This is the twenty-third in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today brings us up to 1976.
The question of whether the Mennonite General Conference should stop withholding taxes from the paychecks of conscientiously objecting employees continued to bedevil the Conference and its various committees and commissions in . After the American Friends Service Committee won a District Court ruling about withholding from its objecting employees, the General Conference was pressed to adopt such a policy. But that ruling was swiftly overturned by the Supreme Court, and so the Conference seemed to lose its nerve.
In the executive committee of the General Conference’s Commission on Home Ministries decided to put on its agenda for their full-commission meeting in a “recommendation that the General Conference not withhold the military portion of income taxes from the paychecks of those employees who do not wish to pay war taxes voluntarily. This would mean that such employees, rather than the conference, could be responsible for the decision of whether to pay war taxes to the government.”
That proposed recommendation was approved at the meeting, “but referred for further study by the Division of Administration and the General Board.”
A article covered the slow progress of the proposal through the Conference bureaucracy:
Should General Conference employees have the right not to have war taxes withheld by the conference from their paychecks?
For the time being, the answer is still no, pending further study and the securing of more legal counsel.
The peace and social concerns reference council of the Commission on Home Ministries raised the issue of war-tax withholding by the conference. The reference council recommended that the General Conference central offices allow persons the right not to have taxes withheld (in line with research done last summer by a law student), that other Mennonite institutions be invited to participate in similar action, and that congregations and individuals be invited to consider war tax resistance.
“Freedom of religion includes freedom from the church forced by the state to act as a tax collection agent, particularly when taxes are used for purposes which are in conflict with the kingdom,” said the reference council statement. “The Anabaptist concept of separation of church and state would also suggest that the church not perform this kind of state function.”
The Commission on Home Ministries, in its annual session in , approved the recommendation with some reservations. The Division of Administration had even more reservations about the recommendation.
DA members questioned the legal findings of last summer and asked for further consultation with a tax attorney with more experience in this area. Specifically they wanted to know the cost of possible litigation, whether a revenue ruling should be requested from the Internal Revenue Service, possible civil and criminal sanctions against the General Conference, the effect on the conference’s tax-exempt status, and the chances of success in the event of litigation.
“Conscience is a personal thing, and we’re not together on what we want to do with this,” said DA chairman Howard Baumgartner of Berne, Indiana. “CHM is asking that the business manager be put on the spot. What if his conscience doesn’t permit him to break this law? My conscience tells me to pay my tax.”
In the closing minutes of its sessions, the General Board, acting on the recommendation of the DA, asked the DA to do further study on the legal aspects of failure to withhold taxes and to bring back some information at the General Board’s meeting.
“I’m not willing to face the legal consequences until we’re fairly united on this,” said conference president Elmer Neufeld of Bluffton, Ohio.
At present, the General Conference central offices withhold all state and federal income taxes from the paychecks of nonordained employees. Such persons cannot choose whether to pay or not to pay any war taxes they owe because the government already has the money, or most of it.
Editor Larry Kehler, in the issue called this a “red flag”:
Although some leaders from other denominations may be beginning to notice and listen to the Anabaptist-Mennonite point of view as an attractive option, the Mennonites may be losing their testimony as a peace church. One committee at the Council of Commissions stated, for example, in its opinion there was no “corporate conscience” within the General Conference against the payment of war taxes.
And Peter J. Ediger summed things up in his prose-poem fashion:
It came to pass that an employee of the General Conference Mennonite Church
requested that taxes for the military not be withheld from her paycheck.
And officers of the conference said, “What shall we do?”
And the Commission on Home Ministries was asked to study the matter
and make a recommendation.
And the commission hired a student of law to research the options;
and the commission joined with other Mennonite groups in calling for a study conference on war tax questions.
And from the research and the conference came a clear recommendation
that the General Conference allow persons the right
not to have war taxes withheld.
And when this recommendation was brought to the Commission on Home Ministries
there was a consensus of support and agreement to recommend its adoption to the General Board.
And the recommendation was brought to the Division of Administration.
And lo, their response was as follows:
“Motion that the request of CHM for right not to have taxes withheld
from salaries of employees who submit such request be refused…”
and listing six recommendations asking for more legal counsel.
And so the conflicting recommendations were brought to the General Board.
And the General Board was occupied with many weighty matters.
The agenda was long and the time for discernment was short
and war taxes was the last item on the agenda
and five minutes was left for this item
and no action was taken.
And the conference goes on with business as usual
continuing collection of money for making of war
seeking its guidance more from the law of the land
and less from the law of the Lord.
Do we really want the laws and lawyers of our society
to define the perimeters of our discipleship?
The General Board executive committee met in and “allotted two hours at the full board session in … for discussion of whether the conference should honor an employee’s request that federal income taxes not be deducted from her paycheck. Theological input on the payment of war taxes was also requested.”
The way this was put in an announcement just before the board meeting was: “The Division of Administration… wants to continue its policy of not honoring employees’ requests that the portion of their federal taxes which goes for war not be taking out of their paychecks.”
The board met and… kicked the can further down the road.
