American Brethren and War Taxes in 1985

One of the best debates I have seen about the biblical basis for tax obedience or tax resistance was found in the Messenger in .

Messenger: Church of the Brethren

In the issue, the Messenger hosted a debate between Vernard Eller and Dale Aukerman on the biblical basis for war tax resistance or obedient tax payment:

Rendering to Caesar [pro]

by Vernard Eller

The report to Annual Conference of the Committee on Taxation for War shows a great diversity of opinion within the committee itself. Accordingly, there is at present no inclination to try for any change of policy. Rather, the recommendation is for a churchwide study of the Conference statements already on the books. And because I find myself highly in favor of this proposal, I offer this article as a contribution to the study for which the reports calls.

I address myself solely to the matter of scriptural evidence and interpretation.

Accidentally, as it were, I have been doing major research on the subject — for a book even now in press. I had no intention of studying tax resistance per se, but was addressing the much broader question of how a Christian should relate to the host of regimes, parties, and ideologies competing with each other in the effort to direct and control society.

My mentors in the matter make up a 150-year-long string of biblically oriented thinkers who constitute the modern theological tradition I feel comes closest to Brethrenism. These people are Soren Kierkegaard, J.C. and Christoph Blumhardt, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jacques Ellul. And as I chased them down on my particular topic, I found them regularly going to the New Testament tax passages. It became apparent that this was not so much their doing as that of the Bible itself.

The logic of the move is this: The all-dominating political reality of Palestine during the New Testament period was that of a most evil and vicious Roman regime occupying, oppressing, and eventually destroying the homeland of the Jewish people (and earliest Christians). Over against this power was pitted that of the Jewish liberationists and freedom fighters commonly known as the Zealots.

Thus, the pattern of political decision forming the context not only of our tax passages but of all New Testament political counsel is one that applies as well to almost any issue, ancient or modern: One can either (1) legitimize the presently established regime as representing God’s will for the nation, or (2) follow God’s will in supporting the efforts of the revolution against that regime. “Revolution” here does not necessarily imply terrorism, guerrilla warfare, or other forms of physical brutality, but identifies any bringing to bear of political power in the effort to overthrow an evil regime or to pressure it into becoming good.

By its very nature, of course, the gospel would have as much as prohibited Christians from any desire to legitimize a cruel and pagan Roman Empire. Yet, also, by its very nature, the gospel would make it very tempting for Christians to align themselves with liberation movements and efforts at just revolution. Accordingly, on the one hand the New Testament consistently refuses to encourage any legitimizing tendencies — while on the other hand it actively discourages the greater temptation of revolution. And “tax revolt” — i.e., withholding taxes as a power-play against government evil — becomes the New Testament’s regular signal and symbol of Zealot liberationism in particular and, in general, all forms of revolution. (It is significant that this symbol has Christianity opposed to revolutionism quite prior to and apart from its physical violence.)

Regarding particularly the exegesis of Mark 12, in addition to the five thinkers named above I consulted four contemporary New Testament specialists: Martin Hengel, Gunther Bomkamm, Leander Keck, and Howard Clark Kee. All nine scholars are in total agreement, each reading the tax passages in the context of the historical situation described above.

In the process, the scriptures come clear, manifesting their theological consistency as warnings against Christian involvement in political revolutionism. My researchers are not exhaustive; but I failed to come across even one reputable scholar doing serious biblical exposition who concludes that these passages actually imply a support for (or even a leaving room for) Christian tax resistance.

The crucial New Testament passages are three: Mark 12 — which is actually Mark 12:13–17 (the fact that both Matthew and Luke later pick up the incident for their own Gospels adds no new meaning but does corroborate the significance it held in the eyes of the early church); Romans 13 — which is actually Romans 12:14–13:10; and Matthew 17 — which is actually Matthew 17:24–27.

All of my nine, except the Blumhardts, address the Mark 12 passage — and all agree as to its reading. The earliest writer, Kierkegaard, says it best. (Consider that, in the historical context, to make Jesus “king” or to call him “Messiah” politically could mean nothing other than “revolutionary leader against Rome.”)

