This is the twenty-fifth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today I’m going to try to cover 1978.
I say “try” because there was a frenzy of war tax resistance activity reported in The Mennonite . Maybe I can try to sort it thematically…
A New Call to Peacemaking
“A New Call to Peacemaking” was an initiative coordinated by Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren activists that began in and would eventually culminate in a statement urging people, Christians in particular, to refuse to pay taxes for war.
The Mennonite General Conference’s Peace Section, U.S. division, met and its executive secretary, John K. Stoner, reported that the Call “has gained widespread support.”
At a New Call to Peacemaking conference in Colorado, “[p]eople from seven central Colorado communities took part in the afternoon workshops on various peace issues including world hunger, simple life-style, tax resistance, and the planned protest at the nearby Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.”
An conference of the group in Indiana contemplated “Peace Caravans which would carry the peace message to local congregations” along with such things as “developing support systems for nonconforming Christians, such as tax resisters”.
The initiative held its national gathering in . An article announcing the gathering included these details:
Invited to the meeting are 300 persons — Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites.
Named the New Call to Peacemaking, this coalition of historic peace churches believes that “the time has come for all Christians and people of all faiths to renounce war on religious and moral grounds.”
During the last year twenty-six regional New Call to Peacemaking meetings, involving more than 1500 persons, took a new look at the teachings of their churches. They gave special attention to war and violence which they continue to see as denials of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Not surprisingly the groups agreed to urge upon all governments “effective steps toward international disarmament.” However, none of the regional meetings expressed the hope that politicians, soldiers, and diplomats would put an end to war. Rather, the thought was that people at the grass-roots level must demand a change in the system. Further, the idea was often expressed that tax resistance and civil disobedience are necessary tactics in convincing governments that a new order can bring security in place of the present insecurity.
A New Call to Peacemaking conference which convened at Old Chatham, New York, last April, asked itself rhetorically, “Are we going to pray for peace, and pay for war?” A similar conference in Wichita, Kansas, gave its encouragement to “individuals who feel called to resist the payment of the military portion of their federal taxes.”
When the national conference convenes in Green Lake it will be receiving requests from the regional meetings for a strong position on tax resistance proposals. It will also be asked to give guidance to individuals and church organizations on approaches to tax resistance. Theological, economic, and social justice issues are also on the agenda.
“Citizens should organize themselves and act without waiting for government, especially the major powers, to take positive action,” says Robert Johansen in a paper being studied by the Green Lake delegates.
In another document prepared for the Green Lake meeting, Lois Barrett, a Mennonite journalist from Wichita, Kansas, notes that the peace churches have long “recognized refusal to pay war taxes as one of many valid witnesses against war.”
In the Church of the Brethren recommended “that all who feel the concern be encouraged to express their protest and testimonies through letters accompanying their tax returns, whether accompanied by payment or not.” In the General Conference Mennonite Church said, “We stand by those who feel called to resist the payment of that portion of taxes being used for military purposes.”
The number of persons within the peace churches actually withholding a portion of their taxes is still thought to be small, but it is growing. The Internal Revenue Service will not release figures on the number of tax resisters in the United States.
Members of the Green Lake planning group include John K. Stoner, Mennonite Central Committee, Akron, Pennsylvania; Lorton Heusel, Friends United Meeting, Richmond, Indiana; and Chuck Boyer, Church of the Brethren, Elgin, Illinois. Coordinator for the New Call to Peacemaking is Robert J. Rumsey, Plainfield, Indiana.
After the gathering, The Mennonite seemed surprised at how tame and nonconfrontational it ended up being (they titled their article “Peacemakers shy away from shocking anyone”). Excerpts:
The Green Lake conference is part of a cooperative effort by the historic peace groups to do five things — stir up rededication to the Christian peace witness, clarify the biblical basis for it, extend a call to the larger church to see peacemaking as a gospel imperative, propose actions the U.S. Government can take for peacemaking, and determine contemporary positive strategy for peace and justice. Planning for the consultation began in and has included 26 regional meetings in 16 different areas of the United States. Over 1500 people were involved in these meetings.
