Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1963

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we continue our trek into the 1960s.

The Mennonite

The issue included an article by Leo Driedger titled “The Taxes that Go to War”. We met Driedger in our last episode as he was answering a query about the General Conference Mennonite Church’s guidance regarding war taxes on behalf of the Peace and Social Concerns Committee.

In this new article, Driedger begins by methodically explaining how much of the federal budget is military spending, and how the government gets that money to spend. Then he explores the options for avoiding complicity:

Some think we should work out some alternative to paying taxes. In the past some Mennonites paid for other people to go to war in their place. We thought this was wrong so we sought alternative service. But we are still paying for war with our taxes. In order to discuss our taxes intelligently we need to know where we are paying taxes, and how it is spent.

Can we escape paying taxes for military use? It is hard to be consistent. To illustrate, let us examine the excise taxes. Most of us do not buy alcohol and tobacco which eliminates half of the excise tax problem. The other half we pay on such items as gas and oil, telephone, transportation tickets, and sugar (which we can hardly do without). Not to pay any excise tax on anything would result in doing without a lot of things we think are necessary. Furthermore, we might find ourselves spending much time trying to decide when we are or aren’t paying excise taxes. Would this be good stewardship of time?

The twenty-six per cent that the government receives from corporate income taxes could be largely evaded if we did not buy stocks and bonds in corporations. Many of our people however invest in stocks, although a large percentage don’t. But we would still be involved in a small way in that our money in savings accounts in banks and loans we make involved the investment of some money in corporations and these pay taxes. True, our involvement here is small.

Most of the government’s money comes from personal income taxes. In the United States a single person can earn $600 and a childless couple $1200 per year before they have to pay income tax. In Canada this is $1000 and $2000 respectively. We would find it hard to live on so little, although I know of one Mennonite who has done this for years. Reducing our income that much would leave little for tithes to the church. Is this good stewardship of our money?

For some a large family solves the problem. In the United States tax exemptions permit a man to earn at least $6,000 before he has to pay taxes. Not too many, however, are following that solution.

The Christian also has the positive option of giving thirty per cent of his income to the church and tax-deductible charities. Many of us should consider this possibility seriously. I know of some Christians who give that much and more to the church every year.

Each year a number of Mennonites include a letter of protest with their tax returns. They often ask for an alternative. Some members of the Society of Friends have actually worked on a bill to present to the government asking for the opportunity to pay their taxes to UNICEF, a welfare organ of the United Nations. Securing an alternative will be difficult. Quite a few actually refuse to pay, and are imprisoned; others don’t pay and get away with it. This is a complex problem, for even if we were granted an alternative on personal income tax, there is still the other forty-five per cent corporation and excise taxes which are not covered.

The Gospels (Mark 12:17, Matt. 22:21, Luke 10:25 [sic.]) cite the well-known saying of Christ: “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” Did Christ mean we should pay our tax money to the government and ask no further questions? Although the coin had the inscription of Caesar on it, did Christ not mean that all we have and own is God’s, whose purpose is much greater? Did he mean that taxes for roads, health, welfare, should be paid to Caesar to administer these, but not money for war because this does not serve mankind and God? Or did Christ actually mean that His disciples should help pay for Roman conquest and military persecution?

Can we work out a perfect plan that will provide an alternative to military taxation? That seems nigh impossible if we still want to be a part of society. But, aware of our involvement, do we confess to it and seek truly to make the best witness we can against this evil use of our tax money? Without giving any glib answer I leave a few questions for discussion:

  1. Is it wrong to pay our taxes to government even though we know seventy per cent of this goes for the preparation of war?
  2. What does the Bible say about this question of involvement?
  3. Is it really possible to withdraw from any involvement, by either paying our taxes and forgetting about it, or attempting to do without those things that involve payment of taxes? Is this the best witness we can make?
  4. Is there some way in which we can make a Christian witness against programs of military spending? How?
  5. Should we invest our time and efforts in working for an alternative to paying taxes as we have done in military service?

A letter from Walter M. Philipp printed in the issue took Driedger to task, saying his article was an example of those “which are poorly written, factually incorrect, and show lack of intelligence.” For starters, he took issue with Driedger’s account of how bank deposits or the purchase of stocks & bonds make individuals complicit in corporate income taxes.

Would not the purchase of products manufactured by corporations tie in more to one’s responsibility for corporate income tax, inasmuch as sales produce the income that is taxed, and a definable proportion of the sales dollar goes for income tax?

Then he asks, “why did [Driedger] not mention investment in municipal bonds, from which the income is tax exempt?”

Municipal bonds do provide funds for some very peaceful, humane, and worthwhile purposes. Why did he not mention the tax credit applicable to dividend income, the lower tax rate on capital gains, or the lower tax rate applicable to corporation income?

These are just a few examples that contributed to making a poor article.

But interestingly, the criticism is entirely about the technical details. I didn’t notice any letters attacking the substance of the idea that Mennonites should examine how their taxes make them complicit in military spending and that they need to do something about it.

