Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 2007–2010

This is the forty-fifth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we finish off the first decade of the new millennium.

The Mennonite

What belongs to God and what to Caesar? It’s a riddle that has to be puzzled over again and again by Mennonites in the context of war tax resistance. In the edition, Titus Peachey took a swing at the pitch: Given all that belongs to God, he asked, “can we who follow Jesus willingly give our tax dollars for war and killing?”

In the edition, Scott Key answered Everett J. Thomas’s editorial statement — “There seems to be nothing we can do but write letters and pray that [the war in Iraq] will stop.” — with some more practical ideas, including boycotts of and divestment from military contractors, and war tax resistance.

Susan Miller Balzer wrote in to applaud and supplement this:

Scott Key… lists some important ways to work against war and for peace. In mentioning war tax resistance, he expresses a common misconception that employees cannot prevent their employers from withholding federal taxes from their paychecks.

However, it is possible to limit or stop withholding by increasing withholding allowances on the W-4 Form (or legally writing “Exempt” on the form if you did not owe federal income taxes last year and do not expect to owe in the coming year). See the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee’s “practical” publications on the Web site on controlling federal tax withholding and on low income or simple living for helpful information on ways to keep from paying for war. On the same Web site, click on the War Tax Boycott, Withhold from War/Pay for Peace to find ways to participate in this national effort to defund war.

The “draft” of federal tax money to pay for present, past and future wars is a fundamental issue that our church should address as it works to replace suffering, destruction and injustice with healing and hope. The military draft affected only young men. The current “economic draft” affects young men and women who enter the military to try to get out of poverty. The draft of tax money affects people of all ages as long as they have a taxable income.

If everyone in just one congregation refused to pay for war and redirected their refused taxes to an underfunded social service, imagine the opportunities for witness and change that could occur.

Don Kaufman was back in the letters to the editor column:

If enough of us withhold from war and pay for peace, we can stop the harm. War-tax resistance is not a passive or unethical tax avoidance but an act of conscience that everyone can do. The cross of Jesus as nonviolence and compassion is our model for hope and change.

Individuals shoulder great responsibility for warfare and for peace. At times the most effective way to take responsibility is refusal to collaborate, as Franz Jaggerstatter did in Hitler’s Austria in . How can we take a stand against a government that leads its citizens into committing murder? The task is to be reform-minded, to live in an ethical way, and progressively to make unthinkable the coercion of conscience by the majority who put their faith in military or violent solutions.

Like Jeremiah, let us unmask the illusions of power by being servants of hope among the vulnerable and wounded.

Stanley Bohn encouraged people to engage in at least a small symbolic act of war tax redirection, in the edition, claiming important benefits from the gesture that go beyond its likely practical results:

Will this action make Congress and the Bush administration change their funding priorities? Unlikely, even if millions took part in this effort. After all, war fuels our economy, is useful in getting national unity and political support, and it focuses on the evil of others, allowing us to raise our self-esteem. As Chris Hedges wrote in his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, war provides us with purpose and a civil religion.

What happens to us: For some Christians, the motive for participating in tax redirection may start as a protest against refugee making, the slaughter of people as collateral damage, torture of prisoners, creating mentally damaged veterans, ballooning war debt, ruined international relations, and other disastrous consequences. But when we take a stand for our Christian convictions, something else may happen.

We gain an understanding of Jesus’ way of being lumped with criminals when choosing the community-building, caring, enemy-loving life at the heart of the universe. We realize that Jesus did not live or teach a religion guided by what is respectable, safe, stress-free, or that waits for a consensus. Jesus calls us to a life that is unpredictable and vulnerable.

Tax redirection is not a criterion of who is a “real Christian” but is more accepting life as a gift, being what we are here for, living what we see in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. When the IRS makes us pay a small percentage more than our lawful tax, we can experience what we believe is more important than money, and the hold money has on us is reduced.

Living this kind of trust in the Jesus way helps keep serious Christians from attempting to be pure and withdraw from life’s realities. It keeps us engaged in current issues and with those proposing different goals. We are engaged, however, in the kind of peace Christians should expect when choosing an alternative way to conquer evil.

