Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1968

This is the eleventh 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.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1967

Passive nonresistance was starting to look insufficiently peaceful by , when the world around the Mennonite Church was becoming more influenced by anti-war activism.

In the issue, Arnold W. Cressman told Mennonites they were missing the boat:

Some time ago, I saw Joan Baez, popular folk singer, interviewed on TV. In this broadcast she was saying all the things about peace that we Mennonites should be saying. I was ashamed because we are not saying them, at least not loudly enough that people notice.

By contrast the TV program reviewing the Mennonites was called “A Peaceful Revolution.” That was to say that radical changes are happening among the Mennonites; they are getting more and more like status quo Americans and Canadians. But they are no threat to anybody. The thing that was bad about the program was that it made us look too good. While there were serious attempts by several to say the disturbing things we think we believe about peace, yet the film makers apparently were not impressed. They could not find enough living evidence of this radical discipleship we talk about to make it a dominant theme in the film. So, much of the good talk was cut out.

It is time to build conviction about peace that produces both words and action. If peace has come to mean for us a sort of washed-out, do-nothing nonresistance, then we had better take another look in the Bible. If we think our Anabaptist, New Testament, peace position has nothing to do with war taxes, racism, poverty, and nationalism, if the festering social problems are not included in our concern, if it is thought that we should passively nod “yes” to the status quo, then we had better be jolted to think again. If we don’t, then serious Mennonite young people growing up in the generation of Joan Baez will go somewhere else to buy their brand of peace.

They want an aggressive product. They will not sit in a corner and wait for someone to hit one cheek so that they can piously turn the other also. The world doesn’t hit people who sit in a corner. It hits people who are out meddling with the corrupt but comfortable status quo — as Jesus did.

Everett G. Metzler wrote in from his post in Saigon, in a letter to the editor:

Please permit a delayed response to the editorial, “Dare We Pay Taxes for War?” in Gospel Herald, which just arrived. (Wish we could afford airmailed Gospel Heralds!) My response from Vietnam to the question posed so well is that Christians dare not pay war taxes. Our government has gone far beyond the New Testament mandate to maintain order, reward, and punish in her involvement in Vietnam. But we Mennonites need to go beyond the negative symbolism of refusing to pay war taxes. We need perhaps to begin to at least give a tithe. We need to establish our credibility as responsible protesters of nationalism and militarism by getting much more deeply involved in the problems that are feeding the fires of conflict at home and abroad. We have accepted very materialistic values and quasi-Christian ethics from our environment that compromise our witness to the world who pass us off as “unrealistic” and “irresponsible.” The way of love and suffering will never be understood by our fellowmen until more radical demonstrations of it are seen by those of us who say we are committed to the New Testament ethic of love.

In its issue, Gospel Herald reprinted James Juhnke’s essay on “Our Almost Unused Political Power” (see ♇ 19 July 2018 for the essay as it appeared in The Mennonite). In response, in a letter to the editor printed in the issue, David L. Groh wrote:

[W]hen our representatives went to Washington to ask for a change in the proposed draft law, they used a threat — [“]that ‘thousands of conscientious objectors’ would violate the law and accept imprisonment rather than… induction into the armed services.” The fact that these representatives were willing to make this statement speaks highly of their confidence in our draft-age young men.

There was one crucial point to which I wish Mr. Juhnke would have spoken. What would he suggest should be used as our next threat of civil disobedience, to get across the point of deescalation in Vietnam? Withholding the defense spending part of income tax? Boycotting of industries vital to defense? Disinvestment in certain strategic industries? Any of these would require the cooperation of the older generation. Could our representatives be as confident that such a threat would have the same possibility of being carried out as they were when speaking for our youth?

Allan Eitzen also suggested a large-scale Mennonite war tax resistance campaign, in a letter to the editor:

The study of more vital peacemaking scheduled for the Sunday schools during the second quarter of this year is a good and timely beginning, and I would propose that somewhere in this study serious consideration should be given to the possible effect of a large-scale practice of withholding portions of individual income tax as a tangible objection to the war policy in Vietnam. The optional participation in such a program by those who feel so inclined would not keep the Department of Internal Revenue from extracting the withheld amounts from the financial accounts of participants, but the general inconvenience to government arising from a widespread practice of this kind would certainly show more clearly how deeply our convictions are held.

When we consider that the Allied prosecution during the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War Ⅱ was based largely on the principle that individual conscience takes precedence over unjust national laws, it seems appropriate that we should reexamine our stand against war to see if it has become too ineffectual.

Last we heard from John E. Lapp (see ♇ 7 September 2018) he was writing about how he could respect war tax resisters, but he himself felt called “to pay my taxes honestly and promptly… without raising the question” of paying for war. In “The Gospel from Words to Deeds” (), he seems to have begun to relax into some form of war tax resistance:

We need to fulfill our responsibility toward the state. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. This means obedience to the laws of the state. When we cannot comply with the laws, we must be submissive to the penalties. We will pay our taxes cheerfully, “[rendering] to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” but we will also express our convictions on war taxes, and in times when it is necessary may even withhold the payment of those taxes which are clearly for war purposes.

