War Tax Resistance in the Friends Journal in 2009

War tax resistance in the Friends Journal in

There was a bit of an anti-war tax resistance backlash in the Friends Journal in .

In the issue, Peter Phillips came out against war tax resistance in a two-page article. Here is a summary of his argument:

  • Friends’ advice against paying war taxes is sometimes incoherent. The New York Yearly Meeting suggests that friends “examine… voluntary payment of war taxes” but taxes by definition aren’t voluntary. The practice of some Quakers of refusing to pay but allowing the government to seize the amount by levy makes such war tax resistance “insignificant.”
  • What do people mean by “war taxes”? If it’s the percentage of the revenue that goes to the Pentagon, even some of that money isn’t spent for war (for instance the Army Corps of Engineers work to rebuild hurricane-damaged New Orleans). What about “reparations to Iraqis whose property is damaged” or “the Air Force’s remarkable mediation program that resolves employment and procurement disputes without litigation” — or, in the other direction, what about the Interstate Highway system, which was initially designed as a defense measure: is money raised for that, too, “war taxes”? Is everyone on their own to decide what taxes are war taxes, or is there an authoritative answer, or is it okay to withhold symbolic amounts — what is the justification for withholding Elizabeth Boardman’s $10.40, an arbitrary amount that has nothing to do with war spending?
  • Withholding of taxes is not a good way of withholding funds from the war machine for the simple reason that the government won’t decide how to respond to a shortage of funds by respecting the reasons why the tax resister withheld them. It is every bit as likely (perhaps more likely) to cut spending elsewhere. “Should Head Start, research on solar energy, unemployment benefits, and support for healthcare all be underfunded in the exercise of our righteousness? A consequence of my not joining the armed forces in was that someone else did who would not otherwise have had to. People were hurt because I was not there to help. This too is a consequence of conscientious objection. Are those who advocate withholding part of their taxes prepared as well to live with the consequences of their actions?”
  • There is a Quaker ethic of trying to adapt to communal consensus that is expressed in many of its teachings, and the ethos of participating as equals in trying to probe a dilemma and adopt a communal consensus is one of the things Quakers have contributed to the American polis — war tax resistance turns its back on this with its ethos of individualism and rejection of the decisions of the community.

You will not be surprised to learn that Phillips’s article led to some exchanges in the letters-to-the-editor column in later issues. Here is a summary of some of the back-and-forth:

  • Dennis P. Roberts thought the article was “the finest work on war taxes I have yet seen in the pages of your journal” and then told a half-remembered story about a terrible massacre in colonial Pennsylvania that could have been prevented but for the pacifism of the “strong Quaker elements within the settlement.” — “I cannot say or recall with certainty whether this story is fact or fiction. What does it matter? Either way, an important lesson is drive home eloquently and powerfully: military preparations sometimes must be made.”
  • Robin Harper responded with some suggested guidelines for Quaker war tax resistance that he thought might meet some of Phillips’s criticisms (see ♇ for an excerpt from this letter).
  • David R. Bassett felt that Phillips had been too dismissive of war tax resistance in general after concentrating his criticism on a few specific arguments and methods he found to be weak or ineffective. What about resisters who keep their income below the tax line? Or people like Bassett who work in the judicial and legislative arenas to try to get something like conscientious objection to military taxation legalized? Or folks who try to make sure their investments and purchases are clear of involvement in war?
  • Perry Treadwell compared Phillips’s “rationalizations” to “Friends’ historical resistance to confronting their complicity in enslavement,” and thought that just as a few Friends had to break from the pack and lead Quakers to an abolitionist stand, it will take Quakers speaking out against paying for war to make their “spiritual testimony” come to life.
  • Daniel Jenkins called Phillips’s argument “smooth and lawyerly” and “crafted… to lead to a foregone conclusion.” He felt that Phillips gave short shrift to occasions when “conscience may sometimes transcend the constraints of conventionality and pressures of conformity.”
  • Naomi Paz Greenberg considered Phillips’s argument that by not serving or not paying taxes you are merely foisting the responsibility off on someone else to be flawed:

    The moral consequence [of Phillips’s decision not to serve in the military] is not that other people were made to serve in his stead, as Phillips suggests. The moral consequence of his not serving in war is simply that he did not violate his conscience by serving. Others could have and did make their own choices, consulting conscience or not.

    The moral consequences of not paying taxes for war are similarly direct.

    She even suggested a more radical outlook toward taxes that I have rarely seen in Quaker circles:

    Our taxes are compulsory, and in some sense they are the least desirable way to provide a constructive economic foundation for a compassionate society. They presuppose that there is no Friendly nor Christian nor Jewish nor Hindu nor Muslim nor conscientious nor atheistic nor socialist love for one another and so we must be forced. Paying taxes separates us from those with whom we might otherwise be in community, and with whom we might shake hands, share food, share laughter and tears. Paying taxes for war separates us from many of them irrevocably.

    Some Friends testify that we expect better of ourselves than that, because we know experimentally that God expects better of us.

    Greenberg also felt that there was a big difference between the Quaker ethos of consensus and conformity when “recognizing the sense of the meeting” and trying to figure out how to confront “legislation written by lobbyists and summarized by Congressional interns in a process that has been compared to the making of sausage.”

An obituary notice for Kent Larrabee in the issue noted that “[f]or much of his life, Kent purposely lived below the poverty line in order to identify with the poor and to avoid payment of income taxes for war.”

In the issue, Arthur Waskow offered a reading of the “Render unto Caesar…” koan that puts it into a context of thousands of years of Rabbinical debate about the passage in Genesis that reads: “God created humankind in God’s own Image.” He thought that Jesus had been intending to refer to this debate, and not intending to give any advice about taxes.

An obituary notice for Lillian Willoughby in the issue mentioned that “Lillian felt called to refuse to pay war taxes, and the IRS seized her car in .” An obituary notice for Arthur Evans in the issue said that “[f]or 20 years, Arthur withheld the portion from his federal income tax that he believed went to war and weapons, and in , he was jailed for 90 days for refusing to turn over income records to the Internal Revenue Service.” And an obituary notice for Merrill Hallowell Barnebey in the identified him as “a war tax resister.”