Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1991

This is the thirty-seventh in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we hit 1991.

The Mennonite

The issue brought the news that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (of Quakers) had lost its court battle against the IRS:

On , U.S. District Judge Norma Shapiro found that PYM is not protected by the Constitution. She wrote, however, that “it is ironic that here in Pennsylvania, the woods to which Penn led the Religious Society of Friends to enjoy the blessings of religious liberty, neither the Constitution nor its Bill of Rights protects the policy of the Society not to coerce or violate the consciences of its employees and members or to act as an agent for our government in doing so.” The General Conference Mennonite Church, which agreed in to not withhold taxes from its employees who requested this, has not heard from the IRS.

That issue also carried a note about the Northwest Peace Fund — an alternative fund for coordinating war tax redirection sponsored by the Seattle Mennonite Church.

“We can’t stop war, but maybe we can stop paying for war,” says Steve Ratzlaff, pastor at the church. The taxes that would be paid to the government are put into the fund, and the interest earned on the money is given to peace and justice organizations. If the Internal Revenue Service garnishees the unpaid taxes, investors may draw the money out. The rationale behind the fund, says Ratzlaff, is that “if enough people do it, it will become an economic hardship for the government to collect the money.” It also allows people to direct their money to “constructive rather than destructive programs,” he says.

The edition again invited readers to redirect their federal income taxes through the Taxes for Peace Fund organized by the MCC U.S. Peace Section. The funds collected in would be split among the Peace Section itself, the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, and Christian Peacemaker Teams. In , $3,700 had been redirected through the fund.

The relatively new Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada had been quickly confronted by the war tax withholding issue, and tried to resolve it at its annual sessions. Here’s how The Mennonite reported it:

Next to the budget, the most debated item was the executive board’s recommendation to “withhold no income tax from the salary of any conference [MCEC] employee who requests this on the basis of conscience” as well as to ask the Canadian government to recognize conscientious objection to payment of military taxes and to provide peaceful alternatives for use of such tax dollars.

Fred Martin, who works with students and young adults for the conference, made the request that led to the board’s recommendation. He said he wants to motivate people to consider the issue. He called his act a symbolic one “that would witness to our hope in the love of Jesus Christ.”

Several spoke in favor of the action. Doug Pritchard quoted the famous Catholic activist Dorothy Day: “If we truly rendered unto God what is God’s, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”

Sam Steiner said that governments listen more if they see you’re willing to sacrifice for it. Wilmer Martin added that we need to support our members who try to be true to their conscience.

Others opposed the idea. Victor Dorsch of Maple View Mennonite Church, Wellesley, Ont., said that such an action is not a positive peace witness. “Our tax dollars are also going for abortions,” he said. Peter Epp of North Leamington (Ont.) United Mennonite Church was also against it and called for a secret ballot.

The moderator delayed further discussion until that evening’s session. In the end, delegates voted down the original recommendation on tax withholding, 159 to 48. Margot Fieguth of Mississauga (Ont.) Mennonite Fellowship introduced an alternative resolution, which still called for the conference to work for legislation to recognize conscientious objection to paying military taxes and recommended hiring Martin on a contract basis so that the conference was not liable. After more discussion delegates voted to table discussion until the next delegate session.

A followup, after the MCEC fall sessions in , read in part:

A new motion, passed almost unanimously, commits the conference “to work with the federal government to enact legislation that recognizes conscientious objection to military service and the payment of military taxes and to provide peaceful alternatives.”

Originally the new motion also included a section offering contracts to conference employees who want to redirect their taxes. That section was removed after the conference executive learned that simply placing employees on a contract basis — without changing job descriptions and accountability — would not necessarily get the conference “off the hook” for breaking income tax laws.

Don’t we already have provision for conscientious objection to war? asked several delegates. Doug Pritchard, a peace worker with the conference, said that such legislation was in effect during World War Ⅱ but is no longer. David Janzen suggested that the guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion in the Canadian Bill of Rights should be sufficient.

A message from the General Conference’s General Board in reaction to the Persian Gulf War went out in the issue. It said, in part: “We repent that through our taxes we have contributed to death and destruction… We call on Christians not to enter the military forces and to protest or refuse the use of our taxes for military purposes.”

Don Schrader had a letter to the editor about simple living in the edition that listed tax resistance as the first of five reasons he chose such a lifestyle:

To avoid federal income taxes. For 12 years I have paid no federal income taxes because I refuse to finance U.S. mass murder around the world. How can I speak for peace while I pay for war? Over 50 percent of every federal income tax dollar goes for war — past, present, or future. I keep my easily traceable taxable income under the taxable level. For a sighted, under-65-year-old single person that amount is %5,550 for .

Shrader was taken to task in a later issue by a letter saying that his example of “[l]iving at basic sufficiency does nothing to help the poor, many of whom are dependent upon tax dollars for their housing, food, education, and health care.”

An article by Titus Peachey on The Blessing of Tax Re­sist­ance — im­ag­in­ing what would hap­pen if war tax re­sist­ance were cent­ral to Men­non­ite prac­tice — ap­peared in the issue:

Imagine the im­pos­si­ble or highly im­prob­a­ble. Imagine that all Men­non­ite and Breth­ren in Christ peo­ple ref­used to pay taxes for war. Let’s not wor­ry for the mo­ment how this came about, ex­cept to ac­knowl­edge that it grew out of our deep com­mit­ment to Christ and the church.