A letter to the editor from Ruth Burkholder deplored the trend that was developing, saying that the lawlessness of tax resistance was wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right. After all, “Jesus paid His taxes as a law-abiding citizen and you know the Romans used that tax money for war.”

A editorial by “D.” (presumably editor John M. Drescher), entitled “Peacemaker Questions”, boldly overturned what had been the established orthodox reading of bible verses regarding civic responsibility, and thereby created more space for scriptural support for such stands as war tax resistance. Excerpts:

A… statement which to some settles all responsibility is “the government is ordained of God.” This certainly cannot mean that we hold God responsible for every crooked and corrupt political figure who attains a place of power. We cannot charge God with putting Nero, Hitler, or Stalin in power. It may well be that people often get the leaders they deserve, but we must not blame God for our sins.

A[nother] statement used many times as a defense of unquestioned allegiance to government is, “Render… unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” This is used in particular regarding the payment of war taxes and rendering of military service.

We, as a denomination, say that it is clear what our response is in relation to war. But many feel the question should not be raised in regard to the payment of war taxes. Such persons point to Jesus as an example in His paying taxes to the government of Rome which also supported an army.

But certain considerations should be kept in mind. This statement of Jesus means that we are expected to make a judgment as to what properly belongs to Caesar and to God. We stop short in rendering unto Caesar when it comes to going to war. But what is our response when the government goes beyond its New Testament mandate to maintain order, reward the good, and punish the evildoer? How should we respond when our best judgment and Christian conviction says Caesar is unfaithful to his mandate?

Defenders of the traditional interpretations of these verses were quick to respond. In a letter to the editor, Wallace Kauffman took Drescher to task for contradicting Paul’s assertion that the world’s political leaders are established as such by God, in part as God’s tool for inflicting His wrath on the deserving. The Neros and Hitlers and such are ordained by God, he insisted, just like Paul says. We shouldn’t second-guess God’s choices in this regard, no matter how unpleasant they seem to us. And let there be no doubt: “we are commanded to pay taxes.”

A letter to the editor from Allan W. Smith also disagreed wit Drescher’s take. “Had we not better take the Bible at its word?” he asked. For that matter, he felt, why should Christians get upset about the use of their taxes only during wartime; doesn’t the government use tax money in immoral ways all the time? Must we withdraw our money from banks because it might be “invested in a brewery or munitions plant”?

Once we begin to restate long-standing Scriptures to suit our times and popular causes, we are, I fear, opening the door to final anarchy.

An article in the issue — “Allegiance and Where Will the Line Be Drawn?” by Merrit Birky — stood out to me in part because of how matter-of-factly Birky used the term “pacifist” rather than “nonresistant” to describe Christian conscientious objection to war. Contrast this with writers from the World War Ⅱ era (see ♇ 3 September 2018) who were careful to distinguish Mennonite nonresistance from secular pacifism.

When does the Christian with a firm belief in love as exemplified by Christ refuse to support his country? When and where does he draw the line and say, “I cannot compromise my moral obligations any longer”? When are the demands of my country in conflict with the commands of my God? Can the pacifist, in clear conscience, pay taxes and tax increases, with the present national policy? When does he say, “I must obey God rather than man”? How does one interpret, “Render unto Caesar…,” in a democracy, when the government is the responsibility of its people? Christian stewardship must demand that one strive to see that a government of the people is just. What does it mean for the Christian to witness to the government and to his community?

Should he draw the line and refuse to contribute along with his fellow Americans $26 billion a year for the Vietnam war, a war that kills more civilians than military, a war that many non-Christians consider immoral and wrong? Can the Christian support a country in which about 78 cents out of each tax dollar goes to the military machinery?…

Can [the New Testament Christian] pray for peace and pay for war? When is his conscience violated? When does he become a conscientious objector?…

…Are those who contribute to this war immoral? I mean the pacifist taxpayer?…

The brought news from the Mennonite Church’s cousin, the General Conference Mennonite Church, which had passed a Resolution on Nationalism in . That resolution included the following text:

We… exhort the members of the North American brotherhood to discuss together how they can express concretely in action their concerns on these current issues where conflicting loyalties are acute and we may tend to a national idolatry. We suggest the following as possible subjects:

  1. Search our consciences on the question of paying taxes for military purposes; support generously international mission and service programs; urge churches to support those who by reason of conscience refuse to pay the percentage of taxes for military purposes.

In a “Conference of Historic Peace Churches” was held. Maynard Shelly reported on the conference, and conveyed the sense that the peace churches had missed an opportunity to show their mettle as the anti-Vietnam-War and civil rights movements were happening around them:

Spurred on by the youth delegates to the consultation, a group at New Windsor prepared a brief statement calling for “creative and Christian responses to people living in our ghettos” and for “counseling on the draft and nonpayment of war taxes for those who need it.”

What also seemed to be coming through was the implication that the peace witness may well be a minority position even within the peace churches who themselves are minority groups already.