Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1990

This is the thirty-sixth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we enter the 1990s.

The Mennonite

The issue introduced The Mennonite readers to the tax resistance campaign organized by Palestinian Christians in Beit Sahour in response to the Israeli occupation. Excerpts:

In residents began refusing to pay taxes to the Israeli occupiers. Tax money should go for roads, health and local services, they said. But the occupiers were supplying none of these services. Instead they used taxes to fund the military occupation. Residents adopted the slogan “No taxation without representation.”

The authorities responded with nightly curfews, mass arrests and a strong troop presence in the town. But residents still did not pay their taxes. For six weeks in , Israeli troops sealed off the town. They seized property and belongings from businessmen and families who had not paid taxes. Tax officials went from house to house humiliating and beating people, according to a account in the Jerusalem Post.

Israeli tax officials confiscated without trial several million dollars worth of property. The tax siege has now been lifted, but Beit Sahour residents still refuse to pay taxes.

A set of articles on war tax resistance appeared in the edition. The first, by Linda Peachey, explained why she took the issue seriously:

I recently attended a meeting that focused on the question of paying the military portion (about 50 percent) of our [U.S.] federal income taxes. I left the meeting troubled, not because there were varying viewpoints but because many people appeared unconcerned about the issue and failed to address what I believe are key questions on the matter.

The question for me is not whether we should honor our government or whether a government has the right to collect taxes. The crux of the matter is to determine when Caesar’s demands conflict with our obedience to God. I fear that if I were to give Caesar all that he demands in war taxes, I would fail to honor God in four important ways.

  1. I fear that by paying the military portion of my income taxes I fail to trust God alone for my security. Throughout history nations have tried to secure their well-being and safety through military solutions. Again and again in the Bible God asks us to resist such solutions and to trust him instead:

    War horses are useless for victory; their great strength cannot save. The Lord watches over those who have reverence for him, those who trust in his constant love. He saves them from death… We put our hope in the Lord; he is our protector and our help (Psalm 33:17–20).

    If I work several months each year to pay my nation’s military dues, am I not giving legitimacy to the military establishment’s answers for my security? If I am willing to invest so much of my time and energy in a military solution, can I honestly say that God is my protector?

  2. I fear that by paying my war taxes I fail to give my primary loyalty to Christ’s worldwide church. My war taxes would purchase planes, bombs, guns and military training to be used in Third World settings. Although our country is not involved in any declared war, our military might is felt keenly in Central America, the Philippines and the Middle East.

    In fact, in recent years the United States has adopted a policy of promoting “low-intensity conflict” in countries that threaten to move out from under our sphere of influence. This means keeping warfare away from the American public eye and avoiding the involvement of American soldiers in the fighting. Yet our brothers and sisters in Christ do die in the struggle. Can I say that my first loyalty is to the worldwide kingdom of God if I comply with structures that do violence to my neighbors around the world?

  3. I fear that by paying my war taxes I fail to follow Christ as he calls me to love all people, even my enemies. In Matthew 5 Jesus no doubt surprised his listeners by challenging them to love not only their friends but all people, just as God does. This has not been an easy teaching for the church. Peter struggled with it when he was called to go to Cornelius, a gentile, and Paul reminded the early church often that the gospel was not only for Jews but also for gentiles.

    Ephesians 2:14 points this out: “For Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies.” Do we believe that this can also apply to Americans and Soviets, rich and poor, capitalist and communist? Can I believe this and at the same time contribute to the forces that are designed to destroy these very people whom Christ called me to love?

  4. I fear that by paying my war taxes I fail to respect God’s creation. In today’s world, militarism not only threatens people but all of creation as well. While militarism is not the only way we dishonor God’s creation, it is through nuclear weapons that we dare to threaten all that God has made. Can I claim to truly honor God if I continue to help pay for such weapons?

I think these questions have special poignancy for us as Mennonites. We claim to be conscientious objectors to war. Yet in a low-intensity conflict or in a nuclear war it is almost irrelevant to say that we will not serve in the military. These kinds of wars do not demand our bodies but our dollars and our consent. Thus we cannot ignore this issue of war taxes.

I recognize that sincere people differ on this issue. Some encourage elected leaders to reorder our nation’s priorities. Some give away more of their income so that they owe less income tax. Some live in community so that they can live on lower incomes. Some withhold a symbolic amount of all of their military taxes. Some support legislative efforts that would allow conscientious objectors to designate the military portion of their federal taxes to a peace tax fund. What is important is not so much that we all agree but that we agonize together on these questions.

Let us pray for wisdom as we wrestle with what this issue means for our faith in God, our witness as a Christian church, our faithfulness to Christ and our reverence for God’s creation.

