Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1940–1941

This is the fourth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today I pick things up in the early World War Ⅱ period, just before the United States officially enters the war.

The Mennonite

The issue reprinted “[o]ne youth’s attitude toward the European war.” Excerpts:

[W]e hear a great deal about the obligation of a democracy which must be assumed by its citizens in return for the rights and liberties gained under a system.

May I ask what some of these obligations are? Must I assume the policy of “My country, right or wrong, but my country”? Have I no higher allegiance than to my country? How can I be loyal to God and to my conscience, and at the same time support my country in the anti-Christian and anti-social business of war?…

Do I have an obligation to defend our industrialists’ interests in foreign countries? On every hand we hear the unanimous answer, “no.” But, will I be called in to protect loans made by American business to the Allies — made in at their own risk? What if these business men go bankrupt through a sudden turn in the war’s developments? Then comes the tremendous clamor for RFC loans to save these industrialists and business men. Our tax-payers would be compelled to shoulder the burden for credits to belligerents that they had not authorized and in fact had clearly condemned.

The “youth” was Leonard Mather, a student at U.C. Berkeley. I believe he would later volunteer to serve the military in World War Ⅱ.

The “Render Unto Caesar” episode got another mulling over in the issue. In this interpretation, the meaning of the episode is this: “[Jesus] said in effect — ‘You use Caesar’s money, you must pay his tax.’ ”

Maridel Harding took another swing at the same dead horse in the issue. The way she saw it:

In this statement Jesus recognizes the civic responsibility of Christians. Government stands for that order without which society cannot hold together. The people who came to Jesus with the matter of paying taxes to Caesar felt toward the ruler as all subjugated people have felt toward their rulers. Yet the answer of Jesus implies that Caesar, though hated, provided a certain amount of security. The whole community receives something from government, hence all must share in supporting it. No man has a right to order his life apart.

That’s reading quite a bit into it, says I. Over the years I’ve read a lot of different interpretations of the “Render Unto Caesar” verses. I don’t have much skin in the game, not being a Christian, but I have my own favorite interpretation too. Dead horse might not be the right metaphor; it’s more like the blind men and an elephant from the proverb.

The issue included a piece by R.L. Hartzler in which he anticipated that war was on the way and that “This means that the government must initiate a money-raising campaign the like of which we have never seen in this country.” Mennonites, he suggested, should anticipate that the government will try to come after their assets and turn them into war materiel, and so they should preemptively devote those assets to beneficial purposes:

How will it be done? Taxation is, of course, the government’s chief money-raising arm, but it dare not at this time impose a set of exactions sufficient to raise the stupendous amount needed. To do so would materially “cool off” the war fever which the administration has so adroitly contrived to stimulate and mature. So other methods must come in for consideration and adoption. Of these, two are most often proposed by treasury officials, — defense bonds and war savings stamps to be purchased by the people, thus turning their reserves and savings into the promotion of the armament program.

In making public mention of these methods the secretary of the treasury took pains to stipulate that the purchase of such bonds would be voluntary on the part of citizens; and that, while local committees would be appointed to promote the sale of them, persons were not to be subjected to pressure, as was done in many cases in . Whether or not the administration is particularly averse to the use of such pressure, if it brings money we do not know; but it is at least highly expedient just now to present the matter as a purely voluntary proposition; so far as the individual citizen is concerned. To do otherwise would bring another reaction which the administration does not want at this time.

But this mild-mannered presentation of the matter may easily be taken too seriously by those who would be expected to purchase such bonds, when the sale of them is in process of promotion. During the former World War it was not the policy of the administration that local, self-appointed committees of super-patriots (?) should use high-handed measures in dealing with their fellows; but such resorts to pressure methods were not uncommon, nevertheless. Moreover, the person who tried to appeal for legal recognition and defense of his rights as a citizen only added to his difficulties. So, while the administration may at this time really intend to make the purchase of the proposed defense bonds optional, the fact in itself does not guarantee that the individual will find himself in a position really to exercise his own pleasure in the matter, as he might now suppose.

Moreover, with the powers which the president now holds, should the sale of such bonds lag and the receipts fall far below what was expected, he may at his discretion precipitate a crisis which will mean the outbreak of hostilities between our armed forces and an enemy (?), and the purchase of defense bonds become thereafter as little a matter of choice as in .

So it all comes around to this, that the time for people who have means that they would rather see invested for the Lord than for war, — the time for them to make such investment is now. When the government comes along with a “must,” whether declared or undeclared, it will then be too late to be able to say where the money shall go. Do you have investments in mortgages, stocks, or bonds? Do you hold certificates of savings or deposits? Do you have a reserve neatly tucked away in a safety deposit box? Would you rather see those means go to help save men’s lives in the spirit of Christ, than to destroy them in the carnage of war? If so, now is the time for you to turn them to some phase of Kingdom service. If you wait, you may find yourself obliged to give or loan your means for a purpose which your soul abhors, and may then wish with deep feeling that your money could go to a nobler purpose, but find yourself without the privilege of choice in the matter. The time to make Mammon serve Christ, and not Mars (war) is now. And let no one presume that he has securely covered the amount of his holdings, for the government has some wonderfully effective ways of finding out.

In view of all this, our church institutions and programs of service should now receive such grants of material resources as they never realized before. Our hospitals, colleges, missions, and programs of civilian service need financial resources totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money is now in the hands of our people to meet these needs. The question is whether the Lord or Mars will get it. We are certain that eventually one or the other will. Will those who have means decide that question now, while they have that privilege? We wonder, and shall anxiously wait to see.

, the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America met. They issued a statement On Peace, War, Military Service, and Patriotism that included a plank about war tax refusal:

In stating our convictions we establish no new doctrine among us, but merely an age-old faith of the church which has been held precious by our forefathers from the time that the church was founded… and which we have set forth on a number of former occasions since our settlement in America.

[W]e are constrained as followers of Christ to abstain from all military service and all direct means of supporting war. Specifically…

We feel that we cannot consistently take part in the financing of war operations through the purchase of war bonds, and we are very sensitive to making voluntary contributions to organizations or activities which may indirectly make us supporters of war and the military program.

And then Pearl Harbor. So that strong statement of principles got in just under the wire. We’ll see how Mennonite convictions hold out, in the next episode…