I recently wrote the poet Allen Ginsberg asking if I were correct in guessing
from his writings and philosophy that he would feel a special affinity for
Henry David Thoreau. His reply follows:
Dear Mr. [Walter] Harding
Thoreau set first classic
US example of war
resistance, back to nature, tax refusal. As at the moment I’m living in
country without electric on commune using 19th
century techne to move water (hydrolic ram) & we’re doing organic
gardening, & I’m a member of the War Tax Refusal group. I find myself
more & more indebted to Thoreau — particularly for his manner &
remarks on being in jail — without, oddly, having very much read his texts.
My first association was Kerouacs association with Thoreau — both denizens of
Merrimac river — & Kerouac’s individualistic Dharma
Bums derives in part from his appreciation of Thoreau’s solitude.
Kerouac was most near Thoreau when with knapsack he settled down by railroad
bed or riverbottom under bridge & cooked himself some cornmeal fritters
R.D. 2 Cherry Valley
Jim Wallis is the president and founder of
Sojourners, a Christian ministry and magazine
“committed to social justice and peace.” He wrote a book titled
Revive Us Again: A Sojourner’s Story
that tells of his own spiritual journey and the early years of Sojourners.
He writes that war tax resistance was an important part of the movement at its
founding, and relates a couple of amusing anecdotes about encounters with the
Non-payment of war taxes has… been a vital concern for Sojourners. When we put
out the first issue of the magazine at the height of the Vietnam War, it
became very clear that refusal of war tax payment was for us as morally
necessary as our refusal of military induction. We could not oppose war in
every other way and then help pay for it. We also refused then, and continue
to refuse [this was published in ], payment
of our telephone tax, which was instituted to help pay for the war.
The payment of taxes is the most basic, and from the government’s point of
view, most important way that we support the policies of the state. With
hardly an afterthought, American Christians in recent times have given more
money to underwrite military destruction and help build the most massive
arsenal in human history than we have given to pay for relief, service,
evangelism, missions, social action, and all the programs of the churches
The state’s demand for war taxes puts many Christians in a dilemma in which
peace claims their commitment but war claims their money. Personal and
corporate response to the payment of war taxes is a thorny and serious
question, one which must become a matter of much more public discussion and
discernment in the Christian community.
With the heightening nuclear arms race and the widening conflict in Central
America, our stand on war tax resistance has remained resolute: we cannot with
good conscience provide our government, through our tax dollars, with the
necessary means for its nuclear threats and ideological military exploits.
Our war tax resistance is both institutional and personal. A non-profit
corporation provides a legal entity for our magazine, as well as our peace and
neighborhood ministries. Everyone working in these ministries earns a
subsistence income. For most of us, subsistence is below the taxable level.
For others, a small tax liability is incurred. Like all organizations, we are
legally bound to withhold federal income taxes (including war taxes) from the
salaries of liable employees and to submit them to the government. Since we
refuse to serve as a war-tax gathering agency, we decided years ago not to
submit federal income taxes from these employees’ wages. To date, the Internal
Revenue Service has threatened to retaliate, including taking us to court. So
far, it has settled for levying our bank account.
Joe Roos and I were once called down to the
office to account for the magazine’s refusal to withhold taxes from our
employees. This was our first interview, at the lowest rung of the
worker was conducting the interview. He said he wanted to take the case to his
supervisor and would soon return.
He came back a short while later, smiled, and said, “Well, you don’t have to
pay.” Joe and I looked at each other rather incredulously, and I said to the
young man, “Either you don’t quite understand what we’re doing, or the three
of us have just made tax history.”
He had mistakenly thought that we were seeking exemption from Social Security
payments, which as a non-profit corporation we are not required to pay. I
explained to him that it was our taxes that we weren’t paying.
“Oh,” he said, “I think I’d better go back and see my supervisor.”
He returned again after a while, smiling, and said, “Well, it’s just as I
thought. You do have to pay.”
Joe and I grinned at each other, and I said, “Well, you see, we know that we
are legally required to withhold and send in all this tax. But our Christian
convictions won’t allow us to do that. So I think we have a conflict here.”
At first he seemed not to understand. But then the light of recognition came
over his face. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “Kind of
like what Muhammad Ali did.”
“Well, kind of,” I replied.
He looked around to make sure no one else was listening before he leaned
forward, clasped my hand, and said in a whisper, “Right on, man. Fight it all
the way to the top.”