After almost three hours of discussion by the General Board of the General Conference, a decision is still pending on whether the conference should honor an employee’s request that the portion of her income taxes that goes for war not be taken out of her pay.
The board had set aside two hours at the end of its midyear meeting in Washington, Illinois, to consider the issue of war tax withholding. Marlin Miller of Goshen Biblical Seminary had been invited to give biblical input, and Division of Administration members Howard Baumgartner and Elvin Souder, both attorneys, to give legal recommendations.
The issue was whether the General Conference business office should violate U.S. law by refusing to take from an employee’s paycheck the portion (almost half) of her federal income taxes which would go for military purposes. Such action would allow the employee to refuse to pay such taxes and would make her personally liable for nonpayment of tax.
The law at present requires employers to withhold income and Social Security taxes from employees’ salaries — except in the case of ordained employees, who may legally consider themselves self-employed and are thus personally responsible for making, or not making, quarterly tax payments. A number of ordained employees at the General Conference offices are already refusing war taxes in this manner.
Nonordained employees have no way of refusing war taxes except by falsifying their tax returns or the number of exemptions they claim.
The General Board did not vote on a normal motion on the war tax matter, but straw poll showed a slight majority in favor of allowing all employees the right to refuse war taxes, in spite of the possible consequences to the conference or its officers for breaking the law. But the board was not willing to act officially until it reached greater consensus.
“We are facing an issue of our own integrity as a people and as a church,” said board member Peter Ediger of Arvada, Colorado. “It is a situation not unlike that of our grandfathers in World War Ⅰ. Because some of them had the courage to say no, laws were enacted to permit conscientious objection to military service. And it is an evangelism issue. Our world desperately needs the good news that there is an alternative to violence and war. We can do this with the kind of integrity that perhaps no other corporate group in our world can.”
Some like Irene Dunn of Normal, Illinois, were not ready to decide personally about payment of war taxes, but wanted to allow General Conference employees freedom of conscience concerning war taxes.
Others wanted to postpone the issue. “It’s my feeling we should take a recommendation to the triennial conference,” said board president Elmer Neufeld of Bluffton, Ohio.
In the end the decision was postponed — probably until the board session.
Marlin Miller, himself a tax refuser for seven years, told the board that the legality of refusing war taxes was not the highest morality. “If we are clear on the moral principles, we will find a way to deal with the legal matters,” he said.
His biblical study focused on Mark 12:13–17 (in which Jesus tells those who are trying to trick him, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”) and Romans 13.
There is no unambiguous word in the New Testament on whether the Christian should pay all taxes he said. But likewise, there is no clear statement in the New Testament on not going to military service. “Taxes are due to the governing authorities, but there is still a need for moral discrimination,” Mr. Miller said.
Howard Baumgartner told the board that, if it decided to allow an employee not to pay her war taxes, it might want to test the constitutionality of the withholding law in the U.S. courts. An earlier similar case from the American Friends Service Committee had been thrown out on technical grounds without testing the tax law itself.
Elmer Neufeld, president of the General Conference, sent a letter to all General Conference pastors on the subject:
Should the conference withhold taxes for war?
Some time ago I reviewed a number of the court-martial records of the Mennonite men in the United States in World War Ⅰ who were tried for refusing to participate in military service. These were our fathers and fathers’ fathers who had committed their lives to the way of the cross and who held with the saints of all ages that there is a law of God which stands above the human laws of the nation.
There was no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service and war, so they simply took their stand in humble obedience to Christ and accepted the consequences. Gerhard M. Baergen… guilty. Abraham Goertz… guilty. Russell A. Lantz… guilty. John T. Neufeld… guilty. Carl A. Schmidt… guilty. Walter Sprunger… guilty. And so on.
It is through the sacrifice of these sturdy men of conscience that the United States came to provide a legal alternative to military service and war for those with scruples against participation. It is through their sacrifice that many of us were able to use this legal alternative in World War Ⅱ and again in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Now we face a new situation. For the first time , except for a brief lull following World War Ⅱ, our churches in the United States no longer face the conscription of young men for military service. For this many have worked and for this we are grateful. However, it is clear that conscription for military service was not terminated because the United States has come to rely less on military power. In fact, the United States has come to be militarily the most powerful nation in the world and is exporting more armaments than any other nation in the world. All of this is possible with well-paid volunteer armed forces and a heavily financed industrial military complex. The military complex is able to get along without our young men as draftees, but it insists on having our finances to support its multibillion dollar operation.
More and more there are those among us whose consciences no longer allow them freely to support this military machine. Though they realize that Christians have usually paid their taxes through the centuries, even to strongly militaristic governments, they believe that the vast sums required today are too much, that it is once more time to withstand the military powers that threaten to destroy all of humankind, that Caesar is demanding not only what belongs to Caesar, but also what belongs to God.
I was deeply impressed as we went about the circle of General Board members and staff [at the meeting] that almost all had struggled with this issue of conscience and that most had in some way protested the vast sums being required for military purposes. Though it is appropriate for us as a people to counsel together whether it is right in the sight of God to keep paying these war taxes, this is also an issue on which individuals and families will make their own decisions — and we will not all make the same decisions.
