Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1983

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of Gospel Herald, journal of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1983

By war tax resistance had become commonplace enough that I frequently saw incidental mention of it in articles about other things. Here, I’ll stick to the mentions with more substance:

The issue included an article on World Peace Tax Fund legislation lobbying efforts. Apparently the Mennonite Central Committee’s U.S. Peace Section and D.C. office were both busy lobbying for the bill, and the “historic peace church taskforce on taxes” had hit on a lobbying method they called dunamis which was described as “approach[ing] Congresspersons in a spirit of compassion rather than confrontation.”

Forgive me; maybe I’ve been Mennonizing myself way too much lately and need to back off for a while, but all this reminded me of William S. Burroughs’s cynical description of weaponized Christian love (“Christ and the Museum of Extinct Species”, Conjunctions ):

Let love squirt out like a fire hose of molasses. Give him the kiss of life. Stick your tongue down his throat and taste what he has been eating and bless his digestion, ooze down into his intestines and help him along with his food. Let him know that you revere his rectum as part of an ineffable whole. Make him know that you stand in naked awe of his genitals as part of the Master Plan, life in all its rich variety.

Do not falter. Let your love enter in unto him and penetrate him with the Divine Lubricant, makes K-Y and lanolin feel like sandpaper. It’s the most mucilaginous, the slimiest, ooziest lubricant ever was or shall be, amen. It’s known as the Greasy Ghost, will love you all over and inside out.

The Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries met in :

James Thomas, Lancaster, Pa.; Brent Eash, Middlebury, Ind.; and Edgar Metzler were appointed as Mennonite Church representatives on the New Call to Peacemaking Task Force on Taxes. The board encouraged Edgar to propose ways to respond to current tax issues in the context of Bethlehem , especially concerns raised at Bowling Green . They also supported Edgar’s suggestions to promote special prayer for peace and ways for congregations to share peace concerns with neighboring churches.

And its board of directors met in , and “endorsed a proposed statement on conscientious objection to military taxes” among other things:

The board endorsed the resolution proposed for consideration by the Bethlehem General Assembly on “Conscientious Objection to Military Taxes.” Edgar Metzler and MBCM executive secretary Gordon Zook drafted the statement in consultation with the members of the Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy and members of the General Board.

Clair Hochstetler wrote about a Good Friday demonstration that included some creative war tax resistance activity, including some picturesque and media-savvy (if somewhat haphazard) redirection:

Money wasted on Good Friday

“We are here as tax day approaches to announce our resistance to taxes which are used for military purposes… We are here on to commemorate the continuing crucifixion of Jesus Christ — he is crucified again whenever individuals or nations inflict violence on each other… We are here on as a reminder of the continuing foolishness of humanity — our leaders offer us the illusion of security if we build yet another weapons system… We are offering an alternative…”

Daryl Yoder-Bontrager, member of Community Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va., read a press statement to a group assembled in front of the Internal Revenue Service building in Staunton, Va. Approximately 30 “Christians for Peace” gathered for an unusual public witness.

A festive atmosphere prevailed as three clowns danced their way among the people and released five symbolic black helium-filled balloons. During the service, they sporadically snipped the ribbons of other balloons tied to the arms of the worshipers — lofting high into the bright sky, over $300 tied to about 75 multicolored balloons.

Each balloon carried a five or ten dollar bill along with a signed and addressed note from a participant who had withheld the money from his or her federal income taxes. Over 15 members of Christians for Peace from the Harrisonburg area contributed the symbolic cash.

The notes, written by Wendell Ressler, also of Community Mennonite Church, read:

“About 60 percent of your income tax money this year will be used to pay for our government’s military program. Because we are Christians who are trying to follow the peaceful way of Jesus, we cannot support this country’s military build-up. Instead we have chosen to waste our money in a more constructive way.

“On we remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ each time one nation or individual inflicts violence on another. On we release our money into the wind — it is not as foolish an act as depending on weapons for our security.

“We are confident that you, the finder, will be able to use this money in a better way than the Pentagon would have. Peace be with you![”] Signature and address followed.

The group had gathered earlier in the day to train for appropriate responses in case of hecklers and to ponder the message of both the foolishness and the seriousness of their public act of resistance.

During the service, Ray Gingerich, professor at Eastern Mennonite College, read from Psalm 85:8–13 (the vision of a world without weapons), Amos 5:4–15 (the plea for building a world without weapons), and Matthew 6:24; 5:43–45; 5:3–9 (strategies for building a world without weapons).

The group, which included several children, carried thought-provoking placards as they sang for peace. Statements included, “If you work for peace, why pay for war?” The clowns passed out jelly beans as the balloons rose.

