What “Quaker Faith and Practice” Says About Tax Resistance

As I have noted before, the practice of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends has gone through waves. In some periods it has been fervently adhered to, advocated, and practiced; in others, it has been largely reduced to lip service and its remaining practitioners have stayed in the shadows.

In the United States, Quaker war tax resistance seems to have been strongest between the French & Indian War and the American Civil War, and then again during the Cold War, while it suffered from lulls between the Civil War and the end of World War Ⅱ and again in recent decades.

I am less familiar with the arc of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends in other countries, but here’s a data point. The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain has recently released the fifth edition of its Quaker Faith and Practice book. Here’s what it has to say about taxes.

First, in Chapter 20, in a chapter devoted to “Living faithfully today” and a section on “Honesty and integrity: Conducting business” is given this general advice:

From its earliest days our Society has laid great stress on honesty and the payment in full of debts justly incurred.… [For example] When we have received goods or services, we shall be punctual in making payment of the price agreed on, and we shall not attempt to evade our proper obligations to the community by way of taxation.

Chapter 24 — “Our peace testimony” — handles the more specific case of war taxes, by means of quotes from a number of Quaker thinkers, while noting:

As a Society we have been faithful throughout in maintaining a corporate witness against all war and violence. However, in our personal lives we have continually to wrestle with the difficulty of finding ways to reconcile our faith with practical ways of living it out in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have not always all reached the same conclusions when dealing with the daunting complexities and moral dilemmas of society and its government.

These are some of the quotes from this chapter that touch on war tax resistance:

One day in Tokyo Local Court, I had an opportunity to make a statement to witness why I felt it necessary to resist tax-payment for military expenditures, saying, “With military power we cannot protect our life nor keep our human dignity. Even if I should be killed, my way of living or dying to show my sympathy and forgiveness to my opponents, to point to the love of God shown by Jesus Christ on the cross and by his resurrection, will have a better chance to invite others to turn to walk rightly so that we humankind may live together peacefully.”

Susumu Ishitani,

Yet there was in the deeps of my mind a scruple which I never could get over… I all along believed that there were some upright-hearted men who paid such taxes, but could not see that their example was a sufficient reason for me to do so, while I believed that the spirit of Truth required of me as an individual to suffer patiently the distress of goods rather than pay actively.

John Woolman,

The action of withholding the military proportion of our taxes arose for us from our corporately held testimony that “the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world”. This testimony may at times lead to resisting the demands of the state, when a higher law (i.e. God’s inner law) makes its first claim on us. We also need to be conscious that, if we offend against accepted law, we may have to take the consequences of our action.

Arthur and Ursula Windsor,

The Religious Society of Friends has, since its beginnings in the seventeenth century, borne witness against war and armed conflict as contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ. We have sought to build institutions and relationships which make for peace and to resist military activity. The horrific nature of modern armaments makes our witness particularly urgent. The Gulf War involved the substantial use of expensive modern weapons and technology, demonstrating that today it is the conscription of our money rather than our bodies which makes war possible.

For many years members of the Religious Society of Friends have been exercised about how we might be true to our historic peace testimony while still obeying the laws of our country. You will know that we have appealed through the courts and ultimately to the European Commission of Human Rights for recognition of the right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for military purposes…

Since losing the appeal we have paid in full the income tax collected from our employees. In recent months we have considered whether we can continue to do this, but after very careful consideration have decided that for the time being we must do so. The acceptance of the rule of law is part of our witness, … for a just and peaceful world cannot come about without this. However we do wish to make it clear that we object to the way in which the PAYE system involves us in a process of collecting money, used in part to pay for military activity and war preparations, which takes away from the individual taxpayer the right to express their own conscientious objection. This involvement is incompatible with our work for peace.

London Yearly Meeting (letter to Inland Revenue),

On my last appearance in court [for withholding war tax], having already sent in my defence on grounds of conscience, backed by the Genocide Act, Geneva Convention, etc., I felt I wanted to make a more general statement about the fact that we have not used the United Nations as we should to settle disputes, or given sufficient support to it and its … agencies. So I wrote a statement, gave copies to my faithful supporting Friends and other pacifists and handed a copy to the Judge, asking if I might read it. He listened attentively to what I read, as his comments afterwards showed, though of course his verdict was the usual refusal. It seems important to me to get the understanding of judges so that they will give serious consideration to our point of view and might eventually influence a change in the law, though they always say that is not their business.

Joan Hewitt,

Finally, in Chapter 29 — “Leadings” — is the following section:

We are trustees of a long tradition which has sought to bring our religious convictions into the world “and so excite our endeavours to mend it”. We are trying to live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.

Fundamentally, taxation for war purposes is not a political or a fiscal issue. We are convinced by the Spirit of God to say without any hesitation whatsoever that we must support the right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for war purposes. We realise that we live in a world where it is impossible to see clearly the final consequences of the actions we might initiate from this Meeting. Nevertheless we are impelled by our vision of a peaceful and loving society.

We ask Meeting for Sufferings to explore further and with urgency the role our religious society should corporately take in this concern and then to take such action as it sees necessary on our behalf. We know that this is only one further step in our witness to the Truth, to which we are continually summoned. We go forward in God’s strength.

London Yearly Meeting,