Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1965–1967

Irlanda Jerez

Irlanda Jerez, merchant from the Mercado Oriental in Managua, Nicaragua, and leader of the tax resistance movement there (see ♇ ), was arrested by masked police .

She had just spoken at a press conference to announce a protest march in the Nicaraguan capital. Her current whereabouts are unknown.

The Nicaraguan government has been under increasing pressure both from grassroots civil disobedience and from international condemnation of its killings of demonstrators and its use of pro-government paramilitary groups to attack the opposition.

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

The Mennonite

Over the past several years, war tax resistance in The Mennonite has gone from “of course not — render unto Caesar after all” to “maybe we should look into this” to “hey everybody, let’s start resisting!” A backlash was inevitable. Here’s an example from the edition. It complained both that war tax resistance is foolish because the American military and its “defense of the free world” is necessary, and that promoters of war tax resistance were becoming too pushy. Excerpt:

I refer to the letter in the issue [see ’s post] suggesting that Mennonites and others should refuse to pay income taxes used for military purposes.… I am afraid that this program amounts to an attempt to force certain Mennonite beliefs on other people whether they wish to accept them or not… I am afraid that, having the right to practice our beliefs as we see fit, we are showing a growing tendency to be pretty insistent that others be made to do as we see fit also.

Another letter, in the edition, criticized tax resistance for providing an illusion of aloofness. Excerpt:

Paying taxes is one vital link the individual has with society and I question whether we as individuals and Mennonites can afford to sever this link. To do so I fear would be a giant step backwards toward isolationism and the delusion inherent in such a philosophy that we are thereby free from responsibility for what our nation does… If one would refuse to pay taxes as a form of protest (symbolic) without deluding himself about his guilt and involvement (thus a protest even against himself) I could see a case for it.

Another letter in the edition was skeptical about the plans for a peace tax fund law. Excerpt:

It is good to hear an effort is being made to allow us to pay an alternate tax, but won’t this remove the potency of a resounding “No” just as the law permitting alternative service did? This points out the necessity of opposing the evil as a whole, not just opposing a contributing factor. If my taxes are used 100 percent for peace, my neighbors’ will go 100 percent for war or defense. The government will get defense funds one way or another. Therefore we should start at the top, to change the policy of the leaders — we can never stop this mad arms race by cutting off our little contribution. Of course, if refusing to pay taxes for defense spending will spotlight the issue enough to change the policy, we should use it, but only after we have used all legal methods and resources, such as writing to our congressman and lobbying.

The edition brought this news:

Brewster B. Kneen is apparently an American citizen living in London at 114 Ferme Park Road. In a letter published to the Internal Revenue Service he indicates that he is withholding the $72.22 balance on his income tax in protest against the United States involvement in Vietnam. He also says, “I am sending a check for the amount of the tax due, $72.22, to the Catholic Worker [which published the letter], to be used either in its own work against the war in Vietnam or for the relief of human suffering, or to be sent by the Catholic Worker to a Catholic relief agency working in Vietnam. (I am a Protestant, but know of no Protestant church body calling for an end to the war.)”

This is the earliest mention of the Vietnam War in particular that I found in discussions of war tax resistance in The Mennonite. Kneen’s action was also mentioned in the edition:

Brewster Kneen, a Christian pacifist, used another means of witness. He refused to pay $72.22 in taxes he owed . Instead he sent a letter to the Director of Internal Revenue in Brooklyn.

“The war in Vietnam,” he wrote, “is a blatant contradiction of the ideals of freedom… our country was founded upon… As a Christian and an American, I must dissociate myself from this criminal behavior… I see no alternative to withholding my tax due as a form of resistance and protest.” He sent his $72.22 to a relief group instead.

The issue included an article by Vincent Harding titled “Vietnam: What Shall We Do?” Harding gave a list of eleven suggestions, one of which concerned taxes:

7. Should we not consider refusing to pay income taxes on the grounds of our Christian convictions concerning war, and our specific concerns about this war? This money could be sent to relief and peace-making organizations also. I think the time has come for serious discussion and action on this.

Michael Smith wrote in to the issue to add his two cents. Excerpt:

Since modern armies require vast funds to operate, nonpayment of income tax is a particularly apt form of peace witness in the present situation. I, for one, would be willing to be imprisoned for nonpayment of taxes (tribute), as were the early Christians. The Friends, in England and in America, about the time of the Revolution, refused to pay war taxes, and that is what the income tax is, in essence, at present. Eighty percent of it goes for war. This we must protest! Let us instead send at least as much as we “owe” the government to be used in the work of peace and reconciliation.

“The peace and social concerns committee in consultation with the executive committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church” prepared a “statement for its congregations” which was presented at the Mennonite World Congress in . It was also “adopted by the Council of Boards”. The statement called for a variety of actions aimed at the Vietnam War in particular, one of which was war tax resistance:

We urge congregations to counsel together about the proposed surcharge of 6 percent on income tax and the already imposed 70 percent of the 10 percent federal excise tax on telephone use. Since these are clearly levied to support the war in Vietnam, should not the Christian object to payment of these taxes on the same grounds as he conscientiously objects to military service?

In view of the gravity of the U.S. actions in Vietnam and the kind of witness called for at this time, we urge congregations and groups within congregations to retest the validity of a law requiring conscientious objectors to pay a war tax. We urge that this form of witness be made to communicate as clearly as possible, and that those refusing to pay a war tax contribute an equivalent amount to peacemaking agencies such as MCC and in this way communicate that they seek no personal gain by their objection.

We also ask congregations to adopt a resolution of willingness to support, emotionally and financially if jobs and funds are threatened, those whose conscience leads them to refuse to pay the tax increases for war purposes because of obedience to Christ.

James Juhnke returned (see for his earlier piece) in the issue to discuss “Our almost unused political power.” He asked why Mennonites had been successful in their political battles to obtain and maintain exemptions or civilian-run alternative service for conscientious objectors in the military draft. He concluded: “the core of Mennonite power… lay in their threat of civil disobedience. The Mennonites promised that ‘thousands of conscientious objectors’ would violate the law and accept imprisonment rather than… induction into the armed services. This threat was credible.… Mennonites in were reaping political rewards from the sacrifices of their fathers and grandfathers in . Because Mennonites in the First World War had been willing to take the awful step of civil disobedience, their descendants during the Vietnam war were spared the necessity of proving all over again to the government their sincerity of conviction.”

Juhnke suggested that Mennonites apply the same sort of pressure to change the government’s war policy in Vietnam. Excerpt:

If the Mennonite witness in Washington regarding the Vietnam war is to achieve the same intensity and urgency as the Mennonite witness regarding the draft, we will need both qualified men and effective instruments of power. A Washington-based staff of politically-experienced Mennonite leaders should be charged specifically with the duty of using Mennonite influence for a decision to deescalate the Vietnam war. And this lobby should be equipped with the kind of political leverage which our threat of civil disobedience gives us on the draft issue.

A parallel act would be the declaration by hundreds of Mennonites that they would refuse to pay the proposed 10 percent surcharge on the income tax, a measure resulting directly from the war. Armed with such a threat, the Mennonite lobbyist would have political power far out of proportion to his small constituency.