The risk of taking a stand regardless of consequences brings an unexpected peace. It is not a peace that makes us feel protected, free of fears, or satisfied with ourselves. It is a peace from knowing one is on a venture of trusting in the universe-guiding reality we see in Christ. It is an empowering peace given us when we offer ourselves to the one who gave us this life, trusting God for the outcome. It is an empowerment that keeps us open rather than defensive and having to shut out the desperate cries of others. It is an alternative to a consumer-oriented Christianity that brings an unintended transformation that makes us vulnerable and powerful at the same time.

Possibilities after April 15: There is no telling if or how God might use the April 15 tax-redirection event. Consequences may occur that we never thought of, including what powers or gifts might be released in ourselves.

We should not expect the government to inform us how many participated. The media may not be free to report it, even if it knew. If the amount we withheld and diverted is seen by the IRS as worth taking action against us, we will likely receive threatening letters and finally have those funds confiscated along with a penalty.

Yet significant tax redirection can mean some humanitarian agencies will get more financial support, and starving people will be fed. Maybe some legislators will hear the conscience dilemma of many taxpayers and join other co-sponsors of HR 1921, the Freedom of Religion Peace Tax Fund, which would make legal the redirection of taxes by conscientious objectors to war. And maybe a few thousand redirectors will discover we are less bound by the expectations of others and are freer than we thought we could be.

Most important, we may learn that choosing risky ways of living for others, even civil disobedience, can bring spiritual healing. We won’t defund the war, but we can be more confident of the Power that overcomes our fears and by God’s grace enables us to be the humans God intended us to be.

One such redirection idea was announced in the edition: “Turning toward peace.” This Mennonite Central Committee (U.S.) initiative allowed Americans to “redirect[] war tax dollars to help children in Afghanistan through MCC’s Global Family education sponsorship program.” Titus Peachey, director of peace education for MCC (U.S.) was quoted:

According to Peachey, most who have chosen to withhold believe, “If we cannot conscientiously participate in war with our bodies, we cannot pay for it either. We need to give our money to causes that build up rather than destroy the presence of God in each person,” he says.

Most inform their governments of their actions. “Given the presence of Western military action in Afghanistan today, the opportunity to contribute to peacemaking there is timely,” says Peachey. “Equally important is the way in which withholding war taxes challenges our own systemic militarism.”

The “Turning toward peace” initiative was still in operation at least as late as .

A joint letter from Susan Balzer, Deb & Wes Bergen, Anita & Stan Bohn, Ron Faust, Don Kaufman, H.A. Penner, Steve Ratzlaff, Mary Swartley, Willard Swartley, and Dan Leatherman appeared in the edition. They were responding to an editorial that suggested the Mennonite Church had surrendered as a peace church and had come to be “at peace with war.”

There is a traditional, positive witness opportunity for conscientious objectors to war of all ages. It may seem scary, but many find it almost routine. It involves redirection of income-tax assessments used for killing and refugee-making to ministries meeting human need.…

Our descendants and overseas Christians will wonder how Christians in a superpower, with over 700 military bases around the world, fighting two wars and considering a third with Iran, supporting covert wars in places such as Colombia and Israel, could be so at peace with war.

“The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead, it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity,” writes Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. If we teach it is wrong, why do we support it financially?

Shame is the negative motivation. The positive is that Jesus promised his spirit of truth would abide in us and enable us to live differently from the world’s ways. If we love him, we are empowered to keep his commandments (John 14:15–17).

War tax redirection is “alternative service” for dollars we earn, service that provides hope and new possibilities for suffering people instead of endless war.

The issue covered John Stoner’s “$10.40 for Peace” campaign. This was another attempt to get timid people to take baby steps into war tax resistance by resisting a small, token amount of their taxes. The campaign is still going on today but has yet to catch fire.

The article seemed to me to exaggerate the scariness of such resistance even as it tried to assuage the fears of potential resisters. Excerpts:

Stoner says the group hears some concern from individuals about the possible penalties and “heavy hand of the IRS coming down.”

Stoner’s response is threefold. First, “As disciples of Jesus, we shouldn’t have so much fear,” he says. Second, the past experiences of individuals who have withheld taxes for similar reasons have been minimal. Third, the tax withholder can decide later to pay the full amount.

“The most important thing is to make that statement that calls for democratic conversation about how federal money is spent,” Stoner said.

Others say this movement should take more risks and that U.S. war spending remains too large. However, if enough people join, the risks and penalties would increase, Stoner said.

The article noted that Shane Claiborne had signed on as an endorser and would be speaking at an upcoming public meeting on the campaign.