Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1971

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we hit 1971.

The Mennonite

A dam seems to have burst in , and any reluctance The Mennonite had about covering war tax resistance washed away. In the concern was front and center, and readers could not help but be confronted by a variety of opinions on the subject.

A letter from John S. Swarr insisted that Jesus “commands us, as His followers, to bring peace and reconciliation in a world of strife and violence by committing our lives to unconditional love for our fellowmen. Such a discipleship manifests itself in a radically different life style than that of the rest of the world.” He asked, in this regard, “Can we, as Christians, responsible for all our neighbors, continue to pay taxes for the means of destruction which are used against our distant (only in physical distance) brothers? This responsibility is our own, not Caesar’s.”

Max Ediger, in the edition, seconded the motion:

Christian love shown to a brother will not manifest itself in bombs and napalm, paid for with our money and silently allowed to be used. It will, rather, manifest itself in actions of love, help, and concern. It may result in our refusal to pay war taxes or cooperate with the draft, but at any rate it will mean avoiding nationalism for “No man can serve two masters.”

(That edition also announced the resignation of the editor. The announcement was carefully vague, but subsequent letters to the editor hinted that there was something of a rebellion afoot against the “anti-American propaganda… all politics and sociology” that had replaced anodyne bible studies in the magazine’s pages. The resignation takes effect in . We’ll see if it makes a difference in the coverage of war tax resistance.)

A hundred people met to discuss war tax resistance at Bethel College Mennonite Church in at a meeting sponsored by the Western District Conference (which had recently passed a resolution in support of war tax resistance) and the Commission on Home Ministries of the General Conference Mennonite Church. Don Kaufman gave some thoughts about Christian obedience to state authority, and Bob Calvert from the secular “War Tax Resistance” group spoke about the upcoming “spring offensive” anti-war actions. Here are some excerpts about other parts of the conference from the report on the workshop in The Mennonite:

A Quaker physician from Denver, Arthur Evans, spoke of his experiences with the Internal Revenue Service spanning more than twenty-five years. During World War Ⅱ, Evans’ conscience stirred him to withhold part of his taxes. He said, “The trouble we’re now at is because we as a nation tried to overcome evil with the same methods that we decried of Hitler. The thought occurred to me was that if I were a Jew in Germany, would I have paid taxes to Hitler to pay for my own crematorium? Am I not a Jew in the United States perhaps paying taxes to create my own crematorium right now? This is the burning question in my mind.”

Evans was sent to jail for not turning over to IRS some records which pertained to his income taxes. He felt that doing so “would have been the first step in a crime against humanity.” He acted partly upon the principle established in the Nuremberg war crimes trials that individuals have to decide what laws of their nation are just and what laws are unjust.

“I maintain that as I tried to follow my conscience this was the only way I could grow and this is the only way human beings can grow — as they are willing to follow conscience. You deny conscience here, you deny conscience there, you won’t grow in what it means to be a human being.”

While spending ninety days in jail for contempt, he received letters from over a hundred and fifty individuals whom he did not know who supported his actions. “None of us knows how we strengthen the community by following our own conscience. I felt a power from the prayers and the loving concern of people who saw me suffering in jail,” he said.

The group discussed methods of withholding or reducing their taxes, but wanted to go beyond simply voicing their beliefs about war. Participants felt a need to establish a simpler life-style that was a fuller response to the causes of violence. Discussion centered around setting up voluntary service-type group arrangements and channeling earnings through the church’s voluntary service program.

To strengthen their own witness, participants in the workshop drew up a statement which they all signed.

That statement read:

We the undersigned have agreed together to find ways to end our financial support of America’s military efforts.

We have come from various denominations, occupations, age groups, and parts of the country. As seekers, we have participated in a Workshop on War Taxes, held at the Bethel College Mennonite Chuch, , sponsored by committees for the Western District and the General Conference Mennonite Church.

Together, our consciences were prodded. We have heard Christ call us to be peacemakers. We have examined together the biblical teachings on the matter of paying taxes for war. We have looked at the historical witness and examples of Anabaptist founders, and men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. We have tried to take seriously Christ’s call to love our enemies as He loves all men.

We have seen our guilt in our past payment of blood-money and are now looking for ways to end this involvement. More vitally, we are seeking ways to make our money serve real human needs.

We realize this may lead to many types of action. We approve and support all open, conscientious efforts to end war through Christian stewardship.

