Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1969–1970

This is the twelfth 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

By , war tax resistance had come out in the open in Gospel Herald as a practice that had support in the Mennonite Church community, though not without reservations from conservative hold-outs. But that year, coverage of the issue became inexplicably muted and the magazine returned to its earlier, more reserved practice of mostly reporting on war tax resistance from a distance, as the sort of thing other groups did.

For example, the issue included this note about a Church of the Brethren congregation:

The Wilmington, Del. Church of the Brethren will refuse to pay the federal excise tax on telephones as a protest against the Vietnam War.

The church council voted 8-6 to stop payment in accordance with a proposal submitted by the congregation’s witness commission.

The Reverend Allen T. Hansell, pastor, said he has been withholding the 10 per cent tax from his own telephone bill payments since .

When the proposal was endorsed by the council, individual members were asked to consider withholding their personal phone bills’ tax.

Robert Cain, Jr., chairman of the Witness Committee, said he had been told by Church of the Brethren headquarters, Elgin, Ill., that withholding of the tax has been considered by other congregations, but no action had been taken before the Wilmington church’s decision.

The church council sent a letter to President Richard M. Nixon outlining its action and urging him “to use all resources and power available to you as president of the United States to achieve world peace.”

Mr. Cain said the church is not against paying taxes to the government, but when the federal government restored the telephone excise tax in , it was felt it was a tax “directly imposed to help pay for the war in Vietnam.”

And in the issue, readers could learn about war tax resisting Quakers:

Richard and Carol Morse, a Quaker couple recently returned from three months working in a Vietnam rehabilitation center, have notified President Nixon they won’t pay taxes .

“After what we have seen in Vietnam,” the Morses told Mr. Nixon in a letter, “we feel that you are insulting the American people by asking them to support such destruction.”

As a result of their experiences with amputees at the center the couple stated: “We can no longer let it be assumed that we condone the violent destruction of Vietnam by our voluntary payment of taxes.”

Mr. and Mrs. Morse said Vietnam is “a refugee country,” and noted that “their whole social system has been turned upside down.”

Things began to pick up again in . In the issue, Warren M. Wenger warned Mennonites that they were in danger of letting history pass by and leave them behind:

Today there appears to be some confusion, on our part, as to how to relate to the popular peace movement, when to some degree they “have stolen our thunder.” Shall we now change our practice, of payment of taxes and registering for the draft and applying for Ⅰ-0 classification, a position which previously had us branded as “radicals” and now is only “moderate”? The true “radical” position now involves nonpayment of “war” taxes, nonregistration, migration, and other developing resistance.

The traditional Mennonite solution, which included payment of taxes and registration, made us quite unpopular in “normal” war years. Vietnam, however, is not a “normal” war and the likely occurrence of other similar wars is always present. We cannot afford to close our eyes and hope the problem will go away. We need to carefully think through the present dilemma, and in the light of God’s Word, guided by the ever-present Holy Spirit, find the way through our problems. We are all aware that no solution for a problem is ever a permanent one. Change is always present. Each generation must do as we are doing, search the Scriptures, seek and accept the leading of God s Spirit, search our own hearts and minds for the way to construct a useful life, which brings glory to His name, life to His church, and light to the world.

An early “peace tax fund”-like proposal surfaced in a article (“War Taxes Questioned”), which also tried to attack the traditional always-pay-your-taxes interpretation of the Render-unto-Caesar riddle from several angles:

James K. Stauffer, veteran Mennonite missionary in Vietnam, questions Mennonite payment of war taxes…

Stauffer comments, “It’s about time for ‘our people’ — the Mennonite brotherhood — to give a consistent testimony against war. Let’s get at the root of all evil — money, or more particularly, taxes! The other day 35 B‒52s dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on suspected enemy positions in Cambodia. One wonders how many Mennonite tax-dollars helped make that mission successful!

“During World War Ⅱ our government agreed to the Civilian Public Service program. Our men were permitted to engage in work of national importance. The time has come for the peace churches to request a plan whereby our tax-dollars could be channeled directly to some constructive cause. Campus protests, street demonstrations, draft card burnings, etc., have not been effective in stopping the war. But choking off the funds that feed the military-industrial complex could bring results.

“The contribution by members of the peace churches to the gigantic 73 billion defense budget is infinitesimal, but there would no doubt be many Christians in other denominations who would welcome the idea.

