God and Caesar: American Churches and War Taxes

In , Ronald Freund’s book What One Person Can Do To Help Prevent Nuclear War was published by Twenty-Third Publications, a Catholic-oriented publisher. Chapter three was titled “God and Caesar” and concerned taxes as one point of leverage individuals have.

Freund gives a brief overview of the history of conscientious tax resistance that seems to me to understate it, though it’s possible that in less evidence was easily available.

[I]t was not until the Vietnam War that tax resistance became a significant form of Christian witness against war. One of the early Vietnam-era tax resisters was William Faw, a minister of the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches.

Faw had not come to my attention before, but Freund tells his story as follows:

William Faw: “Here I Stand; I Cannot Do Other”

William Faw was born in in Nigeria where his parents were missionaries for the Brethren Church. His father took a post teaching at Bethany Seminary, and the family moved to Chicago where Bill grew up. He went to college in Indiana and then attended the seminary until his graduation in .

While at school Faw was compelled to confront the issue of the draft. “Both my parents were pacifists so I had decided early on that I would either be a resister or a conscientious objector; I could not accept a student or ministerial deferment in good conscience,” explains Faw. Despite his religious background it still required a two-year battle with the draft board to obtain his CO status. By the time he received CO status he had a family and was never required to perform alternative service.

He received his first assignment in at the Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, a poor, multiracial community on the West Side of Chicago. It was during this period that Bill Faw became a tax resister. Faw explains that decision, saying, “I was a self-employed pastor and my wife was not working so we had control over our tax payments. Since my wife was also a pacifist, we felt that it was necessary to protest the Vietnam War. The question was, ‘How can we do this together?’ We spoke with several other Brethren who had been refusing taxes and listened to political leaders who opposed the war. By early we decided to refuse to pay our taxes in full knowledge that it could lead to criminal punishment.”

When the time came to file their income tax return, the Faws sent the IRS a long letter explaining why there was no check enclosed. Other resisters had engaged in resistance by refusing even to file a return, but Faw believed that a religious witness should be made in an open and public manner. The Faws’ letter made clear the personal struggle which accompanied their decision:

We refuse to willingly contribute to a “war machine” which is engaged in the very brutal war in Vietnam… In the past we felt that the ambiguities of tax paying outweighed the war-tax issue. That is, our government’s expenditures for foreign aid, law enforcement, programs in health, education, and welfare, agriculture, urban redevelopment, and poverty fighting are worthy of support… Events have occurred which lead us to reconsider our responsibilities as citizens. We feel we can be true to our national citizenship only if we oppose a so-called “non-war” that has not been constitutionally declared. We feel that we can be true to our international citizenship as spelled out at the Nuremberg Trials only if we disassociate ourselves from and actively protest our unjust, illegal, morally deplorable, aggressive offensive against human beings in Vietnam.

But most basically we feel that we can be true to our Christian discipleship only if we oppose… the seizure of God’s prerogative by the United States in attempting to become the philosophical, theological, executive, legislative, judicial, and policing agency for the entire world; only if we oppose the exploiting of American “racism” by A-bombing, napalming, scatterbombing Asians; only if we oppose the mode of “evangelistic effort” our nation is making in Vietnam to show the Buddhists what being a “Christian” nation means…

Thus we are led to withhold our income tax and to seek constructive alternative ways of sharing our income… In God’s name, and under his judgment, we pray that we might choose the best path to make our witness.

…As a result, they chose to donate the tax money to the Canadian Friends Service Committee for the relief of war victims. They were well aware that some of those victims who would be helped by their money were North Vietnamese and Viet Cong; they believed this action to be consistent with Jesus’ command to “love your enemy.”

The Faws refused to pay their income taxes for the next five years, donating the funds to various international relief agencies. The Internal Revenue Service sent an agent to attempt to obtain the taxes directly. When this failed the IRS placed a levy on the Faws’ bank account and was able to collect the back taxes. The Faws were not threatened with criminal penalties.

Freund says the Faws were also resisting their phone tax, but returned to being taxpayers in the wake of the Paris Peace Accords. However, as of the writing of the book, they were planning to become resisters again by refusing a percentage of their income tax:

The continuing military buildup, especially nuclear weapons, has led us to resume tax resistance… We are being lulled into accepting more and more. Johnson tried to give us guns and butter, but Reagan’s policy of sacrificing butter for guns represents a barbaric reversal of priorities.

Freund asked about the practical effectiveness of individual tax resistance.

…Faw conceded that it would be far more powerful if institutions were to openly advocate and practice tax resistance. “If one church did it, even a small one like the Brethren, the Mennonites, or the Quakers, it would have a tremendous impact on some of the liberal mainline denominations,” Faw believes. However, even the New Call To Peacemaking, a grassroots movement within the historic peace churches begun in , of which Faw was the local chairman for two years, has failed to adopt a position of total resistance to war taxes. This has been a source of frustration for Bill Faw, but he nevertheless believes in the importance of individual witness, “I would still do it even if no one else did. There comes a point, with Vietnam or the arms race, where you say, ‘I’m not going to participate in that, no matter what the cost.’ It’s kind of like Martin Luther saying, ‘Here I stand; I cannot do other.’ ”

Freund then briefly described “A Simple Methodology” for Christians who were considering war tax resistance, covering the options of 1) paying taxes under protest, 2) voluntary poverty, 3) refusal to pay. He then tried to discern what sort of guidance might be found in the Bible, considering the difficult “Render unto Caesar” and “the powers that be are ordained of God” sections in particular.

