Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1971

This is the thirteenth 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

began with a backlash against the talk of war tax resistance that had been spreading in Mennonite circles.

Titus Martin started it off in the issue:

Some brethren are advocating that we withhold part of our taxes to the “powers that be” as a testimony against the war in Vietnam. With due respect to those that hold this view I want to give my reasons as to why I pay my taxes. Also, what appears to me a questionable testimony of those who do not.

The standard Render-unto-Caesar / coin-in-the-fish’s-mouth / Romans 13 stuff followed. Martin concluded:

I know of no New Testament precedent or teaching that we should disobey God’s direct command (here pay taxes) as a witness to “the powers that be” against their evil deeds. This is why I feel I should pay my taxes.

Withholding taxes as a testimony against the Vietnam war may lead some to believe that we think some wars are all right. For the Christian all wars are wrong. Also, to be consistent, I may have to withhold some other taxes, even local, where I feel the money is not spent right. God has established church and state and their respective duties are far different. Daniel Kauffman in Bible Doctrine says, “Both church and state are better off if each remains in his own sphere.” As God’s children we should live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

The Bible says. “Blessed is that nation whose God is the Lord.” I think the church shares much blame for the state our nation is in. If we would have been more faithful in reconciling men to God, that it could be truly said we are a Ghristian nation things would be different. Consistent living and giving the gospel in word and deed to ungodly men is still the best remedy for the ills of the world. I do not think as a church we should link arms with the unbeliever to do this as is done in peace marches etc. If we are faithful in this task which Christ has committed to the church, there will be little time left to try and help direct the “powers that be.” We owe them our prayers, and also our obedience where we need not break God’s higher law to do so.

Allen H. Erb, in a letter to the editor seconded Miriam R. Stoltzfus’s suggestion of lowering income as a way to legally avoid income tax, but questioned the assumptions behind the arguments for war tax resistance:

The plan of withholding taxes is generally presented as a way to give a testimony to the state against excessive war taxes. The plan usually implies that general taxes are to be paid. It is not denied that these latter taxes provide funds for military expenditures.

The logical argument for withholding taxes seems to present the following syllogistic reasoning:

Major Premise.
Taxes should be paid to the state if military expenditures are normal.
Minor Premise.
Current war taxes are above normal.
Therefore an adjustment should be made by the individual person as to the amount of tax to be paid by withholding this estimated excess.

If payment for excessive military expenditures by the state is wrong why is it right to pay the normal military tax of a variable limited amount? In other areas of conduct do we argue that right or wrong is dependent on the quantity of the act? Is it right to steal a penny but wrong to steal a dollar? Is paying a small tax for military purposes right and a large tax wrong? Is the error in the size of the tax? Does the Bible build an ethic on paying taxes for militarism on the basis of the size of the tax?

Is this not one of those areas where God says in Cor. 5:9, 10, “Not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether… for then must ye needs go out of the world.” Is it not true that in the area of taxes it is impossible to clearly identify the evil and the good and separate them? Is not the expenditure of taxes the function of the state and not the church?

Is not this difficult dilemma of the Christian in involvement in taxes to be solved only by a position of distinct separation of church and state? The church’s main function is to build the kingdom of Christ, the state to regulate society. “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (Jn. 18:36).

But fortuitously under our present U.S. legal statutes we do have the blessed privilege of diverting a large amount of our assessed taxes to the treasury of the church. This converts our supposed tax dollars into the program of spreading the gospel of peace and goodwill. We are allowed as much as a 50 percent deduction for gifts to nonprofit causes. What a rich opportunity we have to do good! If the church would accept this challenge of giving the potential military tax as contributions to the program of the church our payment to the military would be canceled and the kingdom of Christ advanced. How the crying deficits of our church programs would be silenced!!

A letter to the editor from David L. Martin put the objection this way:

In Matthew 17:27, Jesus told Peter to go catch that fish and pay our taxes and there were no questions to be asked like, “Caesar, what are you going to spend this for?”

(It seems a common interpretation at the time was that the coin in the fish’s mouth was for a Roman tax; I’d always assumed it was for the temple tax.)