“By now the ‘render to Caesar…’ statement is haunting us. Perhaps we get hung up on the letter of the law and ignore the Spirit. Remember, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life! Permit a few comments on this text.

  1. “Jesus spoke these words in peace-time. The famous Pax Romana was a reality. While Rome conquered like a barbarian, she ruled those she conquered like a humane statesman (I.S.B.E., p. 2600).
  2. “Our President is a professing Christian. Caesar was not. Our full and unquestioning support of his methods and policies gives to the world a distorted image of Christianity.
  3. “Jesus did not define exactly what or how much belongs to Caesar. He sent the Holy Spirit to guide us in determining where to draw the line. Each generation needs to assess the existing political situation.
  4. “As a brotherhood professing discipleship, we believe that all of life is sacred. Our strength, abilities, time, and money belong to God. We refuse to give our bodies to the war god; why should we give our money?
  5. “Some say that the taxpayer is not responsible for the way the government uses his money. This would perhaps have some validity if a reasonable amount was being appropriated for defense. But when most of it goes for military purposes at the expense of desperate social and domestic needs, something is radically wrong.
  6. “Furthermore, placing the responsibility on government is the same argument used by many Christians who justify their participation in the armed forces. So, let’s be consistent in both areas!”

Stauffer’s arguments prompted a rebuttal from Anna Mae Nolt arguing that there was nothing especially objectionable about war taxes, as more people (Americans anyway) were being killed on the highways than in Vietnam and yet nobody was arguing we should refuse to pay taxes for highways. Besides, if you don’t want to pay taxes you can always move to some other country.

A “Mission ’70” conference was held in . Here’s an excerpt from Gospel Herald’s coverage:

Discussions at Mission ’70 indicated widespread concern among Mennonites regarding the relative validity of the various ways young men related to the Selective Service System and the pros and cons involved in paying taxes used for military purposes.

It was moved and carried to urge the Peace and Social Concerns Committee to direct more study on the congregational and family levels which can lead people to a clearer and more forthright understanding, conviction, and action on matters relating to peace, the draft, and taxes used for military purposes.

“An Open Letter to Pastors of College Students” from Rose Breneman, Mim Hershey, Luke Good, and Dan Hess was submitted there. Excerpt:

Most people seem to think their only responsibility is to pray for the president and pay taxes. I just can’t buy that any more. I feel that as a Christian I have a very strong responsibility to witness to the government concerning what seems to be a gross immorality. So when people are interested in the same goals as I (i.e. ending a war), and they use acceptable means of achieving that goal, I will support them. This witness to the government might well include prayer, but it might also include not paying taxes which finance the immorality.

John A. Lapp reviewed Donald Kaufman’s book What Belongs to Caesar? in the issue. Lapp had come a long way from his earlier articles (see ♇ 7 September 2018) dismissing tax resistance.

Expanding the Scope of Conscientious Objection, a review article of What Belongs to Caesar? by Donald D. Kaufman. Herald Press, . $2.25

The Mennonite attitude toward war and military service rests deeply in their obedience to the Jesus’ way of life as one of love and reconciliation. A corollary conviction is that this way of life includes separation from the evils of the world, a life conformed to Christ and nonconformed to the patterns of violence and the instruments of carnal warfare. Conscientious objection to evil, to war and militarism is one of the characteristics of a dynamic nonconformity.

The pattern of conscientious objection familiar to modern Mennonites emerged comparatively recently in modern history. With the rise of democratic governments, armies were expanded by the use of various conscription techniques. Democracy and conscription grew up together although thee was constant tension between them. The conscientious objector was and is a citizen who for reasons of conscience could not become part of an organization bent on killing — the military. He refuses to serve the military, not out of an irresponsible citizenship, but rather to suggest an alternate and better way of solving human problems.

Since the first conscript armies of the eighteenth century, the character of warfare has changed enormously. In the United States the military constituted a very small percentage of the population. Military action consumed an even smaller part of the time in service. Military concerns involved only a small sector of political and economic life. An effective and useful witness against war was to refuse to serve in the military.

