Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1977

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today brings us up to 1977.

The Mennonite

In our last episode we watched various executive committees and commissions and boards in the Mennonite General Conference pass the buck back and forth as the Conference impatiently waited to learn whether they would or would not continue to withhold taxes from the paychecks of their conscientiously objecting employees.

The buck-passing and indecision continued into . On the Council on Commissions asked the Commission on Home Ministries “to prepare a study process on civil disobedience and tax refusal in connection with the triennial conference and to ask congregations to commit themselves to a study process.”

The board [General Board, I think ―♇] was sharply divided on whether to grant the employee’s request and thus risk violating tax regulations. Board members also could not agree on whether the issue should be decided by the board or wait for action by the entire conference at the triennial sessions in .

Cornelia Lehn, the employee bringing the request, met with the board for the first time and told them, “It was also a very difficult decision for me over a long period of years. Finally I gave up seeing through the difficulties; for me, I simply had to obey God and leave the consequences up to him.”

The board passed the buck to the General Conference at its triennial sessions. Here’s how The Mennonite described the resolution on the table there:

The resolution reviews the history of General Conference discussion of the war tax issues from a sentence in the statement “The Way of Peace” [see ♇ 22 July 2018] to General Board deliberations on an employee’s request that war taxes not be taken out of her paycheck.

The resolution asks that congregations and regional conferences “commit ourselves to a serious study of civil disobedience during , that the Commission on Home Ministries help facilitate such a study… and that a midtriennium miniconference be convened for congregations to report on their study and to recommend actions related to civil disobedience and war tax resistance, including the question of Mennonite institutions serving as war tax collectors for the state by withholding these taxes from employees.”

The triennium passed that motion. Here’s how The Mennonite covered the debate. Excerpts:

In three separate votes, the delegates first turned down, 1,190 to 336, an amendment which would have adopted an interim policy for eighteen months “instructing the conference to honor the requests of those employees who ask not to have withheld from their salaries that portion of federal income tax they believe helps the government prepare for war.”

The next evening, delegates adopted, 1,178½ to 453½, the main motion. Its effect is to delay any action on the request of conference employee Cornelia Lehn that federal income taxes that would go for war not be taken out of her paycheck. It also calls for a midtriennium official delegate conference to recommend actions related to civil disobedience and war tax resistance, including the question of Mennonite institutions serving as war tax collectors for the state by withholding these taxes from employees.

A second resolution that evening gave General Conference endorsement to the World Peace Tax Fund Act in the U.S. Congress and encouraged similar legislation in Canada, if appropriate. The act would allow conscientious objectors to war to designate the military portion of their taxes into the peace fund. The resolution also “continue(s) to support individuals who feel compelled by Chrisian conscience to adopt other methods of witness against payment of war taxes such as voluntary reduction of income or nonpayment of war taxes.”

Discussion of the war tax with­hold­ing issue began with a tes­ti­mony by Ms. Lehn, who writes and edits children’s cur­riculum for the Com­mis­sion on Edu­ca­tion, who first came to the con­fer­ence busi­ness manager two years ago with a request that she be allowed to resist pay­ment of war taxes. Pres­ent­ly the busi­ness office is fol­low­ing federal reg­u­la­tions that es­ti­mat­ed taxes be with­held from each em­ploy­ee’s pay­check. The reg­u­la­tions do not apply, how­ever, to or­dained persons em­ployed by the con­fer­ence, some of whom are re­sist­ing vol­un­ta­ry pay­ment of war taxes with­out im­pli­cat­ing the con­fer­ence as a whole.

“It is a long journey from the little Mennonite village in the Ukraine, where I was born, to Newton, Kansas,” she began. “It was a long pilgrimage until I came to the conviction to resist war taxes and was able to act on it.”

Ms. Lehn told of her struggle with the command to pay taxes, on the one hand, and the knowledge that her tax dollars were being used for killing.

“I can’t extricate myself from the system, but I finally have to take a stand against a demonic armaments race,” she said. “I do not know where this will lead, but… for my part, I must obey the Spirit of God as I understand it to be revealed in the Bible and leave the consequences to God.”

