Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1975

This is the twenty-second in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today brings us up to 1975.

The Mennonite

The Mennonite General Conference’s Commission on Home Ministries was often at the forefront (or ahead of the forefront) of the Conference’s policies on war tax resistance. But they seem to have gotten caught flat-footed at their annual meeting in . Here’s an excerpt from The Mennonite’s coverage:

The commission devoted most of to the war tax question. The discussion was sharpened by a request which had come to the General Conference from one of its employees not to withhold her income tax.

The board members, after lengthy and vigorous debate, could not agree on what course of action to take. They did agree to the following statement, however: “We would like to support in spirit the concerns of church employees requesting nonwithholding of war taxes, but we are not together on what kind of action we can take.”

It was agreed that further attention needs to be given to this issue, and the commission decided to call an inter-Mennonite study conference later this year to look at the theological, political, and historical issues involved in war tax resistance.

Other participants in the Council of Commissions cautioned the General Conference to tread softly on this question because it has the potential of being an explosive issue. Some voiced concern about grass roots reactions. It was felt that most constituents would not favor the General Conference’s involvement in this type of activity. The Division of Administration said that it was fearful that if a move is made not to withhold war taxes from conference employees’ paychecks, the General Conference might be jeopardizing its nonprofit status.

The summarized recent work on the war tax question:

A war tax resistance fund has been established and a war tax newsletter started by CHM. CHM is still exploring the legal aspects of not withholding federal income tax from the paychecks of central office employees who so request. An inter-Mennonite study conference will be called sometime to discuss the theological issues involved.

Michael Friedmann, representing members of the “Fellowship of Hope” Mennonite congregation, penned a lengthy letter to the editor about war tax resistance on . Excerpts:

[W]hen the war in Indochina was building up to its most destructive levels ever, I felt an urgency to stop paying all war taxes. However, under the present IRS system there is no way to say, “Yes, we are willing to pay the ‘regular’ taxes, but not the portion that goes for military expenses” all tax monies are channeled into one general treasury. The only way to say no war taxes is to reduce the amount of federal income tax one pays. So, for , after listing the usual itemized deductions, I claimed the amount of the “taxable income” as a “war crimes deduction.”

Since the IRS would not accept that claim, we decided to appeal their decision. With some “fear and trembling” we prepared our statement for the tax court, not knowing just what to expect from the representatives of an agency that often seems to be hostile toward people who oppose the payment of taxes for war purposes. We are grateful that the Lord did calm our spirits so that we could speak freely.

We were somewhat surprised when the tax court referee expressed a real openness to hear our prepared statement concerning the bases for opposition to war taxes. We were also free to share something about the life of our church community as the context for making ethical decisions. We were so grateful for the receptive spirit we sensed in the judge, the IRS’s counsel, the clerks, and the bailiff.…

We are seeking for other alternatives: one is to work at simplifying our “needs,” reduce our consumption of material goods, and reduce our taxable income, thereby making more resources available to the church-community to be used to extend its mission and outreach. We believe the clearest answer to war taxes is the gathered community of disciples, seeking together for alternative forms of economic life that reduce our tax liability.

In our pilgrimage, we have been led to live in close proximity, for some to work in paying jobs and some in non-remunerative work, and to share all our resources. We believe this kind of relationship and commitment to one another is an important aspect of the life of a church-community and is to be understood as an open-ended time commitment. Some Christian communities, with a similar emphasis on service, poverty, and sharing of resources, have obtained legal status as “apostolic orders” and are thus able to devote all their resources to the witness and service they can offer to people in the name of Christ, rather than to channel any tax monies through the hands of Caesar (IRS).

