Allen Ginsberg on Henry David Thoreau

I’m surprised I hadn’t come across this before. It comes from a back issue of The Thoreau Society Bulletin ():

Allen Ginsberg on Thoreau…

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 or soup.

Allen Ginsberg
R.D. 2 Cherry Valley
N.Y. 13320

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 IRS bureaucracy:

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 combined.

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 IRS 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 IRS ladder.

A young IRS 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 IRS. At 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 IRS immediately.”

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 legally prosecuted.”

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 idea.

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 IRS? That way the computers could just fight it out.

The IRS 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 IRS 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 IRS that 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 IRS 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 seemed mystified.

“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 spending.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

“No,” I replied. And he dropped his pencil on the floor.

“But you’re the editor here, right?”

I nodded.

“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 IRS, I 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 IRS, in 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.