Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 2002

This is the forty-third in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we reach 2002.

The Mennonite

The finally did a good job of telling the story of John Schrag:

Showdown in Burrton, Kansas

Mennonite John Schrag faces a mob during World War Ⅰ

by James C. Juhnke

When World War Ⅰ broke out, Mennonites discovered they were considered enemies by their neighbors and business associates. Their German origins, even if generations removed, their German language and culture, and their pacifism made them suspect. In some communities, patriotic citizen groups harassed “slackers” by throwing yellow paint on houses and meetinghouses, committing arson, tarring and feathering pacifists and threatening death by hanging. In this story, Swiss Volhynian Mennonite John Schrag finds himself in the hands of such a patriotic mob.

The John Schrag espionage case was the dramatic climax to the dilemma of Kansas Mennonites in World War Ⅰ. Schrag was chosen to be the symbol and the bearer of the American community’s mistrust and hatred of German-speaking pacifists in the tense days of .

Schrag was a believer in those simple and durable virtues that made Mennonites highly prized citizens on the Kansas frontier. He was 13 years old when his family emigrated from Volhynia, Russia, to central Kansas in . In his teens, he helped his father build a grain mill on the banks of the Little Arkansas River in Harvey County. From his father he learned the value of hard work, the love of the soil and the wisdom of careful investment.

From the Mennonite faith and tradition Schrag knew that God generously rewards his faithful laboring servants. Schrag’s rise as a prosperous farmer with a large family and extensive landholdings was as natural as the economic and social success of the Mennonite community in the first decades after arrival in the new country.

The Mennonite role as outstanding and valuable citizens received an unforgettable jolt when the United States entered World War Ⅰ in . It suddenly became a requirement of acceptable American citizenship to support the war and to hate Germany. The Mennonites failed on both counts. They could not support the war because their religious faith taught them nonresistance, a doctrine whose practical expression included a claim for exemption from military service. They could not hate Germany because Mennonites themselves were of German background and loved the German language and culture as preserved in their homes, schools and churches.

Their sympathies in the European war had been demonstrated in their collections of money for the German Red Cross. Mennonites could not be acceptable citizens in America during World War Ⅰ unless they gave up their German culture and their doctrine of nonresistance.

The war bond drives became the test of loyal citizenship in the local community. Faced alternatively with persuasion and intimidation by local Loyalty Leagues, many Mennonites reconciled their nonresistance with the purchase of the bonds. After all, reasoned Henry Peter Krehbiel, member of the Western District Committee on Exemptions, a war bond is a kind of tax, and Jesus told us to pay our taxes. But John Schrag was not convinced. Buying bonds was supporting the war, and he would not support the war. That was that.

Five carloads of men: On , a group of patriotic citizens in Burrton, Kan., decided that the time was ripe for a showdown. “We was out to convert these slackers into patriots,” said one of them later. Five carloads of men drove 11 miles to the Schrag farm to get him to join the Armistice Day festivities in Burrton. Schrag’s boys, sensing trouble, refused to say where their father was, but the Burrton men found him after ransacking the farmstead and forcing their way into the house. Schrag offered neither argument nor resistance.

He went along in the hope that a measure of cooperation would help avoid physical violence.

In Burrton, a crowd quickly gathered as the citizens confronted Schrag with their real reason for bringing him to town. He must buy war bonds now or face the consequences. Schrag offered to contribute $200 to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, but this was not sufficient.

They demanded that he salute the American flag and carry the flag through town at the head of a parade. But Schrag quietly and firmly refused to cooperate. The flag thrust into his hand fell to the ground. Someone shouted, “He stepped on the flag.” The crowd became an enraged mob.

Yellow paint: They sprinkled and poured yellow paint on their victim, rubbing it into his scalp and beard until he resembled “a big cheese or yellow squash or pumpkin after the autumnal ripening.” They led him to the city jail. Someone ran for a rope to hang him, but Tom Roberts, the head of the local Anti-Horse-Thief Association, courageously stood before the jail door, brandished a gun and said, “If you take this man out of jail, you take him over my dead body.” Temporarily frustrated, the indignant citizens made plans to return that night, force the jail open and hang this so-called traitor.