John Howard Yoder, the controversial and influential Mennonite theologian, chimed in on the subject in the issue:

Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax

A personal testimony

As I grew, in my late teens and early twenties, into my earliest understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one of the deeply significant aspects of this discipleship which I sought to understand was what my teachers called nonresistance. I came to understand this word as pointing to one of the ways in which personal fellowship with Jesus Christ through His Spirit will normally work itself out in the life of the believer.

Two things stood out in this understanding of discipleship in nonresistance. First of all, to follow Christ on this path involved being enough different from the surrounding world to be considered unlikable or undesirable by certain powerful people and groups in the world. As a result of this opposition, the way of nonresistance may be called the way of the cross; it involves suffering.

Secondly this position should be a witness. A witness should show the world that the way it operates, through an interplay of selfishness against selfishness and violence against violence, is subject to the condemnation of God and destined, even in this age, to ultimate judgment.

One other thing my teachers told me was that, according to God’s will, the assignment of civil government is to keep the peace. The Apostle Paul instructs Christians to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings… for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life…” (Tim. 2:1f., RSV). Obviously, we pray for a “quiet and peaceable life” not because we wish to be left alone but in order that the church may carry on her ministry, so that all men should find salvation and “come to the knowledge of the truth” (verse 4). The church’s task is to bring men to know the truth; just as clearly, the place of the state in God’s purposes is that disorder be kept to a minimum and peace maintained.

Now when I went out into life with these convictions I was increasingly struck by the fact that there was precious little in my own experience or that of the church that I knew to correspond to this description.

The governments under which I lived were making a major contribution to the terror which threatens all the nations of the world. They were taking the greatest initiative in poisoning the outer atmosphere of the globe and the inmost springs of heredity with nuclear tests. Statesmen were making their bids for election primarily on the basis of how “firm” they were prepared to be in threatening the other half of the world with nuclear destruction.

Not only Christians, but even intelligent unbelievers in other parts of the world, asked me what testimony was being given in America by nonresistant Christians, and at the cost of what suffering, in order to proclaim the judgment of God upon this development of weapons which can be used only to break and not to defend the peace. It is a growing conviction of many that it is an insufficient answer to say that many young men of nonresistant conviction refuse military service and render some other useful service to society in its place. The position of the conscientious objector is right for the young man to whom it applies.

But in the western nations where military authorities have found a convenient way of shunting such objectors into inconspicuous alternative service, the Christian testimony to the state requires more than this if it is to be an adequate testimony against war. Alternative service says clearly that the Christian cannot wage war, and that he does desire to serve his fellow men in a useful way. It does not say that the task of the state is to make peace. And for the great bulk of Christians of nonresistant conviction, conscientious objection and alternative civilian service involve no suffering and little sacrifice.

These were my thoughts when I was reminded that there is one point at which almost every citizen, or at least every family, once a year does make a personal contribution to the moral and financial support of the military monster. This gesture of support is carried out each spring when almost every wage earner forwards to the federal government a share of his earnings, more than half of which will not be used to keep the peace.

For a number of years, I had not chance to exercise responsibility over this use of a share of my income, since my employer withheld the amount involved from my earnings. In , for the first time, it fell to my personal responsibility and initiative to forward to the United States government’s Internal Revenue Service an additional amount, going beyond what had been withheld. This additional amount due was significantly less than the proportion of my total taxes which I knew were being used for non-peaceful purposes.

I therefore submitted to the Director of Internal Revenue a full and conscientious report of my income, but wrote that I could not take the moral responsibility of forwarding to the government funds which I knew would be used for a purpose contrary to that which government is supposed to be serving. I told him that I had no intention of profiting personally from my “tax objection.” I was therefore forwarding an equivalent payment to the Mennonite Central Committee for use in overseas war sufferers’ relief.

In the course of time, I received an answer to this letter in the form of a conversation with a local Internal Revenue Service inspector. In a very polite and gentlemanly way he informed me that he could not consider this as acceptable in lieu of payment to the Director of Internal Revenue. He therefore drew from my bank account the amount which I had not forwarded in the routine way.

This much is my story; what remains is to ward off mistaken interpretation of what I did and what I meant.

The point is not to keep the government from getting the money. Not only would this be legally impossible; the New Testament is clear that the Christian will respond to any kind of coercion, legal or illegal, by giving not only his shirt but also his coat. (See Matt. 5:40.) Since it was clear that the Internal Revenue Service inspector was disposed to take upon himself the responsibility for forcefully collecting the funds, as a “second mile” gesture I told him where he could find the money with the least difficulty.

The idea is not to avoid involvement in the evils of this fallen world, to “keep my hands clean” morally. Involvement in one form or another is avoided by no one, and I would not be avoiding it if I had no taxes to pay. My concern is not to be morally immaculate by making absolutely no contribution to the war effort, but to give a testimony to government concerning its own obligation before God.

This is not tax evasion. I filed at the proper time a full and conscientiously accurate report on my income, and when further information came to light I amended my report accordingly. There is no intention to defraud and no liability to criminal prosecution.