[Church of the Brethren theologian and professor Dale] Brown said one new way of expressing a peace witness was to protest the country’s military expenditures by withholding income taxes. Tax resistance, he reflected, is an important symbol because it involves our pocketbooks and enlarges the peace witness beyond what 17- and 18-year-old youth do in response to conscription.
[T]he findings committee created a final document satisfying the diverse peaceniks. For the conservative the final statement was too radical; for the activists it was too limp.
There are two main thrusts to the document — actions that are directed inward among the peace churches to enhance the integrity of the peace witness, and actions that are directed outward to enlarge the visibility of the peace witness.
A follow-up article gave more details:
At the end of the national New Call to Peacemaking conference delegates urged all Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, and Brethren to firmly oppose militarism and to become personally involved in the struggle for justice for the oppressed.
Included in the final paper approved is a call to the 400,000 members of the three peace church traditions “to seriously consider refusal to pay the military portion of their federal taxes as a response to Christ’s call to radical discipleship.” This statement is as strong as the 300 delegates could jointly affirm.
Other parts of the war tax statement are equally muted. In the first draft of the paper, church and conference agencies were asked to “honor” the requests of employees who do not want the military portion of their taxes remitted to the government. In the final draft, however, “honor” is changed to “enter into dialogue with.” Several evangelical Quakers were especially antagonistic to even including a reference to war tax resistance in the final document. Yet tax resistance received new encouragement from the conference. About 60 persons attended a Saturday afternoon workshop which detailed tax resistance strategies.
Studying the War Tax Issue and Christian Civil Responsibility
The Mennonite General Conference had been asked to stop withholding taxes from the paycheck of one of its conscientiously objecting employees. This led to a long debate over the advisability of such a policy that caused arguments about war tax resistance to echo throughout the Conference in . A special General Conference delegate session was scheduled to convene in just to respond to this single issue.
In preparation for that session, congregations had been encouraged to put some serious effort into understanding the subject, and some studies were written up to help guide these investigations.
A Christian’s response to civil authority will be given concentrated emphasis by the General Conference during . The study is an outcome of a resolution at the triennial conference in Bluffton, Ohio, . That resolution called for a thorough study of civil disobedience which is intended to state an official position of the General Conference with respect to that portion of income taxes which are used for funding military expenditures, and in general, to research the whole question of obedience-disobedience to civil authority.
Responsibility for the study has been given to the peace and social concerns committee of the Commission on Home Ministries. They, however, requested that a special obedience-civil disobedience committee be formed to give general direction and leadership. This latter group consists of Palmer Becker, Ted Stuckey, John Gaeddert, Harold Regier, Perry Yoder, and Heinz Janzen.
To date three major aspects of the study have been planned — an attitudinal survey, an invitational consultation in , and a study guide to be ready by .
Included in the survey are twenty-eight questions with responses varying from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” chosen to provide an inventory of congregational attitudes towards the authority of the church, and of the state. It will also indicate attitudes to particular issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and payment of taxes for military purposes. A copy of the questionnaire will be sent to every congregation to be duplicated locally.
A second major happening is scheduled for at Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. An invitational consultation will bring together about thirty participants, including persons not committed to civil disobedience. The gathering will include administrative personnel from the General Conference, lawyers, biblical scholars, as well as representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and the Mennonite Church.
It is expected that the study guide will evolve from the proceedings of the consultation. Five of the thirteen lessons in the guide will focus on peacemaking in a technological society. What sort of peacemaking should Mennonites be about in an age of nuclear warfare and worldwide arms shipments? The remaining eight lessons will center about the meaning of civil disobedience. Was it practiced in the Bible? Is nonpayment of taxes a case in point?
The study process will culminate in the special midtriennium conference scheduled for . That gathering will be an official decision-making conference to which congregational delegates will come. At that point a decision on the meaning and practice of civil disobedience will be made.