Meanwhile, Schrag was placed in a chair on a raised platform in the jail, so passersby could view the humiliated man through the window in the jail door. One repentant member of the mob later testified to Schrag’s calmness throughout the ordeal: “If ever a man looked like Christ, he did.”

Schrag was finally rescued from the Burrton crusaders for American democracy by the Harvey County sheriff, who came that evening to take him to the county jail in Newton for cleaning and safe-keeping. Before he was released, Schrag was informed that he was to be tried in court for violation of the Espionage Act. It was against the law to desecrate the flag of the United States.

Local newspaper accounts of the incident failed to defend the rights of the victim. The weekly Burrton Graphic on saw in the event “a pungent and durable reminder that loyalty is a necessary prerequisite to life in this community. We must all be Americans.” The Hutchinson News article said that “a petition is being circulated to have him [Schrag] deported to Germany, his native land. This country is fast becoming an unhealthy place for ‘slackers’ of any kind.”

The Newton Evening Kansan-Republican suggested that if a federal court would find Schrag guilty, “it would undoubtedly mean the confiscation of his property and his deportation.” On the week of his hearing in Wichita, the editor of the Burrton Graphic published a list: “Some Things Residents of Burrton Should Be Thankful For.” In the list was “that we as a people are more tolerant of others’ foibles.”

Desecration of the flag: The case against Schrag was heard in the Wichita federal courtroom by U.S. Commissioner C. Shearman on . Five Burrton citizens presented 50 typewritten pages of evidence to prove Schrag’s disloyalty and desecration of the flag. For his defense, Schrag retained the services of a Jewish lawyer named Schulz. Commissioner Shearman took the case under advisement and promised that the decision would be made shortly.

The decision, handed down on , was that Schrag was not guilty and should not be bound over for federal trial. But Commissioner Shearman did say that “Schrag could not have gone closer to a violation of the Espionage Act if he had had 100 lawyers at his side to advise him.”

Schrag in fact had not willfully desecrated the flag. Nothing in the Espionage Act required one to salute the flag. Schrag’s words that supposedly slandered the flag had been spoken in German, so none of the monolingual plaintiffs could prove any guilt.

The Newton Evening Kansan-Republican, frustrated by the acquittal of this “bull-headed” man, suggested that the case “should certainly make plain to any thinking person the viciousness that exists in the encouragement of the German language as a means of communication in America… The melting pot cannot exercise its proper functions when such things are allowed.”

The Mennonite newspapers in central Kansas, intimidated into silence, did not come to Schrag’s defense and did not even mention the incident or the hearing as an item of news. After the commissioner’s decision, however, C.E. Krehbiel, editor of Der Herold, wrote an editorial, “Mob Power,” that clearly referred to the Schrag case, although it mentioned no specific names or events. In cases of mob violence, wrote Krehbiel, either the mob or the abused person is guilty. If the court of justice decides that the victim is innocent, the only conclusion is that the mob is guilty. Readers were to make their own applications.

Schrag’s attorney encouraged him to bring charges against his persecutors, but Schrag declined. Such an action would have violated the Mennonite principles of nonresistance.

Nevertheless, in the months after the Schrag affair, the nonresistant German-Mennonites had no scruples against clamping an economic boycott on the town of Burrton. The boycott was not organized systematically, but it was effective in disrupting the trade of Burrton businessmen who were dependent on the commerce of German-Mennonite farmers. The legacy of tension and hatred generated by the event would be remembered for decades to come.

American Melting pot: The experience of the Mennonites in World War Ⅰ hardly had a salutary effect on the processes of the American melting pot. In the years after the war, the Mennonites were driven to a defensive retrenchment, to a renewed awareness of their distinctiveness as Mennonites.

Though the Mennonites gradually abandoned their German language and some German cultural traits, the war experiences forced them to a reconsideration and reaffirmation of the doctrine of nonresistance. As long as Mennonites held to that doctrine, they would be a thorn in the flesh of American nationalists.

The witness of John Schrag and of other Mennonites who refused to compromise their doctrine of nonresistance during wartime can serve as a reminder of the Anabaptist heritage of steadfastness in the face of persecution.