However, as a conference we face a more complex question. Not only must our individual members and families decide what to do about war taxes, but the conference as an employer must collect taxes, including taxes for war, for the government. We are collecting taxes not only from those who are willing to pay the whole amount to the government, but also from those who have Christian convictions against supporting the military in this way. Cornelia Lehn is one such person. (See below.) A number of ordained ministers working for the conference are self-employed for tax purposes and thus can make their protest in whatever way seems appropriate. But for others this is not possible.
So the issue before the General Board in was whether the General Conference as an employer should continue to withhold federal income tax money, even from those employees who have conscientious objection to this, and send that money to the government.
The Commission on Home Ministries recommends that the conference should no longer withhold taxes from those employees who have convictions against such payments. On the other hand, the Division of Administration has serious concerns about the consequences for the conference in violating the laws of the land.
The General Board in its meeting had a long and intensive discussion, with representatives of the Commission on Home Ministries and the Division of Administration and with counsel on biblical principles from Marlin Miller, president of Goshen Biblical Seminary, as well as Erland Waltner, president of Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
A larger and larger majority of General Board members have serious reservations about serving as a tax collector from those employees who have Christian convictions against the payment of such taxes. At the same time we were sensitive that we were being called to make a decision not only for ourselves but for the whole conference and that we have not yet had adequate dialog with our congregations about this issue.
What is the will of God for the General Conference in this issue? What is your counsel for the General Board? We did not act because it was clear that we had not come to consensus, but the issue will continue to face us and we will continue to struggle for the right decision.
One possible course of action is for the General Board in its meeting to formulate a recommendation to be sent to the congregations for study and for corporate consideration at the triennial sessions of the General Conference in .
I want to touch on a related question: Is this one of those conference issues which is of concern only to the United States and not to Canada? Will our brothers and sisters in Canada feel like washing their hands of this issue? Or is this one of those cases when one part of the body is in trouble and the whole body struggles together? May it in fact be possible that the Canadians can help those of us in the American churches see ourselves a bit more objectively?
Can we possibly come to the place, in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us together that we should decide this issue in a certain way? Surely if we search together in openness and honesty and in a spirit of prayer, God will not forsake his people.
A letter from Conference employee Cornelia Lehn was also enclosed in Neufeld’s letter:
I work for the General Conference Mennonite Church at 722 Main St., Newton, Kansas. Each month a certain percentage of my salary is deducted for income tax purposes before I receive it. The business office is legally requested to do so for all employees except for those who have been ordained to the ministry.
We are told that approximately 50 percent of the income tax deducted goes to buy armaments. When I first started working here, this did not bother me too much, even though I believed strongly in nonresistance. After all, did not Jesus himself pay taxes (Mt. 17:24-27)? Why then should I refuse to do so?
The whole question of personal responsibility began to tear at my heart and mind, however. We held the people condemned at Nuremberg responsible for their deeds, although they had just “obeyed the government.” We held Captain Calley responsible for his deeds at My Lai, though he, too, thought he had obeyed the government. Why should I not be held responsible to obeying the government when it was asking me to do an evil thing? Though Jesus paid taxes, the spirit of his teachings is to do good, not evil, to our fellow human beings. I became convinced that allowing my money to be used for armaments could not be God’s will and that if it was used in that way I must bear at least part of the responsibility.
The big question then was how to get out of being involved in this crime. I could not refuse to pay a portion of my tax, since the whole tax was already withheld. I asked our conference office not to withhold from my paycheck that portion of the income tax that goes for war, but they could not grant that request. I considered the options, such as reducing my paycheck to the point where I would not need to pay any taxes or reducing it to the point where I would need to pay only half the taxes I do now.
Finally I decided to give half of my income to relief and other church work and thus force the Internal Revenue Service to return that portion of my tax which they had already slated for military purposes.
I realize, of course, that this is not the perfect answer. Of the 50 percent that IRS still has of my income tax, half will again be used to meet the military budget. It is, however, the best answer I know at this time. Finally I could no longer acquiesce and be a part of something so diabolical as war. I had to take a stand against it.
I wish that my church, which believes in the way of peace, would as a body no longer gather money to help the government make war. I wish all the members of our church would stand up in horror and refuse to allow it to happen. Then the conference officers would be in a position to say to the government, “We will not give you our sons and daughters, and we will not give you our money to kill others. Allow us to serve our country in the way of peace.”
Don Kaufman wrote in to the magazine on to praise Neufeld’s letter and to say that the dialogue about the issue had been beneficial to the community, but also to criticize the church for its timidity in the face of the law:
[A]s Christians we seem to be far more accountable to the government than we are to the church. I have sometimes wondered why it is that we are more willing to allow the secular authorities to shape us and to “keep us in line” than we are to receive guidance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. The major exceptions to this in the General Conference Mennonite Church appear to be the intentional communities of faith like Fairview Mennonite House and the New Creation Fellowship, where economic discernment is more obviously a part of the Christin commitment.