The cover story of the issue took the form of a poem, by Peter J. Ediger, called Christ and Caesar: A ballad of faith. It beckoned its readers to imagine the history of the Mennonites and the suffering and martyrdom and struggles the sect go through as they “hear the call of God / and followed Christ into the Kingdom of Loving Enemies / and ceased from following Caesar into his Kingdom of Killing Enemies.” But over time the Mennonites grew soft, while Caesar kept growing and becoming more powerful and more militaristic.

and there was uneasiness in the revelation that people of the faith
were giving more money for war than for all the causes of the kingdom of the Lord…

And the sons and daughters of the enemy-loving kingdom said what shall we do
and some responding quickly said
we must pay our taxes we must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
we must be subject to the powers that be
and others said yes we must give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s
as for our conscience that belongs to God
and as for earth’s resources, does Caesar really have legitimate claim
or is the earth, and all that in it is, the Lord’s?
Can Caesar command us to use earth’s resources to pay for his killings?

And some sons and daughters of the faith said no
and refused to pay voluntarily that portion of their taxes designated for defense
offering the money for the use of human help instead.

And in America church agencies faced difficult decisions
should they withhold Caesar’s taxes from employees who for conscience’ sake requested noncompliance?
Should they respect the law of Caesar or the conscience of faith?
And some structures and some persons of faith were threatened by such questions sensing many implications
and officers advised that issues should be carefully researched.

And in America’s House of Representatives
legislation called the World Peace Tax Fund Act was introduced
seeking provision for channeling of tax monies into pursuits of peace
and some were hopeful that this might ease their conscience problem
and others questioned whether it would even be enacted
and if it might become
another way for Caesar to still the voices of protest.

And now the sons and daughters of the enemy-loving kingdom
are calling for a conference on the war tax program
and from across America and Canada they will come
to seek the Light, to walk in Love, to discern and do the Truth.

And so forth. A less versified and more skeptical article immediately followed: “Tax resistance — A form of protest?” by Carl M. Lehman — one of the best critiques of modern war tax resistance I have read.

The tragedy of Vietnam and the part played by our country has led some to a form of protest heretofore little known among our people — resistance to paying taxes. The fact that the war has been so widely criticized both by pacifists and nonpacifists has had something to do with this phenomenon. What a sensitive pacifist felt he could do during World War Ⅱ, when all his friends and neighbors were deeply involved in the war effort, was usually different from what he would do during a Vietnam War.

Tax resistance is a form of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience itself is deeply rooted in the origins of our church, as it is in the beginnings of our land. But it has traditionally only been used in ultimate tests of loyalty to God. To use tax resistance under other circumstances is a breakaway from our Anabaptist tradition. To use it lightly is an affront to government by the people.

I have a profound respect for those who believe deeply this is the course they must take. God uses people with courage and conviction, even if he has to change them a bit. I must admit however that I am perplexed as I try to understand how some have arrived at their decision not to pay taxes.

The activist I understand. He will use any means he believes right to agitate and bring about a change. Most will stop short of physical violence, but I sometimes wonder about that. People can be violated more completely in other ways.

I understand the absolutist, and I understand the literalist who will not eat meat offered to idols. I do not find it easy to understand Mennonite tax resisters who are neither literalists nor agitators.

It is sometimes suggested that modern warfare has made the individual soldier relatively unimportant. Armament is all-important. Armament costs staggering amounts of money and today’s conscientious objector is straining at a gnat as he swallows a camel if he does not refuse to pay taxes.

There is a certain logic to this. Unfortunately it equates money with people. This is not only bad economics but bad Christianity. Money is a medium of exchange; people are not. Money does not kill people; people kill people. Only people make guns and bombs people use to kill people. Maybe Jesus had this in mind when he looked at the coin and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”?

What is meant by war taxes?

Tax resisters are not opposed to paying taxes as such, only to paying war taxes. This poses a problem, for we really do not have war taxes. We have a federal income tax, import duties, and excise taxes on things like liquor, tobacco, and telephone service. These taxes flow into the general treasury and are commingled. They are used only as Congress appropriates money out of the treasury. The Internal Revenue Service has nothing to do with how the money is spent. The only money segregated is that which goes into special trust funds such as social security, unemployment compensation, and highway construction.