Barry Hart, member of Broad Street Mennonite Church, delivered a spirited oration to the onlookers which included personnel from over a dozen TV and radio stations. Hart reiterated the protest against militarism while emphasizing the spirit of hope and the sanctity of life.

“We are concerned not only for our personal survival, but for the survival of our sisters and brothers everywhere,” he said. “We have so long been caught up in the systematic plotting to destroy other systems that we have missed what Christ has called us to — serving each other.”

Reporters and group members intermingled for over a half hour after the service. Local IRS officials were not available for comment. Several policemen were on hand, however, to ensure the peace and to protect the building. A group of young hecklers had left earlier when the service began.

The idea for the witness was spawned from two Christians for Peace workshops on war tax resistance by Yoder-Bontrager and Ressler . Nathan and Elaine Zook Barge contributed ideas from an earlier experience with a balloon event in Colorado.

A secular war tax resistance organization, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, formed in . The Center on Law and Pacifism was an important source of information for war tax resisters around that time. From the issue:

War resistance pair says new law increases risk to tax withholder

New U.S. tax legislation is making it increasingly risky for people to express their opposition to war by refusing to pay their taxes, but more people are doing so anyway, according to two Colorado “tax resistance” leaders.

William and Eugenia Durland, who run the Center on Law and Pacifism in Colorado Springs, said that they have been “in touch” with some 10,000 “war tax resisters” either through their own newsletter or through direct counseling. The couple said there are at least twice that many who are refusing to pay their taxes nationwide.

One indication that the figure is growing, they suggested, is the Internal Revenue Service’s decision about a year ago to create a task force to combat tax resisters. Added to that, they said, are new laws aimed specifically at people who refuse to pay their taxes out of conscience.

The issue brought this news of congregational resistance from the United Methodist Church:

Congregation refuses to give tax resister’s salary to IRS

A United Methodist congregation in New Haven, Conn., backing their pastor’s right to refuse paying federal taxes for military use, has declined to turn over his salary to the Internal Revenue Service. Carl Lundborg, pastor of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, has withheld federal income taxes in , telling the IRS his “obligations as a Christian and as a citizen are no longer reconcilable. The 50 percent of my taxes that support the military I cannot pay.”

After Mr. Lundborg refused to pay IRS the $1,200 said to be owed for , the IRS served a levy on the Methodist congregations as his employer. IRS ordered the church to withhold the pastor’s salary until the amount was paid. But church members voted on to reject IRS’s demand in support of their pastor.

The General Conference Mennonite Church was still struggling to define its corporate response to legal demands on one side and employees’ conscientious objection to military taxation on the other. The Mennonite Church, and its organ, Gospel Herald, had the luxury of being spectators to the struggle, though they would have to deal with the same issue soon enough.

The issue brought a preview of the upcoming Bethlehem triennial:

Of more concern as issues are the less routine and less understandable subjects… ¶ Among these one of the more troubling is the payment of taxes for military purposes. Both the Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy and the Board of Congregational Ministries have given attention to this issue and the chairman of the council has acknowledged that “the Council itself reflected the different viewpoints and could not recommend a single specific direction for the church’s response.”

A follow-up in the issue went into more detail:

GC delegates to Bethlehem will consider tax resolution

Among the resolutions for consideration by delegates at the General Conference Mennonite Church Triennial Sessions, to be held in Bethlehem, Pa., is a formal action authorizing conference officers to stop withholding taxes from the salaries of its employees as required by U.S. law. It also encourages Canadian Mennonites to obtain relief from the same requirement by Revenue Canada.

The resolution is the product of more than four years of discussion about the faithfulness and constitutionality of the church’s collecting taxes for the state, especially in light of the use of a large portion of that money by the state for armaments.

In at a special midtriennium conference in Minneapolis, General Conference delegates voted in favor of urging their General Board to “use all legal, legislative, and administrative avenues for achieving a conscientious objector exemption from the legal requirement that the conference withhold income taxes from the wages of its employees.” At Estes Park, Colo., in , a judicial test case on the issue was okayed by a vote of 1,156 to 353.

, however, all three “avenues” appear to have closed. A meeting with IRS officials in Washington in  — the administrative avenue — failed to produce any results. The World Peace Tax Fund legislation pending in Congress — the legislative avenue — seems stalled a long way from gaining enough support to get serious attention. The preparation of a legal suit against the IRS, to be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, was put on hold when it appeared, judging from other high court rulings, that the action would almost surely fail.