The small nation to which Jesus belonged was under foreign domination, and naturally all were intent upon the thought of shaking off the foreign yoke. Hence they would acclaim him king. But, lo, when they show him a coin and would constrain him against his will to take sides with one party or the other — what then? Oh, worldly passion of partisanship, even when thou callest thyself holy and patriotic — nay, so far thou canst not stretch as to break through his indifference… No, he posits the infinite yawning difference between God and the Emperor: “Give unto God what is God’s!” For they with worldly wisdom would make it a question of religion, of duty to God, whether or not it was lawful to pay tribute to the Emperor. Worldliness is so eager to embellish itself as godliness, and in this case God and the Emperor are blended together in the question,… that is to say, the question takes God in vain and secularizes him [by implying that whether the Emperor does or does not get his tax coin is an issue somehow related to or comparable with whether God does or does not get what belongs to him]. But Christ draws the distinction, the infinite distinction, and he does this by treating the question about paying tribute to the Emperor as the most indifferent thing in the world, regarding it as something which one should do without wasting a word or an instant in talking about it — so as to get more time for giving God what belongs to God.

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Ellul speak a single mind on the Romans 13 passage. Each finds it to be in complete agreement with Mark 12; Ellul thinks that Romans 13 even shows that Paul was familiar with the Mark 12 incident. Yet Barths’s exposition is easily the most extended and insightful of the three:

The revolutionary seeks to be rid of the evil by bestirring himself to battle with it and to overthrow it. He determines to remove the existing ordinances, in order that he may erect in their place the new right… The revolutionary must, however, own that, in adopting his plan, he allows himself to be overcome of evil (Rom. 12:21)… What man has the right to propound and represent the “New,” whether it be a new age, or a new world, or a new spirit?… Overcome evil with good. What can this mean but the end of the triumph of men, whether this triumph is celebrated in the existing order or by revolution?… There is here no word of approval of the existing order; but there is endless disapproval of every enemy of it. It is God who wishes to be recognized as He that overcometh the unrighteousness of the existing order… Even the most radical revolution — and this is so even when it is called a “spiritual” or “peaceful” revolution — can be no more than a revolt; and that is to say, it is in itself simply a justification and confirmation [not of God’s “new” but] of what already exists [namely, one human ideology or another]… For this cause ye pay tribute also (Rom. 13:6). Ye are paying taxes to the State. It is important, however, for you to know what ye are doing.

If I might interpret: If you are paying those taxes as a positive legitimization of the state and its evil activity, you are wrong. If, on the contrary, you are withholding those taxes as an act of protest and defiance against the evil of the state, you are wrong again. “But what other option is there?”

Well, if Jesus is correct that Caesar’s image on the coin is proof enough that it belongs to him, then, rather than saying that we do pay him taxes, would it not be more correct to say that we do not try to stop him from taking what is his, do not revolt, do not return evil for evil? As Barth puts it, “It is important for you to know what you are doing.”

The Matthew 17 incident is not as crucial as the first two; only a couple of our scholars mention it — and that merely in passing. However, the words Jesus speaks on this occasion are as significant as anything we find on the subject.

In the process of explaining why he pays the tax, Jesus forestalls any idea that a Christian’s payment of taxes is to depend upon the relative righteousness or unrighteousness of the collecting regime. He says, in effect, that no human regime is righteous enough for the Christian ever to owe it anything. No, there is only one Father and King of whom Jesus knows himself and his followers to be “sons.” No one except that “father” can claim anything from these “children.” So the kings of the earth will have to do their collecting from “others,” not from Jesus and the children of God.

Thus, when Jesus goes on to say that he chooses to pay the tax even though he doesn’t owe it, he is saying that Christian payment never is made as recognition of either the rights or the righteousness of the State. No, it is made to regimes good, bad, and indifferent — and that sheerly out of obedience to God’s command to love, not revolt, and not cause offense.