Delegates kept coming to the microphones to speak to the resolution until debate was cut off.

“As a pastor, I could not advocate civil disobedience,” said Dan Dalke of Bluffton.

“The taxes Jesus said to pay were to the Roman Government,” said a former IRS employee.

“I have proper respect for laws, but I also recognize that if Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and Menno Simons had had greater fear for the law than for God, we would probably not be here today,” commented Lauren Friesen, pastor from Seattle.

“This morning we passed a resolution supporting missionaries for acting faithfully in oppressive situations abroad,” said Steve Linscheid of Goessel, Kansas. “We should not expect more from our missionaries than we are willing to do ourselves.”

“Many people are concerned about our tax dollar, but we should work much harder trying to come to a common mind with other Mennonite groups,” said Henry A. Fast of North Newton, Kansas. “We should keep on pushing the World Peace Tax Fund Act.”

Donovan Smucker of Kitchener, Ontario, cited many Christians throughout the ages who have obeyed God rather than man and said, “The problem is, When do you stop the democratic process that is pushing you into something that is evil?”

“It’s best to work through the system and use the privileges we already have,” said Art Waltner.

“Our right to conscientious objection to military service did not come through petition in Washington,” Ted Koontz of Boston reminded the delegates. “It came because our forefathers spent years in prison in World War Ⅰ.”

The World Peace Tax Fund resolution, which supports legislation to allow people to resist war taxes without breaking the law, passed later in the evening by voice vote without audible opposition. Most of the U.S. district conferences had already adopted resolutions supporting the proposed legislation.

In a way, this was more of a triumph than a defeat for the promoters of war tax resistance. If the triennium had voted the other way, one employee, and maybe a handful more, would have benefited somewhat from the new policy. But by voting this way, the triennium prompted discussions in every Mennonite congregation about whether or not war tax resistance was the right thing to do.

The issue came up again at “the meeting of the executive committee of the General Board of the General Conference Mennonite Church.”

There was… lengthy deliberation about the midtriennium civil disobedience conference called for by a Bluffton resolution. One of the main concerns was whether Canadian churches would see the issue of civil disobedience and war tax as relevant to them. Would they send delegates? Another worry was whether delegates would carry a large number of proxy votes. The constitution of the General Conference allows for a quorum with 50 percent representation, and since one delegate can carry up to twenty-five votes by proxy, it would be possible for forty persons to make a decision affecting the whole conference. About 1,000 votes are needed for a quorum.

The hope was expressed that the study process being initiated would create good interest and also broadly based, informed representation. Beginning in an attitudinal survey on civil disobedience is scheduled. A study guide is to be ready by for use in Sunday school sessions and other study groups. A definite place and time for the midtriennium conference will be decided later, though is a strong possibility.

Already the executive committee is faced with a question of civil disobedience. Only a few days prior to the meeting the Newton office received notice from the Internal Revenue Service of the United States to pay personal income taxes owed by Heinz Janzen (general secretary) and his wife, Dorothea Janzen. Since Heinz is ordained, it is legal for him to categorize himself as self-employed, and hence, his salary check from the General Conference has no income tax deductions. he has been refusing to pay the military portion of his income tax, placing it in a bank account, and informing the IRS of his reasons.

Until this levy arrived the IRS has simply confiscated the bank accounts of such persons and withdrawn the unpaid portion from the accounts. Now the IRS has demanded that the General Conference employer be responsible for paying Heinz’s unpaid tax out of Heinz’s salary check.

The executive committee decided to delay a decision on the IRS levy until the meeting of the General Board. They were concerned that any action in the current case is not to be seen as a predetermination of the issues which by Bluffton conference resolution are to come before the midtriennial conference. They did, however, see the levy as different from the request of General Conference employee Cornelia Lehn to have the military portion of her tax not withheld from her salary check by the General Conference. The Janzen case is seen as civil disobedience by individuals and not by the incorporated body, the General Conference.

There was also coverage of war tax resistance in The Mennonite that was unconnected, or largely so, with the tussle over withholding from Conference employees.