The conference’s General Board, therefore, will bring the “Resolution on Faithful Action Toward Tax Withholding” to Bethlehem delegates as their recommendation for resolving the moral dilemma which church officials feel they are facing. If approved, the resolution would take the conference one small but significant step into the sphere of divine obedience/civil disobedience.

The Mennonite Church had its own conference, and its own war tax resistance agenda item to deal with:

On war taxes, Central America, and the tricentennial

More unanimity and like-mindedness prevailed in consideration of three resolutions before the MC General Assembly. In discussing them, reference was repeatedly made once again to “what the other group is doing.”

This was particularly true in working through a resolution on “Conscientious Objection to Military Taxes.” By the time the MC delegates considered the proposal, they were already aware that the General Conference had passed by a 2-1 margin a much more radical statement authorizing conference officers to refuse to serve as tax collectors for the U.S. government in cases where individual employees ask that their federal income taxes not be withheld from their wages. This move caught the attention of the national media and was being covered by newspapers and television by the time MC delegates considered their resolution.

It calls for continued study and discernment of the issue of war taxes, pledging prayer, study, and caution in relating to the government and its demands. The resolution asks governments to recognize peace tax funds as alternates for conscientious objectors and affirms those “who conscientiously withhold a portion of taxes destined for military use as one way to witness against militarism.” Delegates passed the resolution after sending it back to committee once for reworking.

Discussion of these resolutions was mostly affirmation, with little of the controversy surrounding resolutions to the state characterizing some previous General Assembly sessions. Not all were comfortable, however, with the approach. James Hess, Lancaster, Pa., noted these resolutions had better be done as individuals rather than as a group since for him this action violated the principle of the separation of church and state.

An observer from the General Conference Mennonite Church (Bernie Wiebe) commented on what he saw of the Mennonite Church gathering:

Even though we GCs often speak of “Old” Mennonites, I have tended to view MCs ahead of us in creative theologians and theological discussion/writing; in preaching evangelists; in putting the church’s evangelism statements to work; and in comprehensive programs for total Christian life…

Imagine my surprise when I sensed the caution among MCs about the church giving up its role as a tax collector for the government.

This time we GCs passed good statements on tax withholding and justice. I pray we will implement them among us.

And a Mennonite Church observer (Daniel Hertzler) returned the complement by giving his impressions about how the General Conference did its business:

The most intensive early discussion in these business sessions came with the presentation of an issue which had been on the General Conference burner for several triennials. The problem was precipitated by paid employees of the General Conference in the U.S. who asked that their federal income taxes not be deducted by the conference to allow them to deal directly with the government on taxes for war.

The discussion I heard came at the end of a long process and so I suppose it was less impassioned than earlier in the study. The reason for the delay, I learned, was to provide an opportunity to pursue all possible administrative and legal avenues as solution to the problem. This had now been done with no success and so the general board brought a resolution calling for “the conference officers to test the constitutionality of the withholding requirements in the United States and to assert the higher claim of Christ’s law of love, by refusing to serve as tax collectors in cases where individual employees have asked that their federal income taxes not be withheld from their wages, in order that they may conscientiously refuse to pay for war preparations.”

Duane Heffelbower, a Mennonite attorney from California, commented on the proposal: “We could scarcely devise a softer ‘velvet glove’ to cast at the feet of the IRS. But it shows in a powerful way our corporate willingness to stand with our people. What might the government do? We don’t know.” But he observed the responses could vary from a simple levy of the bank accounts to putting conference officers in jail.

The resolution was discussed in a vigorous and orderly fashion. The arguments for and against were scarcely new ones. In opposing the resolution John Voth of Oklahoma noted that Jesus called upon us to love our enemy. Today the government has become the enemy. Jesus, he observed, called for going the second mile with a soldier. In support for the resolution, Lois Barrett of Kansas asserted that in the U.S. disobeying the law is a time-honored way of changing the law.

After an hour’s debate, the resolution was brought to a ballot vote and passed by approximately a 70 percent majority.

In the aftermath of the triennial, the General Conference began implementing its war tax resistance resolution. On the General Conference stopped withholding taxes from the paychecks of some resisting employees:

Non-withholding tax action begins by GCs

Acting on the basis of a resolution adopted by General Conference delegates at Bethlehem , GC treasurer Ted W. Stuckey on issued the first paychecks on which federal income taxes were not withheld.

Seven employees of the denomination’s central offices made the request that the taxes not be withheld, so that they can remit to the IRS personally the amount of federal taxes their consciences will allow. Several others have indicated that they may be willing to take part in the action at a later date.