Some have singled out the telephone excise tax with the notion that the proceeds are for military purposes in a way not true for other taxes. Our government does have a long tradition of levying additional excise taxes as it wages war, both to control inflation and to replenish the treasury. by far the most important source of revenue has been the income tax. Excise taxes were increased, too, but were no longer the major source of revenue. By they accounted for less than 7 percent with the telephone tax providing about 1 percent. None of this is used for military purposes any more than is any other tax. The fact that Congress called it a “defense tax” when initiated in and reenacted in has no bearing on its use, only on its palatability for passage.

What is meant by the term “war taxes” varies with the user. It is usually someone’s calculation of the percentage of the president’s proposed national budget which the president suggests be used for military purposes. This percentage varies. Those who want it to look small include social security payments as part of the total budget. Presidents now publish budgets showing it that way.

There is also disagreement as to what is to be included as military spending. The often-publicized 60 percent is calculated by first removing social security from the budget. Everything related to wars, past, present, and future, is then lumped together. Those willing to care for veterans and who believe the government should pay interest on war debts drop it to 40 percent. Arbitrarily, resisters then figure that 60 percent or 40 percent of their taxes are “war taxes” and deduct this from the amount they pay. There is no legal basis for it, just a logic that is easily grasped.

What actually happens?

Much of the discussion about the moral basis for tax resistance has not been clear. The dominant note is that waging war is evil; our taxes increase the magnitude of war; if the government does not get our taxes, the evil is reduced accordingly. It is not clear why, if this is true, we would want to withhold only 60 percent. Why not withhold 100 percent and further reduce the evil?

The supposition apparently is that the other 40 percent will go for functions of government resisters are willing to support. Unfortunately this is not true, as we will see in a minute.

Federal spending is a function of government not related to collecting taxes. It is the responsibility of a different group of people. Talking to the telephone company or to the Internal Revenue Service about the use of your tax money is as pointless as arguing with the janitor at the Chase Manhattan Bank about giving you a loan.

The amount the federal government spends for a given purpose is only indirectly related, if at all, to the amount collected in taxes. If you know about the federal debt, you know this. Nor is the amount spent determined by the president’s budget. The budget is a plan the Congress may or may not follow when it passes appropriation bills.

The amount of tax money collected does have an eventual effect on the amount spent inasmuch as Congress sets for itself borrowing limits — limits which it keeps changing. When a tax resister withholds a dollar from the government, the government can either increase its borrowing by a dollar or decrease its spending by that amount. What the resister needs to understand is that defense appropriations are almost always approved by overwhelming majorities. As long as the Pentagon receives this kind of support, tax resistance will have no effect at all on the amount of money available for war. What tax resisters actually do is either force a cut in highly desirable programs such as aid to education — or increase the national debt. In either case an even larger percent of the money they pay goes for military purposes.

It would be just as reasonable for a Mennonite farmer to withhold 10 percent of his wheat from the market because 10 percent of all wheat produced was found to be used directly or indirectly for military purposes. Soldiers would still get their bread and so would all but the poorest of Americans.

Can the tax resister play a useful role?

Civil disobedience has been used by the church ever since the day Peter said. “We must obey God rather than men.” The resister who believes in direct action as a way to call attention to the terrible evil of a Vietnam War may well have a role to play. God has many ways of using people. Some of us, however, find it difficult to reconcile it with the teaching and spirit of Jesus. Harassing telephone company employees and the Internal Revenue Service is not in keeping with an invitation to Zacchaeusto come down from the sycamore tree. We may not mean to harass them, but how do they feel about it?

Why not turn to congressmen? They decide how our money is to be used. This is where our attention must focus if we are serious about a responsible Christian witness. We elect them and they need to know what we think. Our letters, our telephone calls, and our visits are important to them. Because so few write and so few visit, our voice becomes as the voice of a thousand.