A letter to the editor declared the writer “fascinated by the views on tax payment… when Jesus made a fairly clear statement on that subject almost 2,000 years ago.” In his mind, Americans’ high earnings relative to those of citizens of other countries are due to the actions of the American government, so “in a way our earnings are Caesar’s to start with.”

Carl Lehman penned a third in his series of patiently exasperated essays arguing against war tax resistance. He reiterates his assertion that there are no “war taxes” — no tax whose proceeds are devoted solely to military expenses. And he says that the common practice of refusing to pay a percentage of your income tax that is equivalent to the percent of the federal budget devoted to military expenses doesn’t make much sense when you hold it up to scrutiny. There’s little to suggest that withholding some number of dollars from the government is going to mean even a dime less will be spent on the military. Bothering IRS agents, who don’t set government spending policy, is pointlessly annoying. Furthermore he wanted it known that Mennonites like him who oppose war tax resistance are also being conscientious, and should not be asked to violate their consciences.

Marge Roberts responded. For her, war tax resistance was at its core an outreach tool:

[T]he center of my using this method of resisting is the opportunity present to witness to many individuals and groups about my feelings around peace issues. My tax resistance brings my convictions into the awareness of a much wider forum of my fellows than just the IRS; many facets of my life are touched and opened to people not otherwise thinking of how much we allow ourselves to be used by the government to do evil.

She gave several examples: her employers at a Lutheran church who ultimately decided to stop withholding taxes from her salary, a real estate agent who learned of a federal tax lien against her, the officers of a bank who refused her a loan because of that lien, IRS agents who came to seize her car.

Eric Coursey was even more fed up than Lehman. Just look at the darned Bible, he wrote. He gave the by-now-familiar tour of Romans 13, Matthew 17, Matthew 22, and so forth, and accused those who weren’t willing to go along with his interpretation of those verses of preferring modern cultural trends to the Word of God.

Harold R. Regier, the Commission on Home Ministries secretary for peace and social concerns, had an op-ed in the edition on the social responsibilities of Christians. At first he struck a tone that harmonized with Coursey’s complaint: “Too often we buckle under the heresy some call ‘civil religion.’ Social, political, and economic values determine the shape of our faith. The world presses us into its mold.” But rather than counseling obedience, as Coursey did, he counseled “prophetic witness,” and gave this example:

On , the judgment of a U.S. tax court ruled that the levying of taxes for war purposes does not interfere with the individual’s free exercise of religion. If religion means only to worship together in a building or only to relate your personal self to God, then paying military taxes is no violation of religion. But if our religion moves us from the pew to see our neighbors as part of God’s world, then that court couldn’t be more wrong.

Some overdue skepticism about the World Peace Tax Fund act started to surface in the pages of The Mennonite in too. This brief note comes from the edition:

Objections to the World Peace Tax Fund Act were stated in the first prize essay of the C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest. Winner Phil M. Shenk, student at Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, Virginia, points out that the fund would not reduce the military budget and may lull the consciences of nonresistant persons, diluting “the church’s prophetic voice against the world’s ungodly love for war.” The fund is a proposal in the U.S. Congress in which conscientious objectors could designate their federal income, estate, and gift taxes for a special fund devoted to nonmilitary purposes.

An article by Shenk followed, in the edition:

Mennonite church bodies are officially recognizing the World Peace Tax Fund (WPTF) as an attractive option for a peace witness. Yet, is the WPTF a biblically faithful response to a war-mongering world? Does it fit the nature of Christ’s gospel?

The WPTF would change the Internal Revenue Code, allowing conscientious objectors to channel the military portion of their federal income, estate, and gift taxes to a special fund devoted to “nonmilitary purposes.” But here, as in conscription, does the legitimization of objection to war strengthen the protest or does it mortally wound personal conviction and severely weaken social impact?

The church confronts a world at odds with its values. The world values its military budgets. The polaric opposite of this value system is found in the love of Christ which prioritizes life. Because of Christ’s spirit of love, the church’s whole mission must call the world to change its doom-full directions away from death into life. This is a call to salvation, and, Andre Trocme declares, it is a “doctrine applicable to a society, as well as to an individual.”