Now, however, there are over 3,000,000 Americans in the Armed Forces. Nearly 40 million living American males have served in the Armed Forces. Compulsory service is sometimes extended for draftees to five or six years. Yet in spite of expanded armies fewer and fewer persons are involved in actual combat. War has become a technique fought with tanks, planes, flamethrowers, napalm plus bombs, and chemicals, to kill unseen enemies. War is no longer the plaything of the generals nor even of the tehnologists but of an entire society which provides the know-how and the wherewithal to wage war. We live in an age when war is total; it involves the economic, scientific, political, ideological, educational, and religious resources of the entire society. In the United States we live in what Fred Cook calls a “warfare state” where it is nearly impossible to escape the effects and impact of war.

In such a situation is there any validity to conscientious objection to military service. Or are there other forms of conscientious objection which will symbolically witness to the way of Christ and against the way of war?

Donald Kaufman does not treat the entire problem of militarism, the warfare state, or even conscientious objection. He poses the fundamental question posed by the Pharisees to Jesus in Matthew 22 and then deals with one specific issue — the question of war taxes.

Kaufman has mastered a vast amount of material regarding the history of taxation, the biblical passages involving the tax question, and the arguments and practices of those who do not pay war taxes. Howard Charles of Goshen Biblical Seminary writes a stimulating introduction to the volume. A valuable dimension of this book is the comprehensive bibliography which includes an excellent compilation of periodical articles.

Beginning with the basic issue, Kaufman explores the meaning of taxation in the biblical world. There taxes upheld a vast religious establishment as well as the civil authorities. In the “ancient city,” however, it was difficult to distinguish the religious from the civil, for the king was more than a political leader. Caesar was worshiped. Caesar claimed to be lord. Exorbitant taxation was rarely protested save by the Jews who objected to taxes which implied that Caesar was Lord rather than Yahweh.

It is this context which make so difficult the exegesis of biblical passages involving political structures. Kaufman effectively interprets Matthew 17:24–27, Mark 12, Romans 13, and 1 Peter 2. Perhaps the crucial insight of this analysis is that both Jesus and the New Testament writers suggest principles and perimeters, rather than legal dicta with fixed answers in which and by which Christians make decisions. Government and taxes can be good and bad, depending on purposes and motives for taxation. Payment of taxes can be for conscience’ sake and non-payment of taxes can be for conscience’ sake.

Arguments against paying war taxes are less well known than arguments for paying war taxes. But arguments against paying war taxes are the same as arguments for not participating in the military. For Christians, these arguments rest on obedience to God rather than man, on the commitment to love rather than hate, on the duty to give rather than to take, on supporting that which makes peace and opposing that which hurts, kills, and destroys.

There have always been tax resisters. There have always been Christian who for conscience’ sake have refused to pay certain taxes. Early Christians refused to pay compulsory taxes to Caesar’s pagan temples. Medieval monks reduced their income so they would not have to pay taxes to evil kings. The radical sectarians, including some of the early Anabaptists, felt taxes were a moral issue, and that some were not to be paid. The Hutterites criticized their fellow Anabaptists for paying war taxes even though they refused to bear arms. The early Quakers, through William Penn, told the queen of England that their conscience would not allow “a tribute to carry on any war, nor ought true Christians to pay i.” The Mennonites in Eastern Pennsylvania split during the Revolutionary War, one reason being the issue of war taxes. They joined, however, with their Dunkard neighbors to petition the Pennsylvania Assembly stating, “We find no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in any thing by which men’s lives are destroyed or hurt.”

Since then, Mennonites have generally paid war taxes. They even hired substitute soldiers so they would not need to fight during the Civil War. However, Mennonites were clear in opposing any voluntary campaigns to sell and buy war bonds. In recent years the war tax question has become more alive in the brotherhood. When President Lyndon Johnson said the telephone excise tax and the Income Surtax were necessary to fight the war in Vietnam, the mask on taxes was removed. Thus some taxes are clearly designated to fight a war without having to analyze the allocations of the national budget.

Donald Kaufman methodically and analytically forces the reader to confront the question, “Can I pray for peace and pay for war?” What really belongs to Caesar? If one believes in the stewardship of money, is the use of money for war good stewardship? Money can destroy life. Money through taxes is without a doubt “the central vital nerve of the military Leviathan.” What then do we do with Pastor John Franz who during World War Ⅰ told his Montana community, “Using our money to make it possible for others to be killed would be just as wrong as going in the army and killing a man ourselves”?

What Belongs to Caesar? introduces a profound ethical question for the Christian church. More study will be necessary by each church agency. It will be easy to “let the sleeping dog lie.” But no one concerned about the evil of war and how to love the enemy can afford to ignore this book.