Stuckey said that, beginning with the paychecks, the seven will have state and social security taxes deducted but be treated like self-employed persons as far as federal income taxes are concerned. Under such a classification, they would be required to submit quarterly estimated tax payments to the IRS.

The seven plan to make a portion of those quarterly payments but put the balance — the amount they feel they cannot voluntarily pay because of high U.S. military spending — into a special account at General Conference central offices.

Stuckey and general secretary Vern Preheim informed Commissioner Roscoe L. Egger, Jr., at IRS headquarters in Washington by letter of the conference’s action. “We’re trying to be completely open and above board with them about this matter,” Stuckey said.

The pay period is the first opportunity for the conference to implement the “Resolution on Faithful Action Toward Tax Withholding” adopted by delegates to a churchwide convention in Bethlehem, Pa., on . There, conferees voted 1,128 to 457 to “authorize the conference officers to test the constitutionality of the withholding requirements in the United States and to assert the higher claim of Christ’s law of love, by refusing to serve as tax collectors in cases where individual employees have asked that their federal income taxes not be withheld from their wages, in order that they may conscientiously refuse to pay for war preparations.”

The statement concluded with a commitment to “surround with our prayers the General Conference staff and government officials who will be involved in this action and all those individuals who refuse in conscience to pay taxes for war preparations, however costly their witness may be.”

The Bethlehem resolution is the result of nearly eight years of work on the tax issue, and was passed only after all legal attempts to solve the problem had been exhausted, including seeking a simple administrative solution from the IRS.

The Mennonite Church’s own resolutions were more vague, but they began also to be implemented ():

The Mennonite Church General Assembly resolution on Conscientious Objection to Military Taxes includes six “statements of intention” including praying, rendering to Caesar and to God, obeying God rather than the state where claims conflict, appealing for legal recognition of conscientious objection to paying taxes for the military, affirming both conscientious payment and conscientious nonpayment of taxes for military use, and pleading for constructive use of resources entrusted by God. Copies are available from the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries…

The edition brought the news of a war tax resister fighting back against the IRS’s new “frivolous filing” penalties:

Pacifist sues revenue service, which fined her for “frivolity”

A Roman Catholic pacifist has brought suit against a law under which the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has fined her $500 for what is considered a “frivolous” request. Alice Drefchinski, 53, a registered nurse, filed an income tax return for under which she was to receive a $720 refund. With her return, she enclosed a letter requesting the IRS to deduct $1,000 from her taxes — roughly the amount that would go for defense purposes — and give that money to humanitarian or peace groups.

Although Ms. Drefchinski did not withhold that amount from her taxes, or ask that the money be refunded to her, the IRS has fined her $500 for what is considered to be a “frivolous” request.

While she would not have to pay the money, it would reduce the total of her refund to $220. The Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit on Ms. Drefchinski’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Lafayette, asking the court to strike down the law under which the penalty is being levied. Martha Kregel, executive director of the organization, said the suit asks for a finding that the law is unconstitutional because it violates due process and does not contain a definition of “frivolous.”

In other cases, the IRS has refunded money directly to taxpayers who made similar requests, and later assessed them a $500 penalty for making “frivolous” requests.

This description of Drefchinski’s action seems misleading. She took a war tax deduction on her tax return which reduced the amount she owed; she didn’t merely append a letter to her return asking the IRS to donate some portion of her taxes to charity. In Drefchinski v. Regan (1984) the court slapped down multiple arguments made by her attorneys against the frivolous filing penalty, but concluded:

Many respected Americans have engaged in civil disobedience as a form of protest against taxation for military spending. Henry David Thoreau, for example, refused to pay taxes that would contribute to the funding of the Mexican-American War. See H. Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849). Yet this mode of protest is not without its costs. Thoreau spent a night in the Concord jail. Alice Drefchinski must pay a $500 civil penalty. Perhaps she can find solace in the words written by Thoreau after his confinement: “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.”

Finally, this note suggests that tax resistance was catching on as an idea in Christian circles as a possible tactic that went beyond war tax resistance:

Evangelicals warn Congress on Social Security reforms

Evangelical Christian leaders have warned of mass tax-resistance by their churches unless Congress amends the new Social Security law which requires religious organizations to pay into the system. The church groups issued the warnings at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, called in response to a storm of protest over the provision in the new Social Security rescue package, which goes into effect . The revised law repeals the exemption on nonprofit groups, including churches, from withholding Social Security taxes for their employees.

Forest D. Montgomery, legal counsel to the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 38,000 churches, called on Congress “to act to forestall an inevitable confrontation between church and state.” He added that many churches will simply “refuse to pay (the tax) on the basis of religious conviction.”