Then he returns to the problem of the lack of institutional support for war tax resistance among Christian churches:

War Taxes: Where the Churches Are

Bill Faw and tax attorney William Durland express frustration that the churches, as national institutions, have not taken clear positions in support of tax resistance. Durland, who counsels tax resisters, says, “Some church body will have to declare that it stands by the Gospel and not by the IRS. This could have a chain reaction effect and lead to a coalition of churches to make it work.”

What holds them back? According to Faw, many Brethren have expressed “concern for the biblical ambiguities regarding taxes, concern over the maintenance of a certain respectability, and fear of the consequences.” Durland is somewhat more cynical, “The Pope speaks out against war and then honors the Italian Army.”

What is the position of the churches? The historic peace churches, representing 400,000 members in the United States, have been discussing the issue since . In , the Church of the Brethren recommended that, “Although the Brethren cannot agree as to whether tax withholding is proper, they can all recognize the propriety of using the means of dissent which the social order itself recognizes… We recommend that all who feel concern be encouraged to express their protests through letters accompanying their tax returns, whether accompanied by payment or not.” Many employees of these churches have not been satisfied with this position and have urged church agencies to refuse to withhold their federal taxes, a violation of the law. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), responded by challenging the constitutionality of withholding as an infringement on the right of religious expression. In the Supreme Court ruled in AFSC v. U.S. that a lower court ruling in favor of the AFSC was invalid and ordered AFSC to continue to withhold. The AFSC has complied with that order since. Pressure from employees of the Mennonite Church to refuse to withhold led to the following resolution adopted in , “We request the General Board to engage in a serious and vigorous search to pursue all legal, legislative, and administrative avenues for achieving a conscientious objector exemption from the legal requirement that the conference withhold income taxes from its employees.”

The New Call to Peacemaking (NCP), a more radical caucus within the three peace churches, has gone somewhat further. In and again in the NCP called upon members of the historic peace churches “to seriously consider refusal to pay the military portion of their federal taxes, as a response to Christ’s call to radical discipleship.” However, attempts to go further and adopt a position which called “paying for war a sin parallel to the sin of fighting war” was rejected. As one pastor at the meeting said, “We are calling my congregation into deep water when they haven’t even gotten their toes wet.”

The mainline Protestant denominations have reacted cautiously or ignored the issue. There is a growing movement within the Unitarian Universalist Association to take a position in favor of tax resistance. One of the leaders of this effort is Rev. Philip Zwerling of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. He says, “Nowhere is military madness more manifest than in the nuclear arms race… and on one day of the year — April 15 — we break down and pay for it all… Is it not moral schizophrenia to blithely pick up the tab for the military mania that we speak out against? It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.” However, for all the strength of this statement, the denomination as a whole has not adopted this position.

At the General Conference of the United Methodist Church a resolution was adopted calling for support of those “who conscientiously object to the payment of taxes for military purposes.” Here, too, the group stopped short of calling on church agencies themselves to engage in tax resistance.

Although large numbers of Roman Catholics are engaged in various forms of tax resistance, the church has taken no official position. According to Father Bryan Hehir, Associate Secretary for International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference, “We have no policy on tax resistance… and I have not adopted a position intellectually on it.” Activist and author Father Daniel Berrigan thinks this position is becoming increasingly untenable, “More and more the question of paying federal taxes is going to become a question of conscience. The government is stealing money and turning it into blood money. We’re going to be pushed into a corner on whether we can recognize… our Christianity.”

Freund then recapped the example of (Catholic) Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Excerpts:

Addressing the Pacific Northwest Synod of the Lutheran Church in America… Hunthausen surprised his audience by suggesting what form their action might take, “I would like to share a vision of an action which could be taken: simply this — a sizable number of people in the State of Washington, 5,000, 10,000, a half million people refusing to pay 50 percent of their taxes in nonviolent resistance to nuclear murder and suicide… Form 1040 is the place where the Pentagon enters all of our lives, and asks our unthinking cooperation with the idol of nuclear destruction. I think the teaching of Jesus tells us to render to a nuclear-armed Caesar what that Caesar deserves — tax resistance.”

Reaction in the community was mixed, but leaders of eight other Christian denominations in Seattle announced their general support for the stand of the Archbishop… However, they stopped short of endorsing tax resistance, saying they would “encourage discussion of tax resistance” and offer support to “those who refuse to pay taxes in protest of the arms race.”

At the time of his speech the Archbishop openly stated that he himself had not yet refused to pay taxes, but that it was troubling his conscience. Several months later he acted. In a pastoral letter published in the Seattle archdiocesan newspaper, Hunthausen declared, “After much prayer, thought, and personal struggle, I have decided to withhold 50 percent of my income taxes as a means of protesting our nation’s continuing involvement in the race for nuclear arms supremacy… I am saying by my action that in conscience I cannot support or acquiesce in a nuclear arms buildup which I consider a grave moral evil.”

…However, Pacific Northwest United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert said that “while the city’s ecumenical leadership is supportive of Hunthausen, none has indicated that he or she is prepared to follow suit with similar personal acts of tax resistance.”

Freund ends the chapter with a nod to the World Peace Tax Fund Bill idea, taking it at face value and noting that “[c]hurch support is broad.”