Lloy A. Knis tried to clear up “What Is a Nonresistant Christian?” in the issue. The Nonresistant Christian is among other things, he wrote, not a tax resister:

Jesus did not oppose the paying of taxes to Caesar. We hear today men talking about our tax dollars. They are not ours. They are the government’s. We pay what is the government’s and what they do with it is not our responsibility. The church and the state are still different entities even though we Americans live in a democracy.

Elmer Borntrager tried to find the middle-ground in this commentary:

As I see it we have missed an important point in the discussion on “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt. 22:21). In practice I support the position that we should pay all our taxes without asking many questions. I do, however, want to be open to those who have a conscience against doing so or have actually withheld certain taxes or portions. The Amish brethren seemingly have made a point in withholding payments on Social Security taxes. Possibly we need to be more positive in our witness to the government in the use of our tax money for war and/or other immoral purposes.

What I am concerned about now is that we have failed to emphasize the last part of Jesus’ statement in the Scripture referred to, “and unto God the things that are God’s.” We who profess citizenship in heaven and loyalty above all loyalties to God should at least be as careful to give God what belongs to Him as we are to give the state its dues. And as we profess to “seek first the kingdom of God” it seems we should give Him as much as we do the state. Also as loyal servants of an almighty, all-knowing God and King we ought to question less the use to which He puts our funds than we do that which goes to the state.

Now it seems that as a church in all of these areas we have failed in our obedience to the last part of Christ’s words in this passage. It is evident that we have not been as careful to give to God and the church as we have to give to the state. To the state we give 10, 12, 15, and 20 percent to our income. To the church 2, 3, 5, and even occasionally 10 percent and more (an average of about 5 percent). Also it is evident that we often question more the use of funds in the church than we do the use of our tax money by the state. (We give to certain causes in the church and will not give to others, but give unreservedly to the state. How inconsistent can we get?)

My hope and prayer is that the church will take seriously the words of Christ, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” with a renewed emphasis on giving to God. What would happen in the church treasuries and to the cause of Christ if we were as faithful in giving to our heavenly King as we are in giving to our earthly king? Should we not be more faithful?

Roosevelt Leatherman wrote, in a commentary that people with a concern about their taxes paying for war ought to be at least as worried about their investments. (He presented his argument so carelessly, though, that I wonder whether to interpret it as an intended reductio ad absurdum.)

A note in the issue again shone the spotlight on war tax resisters outside of Mennonite circles:

The Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting of Friends (Quakers), covering western Massachusetts, is waiting to see what the federal government will do in response to the refusal of members to pay the telephone tax they say supports the Vietnam war.

The Quakers have been withholding payment of the tax because they consider it an “infringement of religious liberty.”

An inquiry was sent to the Internal Revenue Service asking about legal penalties and routes of appeal.

“They never answered our letter,” said Laura Robinson of North Amhurst, presiding clerk of the meeting. Nevertheless, she said, “the only reply we got was a final notice informing us that they will take the money from our checking account.”

Members of the Mt. Toby Meeting take the Quaker peace testimony, first stated by George Fox in , seriously. Fox, the Quaker founder, said, “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife… for any end, or under any pretense whatever; and this is our testimony to the whole world…”

Finally, Mennonite war tax resisters got their voices back. Roy S. Koch wrote, in “Are Mennonites Anemic?” ():

Several years ago the Mennonites in Elkhart County alone paid three million dollars in government taxes toward war in one calendar year. By now the annual take will be much higher. What would happen if these Mennonites would become radical enough to withhold the 60 percent of the tax that goes for war purposes? Or better still, if they would give so radically to Christian causes (up to 50 percent of our taxable income) that there would be little or nothing left with which to support war taxes? The thought is staggering.

The issue reported on a “Peacemaker Seminar” at which “Ways to Avoid Payment of Taxes for War Purposes” was on the agenda. And a report on the Mennonite Graduate Fellowship conference noted that “Ted Koontz, Harvard Divinity School… presented an analysis of reasons for war tax refusal for use in dialogue with those who believe the war in Indochina is unjust but pay war taxes.”