Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1999

This is the forty-first in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we reach the end of the 1990s.

The Mennonite

Peace Tax Fund bill advocate Marian Franz wrote about “The claims of God and Caesar” in the edition. She began by highlighting how entwined tax issues are with the stories related in the gospels. She then highlighted the spending priorities of the U.S. government — how much it spends on weapons while crucial needs remain underfunded — and on the related spending priorities of Mennonites:

John Stoner did an analysis that found that for every $9 Mennonites spend on their military taxes they give $5 to charitable causes.

She told of Dan Slabaugh, who in “was plowing his field, and at one point he knelt on the ground and promised God he would never again let a penny of his earned income go for military use.” Slabaugh wrote his Senator about this, and that Senator, Mark Hatfield, went on to introduce a Peace Tax Fund Bill.

She also told of Claus Felbinger, a Hutterite martyr who had said that “When… the government requires of us what is contrary to our faith and conscience, such as swearing oaths and paying hangman’s dues and taxes for war, then we do not obey its commands.”

And she related (for the first time, I think, in The Mennonite, remarkably) the story of World War Ⅰ-era American Mennonite John Schrag, who was attacked by a mob for refusing to buy war bonds.

She then went on to plug the Peace Tax Fund bill, suggesting it would provide a way for conscientious objectors to pay their taxes and have “the military portion” safely disinfected of its militaristic taint. She also said she found lobbying for the bill to be a useful way of introducing conscientious objection to military taxation to new audiences, such as religious groups outside of the traditional peace churches, and to politicians and bureaucrats.

The same issue included an article about war tax resistance by Steve Ratzlaff. He asserted: “It isn’t possibly to pray for peace and pay for war unless you suffer from delusions or a split personality disorder… Yet 99 percent of Mennonites do that very thing.”

The problem lies in our split personality, in the mental gymnastics we use to excuse ourselves from the reality of our actions. We have separated our actions from our belief by rationalizing that we don’t really have any choice; the government requires us to pay taxes. That is true. But the government required that we serve in the army before the Alternative Service Act was passed in . We refused to serve in the armed forces then. Once they accommodated us by granting us conscientious objector status, we gladly gave them our money so they could continue to kill in our names. And they do kill, through aggressive military maneuvers and supporting almost every government in the world through the sale of arms.

We have separated our pocketbooks from our consciences. Money has become the topic that is nobody’s business but our own. As a result, we allow no one to hold us accountable for the way we spend it. That includes our tax money as well. We take the path of least resistance and pay the military portion of our taxes, even though that may violate our conscience.

We Mennonites are sick. We are schizophrenic when it comes to taxes that go for war. And our government is thankful for that. It was a small price to give us the option of alternative service. They really are more concerned that we continue to provide them with the cash needed to pay for their wars and military build-ups.

The unconditional support of the military that our government asks of us is obscene. We have withdrawn support from welfare mothers and aid to dependent children while increasing corporate welfare to the military industry. As a people of peace we cannot continue to pay for such irresponsibility in good conscience. It is time for us to listen seriously to our consciences again and to refuse to pay for such atrocities. We are a conscientious people that have lost our way and fallen ill. It’s time to address our personality disorder and listen once again to Jesus’ call to be peacemakers, not war supporters.

An editorial by J. Lorne Peachey in the same issue tried to sum all of this up, but also to deflect its urgency. He began by quoting 2 Timothy 2:23 — “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” — and he suggested that the issue of taxpayer complicity was such a controversy.

This prompted several letters which were printed over the next few issues:

  • John F. Murray wrote to say that he had determined the best course of action was not to reduce your income below the tax line, nor to withhold taxes due from the government, nor to support a Peace Tax Fund bill, but to donate generously to the church in order to take a large tax deduction.
  • Another letter, from Steve Martin, had other suggestions:

    Until the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill becomes reality, it would appear that the only ways to ensure that one’s tax dollars not go to military usage is to keep income below taxable levels or refuse to pay all taxes. The government currently will first take taxes for military purposes regardless of whether one pays the military portion or not. Thus by not paying the military portion, it appears one ultimately cuts money available for social programs rather than the military. To stay below taxable levels, one may cut actual income below the taxable level or go beyond Ratzlaff’s suggestion that the military portion of income taxes be given to some organization such as Mennonite Central Committee and give all actual income above the taxable level to charitable purposes. One wonders what our Mennonite agencies could do if the latter practice was followed by the large majority of their constituencies.

  • Steven J. Olshewsky followed up with a letter in which he pointed out the practical difficulties of using charitable giving as a way of reducing a taxable income to a tax-free income, among other things.
  • John M. Eby expressed his disappointment that “[t]here apparently has been no new thinking on the subject of war taxes since the last time this was a burning issue.”

    Caesar comes at us like a highwayman, willing and able to come in and take whatever Caesar determines to be his share. Due to interest and penalties, those who make a show of resisting will end up rendering more than those who do not resist. This is the first paradox of the war tax issue.

    When there is little or no money available, Caesar quickly loses interest. Those who choose to live on the lower fringe of Caesar’s economy are not expected to render. However, if we all choose to live on that fringe, there will be no money to support the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. No money for Mennonite Central Committee. Little or no money for the panoply of camps, boards, schools, publications, etc., that are the visible representations of our attempts to do church. We all recognize, at least in theory, that we cannot serve both God and mammon. But we have yet to figure out how to serve God without at least some mammon. I suppose this is the second paradox of the war tax issue.

  • Jacob Tice suggested a novel approach:

    I would like to register a legal way to avoid paying that I haven’t seen mentioned yet: live and earn your income abroad. U.S. citizens can exclude up to $72,000 () of foreign earned income (they are taxed on worldwide income) as long as they meet the IRS requirements for the foreign country being their “tax home” or for being “bona fide residents” of the foreign country.

    After over eight years of living in Panama, my wife, three children, and I have attained permanent residency status… but are also still U.S. citizens. In these eight years of dairy farming in Panama, I have been required to pay U.S. self-employment taxes (Social Security) but have not needed to pay any U.S. income tax. (And with an exclusion of up to $72,000, I do not anticipate needing to pay any.) I’m liable for Panamanian income tax but, as a dairy farmer, have not yet needed to pay any.