We are equally committed to war-tax resistance as individuals. All members of
Sojourners Fellowship pool our incomes. Nearly two-thirds of the community
earn below the taxable income level, have no personal income, or are children.
None of these incur any war-tax liability.
The rest of the community earns taxable incomes. Where that income is not
subject to employer withholding, we have refused payment of war taxes. Some
have had less tax withheld than was due and refused to pay the remainder.
Those whose taxes are automatically withheld have employed various methods of
reducing their war-tax liability to zero, sometimes with limited success. Our
commitment is that no member of Sojourners Fellowship pays war taxes.
When you refuse to pay a portion of your income tax, you begin to get a series
of letters from the
first they are very polite: “Oh, so you forgot to pay all of your taxes. Well,
that’s okay, just send your check in as soon as possible.”
A few weeks go by and you get another letter a little more serious and
demanding: “You did not fulfill all your tax liability. Send it to the
The next letter becomes rather hostile: “Our records show that you have not
paid all the taxes due to us. If you do not pay immediately, you will be
Eventually, the letters become downright threatening: “We have sought a lien
on all of your property in the District of Columbia. If you do not remit
immediately, your property will be confiscated.”
Each year I have dutifully responded to each of these letters. I wrote back
and always enclosed a photocopy of the original letter I sent in with my tax
return before April 15, explaining why, for reasons of Christian conscience, I
could not pay that portion of my taxes that went to support the military. But
no matter what I did, I always got the same succession of letters.
Finally, one day I realized there was no one on the other end of my
correspondence — only a computer with programmed responses designed to get
more nasty every week the tax money didn’t come in. So I’ve come up with an
We recently purchased a small computer at Sojourners
to maintain our subscription list and print address labels. What if we could
program into our computer responses, escalating peacefully, to answer the
letters from the
That way the computers could just fight it out.
finally decided to pay me a visit in person and audit me as a result of my
continual war-tax refusal. I could tell that the
agent was nervous by the way he was chain-smoking. At the end of our
conversation, he admitted to me that he had been told by the
he was going to be auditing some “radicals” and was warned to “be careful”
because “they probably have guns.”
The first thing he said, with fear and agitation, was, “Now, I don’t want to
talk about politics. I’m just here to do an audit.” Joe was there with the
records of both my personal and our community finances. We assured the
agent that we bore no hostility toward him and wanted simply to be helpful in
giving him the information he needed. He seemed to relax a little after that.
He asked to see the records of my checking account. I told him I didn’t have
one, and that all of my personal financial records were in the large community
leger Joe had brought to the meeting and placed on the desk before him. Joe
patiently explained our system of economic sharing and bookkeeping. The agent
“But don’t you get any money for yourself?” he asked.
“Yes,” I explained. “Beyond all of our living expenses that are corporately
met, each member of the community gets fifteen dollars a month for personal
“You’re kidding,” he said.
“No,” I replied. And he dropped his pencil on the floor.
“But you’re the editor here, right?”
“And you make the same salary as everyone else?”
“Well, actually, no,” I answered.
“I thought so,” he replied.
“The shipping clerk makes more than I do because he is not a member of the
community and has higher personal expenses than I do.”
He looked completely incredulous as he said, “In all my years working for the
have never run into anything like this. Do you realize that there is
absolutely no economic incentive in your life?”
He went on to ask, “Why do you people live this way?” There was my opening. I
began to speak about the gospel, the way of Jesus, and the economic sharing of
the early church. We were just trying to make those things real in our own
experience, I told him.
A glimmer of understanding came into his eyes, and he said with a smile, “Oh,
I bet I can guess then why you aren’t paying all your taxes.”
“You’re catching on,” I said, and then explained how I had decided not to pay
taxes for war because of my Christian convictions.
“Well, can I ask you a question?” he responded. “What about the Russians? If
we laid down our arms, wouldn’t they take us over?”
“That’s a good question,” I replied. “Let’s talk about it.” For a man who
didn’t want to talk about politics, he got deeply involved in our conversation
about war, peace, and the gospel.
When it was over, he said, “You know, this really makes a lot of sense to me.
Now, I’m not ready to refuse to pay my own taxes, you understand, but…” there
he was, an agent for the
a serious conversation about whether he should continue to pay his own taxes
for war. It felt like quite an evangelistic conversation to me. Before he
left, he told us that we were the nicest people he ever had to audit and
wished me luck.