Furthermore, let’s imagine that we cheerfully supported one another in this refusal to pay taxes for war, so that no one need be alone in this act of faith.

What would this do to our church? What would happen to our witness in the world? How would God change us in the process?

We cannot know. I am convinced, however, that there are parallels to the blessing that came when our young men chose insult and prison rather than military service during World War Ⅰ. We still benefit from that witness.

Now it is our turn. How are we going to be faithful? What would we face as a church if we decided that faithfulness meant the refusal to pay taxes for war?

Simple living: The first option is simple living, the legal approach. The more-with-less approach to life would be the norm in our churches. Vast numbers of our people would choose legal means of reducing the amount paid in taxes for war. We would reduce our personal incomes, and give a higher percentage of our money to the church. We would reduce our tax liability.

Our churches would encourage simpler housing and shared living arrangements. We would help our young people avoid large, long-term mortgages. Living in duplexes or other multiple-unit dwellings would reduce purchase and maintenance costs and save on heat, utilities, appliances and tools. Many of us would find inexpensive housing in low-income, multicultural neighborhoods, maintaining a sense of stewardship so that our presence would not price others out of the neighborhood.

As more of us moved into lower-cost housing, we would gain new skills at cross-cultural living and relating. More of our churches would reflect the diversity of God’s people. We would become a less segregated and exclusive church. We would learn difficult lessons about conflict resolution, justice and community.

More of us, in an effort to reduce expenses, would put energy into relating to our neighbors and the community through the public school system. Alternately, given our greater interest in tax deductions through charitable contributions, our church schools could be more highly subsidized, less expensive and thus more accessible to a broader spectrum of people.

A commitment to not paying taxes for war would increase resources available to the church. It would be usual for people to give 20–50 percent of their incomes to the church. Local congregations would have more resources to share with the community. It would be routine for a congregation to hire one or two people to work at community needs and concerns.

Our churches would also struggle deeply with the prevalent theology of success and the god of materialism. The same theology that prevents us from paying taxes for war would prohibit us from spending so much on ourselves. Our church building and expansion programs would be reviewed in light of community and world needs. We would become “economically non-conformed” to this world.

Refusing to pay taxes for war would expand our understanding of conscientious objection to war. We would understand conscientious objection to include issues related to employment, investments, taxes, and business relationships as well as to military registration and conscription.

The U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill would receive all the financial support it needed. Congress members from Mennonite or Brethren in Christ districts would frequently receive mail and visits on the subject. Conscience against war would receive a better hearing in the halls of government.

Tax resistance: The second option is tax resistance, the illegal approach. A significant number of Mennonites would choose the path of tax resistance by withholding the military portion or a symbolic amount of their tax dollars from the (U.S.) Internal Revenue Service and Revenue Canada. It would be normal to find a group of families in each congregation who seek counsel and support on this issue.

Mennonite institutions would honor employee requests not to withhold their income tax dollars. Mennonite leaders would frequently find themselves in IRS offices and the courts, witnessing to their faith and conscience and the convictions of our people.

As the public became aware of this expression of our faith, some would perceive Mennonites as a threat. We could become the target of harassment and community pressure. People would make nasty phone calls and vandalize us as a result of our beliefs, particularly during times of crisis, such as the Persian Gulf War.

Some of us would end up in jail, being used as examples to deter others from continuing to practice tax resistance. Small Mennonite fellowships might form in our prisons as a result of the life and witness of tax resisters.

These experiences would make it easier for us to identify with the image of a “suffering church” that is found in Scripture, in our Anabaptist heritage and in many parts of the world today. Our sense of unity and identity with the worldwide church would become stronger.

We would not have to scratch our heads and wonder how to do peace education with our youth. They would sense that our concern about Christ’s way of peace is integral to our life and faith. They would wonder why we are going to court and to jail, and would ask us many difficult questions over dinner and during Sunday school.

Conclusion: Tax resistance is not the only path to the many things mentioned above. Surely we as a church could commit ourselves to simple living and a 10–20 percent tithe, without the burden (or the blessing) of the war tax issue. Certainly there are other ways to grow in commitment to racial equality or justice for the poor.

In my experience, however, war tax resistance remains one of the most relevant ways to affirm life and peace in a world of militarized economies. For me it has also served as the best discipline for simple living in a culture of materialism and consumption.

Implementing this vision in our churches could lead to conflict and division. It could also lead us to experience anew Christ’s reconciling Spirit among us. It would not be easy. I am convinced, however, that a great blessing awaits the church, when we agree to say yes to Christ’s way of peace by refusing to pay taxes for war. When will it happen? What will become of us if it doesn’t?

Don Kaufman penned a letter for the edition. Excerpts:

Those who do not willingly pay find the costs of dissent high. Internal Revenue Service penalties and fees total several hundred dollars when citizens refuse to send their earnings to the Pentagon. This simply adds to the dilemma of “drafted dollars” that violate conscience. With one hand citizens give generously to life-building purposes that ease human suffering. With the other hand they pay military taxes that effectively cancel the good they have done. They pay to relieve suffering; they pay to increase it. They pray for peace; they pay for war.

Today’s combat soldier is the taxpayer — the person who provides the money to produce and deploy the push-button systems for mass annihilation.

He urged people to support a Peace Tax Fund bill.