It strikes me that the word of God speaks quite clearly on the matter of tax resistance — and that that word is hardly in support of the practice. I do fully honor the conscientious integrity of those who feel led to withhold some of their taxes; but I cannot confirm that leading as being biblical.

Rendering to Caesar [con]

by Dale Aukerman

If the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb is thought of as the width of a lead pencil, the destructive potential of the current nuclear arsenals is the height of Mount Everest. If the United States were to explode a bomb each day to destroy a city, the present stockpile would last more than one hundred years. The Reagan administration plans to build 1,700 additional nuclear bombs a year and press ahead in an arms buildup that is taking us into the war that can destroy God’s earthly creation.

Or to give just one example of the increasing ghastliness of conventional weapons, white phosphorus bombs have a sticky jelly, which adheres to the human body, burns at a temperature of more than 3000° Centigrade for at least 24 hours, and turns victims into agonized human torches. The United States has been supplying these bombs to a number of countries, including El Salvador and Israel, which used them against civilians in its invasion of Lebanon.

As for the huge sums in federal tax dollars needed to purchase all these weapons and much more. Brother Vernard Eller seems to say: No problem; we have the clear command of Jesus to pay up.

After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in , they changed the Temple tax mentioned in the Matthew 17:24–27 story into a tax for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. Some governments have levied taxes so exorbitant as to leave children and others starving. Certain taxes have been imposed specifically for financing a war. A government could use half its budget to keep masses of people in concentration camps or to run a network of brothels for the diversion of the male population.

Vernard evidently says: No problem basically; Christians go by the command of Jesus.

According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, $350 billion or 55 percent of the 1984 federal budget went to military spending and the cost of past wars. Figured on a per-capita basis, the fraction of that for the Church of the Brethren membership was $255 million. All Brethren church-related giving for the year was somewhat over $55 million.

As Vernard sees it, we need not to be troubled that hundreds of millions of Brethren dollars go to finance the arms buildup; paying is “the most indifferent thing in the world.”

Vernard’s greatest service to us Brethren has come through his insistence that, if we claim to be a New Testament church, we must strive to live by the New Testament. I stand with him in that insistence. If Jesus in Mark 12:17 was saying that disciples of his should pay without question every tax levied by whatever government they are under, that, for us, should settle it. But did Jesus say that?

Vernard failed to find “even one reputable scholar” whose treatment of the passage would leave open the option of Christian tax resistance. I would call his attention to some.

A.M. Hunter writes: “This was an ad hoc answer, not a fixed and permanent rule for every situation.”

Jean Lasserre gives this interpretation: “Jesus is not passing any judgment on the lawfulness of the Roman tribute; He is speaking only of this particular coin. It represents the things that are Caesar’s, not a foreign tyrant’s right to exact a tribute. In other words, Jesus recognizes Caesar as having the right to the coin but not to the tribute. This is what disconcerts His questioners and breaks their trap.”

Francis Wright Beare comments, “The famous saying leaves untouched the fundamental problem: how are we to draw the line between the legitimate requirements of the society to which we owe allegiance, and the demands of loyalty to God?”

The insight of Paul S. Minear is most helpful: “By his reply Jesus forced them, as students of the law, to decide for themselves where to draw the line between God’s jurisdiction and Caesar’s… The riddle remains that each must solve for himself or herself. Keep in mind that the first audience for this riddle was neither the crowd nor the disciples, but only their adversaries.”

Jacques Ellul, whom Vernard points to as one of the six thinkers decisively supporting the pay-without-question interpretation, states in The Ethics of Freedom that Jesus “refuses to answer the question whether he is for or against Caesar or whether taxes should be paid or not.” In any case, appealing to the authority of European theologians within other church traditions has not for Brethren been a main way of discovering what faithful discipleship to Christ is.

