritage that all war is evil and madness and contrary to God and man; and after having tasted of the life-giving spirit whose joy is love and forgiveness, we would indeed be unjust hypocrites if, after all this, we supported with our taxes what we hold with all our heart, mind, and soul to be an abomination in the sight of God and an offense against man.

War tax resistance and the long-ignored issue of war bonds came up at the Annual Conference that year. The Messenger reported (source):

Attempts to force the Board to sell all U.S. bonds and to refuse to pay the telephone tax which is used for war purposes, were unsuccessful.

A later letter-writer gave some details about how this came about, expressing frustration that Brethren activists were not putting forth their efforts in a way that was calculated for success (source):

Many of us learned with some surprise that among the holdings of the General Board there are war bonds. We would have been eager to support a motion instructing the Board to dispose of these bonds at its earliest convenience. But we did not get that motion. Instead we were offered a motion by the Brethren Action Movement that we do not accept the report of the Board until they first dispose of such bonds. Very few of us are willing to use our approval for last year’s work as a weapon to hold over the heads of the Board until they do our will on a new item.

A later National Youth Conference, however, tried to keep the item on the agenda (source):

[T]he conference voted to “affirm anew our faith and allegiance in the Lord Jesus Christ and in so doing oppose war and the support of war in all forms. Consistent with this faith… we commend the General Board to immediately dispose of, at any cost, all U.S. government bonds under its jurisdiction and control… We call upon the church to have the courage to be Brethren.”