Charles Carney tried to refute seven misconceptions about war tax resistance in the issue. These being:

  1. War tax resisters are law-breakers.
  2. Sooner or later, war tax resisters go to jail.
  3. War tax resisters benefit from the services that taxes provide without having to pay their fair share.
  4. War tax resisters break the command of Jesus [Render unto Caesar…].
  5. War tax resisters oppose social and medical services for veterans.
  6. War tax resisters hide their actions from the government.
  7. War tax resisters are one and the same as right-wing groups who refuse taxes because they don’t believe the government has the right to tax people.

Al Albrecht wrote in to suggest a few more:

  1. Refusing to pay these taxes puts the U.S. government in a financial bind.
  2. Refusing to pay these taxes causes the U.S. government great concern.
  3. Refusing to pay these taxes absolves the resister of all moral responsibility for U.S. military action.

An editorial by Everett J. Thomas in the edition reflected on the “awkward” relationship Mennonites have with Memorial Day. Excerpt:

While reading The Earth Is The Lord’s… John Ruth’s massive history of Lancaster Conference, I discovered that this same question confronted my ancestors during the Civil War. As their neighbors joined local militias “to preserve the Union,” many Pennsylvania Mennonites were forced to answer questions about their loyalty. In the end, Congress passed a bill that allowed “the conscientious” to pay a commutation fee of $300 and thereby avoid the military draft.

“Mennonites, who preferred to pay anything called a tax rather than participating in their government’s military activities, were more content with this arrangement than were the Quakers, many of whom saw it as a moral compromise,” writes Ruth.

That solution is the pattern that exists to this day. While we do not fight, at least half our federal taxes support a vast military machine that no longer needs our bodies. It needs our money to pay for high-tech weapons and for the training for those who guide those weapons.

This reality leaves us directly supporting our country’s military with our dollars and means that in spite of our convictions and beliefs, in practice Mennonites are not much different from those who loudly support the current military buildup.

This Memorial Day, we can remember and pray for neighbors who publicly mourn the loss of a family member. We can also pray for those who were killed by our country, which for years has used and continues to use our tax dollars to kill in our name.

Don Schrader penned letters to the editor for the and editions to describe how his simple-living, non-voting lifestyle meets his goal of tax refusal. Excerpt:

In I lived well on $3,845 for my total expenses: rent, food, phone, stamps, etc. I have no right to more than I need while others have less than they need. I love to live simply. I write down every penny I spend for everything every day. I always pay cash; I refuse to buy on credit and to pay interest. I enjoy learning new ways to stretch dollars, to live healthily and responsibly on less.

The most radical, nonviolent action that people of conscience can take in this society is to pledge publicly to live simply, to own no car, and to pay no federal income tax for war for the rest of their lives.

In the issue, J. Daryl Byler reflected on his family’s tax resistance and on the ambiguous Biblical support for it. He wondered:

What would happen if Christians en masse decided to no longer pay the portion of their taxes that go to war? What if Christians mounted a mass resistance movement as an expression of our loyalty to Jesus Christ and his way of peace? Several years ago PBS aired a series called A Force More Powerful. This documentary tracked six nonviolent social-change movements in , including the U.S. civil rights struggle, the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa and the movement in India to end British rule.

The common thread in these successful nonviolent movements was masses of people choosing not to cooperate with forces of evil and oppression. Oppressive powers depend for survival on the cooperation of the masses. When that cooperation is withdrawn, these structures eventually crumble.

The issue shared the story of Linda Shelly:

Ten years ago, when Linda Shelly accepted her first salaried job, she did not want all the money. What she did made her a recipient of a Journey Award, given by Men­non­ite Mutual Aid to high­light good steward­ship.

After working with Men­non­ite Cent­ral Com­mit­tee in Bolivia and Honduras, Shelly re­turned to the United States to be MCC’s director of Latin American and Carib­bean pro­grams. But her wages were prob­lem­atic. Shelly did not want her tax dol­lars to sup­port the U.S. military. She also wanted to share her money, after years of bene­fit­ing from the gen­er­o­sity of Latin Americans who had so few re­sour­ces. So Shelly ac­cept­ed a lower salary to re­duce her lax li­a­bil­ity. She also loaned money to friends, then instead of re­ceiv­ing tax­able interest income, shared it with people in need, both locally and internationally.