This was accompanied by a sidebar invitation for people to redirect their taxes through “the Taxes for Peace fund.” It added that “In , $5750 in Taxes for Peace funds were divided between the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund and Christian Peacemaker Teams; 1990 contributions will be divided the same way.”

Turn the page to find this news:

Members of St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship recently passed a proposal to faithfully resist payments of the U.S. federal phone tax applied monthly to the fellowship’s phone bill. The revenues will be redirected to Mennonite Central Committee. “We wish to respect the convictions of our members and Anabaptist forebears and to be disciplined followers of Jesus Christ,” said Scott Neufeld, coordinator of St. Louis Mennonite Peace Witness. Federal phone tax revenues, first collected in , contribute directly to the U.S. Armed Forces and other systems of war, Neufeld said.

The edition included Craig Morton’s article: “Render taxes to whom?” Excerpts:

Looking at our Anabaptist heritage and looking at our Scriptures in light of contemporary political realities, we do not have to be pressed to pray for peace while paying for war. Our spiritual authority in Jesus Christ, as expressed by apostles and Anabaptist forebears, allows and empowers us to make the difficult decision to withhold war taxes. Balthasar Hubmaier, writing about taxes paid to an unjust government, states, “…to come to the point, God will excuse us for nothing on the account of unjust superiors…” (Anabaptism in Outline, Klassen, p. 246). The U.S. government has become unjust, and when a government is unjust, it has forfeited the right to expect my taxes.

As Christians and Anabaptists, we have a rich tradition of conscience. In some ways we even have a tradition of anarchy. Anarchy in the eyes of the world, that is, for we may claim a greater authority — God.…

The early Anabaptists — Menno Simons, Balthasar Hubmaier, Jacob Hutter and Peter Rideman — all spoke out on the proper attitude of a Christian toward government, on paying taxes used for war and on the production of weapons of violence. For Anabaptist Christians the issue to pay or not to pay war taxes has a significant history.

Jacob Hutter wrote, “For how can we be innocent before our God if we do not go to war ourselves but give the money that others may go in our place? We will not become partakers of the sin of others and dishonor and despise God” (“Plots and Excuses,” Klassen p. 252). While this may refer to the practice of paying one’s way out of military service by supplying a replacement, it still holds true that aiding the carrying out of violence indirectly indicts the taxpayer as a participant in the violence enacted. Similarly Peter Rideman asserts that one has a responsibility not only for what one produces but also for how those products are used by others. Rideman states that Christians cannot build weapons of violence, even if they do not use those products themselves. The one who produces weapons is responsible for the violence inflicted.

But the issue of our history as Christians and as Anabaptists concerning the issue of war tax resistance is made more difficult because of our reading of the biblical texts relating to government, particularly Matthew 22:21 (and other texts referring to government, e.g. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:14). In any discussion of war tax resistance among Christians, the words of Jesus are almost always quoted, “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” However, if we look closely at the political and historical context of these biblical texts, we have to ask ourselves how we can apply Jesus’ response in Matthew 22:21 to ourselves in our political and historical situation.

Trick question: Ancient Palestine, in the time of Jesus, was a territory held captive under Roman rule. Foreign powers hostile to Judaism had occupied Palestine, installed a puppet ruler, King Herod, and sought to form alliances with certain Jewish factions. The Pharisees, on the other hand, reflected the thoughts and feelings of the majority of the poor and middle-class Jews, feelings of resentment and anger. The Pharisees, who had been plotting to do away with Jesus on any grounds possible, were seeking to trick Jesus. On the chance that Jesus might make some incriminating statements, the Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus along with representatives from Herod. That way, if Jesus said something self-incriminating to the religious people or to the political regime, he could be arrested. As it was, neither truth nor justice were being sought by this group when they asked Jesus the question about paying the tax. It was a trick question, and Jesus responded with a trick answer. “And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were greatly amazed at him” (Mark 12:17).

But what does his answer say to us? What direction does it give to those who are not asking trick questions but whose motives are truth and justice? We must take seriously that we do not live in a political situation anything like ancient Palestine. We live in , has witnessed amazing revolutions of democratization. Democracies seek to do away with the dichotomy between the government and the people. In a democracy there is no Caesar. Since we are not ruled by a monarch, we have no “caesar” over us. If there is a caesar over us, so to speak, then we are caesar.

The U.S. Constitution begins by naming our caesar, “We the people.”…

We, as responsible citizens, are the political and moral authority of the United States. If our nation blunders and falls, if it is unjust and violent, if it has misplaced priorities, then the blame is on us and not merely upon those we have elected to represent our concerns.