Specific actions could include any or all of the following: refusal of federal income tax payment, refusal to pay that part which goes for military purposes, refusal of the telephone excise tax, written protest accompanying income-tax returns, witnessing to the consciences of officials and employers who collect and enforce the tax laws, and increasing charitable giving.

We encourage the creation of voluntary-service-style communities which practice a lower level of consumption and present a Christian alternative to the present materialistic and militaristic character of American life.

We plead with the congregations and conferences of which we are members to follow Christ, their consciences, and the needs of their brothers in responding to our concern.

On David H. Janzen wrote to the telephone company about not paying his telephone tax:

As a witness to our deranged national priorities and how they might be straightened out, I and others will make a public donation during of the money we have withheld from war, and will give it to a local group working for real human needs. I hope you can see your way to join us.

David Janzen, a pastor and a philosophy instructor at Eastern Mennonite College, wrote an article on the Vietnam War that he’d originally hoped to place in the New York Times. Instead, The Mennonite picked it up for its edition. Excerpt:

Our consciences are sorely troubled concerning our tax money, which continues to make this unjust war possible. The time is ripe for action. Enough is enough.

Let us not commit violence. No destruction of property. No aggression against human beings. We want to honor our nation. We can only do so by correcting our mistakes. The vital point is tax money. Let us invite a million sensitive Americans to take a stand for conscience’ sake. Let us tell the government, that unless it starts serious negotiations that lead to peace by , we will withhold our income tax and pay it into a Tax Conscience Fund.

We must organize people with conscience scruples. I would suggest that concerned groups in universities, churches, and other organizations start registering people for united action. A federal organization could coordinate the program. Conscientious individuals would commit themselves to pay their total income tax, or the approximately 80 percent of it that is spent for war, into a tax conscience fund. The money could be paid into special accounts at local banks. We would make it available for rehabilitation of the war areas as soon as the war has ended.

A letter to the editor dissented from the recent flood of pro-resistance articles and letters:

Personally, I do not believe that there is such a thing as a war tax in existence. If there were it would have had to be declared as such by Congress, as they pass all taxes. This has not been done. All expenses are paid out of one treasury. It may be true that there are some Congressmen and politicians who have said that a certain tax is necessary to pay for the war. This was their excuse for voting for it or working for its passage. But that does not make it a war tax. Nor do I believe that there is any individual who with any degree of accuracy can tell us what percent of our taxes goes for war purposes.

Not all the money voted for the Pentagon goes for war… [For instance t]he Coast Guard spends much of its time in saving lives at sea, which has nothing to do with war…

…[I]f I believe war is wrong it becomes my obligation to do what I can to stop it. My refusing to pay taxes does not stop it, for most people are still paying their tax. If I disobey a law, especially publicly, I lose my influence over my non-Christian neighbor that I am supposedly trying to win to Christ.

A letter, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic:

The articles on the war tax workshop and Rensberger’s discussion of loyalty to God vs. country are especially thought-provoking. Is there interest in having workshops on these subjects in many areas of the conference on the local level? Would leaders be available from the war tax workshop, the conference, or seminary to help with such workshops where hundreds of lay people could discuss and think together about a united commitment that may make some impact on communities and government?

Another letter in the same issue reported on a silent vigil held before the offices of Bell Telephone Company in Newton Kansas on :

They came to turn over money which they had not been paying on their telephone bill to a community youth organization called Someplace. They came as concerned Christians to tell others that they were not paying the federal tax portion of their telephone bill because the tax had been levied specifically for war purposes. Approximately ninety persons accepted a hand-out sheet explaining the federal telephone tax and explaining why many Christians no longer pay that portion. Seventy-eight dollars was given to Someplace and it is expected that as more Christians hear about this alternative, more money will be turned over to various community organizations.

An article on the Central District Conference () mentioned that “persons reported on resisting war taxes” but gave no further details. A more comprehensive article noted:

There is a question of where to get more specific information on war taxes. Jacob Friesen tells how he is withholding the excise tax on his telephone bill and writing a letter each month to the President with copies going also to his senator and congressional representative. “I have chosen each month to vote ‘no’ on war.”

The edition included a piece by Carl M. Lehman titled Tax refusal not politically effective (he didn’t choose the title, and indeed later disowned it). Excerpts:

Probably, no other living person has spent as much time in Civilian Public Service as I have. During that time, and since, I associated with many young men who struggled with their conscience. I argued with some, but only with those who wanted to argue, and usually, it was with some who had conscientiously chosen either noncombatant or full military service.