The character of this salvation is found in the suffering-servant nature of the Savior. Christ did not withdraw in the face of suffering. He purposefully rejected the temptation to create an insulated life and instead faithfully extended his life and values among people who finally killed him for it. Today we call this agape or self-giving love. Agape finds its sole justification in the revelation of God as interpreted in Scripture.

The WPTF concept, on the other hand, appears to rely heavily on the state-decreed right of the individual to the free exercise of religion. By offering the opportunity to avoid financial participation in war, the state claims to respect the consciences of those persons opposing war. But what exactly is being respected here? Does this conscience have only to do with individual personal values, or does its sphere of influence penetrate the social realm as well? The latter is a political challenge.

The WPTF obviously would strengthen official respect for the personal consciences of those persons opposed to financial participation in war. But what impact would the WPTF have on the social consciences of persons opposed to war? Might it not tend to dilute the church’s prophetic voice against the world’s ungodly love for war?

The early church was seduced by the Roman emperor Constantine’s legalization of the church. Its strength was sapped; its faith made tolerant by tolerance. Official recognition of the church was fourth-century doublespeak for subsuming it within the state’s umbrella of political support, itemization, and diluted plurality.

The Mennonite church has been aptly characterized as the “quiet in the land,” and more recently, the “silent in the suburbs.” We would do well to critically look at how special legal exemptions in the past have influenced our convictions against war. Special niches tend to foster reclusive passivity.

The objection could be raised that the WPTF is an act of positive involvement instead of an act of withdrawal. It diverts tax monies into peace-promoting activities. Just as doing voluntary service is seen as more constructive than sitting in jail, the legal alternative in the WPTF is taken to be more responsible than tax resistance. But is this really true? I think not.

The church’s faithful response would include both positive action and negative protest. What if the draft-age persons illegally refused to comply with the draft while nondraftable brothers and sisters voluntarily furthered peace positively in voluntary service? Is this not a more balanced peace agenda for the church? Similarly, though the war tax issue hits all wage earners, the current high standard of living allows the church to do both again — protest by refusing to pay war taxes and at the same time promote peace positively by giving time and money to peace projects.

It is vain thinking to proffer the WPTF as a way to reduce the military budget. The military will get its money anyway, as long as the majority of people are oblivious of the inhumanness and ungodliness of killing. It is imperative that the strongest most diligent efforts of protest be maintained, even when confronted with an unbelieving and hostile generation. Though affirmed years ago, Tertullian’s words still ring true: “The blood of martyrs is seed.”

What resources then does the church have to protest with? I cannot improve on John Howard Yoder when he says that at times “the most effective way to take responsibility is to refuse to collaborate… This refusal is not a withdrawal from society. It is rather a major negative intervention within the process of social change, a refusal to use unworthy means even for what seems to be a worthy end.”

Thus, as an alternative to the WPTF, I submit simple yet active tax resistance as the best, most faithful way in which the church can witness to society on war taxes. True, the money will be eventually taken by the Internal Revenue Service and the military, yet not without sparking some public interest and provoking numerous forums in which to voice one’s concern.

Worldly priorities must be objected to in word and deed. If the objecting deeds are performed legally, they register little if any protest. If consciously illegal, they register an unequivocal refusal to agree with the world’s values. The latter gets the attention of the state, the former does not.

Simple tax resistance would free the church to spend its energies calling the whole world to salvation rather than saving just itself.

The church’s “in-ness” but “not-of-ness” demands that it be actively concerned about the nonchurched world. Christ as Lord is subject to no other authority. Because of this, the church’s most crucial task is to prophetically and faithfully enact and promote Christ’s values in life without regard for political limitations or definitions. The politics of Jesus are not those of compromise, but those of dogged, active, and consistent faithfulness.

Finally, the edition included a brief note about Margaret and Weldon Nisly who were withholding the federal excise tax on their phone service and sending the money to charity.