Living in a democracy, we actually pay taxes to ourselves. We are responsible for setting the budgets. We are responsible for policies. One of our greatest problems is that we have surrendered democratic government to bureaucracy, allowing others to make decisions for us. We are the caesar to whom we are to render our taxes, not some authority outside ourselves. As such, it is up to us to decide what we will or will not render. It is this freedom of conscience that makes democracy both attractive to those who live without it and a headache to those who must operate with it. For this reason, Plato said, democracy is the best form of a bad government and the worst form of a good one.

A restraint of evil: Those of us who withhold a portion of our taxes are trying to reorient our national spending priorities by saying we will not pay for war or violence. The portion we do not pay we give away to those who will use it for peace. While we recognize that we are breaking a law of the people (willing to take responsibility and to be accountable for our actions), we are not breaking a law against caesar. What we are trying to do is give ourselves what we need to function as a government, that is, to function as a restraint of evil and to be a supporter of good (1 Peter 2:14).

Menno Simons wrote that the task of government is to “do justice… to deliver the oppressed,… without tyranny… without force, violence and blood” (“Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” Complete Writings of Menno Simons, p. 193). Government ceases to be legitimate when it ceases to be a force for order in both foreign and domestic realms, when it ceases to provide for the needs of all, and when it ceases to be a body of law for carrying out justice without violence and bloodshed.

Would we continue to give our tithes and offerings to a ministry that has been proven to be unethical, caught in scandalous dealings and clearly immoral? If we held our government up to the same standards as we do televangelists and their ministries, the government would not be able to finance its bureaucracies. Our government has been caught in one scandal after another, involved in or supporting one war after another. And because we are caesar, we are responsible for this scandalous behavior. Even though we have given away our democratic rights to bureaucratic powers, we still will bear God’s judgment. The majority of our federal budget pays for the operations of the world’s largest military system, which prepares for war with scarce resources. It finances low-intensity conflicts throughout the world by supplying and sponsoring surrogate armies. It has yet to finish paying for past wars. Thus we must come to terms with the reality that we are producing and indirectly using weapons of violence. Living in a democracy, we are, as citizens, weapons producers by providing through our taxes the capital needed for the production of B1-Bs, MX “Peacekeepers,” Apache attack helicopters, bullets, rifles and on and on.

The Scriptures, which determine the right function of government, the witness of our Anabaptist forebears and our democratic freedoms force us to act in ways that affect the political process. For many, tax resistance is a way to bring about a change in federal spending priorities. But much more importantly, it is a way to make one’s life have integrity and to align one’s life with God’s gospel of shalom.

The edition announced a “Standing Up for Peace Contest” with $1,100 in prizes available to “young people ages 15–23” who “interview someone who has refused to fight in war, pay taxes for war, or build weapons for war and share the story through writing an essay or song, producing a video, or creating a work of art.”

The edition brought these news briefs:

The Mennonite Church General Board, after years of study and discussion, brought the military tax question to a vote, then tabled it. a majority of General Assembly delegates voted to “support” the efforts of church board employees who do not wish their taxes deducted so that they may deal with the government in regard to military taxes. At the General Board meetings in Kalona, Iowa, members tabled a motion to honor requests of employees who ask that their income tax not be withheld.

Gary Jewell, a student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Elkhart, Ind., handed out about $150 in $1 bills to passers-by in front of the downtown post office in Elkhart to express his opposition to U.S. military spending. He gave away about half of what he and his wife, Jan Yoder, owe in federal income taxes. The couple plans to give the rest to a charity like Mennonite Central Committee. Stapled to each $1 bill was a statement by Jewell that read in part, “Today I choose to give my money away (call it a ‘peace dividend’) rather than to pay the remaining 60 percent of my federal income tax that goes toward present and past military expense.” (The Elkhart Truth)

The edition included a sidebar with this quote:

“Until membership in the church means that a Christian chooses not to engage in violence for any reason and instead chooses to love, pray for, help and forgive all enemies; until membership in the church means that Christians may not be members of any military…; until membership in the church means that Christians cannot pay taxes for others to kill others; and until the church says these things in a fashion that the simplest soul can understand — until that time humanity can only look forward to more dark nights of slaughter on a scale unknown in history. Unless the church unswervingly and unambiguously teaches what Jesus teaches on this matter, it will not be the divine leaven in the human dough that it was meant to be.” ―George Zabelka, who served as a Roman Catholic chaplain for those who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on and

The General Boards of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church issued their first joint statement as a merging body in . It urged the U.S. to stand down from its Iraq war threats.

One of the seven points of the document calls congregations to confess “our own complicity and selfishness in utilizing more than our share of the world’s supply of oil and other resources… limited concern for longstanding injustices in the Middle East and… paying for the military buildup through our taxes.”

The edition updated readers about the Jerilynn Prior war tax resistance case in Canada. (She was denied an appeal to the Supreme Court.)

A regional report from the noted that in the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, “A conference employee has requested that the conference not withhold his war taxes. This issue will be brought to a future conference session.”