Those enemies of Jesus thought they had the perfect trap. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay the tax,” they would denounce him to the Roman authorities. If he said, “Pay the tax,” they would trumpet that to the common people, who hated the tax as symbolizing Rome’s repressive occupation of their country. His enemies could spread the word: “The Messiah is to liberate us from Roman rule, but this fellow supinely tells us to pay the tax.”

The reply, “Don’t pay the tax,” would have pleased Jesus’ adversaries the most, and that they did not get. According to the interpretation Vernard advocates, they did receive the other answer, “Pay the tax,” and could proceed with their strategy contingent on that reply. That is, their trap did catch Jesus. But the close of the story in each Gospel brings out that the trap did not succeed. “And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him by what he said; but marveling at his answer they were silent” (Luke 20:26). Jesus had not said, “Pay the tax.” Jesus’ enemies were intent on exposing him as a collaborator, if not a Zealot revolutionary. When they produced the detested Roman coin, they — not Jesus — were exposed as the collaborators.

When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, they accused him of “forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar” (Luke 23:2). They would hardly have used that accusation if Jesus a short time before, in a public context charged with excitement about him, had counseled payment of the tribute.

Usually people quote, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and omit the rest. This pernicious misuse of the saying has had immense significance in the history of the West. Vernard emphasizes that the second part of Jesus’ reply is vastly more important than the first, but he remains within the traditional interpretation by holding that on the matter of taxes we can take the first part and know its meaning for us without the second part.

Brethren historically have held that young men should not simply comply with whatever notice comes from a draft board and that what can rightly be given to the government has to be discerned in relation to giving ourselves totally to God. Brethren who are deeply concerned about paying money into a monstrously expanding military buildup are not advocating refusal of all taxes, complete noncooperation with government, or trying to overthrow it. But we believe that we can come to a Christian understanding of taxes that should be handed over to the government only in the light of Jesus’ supremely central command that we give ourselves fully to God. The crucial issue is whether the first part of Jesus’ reply is taken by itself as a clear, sweeping command or whether it is seen as a riddle calling for the discernment that can come within our striving to love God and follow Jesus.

Jesus, as a Jewish male between the ages of 14 and 65, was subject to the Roman poll tax of one denarius a year. We have no record that he paid it (his adversaries could have cornered him on that point) — or that he did not pay it. But in Matthew 17:24–27, the tax in question was for the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus told Peter that children of the heavenly King are free from any obligation to pay taxes, but “not to give offense… give the shekel to them for me and for yourself.”

Here too Jesus did not command that all taxes are to be paid regardless. (Much of what Vernard finds in the passage is not there at all.) The key consideration is that one not give offense, cause others to fall away from faith. Had Jesus refused to pay the Temple tax, he would have appeared to reject the Mosaic law (Exodus 30:11–16) and the Temple itself.

But in some circumstances paying a tax can constitute giving offense, impelling others away from God. When national leaders are stumbling blindly toward slaughtering unimaginable multitudes of those for whom Christ died, casual payment of all the money asked for toward their mad projects amounts to abetting them in their fateful falling away from God. To resist paying such taxes can provide opportunities for pointing agents of government to Jesus as Lord.

On the Romans 13 passage John Howard Yoder writes: “Verse 7 says ‘render to each his due’; verse 8 says ‘nothing is due to anyone except love.’ Thus the claims of Caesar are to be measured by whether what he claims is due to him is part of the obligation of love. Love in turn is defined (verse 10) by the fact that it does no harm.” Paul was probably restating the teaching of Jesus found in Mark 12:17 and his Master’s call to the most careful discrimination between what under God can be rightly rendered to the ruling authority and what cannot. Thus we have cogent reasons for concluding that Vernard’s article, the Brethren tradition of paying all taxes without question, and the Annual Conference Statement on Taxation for War (of which Vernard was a principal writer) depend on a mistaken understanding of the words of Jesus. There is no easy answer— certainly not in four Greek words in Mark 12:17 taken by themselves. In this issue we need together to seek a fresh discernment of what from us belongs to God.

