Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 2000–2001

This is the forty-second in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we hit the year 2000.

The Mennonite

The edition included an article by Susan Miller Balzer that started boldly by saying “Our tax money kills the enemies Christ asks us to love.”

She put in a plug for the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill, the latest in a series of peace tax fund legislation ideas, and then discussed her own resistance:

I first became a war tax resister when I connected paying the federal telephone tax with paying for the Vietnam War. Unlike my male peers, I didn’t need to fear being physically drafted to fight. However, by voluntarily paying taxes designated for war, I risked complicity with the military.

When I ask people if their conscientious objection extends to paying for war, I hear a variety of answers, all based on fear: “I can’t control what the government does with my tax money. If I resist, the government will just come and get my money anyway. It will get even more, if I have to pay penalties and interest. Besides, it’s illegal to not pay my share of taxes. And I don’t want to go to jail.”

Others say, “What difference can I make? It’s too much of a hassle. I don’t want to face an audit. I [or my institution or business] may suffer if donors or customers see us as radicals.” And the clincher: “We don’t want to do something controversial that might affect our work for peace.”

Karen Marysdaughter, former director of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), asks, “Which do you fear most — what will happen to you if you refuse to pay war taxes, or the effect that paying for war has on people who are dying?”

NWTRCC publishes information helpful to anyone counting the costs of war tax resistance. And NWTRCC members encourage and support each other at biennial meetings. Our church, which values community and nonconformity to the world, can learn much from NWTRCC.

A unique opportunity to do just that happens . For the first time, an international conference on war tax issues will be held in the United States. Mennonite participation with the people and issues at this conference could set the pace for our peace witness in the 21st century…

A concerted decision to practice conscientious objection to military taxation will greatly advance our mission to bring Christ’s healing and hope to the world.

This was accompanied by an info-box with details about the upcoming conference.

John K. and Janet Stoner shared their letter to the IRS in the issue in which they announced their withholding of a token $10 from their taxes “as a witness to God’s call to preserve human life and not to kill.” They followed this with talk about the Nuremberg trials and the necessity of disobedience that strikes me as broadly true, but so bold in its implications that a $10 token act of resistance looks kind of pathetic next to it. Be that as it may…

An article on the Zacchaeus-the-tax-collector episode in the gospel according to Luke by Marlin Jeschke, from the edition, stood out to me because of the matter-of-fact way the article asserts that “Jesus’ overall position concerning the Roman occupation” included “rejecting tax resistance.”

The same issue brought the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out three cases brought by Quaker war tax resisters trying to get conscientious objection to military taxation ruled a Constitutional right.

Editor J. Lorne Peachey penned a middle-of-the-road some say this but others say that editorial that touched on war tax resistance, insisting that “We must… become more intentional in our actions,” but never quite intending anything specific himself beyond “supporting each other in ways we believe the Spirit is leading us.”

Larry Leaman-Miller penned a letter to the editor that appeared in the issue that (for effect?) presented the taxpayer complicity dilemma as something new that Mennonites ought to consider and try to come up with some sort of solution for:

Passive payment

Colombian Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia, as quoted in the issue, said bluntly to American Christians, “Through your tax dollars you are supporting war” (“Colombian Leader Challenges Churches”). He was referring to the recently approved $1.3 billion of U.S. aid to Colombia, most of it earmarked for the Colombian military.

Esquivia’s comment raises anew questions about our Mennonite peace witness. In preparation for a recent presentation on nonviolence, I discovered that the United States spends roughly three times as much annually on its military budget as Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria combined — the countries usually pointed to as our greatest potential enemies. Forty-seven percent of our federal budget in will go to military needs. We are spending almost as much defending the nation as we are on the nation we are defending. Actually, this kind of spending has little to do with defending and perhaps everything to do with political, corporate and military attempts to dominate key areas of the world.

And all this occurs without any of us having to face a draft and the specter of personal involvement. In this age of high-tech weapons, our bodies are no longer needed; now it’s our dollars. I struggle to know how our peace theology speaks to this changed situation.

I wonder if people in the future will ask, “How could they have paid so passively?” Ricardo Esquivia has seen firsthand in Colombia the violent results of some of our payments. I think we need to ponder his words seriously.

If Larry had kept his subscription active for a few months, he could have read Stanley Bohn’s “Answers to questions about not paying war taxes”, which appeared in the edition. Some of their FAQ:

Could we have chosen alternatives that are legal? Could we give more to charity, making less tax obligation? Could we instead do educational witnessing by handing out charts at the post office on April 15 showing that almost half the national budget goes for past and present military programs? Could we write legislators who make tax laws rather than to the IRS, which merely implements them? Yes. We have also done those kinds of witnessing.

What were the consequences of diverting part of our income tax payments to war relief and prevention agencies? Courteous ignoring.

After several months the IRS may send a letter ignoring what we said but helpfully suggesting that we can ease the financial strain by paying in installments. We explain again that poverty is not the problem but that we are trying to live as Christians. Months later a reply tells us that if we pay by a certain date we can avoid more interest and penalty charges. The correspondence continues with us sharing our deepest convictions and IRS sending polite computer-generated notifications.

Finally, notification comes that the money owed will be taken from our bank account. We are not surprised, since this is what has happened for more than 20 years.

Financially, the cost has been affordable. When penalties and interest are added, we usually are charged about 20 percent more than what we diverted to peace and relief groups. We accept this as a cost of witnessing and are glad we can still afford to do it.

In earlier years, IRS correspondence contained warnings of unspecified severe penalties, but now this happens less often. When IRS letters listed 800 numbers for further contact, we called, and staff listened politely. Once we were allowed an interview. Contacts were courteous — once with opposing arguments and once with sympathy — but usually patient listening by people dealing with problem taxpayers.

Is this a worthwhile, valuable witness to the Jesus way? We believe it is. People from other countries suffering from U.S. policies are encouraged when they hear there is this kind of Christianity in the United States. Maybe our witness reduces resistance to Christian missionaries who are identified with U.S. self-interest and militarism.

Paradoxically, these people also admire a government that allows this kind of dissent, which is not permitted in their countries.

Tax diversion can be done for another reason: It carries out the spirit of Jeremiah’s call to the exiles, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). If we care about our nation’s addiction to violent, self-destructive solutions, we need to find a way to seek its welfare. Tax diversion can be a way of intervening, refusing to be co-dependent for the addict.

Christians who find themselves living in a superpower have a special responsibility. Though this responsibility of ours seems an impossible task, God has ways to heal the addicted. When people have stopped being co-dependents and no longer support the habit, addicts have been helped to recover.