The genius of this little volume of 97 pages is that it does not clutter the arguments over war taxes by focusing on the anxieties of the present moment. Rather Kaufman sticks closely to a biblical and historical analysis. In so doing he is really asking the Christian conscientious objector if he is exercising his conscience regarding war at the right place on the right issues. This is the question confronting the Mennnonite brotherhood. Is now the time to expand the scope of conscientious objection to include taxes which buy guns as well as persons who fire guns?

A letter to the editor from John H. Herr put him on record opposing war tax resistance, because after all Jesus told Peter to pay a tax to a warlike government (I assume this refers to the temple tax episode in the Gospel of Matthew).

The issue brought some news about the American Friends Service Committee’s legal battle with the IRS over withholding war taxes from its employees.

Another review of Kaufman’s What Belongs to Caesar?, this one by Jan Gleysteen, appeared in the issue:

Since most of us are Christian citizens of the most militarily involved and overextended nation in the world the war tax problem should be of special concern to us who are members of the historic peace churches. But as American involvement in wars and military solutions grows and grows it is encouraging to note in Christian circles an awareness of the problem and a growing uneasiness on the propriety of paying taxes when they are used mainly for war and war-related purposes. However, there is a bewildering confusion of responses to that ethical problem.

The key question is then: Can the Scriptures provide us with the means of testing whether or not payment of such taxes constitutes a form of idolatry of a war god and as such be contrary to our commitment to a way of love? In this context the present study by Donald D. Kaufman’s What Belongs to Caesar? is especially appropriate.

The 100-page presentation followed by 28 pages of Bible references, footnotes, and an index has all the marks of diligent and careful scholarship. Maybe you’d expect a book of this nature to be a crusading weapon charged with an emotional stance for a particular view of the Christian’s relation to the state and on nonpayment of taxes, but it isn’t. In his first chapter Don Kaufman carefully examines the history of taxation from ancient times till today. In chapter two he takes a new look at biblical passages often used to justify absolute, unquestioning obedience to governmental demands, and urges us to reexamine them in the context of their full chapter, or better yet, seen in the total context of the Bible. In this way the write proves that, for instance, Romans 13:1 and following is not a passage in which every governmental action is given carte blanche. In no situation should a person be required to disobey his conscience by submitting to government. Without becoming a violent rebel the Christian can refuse to do what he regards as wrong, but he must patiently endure the consequences. To resist with respect is to render a service to the state by reminding it of its true function. In chapter three Kaufman squarely plants the argument against the paying of war taxes under the Christian’s obligation to obey God rather than man.

The records of Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Hutterites are examined in chapter four, as are the Quaker and Mennonite practices in Colonial America. This chapter ends with a variety of statements by recent and current church leaders on the issues of tax objection. In his concluding chapter Kaufman asks anew: “What Belongs to Caesar?” and why we who refuse our warm bodies to the war machine so willingly surrender our cold cash to the same. How long, Kaufman asks, will the Christian pray for peace and pay for war. The answer depends on you.

No one can give careful attention to this book without having the issues clarified. It is hoped that this book, developed jointly by the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church will be widely read, seriously discussed, and that out of it will come conduct that will consistently embody the gospel of love we profess.

From here, the pushback became much more defensive. Instead of just saying that Christians should pay their taxes cheerfully and without question because the money belongs to Caesar and Caesar bears the responsibility for how it is used, critics acknowledged the tension between the Christian love-your-neighbor mandate and Caesar’s kill-the-foreigners bloodthirstiness, but tried to suggest alternatives to civil disobedience. For example:

Andrew R. Shelly,
Shelly promoted charitable giving as an alternative. “[O]ur norm for giving is not a government. But, at a time when we are concerned about certain uses of our tax dollar, it would seem that our first consideration would be to reduce that tax dollar to the lowest possible point.”
Howard Blosser,
Blosser also suggested charitable giving as a way to lower taxes, saying in part that it would be more effective than resisting and then having taxes seized along with interest and penalties seized. “In the end, who has paid the lesser tax and served to help the most people?”
Miriam R. Stoltzfus,
Stoltzfus suggested income reduction, giving the example of a man who “turned over his business to God, paying himself a small salary. In this way the profits were channeled directly into the Lord’s work.”