Bob Gross wrote a letter-to-the-editor in response, in which he made this point (source):

Eller may not realize that for many Brethren who feel led to refuse to pay taxes for war, the primary reason is not the one his article cautions against. Rather than “an act of protest and defiance against the evil of the state,” our non-payment is a simple, humble attempt to refrain from contributing to that evil.

This is not done in a quest for purity or out of guilt. It comes from a desire to be more conformed to the will of God and to witness to God’s kingdom.

John Stoner from the Mennonite Central Committee also wrote in to reiterate that “When Jesus was asked, by people wishing entrap him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ his answer was not ‘Yes.’ ” (source)

Barry Shutt, on the other hand, took the point of view that war tax resistance was not an effective response, and should be discouraged for that reason (source). Excerpts:

[A] legitimate concern for any witness is the question of effectiveness. One could seriously question if violating the law is very effective in a society where most people believe it is best to work within the system to initiate change. And if tax resistance only leads to the tax resister paying more money to the government in fines and penalties, the question of effectiveness becomes an even greater concern.

The point to be made, of course, is, “How do we work effectively to bring about change?” When the system provides adequate means by which one can voice concerns and attempt to change priorities, tax resistance as a means to bring about change becomes even more questionable. If tax resisters would argue that effectiveness is not the primary concern or objective but simply the witness alone is the objective, then one should ask if simply writing letters of protest to our elected officials is any less of a witness? If God hears prayers made from the privacy of the prayer closet, God surely takes note of witnesses made through the less conspicuous channels available for us to voice our concerns. Being fined or arrested may not be necessary, and I would suggest neither is tax resistance.

A further letter in support of resistance, by Dale Hess, did not add much new to the argument, but, in implicit contradiction to Shutt, said of war tax resistance: “The importance of this type of peace witness is hard to overestimate” (source).

The Annual Conference had assembled yet another committee to issue yet another report about war tax resistance, and that committee reported on its work in . The messenger reported on their recommendations (source):

The assignment from last year’s Annual Conference was two-fold. In response to a request that the committee study and recommend how Brethren should respond to the dilemma of paying taxes for war, the committee chose not to write a new position paper. Instead it recommends that Brethren undertake an extensive study of earlier position papers and then determine more specifically what, in addition to the previous papers, is called for in the query.

The committee was also asked to make a recommendation about General Board payment of the federal telephone excise tax. The committee recommends that the decision be made by the board itself, because of the liability of individual officers.

And here’s how that worked out (source):

In action for war growing out of a General Board query of , delegates approved a study committee’s recommendation that the church undertake its own study of previous position papers before deciding whether a new paper on taxation for war is desired. The General Board is to prepare a study packet and to compile responses from across the denomination. In an unusual move, the delegates extended the life of the study committee, directing it to recommend to the Cincinnati Conference a process to complete the study. The same committee, assigned to respond to a Michigan District query about telephone tax redirection, recommended (and Conference approved) that any decision about whether the General Board should withhold the federal telephone excise tax should be made by the Board, since its staff could be held liable.

five people sit in a circle looking at each other, one holding a book, with folding chairs in the background

“A gratified war tax study committee regrouped after finding it had two more years of life. Clockwise from left: Chuck Boyer, Gary Flory, Phil Rieman, Dick Buckwalter, Vi Cox.”

A letter in the issue dissented from the war tax resistance craze on the grounds that “many non-Christian people who deeply resent having to support welfare programs” would use the same logic to avoid their taxes (source).

This news came from the issue:

Seminary group tries to pay taxes with food

, a group of Brethren showed up at the Lombard, Ill., Internal Revenue Service office and tried to pay part of their taxes with bags of groceries. The group from Bethany Theological Seminary included about 33 students and faculty member Dale Brown, and they wanted to let the IRS know that they objected to paying taxes for war. “I believe in paying taxes, but not for defense,” said Brown. The group took about $160 worth of food to the IRS and contributed about the same amount to peace organizations. IRS officials refused the groceries, which were then given to local food pantries and soup kitchens.