Working thus with Congress has not been without effect. Perhaps a World Peace Tax Fund bill will not become law, but working for it has been constructive. Such a provision, too, has its limitations, as do all alternative service programs. Let us not delude ourselves about any imagined effect on military spending. It would be tragic if such an enactment were to assuage our conscience and we were to reduce our pressure on Congress to keep military spending down.

(I sent a link to the above article to wtr-s — a mailing list for people interested in war tax resistance — and asked how they would respond to Lehman’s arguments. Click here to see the responses.)

Following this came the news that the Commission on Home Ministries had come up with a proposed solution to the problem of employees of General Conference Mennonite Church institutions who wanted not to have war taxes withheld from their paychecks. The proposal was “based on the research and recommendations of Ruth C. Stoltzfus, a Boston law student who spent the summer on a special war tax research assignment for CHM.”

The proposal recommended that the

church agency ceases withholding from the employee who is conscientiously opposed to this. At the next interval when withheld funds are paid over to the government, submit a statement along with the withheld non-war percentage of taxes explaining that this action is based on your claim under the First Amendment and on the AFSC case which was reversed on other grounds.

According to Stoltzfus,

criminal prosecution of the church agency would be “extremely unlikely, both in view of the lack of ‘evil motive’ and the reasonable cause to have acted on the basis of a district court case.”

The district court decision had already been overturned by this time, but the Commission felt they could still rely on it because:

The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the district court decision, but only on the basis that such an injunction [the AFSC’s, demanding the return of already paid withholding taxes] could not be served against the Internal Revenue Service. The court did not address the religious claim.

The recommendation to the General Conference would bypass the injunction difficulty, since it would not require the conference to sue for a refund. Thus if the government brought suit against the conference, conscientious refusal to withhold war taxes could be tested in court on its own merits.

An article in the issue concerned an upcoming conference about war tax issues to be held in Kitchener, Ontario. Workshops would include “ ‘War taxes and the Bible,’ ‘The Christian and civil disobedience,’ ‘Forms of resistance and legal consequences,’ ‘Mennonite institutions and the withholding dilemma,’ and ‘Voluntary service and war tax options.’ ” The conference was later covered in the edition:

Uneasy conscience on paying for Armageddon

Some 115 persons gathered at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, to seek theological and practical discernment on war tax issues. Their concern grew out of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ heritage of the way of peace and the growing menace of the world arms race.

Unlike some Mennonite peace gatherings of the past decade, the under-thirty set did not predominate at Kitchener. Laborers, pastors, homemakers, and teachers shared their concerns. Students from as far as Swift Current Bible Institute and Eastern Mennnonite College came to Kitchener.

A response recommended specifically for U.S. citizens suggested refusal “to pay federal tax, or a percentage thereof, since such a large part is used for military purposes, and… willingness to accept the legal consequences of such a conscientious objection to supporting war, acknowledging the illegal aspect of the act and inviting the opportunities to witness at various levels which it brings.”

It included a call to “bring taxable income below the taxable level by adjusting standard of living through earning less income, through donating up to the maximum allowable 50 percent of income to charitable causes or through other types of deduction and/or dependent claiming which are legally allowable.”

Responses recommended for Canadians included to “call upon our government to legislate against the export of military weapons and systems” and to “affirm and support individuals who feel led to actions (actual or symbolic) that focus conscientious objection in particular ways:

  • Tax withholding, a withholding of that portion to taxes going for defense as a symbolic act
  • Tax overpayment, an overpayment of that portion of the GNP that derives from defense export.”

Other action recommendations affirmed “that Mennonite institutions make allowance for individual expression of conscience concerning tax refusal and withholding,” “that the Meetinghouse format deal with the war tax issue as soon as possible,” and “that a study guide and packet of resource material on the war tax issue be made available to congregations for further discernment on the matter.”

Conference planners Harold Regier and Peter Ediger, editors of “God and Caesar,” a war tax newsletter from Newton, Kansas, and Ted Koontz of MCC Peace Section (U.S.) indicated plans to carry on efforts to raise consciousness about war tax and militarism issues, while the world waits for Armageddon.