This is not obstructionism. Numerous Christian and non-Christian pacifists express their disapproval of militarism by such symbolic gestures as illegally entering a missile base, sailing a boat into a restricted part of the Pacific just before bomb tests, or in other ways seeking dramatically to catch the attention of the public or of government administrators with their objection.

The action I am describing here differs from theirs in a number of ways. In the first place, I made clear, not only in my letter to the Director of Internal Revenue, but also in my conversation with the local inspector, that I now have and wish to maintain a healthy respect for the legitimate functions of government and for the persons who carry them out. I do not express my objection by getting in the way of some military sentinel or civilian truck driver whom I thus put in the embarrassing position of either being disobedient to his superiors or harming me, nor by becoming a problem for some judge who has no choice but to apply the law.

I witness rather by writing and talking calmly to responsible civil servants who are my most direct contact with the process of government.

The only cost of this witness was paid in the form of a gift for relief. The actual amount of tax collected was increased by only a few cents’ interest covering the time elapsed between and the date of collection. If the equivalent amount I had given for relief had been accepted by Internal Revenue Service in lieu of tax payment, I would have considered it as such in the next year’s reporting. However, since that payment was not accepted, I shall report it as a deductible contribution.

The way present tax laws operate, this approach would cost the most (in the form of relief contributions) to those who are most able to bear it because of their greater income. This is significant in contrast to the fact that the brunt of the sacrifice involved in being a conscientious objector, especially in time of war, is laid upon teenagers who are not chosen with a view to their being most qualified to bear it. If action something like my own were taken by a significant number of mature Mennonite wage earners, this would be the first time in the history of our nation that the testimony to nonresistance was given primarily through the initiative of and at a certain cost to the most mature and responsible people in the church.

One question remains, which both the Internal Revenue Service inspector and my Christian brethren have already asked:

Does not the New Testament instruct us to pay our taxes? Certainly it does; and I want to pay my taxes, and to pay them willingly as far as the functions of the United States government resemble what Jesus and Paul and Peter were talking about. The lesson of the entire New Testament is that Christians should be subject to political authority because in the providence of God the function of these authorities is to maintain peace. This is what I, in accordance with the instruction of the New Testament, am asking the American government to do.

I am in fact even willing to pay for a certain amount of waste and fraud and incompetence, as well as for welfare services going beyond what Jesus and the apostles had in mind. But the one thing I am not prepared to support voluntarily is something which Jesus and Paul did not have in mind because it did not exist in the time of the New Testament.

The government of Rome was not spending more than half of its resources on preparations to destroy the rest of the world. The authority which Jesus and Paul recognized was an authority within a given empire, an authority which in spite of its violence and corruption and the fraudulent procedures of its tax collectors did effectively maintain peace within the entire known world at the time the New Testament was written.

We know very little, nor does the New Testament attempt to inform us, about significant political powers outside the Roman Empire. But we can say with certainly that there were no such powers, in any way comparable in importance to Rome itself, which Rome was preparing to destroy. There is thus in this teaching of the New Testament no easy discharge from the duty to test which of the demands of “Caesar” are really “the things that are Caesar’s” and when what he asks for is not his rightful due.

It is not my purpose at present to agitate for others to follow my example. I am rather asking counsel from, my Christian brethren concerning the way I have been led. At the same time I am asking whether others have found more appropriate ways to render a worthwhile testimony against their nation’s trust in the sword.

A Mrs. M. Wiebe took Yoder up on that challenge, in a letter published in the issue. She was “appalled at the hypocrisy expressed in [Yoder’s] article.” Excerpt:

What virtue is there in not paying your income tax willingly instead forcing the Revenue Inspector to collect it himself from the author’s bank account? … To quote: “I am willing to pay for a certain amount of waste, fraud and incompetence” but not for something that did not exist in the time of the New Testament. Don’t fraud and corruption lead to war? He describes Rome as a government that didn’t spend as much on war as our government and that Rome “maintained peace” certainly it maintained peace but how? With terrible brutality and with the sword. The Romans had a horrible slave system. Their birthday parties were illumined with flaming crosses of burning Christians. It was a totally pagan government. That’s the kind of a government to which Jesus and Paul paid willing taxes. They had more important things to do than to picket the government and complain about the taxes.

Don’t we as Mennonites have anything more important to think about than how we can draw attention to ourselves by being very odd so that others might notice how pious we are?

Other than that, I don’t see much evidence that Yoder’s article raised much controversy or discussion.

A letter from Don Kaufman, published in the issue, promoted a new “Civilian Income Tax Act” being drawn up by the Pacific Yearly Meeting of Friends. This was one of the early attempts at “peace tax fund” legislation. These plans would frustrate and bedevil the conversation about war tax resistance to the present day, and would eventually almost completely displace discussion of war tax resistance itself. In this way the peace tax fund plans are similar to the “civilian bonds” of World War Ⅱ — they allow ostensibly conscientious people to continue to pay for war by giving their payments a pleasant name.