I also knew quite intimately a few who struggled with an attempt at total separation from all war effort, including nonregistration. This was at a time when the nation was solidly supporting World War Ⅱ. Today, the Vietnam war is not popular and the climate for vigorous opposition is utterly different from what it was then. I deeply respected the convictions of the absolutist then as I do now and have never cared to debate their point of view, even though it did not coincide with mine.

It does seem to me, however, that there has been growing confusion about the payment of taxes during wartime. There is no doubt a sense in which nonpayment finds it place, in the continuum from all-out participation to suicidal protest. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt had some sympathetic appreciation for conscientious objectors. While visiting one of the camps, she was reported to have remarked that short of living on a desert island, it was impossible to live without being involved in the war to some degree. Because there is truth in this, it is most difficult to talk about a clearly right or a clearly wrong position. However, if we believe the way of war is inherently wrong our conscience will push us as far away from participation as possible, consistent with other considerations, human and divine, that we cannot conscientiously ignore. Just where does nonpayment of taxes belong on this continuum?

We need to distinguish between refusing to participate in war as an immoral act, on the one hand, and the moral compulsion to do what we can to stop an immoral war on the other. Part of the confusion concerning nonpayment of taxes has to do with failure to distinguish clearly between these two somewhat different moral considerations.

Nonpayment of taxes is not getting much serious consideration from our traditional Mennonite nonresistant believer, because it does not relate with his views on participation as an immoral act. The “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” edict of Jesus makes it difficult for him to see a clear immoral act in paying taxes, even though he knows that a large portion is needed for war purposes. The case becomes clearer for the person whose conscience is also concerned with a moral compulsion to do something about stopping the war. Today, many of us believe we need to be as much concerned about our moral obligation as citizens of our country to do what we can to stop our country’s immoral war as we are about participation in the immoral act of war.

Is payment of taxes an immoral act? We have already pointed out that, traditionally, Mennonites did not consider payment of taxes immoral, in part, at least, because of Jesus’ edict. However, when taxes are labeled “war taxes” as the telephone excise tax is, many begin to have second thoughts. When mustaches were popular among military men, Mennonites shunned mustaches. Guilt by association becomes a real consideration.

What everyone ought to know is that these taxes all go into the same general treasury. The “war tax” label on the telephone excise tax has significance only in that it helped ease it through Congress, and none, whatsoever, as to its use. The use of tax money for war purposes is an entirely separate matter, and is determined by appropriations for this purpose by Congress. So long as Congress appropriates what the Pentagon asks for with overwhelming majorities, nonpayment of taxes will have absolutely nothing to do with the amount of money available for war purposes. But, unfortunately, it does have something to do with the availability of funds for less popular but terribly important poverty programs as well as health and education programs. Those who do not pay their taxes must realize that the net effect, if any, is not at all what they have in mind.

Is nonpayment effective politically? Many of those who do not pay taxes are probably more concerned about the political impact this might have, and hope it will help turn our country away from war. Certainly, this would seem like much more solid ground. The sheer drama of civil disobedience for the sake of conscience makes an impact that cannot be ignored. Even though much of the reaction may be negative, this is not necessarily bad. Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of negative reaction, too. The point is, let us be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Apart from the attention-getting quality of nonpayment of taxes, the technique, however, is subject to serious questions. It is essentially a pitch to the Bureau of Internal Revenue and to the telephone company, neither of which has anything to do with determining policy concerning Vietnam. Witnessing to Internal Revenue about such matters is about as effective as writing a letter to a computer. The telephone company has trouble enough giving good telephone service, without being harassed about something for which it has no responsibility and for which it has no competence.

We do all have a direct line to the White House and to Congress. Here are the people who can do something about it. If we believe, as literally millions of Americans are now believing, that our presence in Vietnam is a tragic mistake, these are the people to talk to.

I suspect Jesus was more of a tax economist than are some of His spokesmen when He got a bit vague about payment of taxes.

Departing editor Maynard Shelly, in the , reflected on the classic Anabaptist work Martyrs Mirror and on the urge to persecute those who don’t go along with institutions. He concluded:

I dare you to turn to the Martyrs Mirror and read military service and war taxes where the old book says baptism. All of a sudden, those words put down on paper in will be more up to date than the news in tomorrow morning’s newspaper.

Raymond Regier wrote a letter in response to Lehman’s article. Some of his thoughts:

It is extremely difficult to live as we are used to living and not pay taxes, taxes which finance both warfare and many beneficial things. But just because nonpayment is difficult, because it has not traditionally been done by Mennonites, does not say that the payment of taxes is not an integral part of the waging of modern war. Modern warfare and especially Vietnamization require sophisticated technology and an enormous sum of money, perhaps even more than it needs drafted manpower. Is a man any less responsible for the way his money is used than he is for the way his body is used?

The “give unto Caesar” quote, it seems to me, is tragically misused to give the appearance of avoiding complicity in our nation’s war making. Can anyone seriously imagine that Jesus would be paying taxes to finance our Vietnam war or our nuclear deterrent? Or that He would be earning enough to pay taxes at all?…

If one is interested in a direct line to the White House and Congress, wouldn’t an announcement by the letter writer that taxes have been withheld lend credibility to the intensity of his feelings and the seriousness with which he regards the matter?

The General Conference considered a statement on “The Way of Peace” at its meeting in Fresno that included a war tax resistance plank. The version that appeared in the edition of The Mennonite was somewhat mangled, but I found a better version:

The levying of war taxes is another form of conscription which, along with the conscription of manpower, makes war possible. We are accountable to God for the use of our financial resources and should protest the use of our taxes in the promotion and waging of war. We stand by those who feel called to resist the payment of that portion of taxes being used for military purposes.

The Conference ratified the statement, with 73.4% of delegates voting in favor of it, though the war tax resistance plank, and another having to do with resistance to the Selective Service system, were the most controversial. The statement updated previous statements on peace put out by the conference in and . It was printed up in “a twenty-page illustrated booklet” and distributed to the various churches in the Conference.

The edition included a note about a creative form of tax resistance using a method I haven’t seen before:

Pastor enlists Internal Revenue Service in protest

In some ways, the government can be involved in redirecting taxes that are withheld in protest of military policies.

An Old Mennonite pastor preferred to use a portion of his taxes for relief work rather than to support the United States military. His protest took on a positive, creative form.

He wrote two checks to pay his income tax. One check covered that proportion of his tax dollar which supports government actions that he approves. This he made out to the federal government. The portion which would have gone to war was made out to the Mennonite Central Committee.

He sent both checks to the Internal Revenue Service with a letter explaining his actions and requesting that the IRS forward the second check on to MCC headquarters. A stamped, addressed envelope was enclosed. The government complied.

Tax Talk, a war-tax-resistance bulletin, commented on the method used: “This action effectively reached three levels. First, symbolically, it shows nonsupport of war. Secondly, it personally involves people in the IRS in a protest and in a positive attempt to help those whose lives our tax dollars have helped totally disrupt, while removing tax dollars (at least for the moment) from contributing to that destruction.”

Although the Internal Revenue Service forwarded the check, they soon attached the pastor’s bank account to reclaim that part of the tax which he refused to directly pay.

Thirteen attendees of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Assembly (held in St. Louis in ) “sent a telegram to the President protesting the explosion [a recent atomic bomb test] and refusing further payment of taxes for military expenditures.”

The earliest example I found of a Mennonite church taking a corporate tax resistance action is found in the edition:

Arvada church refuses to pay phone tax for war

The Arvada Mennonite Church, Arvada, Colo., has notified Mountain Bell Telephone Company that the congregation has agreed “to cease voluntary payment of the 10 percent federal telephone tax levied against the citizens of this country for the support of the war in Vietnam.”

The money which would have been spent on the federal tax will be contributed to the Mennonite Central Committee for alleviation of suffering in Vietnam.

In its letter to the telephone company, the congregation said, “The decision to refrain from willingly paying a specifically legislated war tax is an expression of the sorrow and protest of the church over the suffering and loss of life in Vietnam, both American and Vietnamese, and the unwillingness of the United States to allow the citizens of that country engaged in civil strife to determine their own destiny and fashion their own future in relation to the world community of nations.”

The letter said the church did not intend “to defraud our nation which we love, or by secret means to deprive it of its claim upon citizens for support in its just and God-given duties. Rather we openly seek to make this expression a call for justice and peace.”

In such cases, the telephone company does not terminate service or collect the tax, but notifies the Internal Revenue Service. The Internal Revenue Service eventually takes the required amount plus interest from the bank account of the individual or organization refusing the tax.