After the conference the questionnaire will again be used to determine whether the churchwide discussion on obedience-civil disobedience has generated any changes in attitudes.
A few more details came after the Commission on Home Ministries met in , and, according to The Mennonite:
Perry Yoder, part-time CHM staff member, outlined the process planned for dealing with the war tax or civil responsibility issue raised at the Bluffton conference. Because of this issue’s “divisive and emotional potential in the conference,” a survey instrument has been designed to get congregational input; a consultation at the seminary will work toward a study guide, and congregations will be encouraged to use the study in preparation for a special General Conference delegate session at Minneapolis, called solely for the purpose of responding to the Bluffton resolution on tax withholding.
Another article said this study guide would be “available [and] will look at present militarism in North America, previous acts of dissent by Mennonites, and biblical texts on dissent, payment of taxes, and corporate action.”
The General Board also met in . Some excerpts from an article about the meeting:
During the first session on , board members locked onto the planning for the midtriennium conference on war taxes and civil responsibility. Uneasiness about the process erupted quickly. The structure of the invitational consultation on the issue was strongly faulted, as was the conference itself.
Board member Ken Bauman, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana, galvanized his colleagues with his allegations. “The consultation is not structured for dialogue — it is monologue. The way it has been set up upsets me deeply.” Later he declared that the Commission on Home Ministries should not serve as the launching pad for the study and the planning leading to the conference in . “Why ask CHM? The image of CHM is stacked. It should be the responsibility of the General Board.”
His assessment was the beginning of a fruitful debate which occupied several more sessions of the General Board, one session of CHM and hallway discussions.
The debate crystallized about several key questions. What is wrong with the study process initiated by the obedience-civil disobedience committee of CHM? Is the issue of war taxes so divisive that a schism in the General Conference is inevitable? Is the delegate conference viable?
By , perhaps symbolically, the hard-hitting process of charge and countercharge had evolved into understanding and affirmation of the original plans. On paper, little had changed, but in the minds of those who spoke for the “unheard,” — the “conservatives,” the “common person,” and the Canadians — there was a restoration of confidence in the process. Tenseness was dissipated. The mood became one of working together.
The consultation will meet at Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. About twenty-five persons are invited. These include theologians and biblical scholars, attorneys, administrative staff of the General Conference, several MCC staff, and representatives from the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church. The proceedings of the consultation are to serve as the basis for a study guide on civil disobedience.
The committee planning the consultation and the midtriennium conference was called in to justify its ideas. One member, Perry Yoder, observed, “Getting people to participate is very difficult. People are very tense about this.”
“We thought the trust level would be quite high,” said another member, Harold Regier. “Requests for speakers were made on the basis of scholarship and the purpose is biblical. It is not a matter of pro or con.”
“We don’t know where the scholars will come out,” declared Don Steelberg, chairperson of CHM. (A complete list of scholars invited is not yet available — some are still considering the invitation.)
It was noted that since the concern on abortion had been handled insensitively at the Bluffton conference, there was fear that the same thing would happen with the issue of war taxes. So why should those who oppose withholding war taxes bother to participate? They won’t be heard anyway.
Another fear was that the Canadians would also stay away. “My gut reaction is that it is a U.S. issue,” said board member Loretta Fast. She was challenged on that.
“Don’t Canadians also pay military taxes?” queried Ben Sprunger.
“Yes,” replied another Canadian board member, Jake Klassen, “but we have not gone through the trauma and frustrations of the Vietnam War."
Hence, if both the Canadians and those opposed to withholding war taxes stayed away from the delegate conference, the gathering would be a farce. The conference would not be viable if large blocs of delegates simply weren’t there.
For a brief time the board lost nerve. Should the conference be canceled? However, chairman Elmer Neufeld injected reality by reflecting, “The issue is not going to go away. So, what is the next step?"
Over the board recovered confidence in itself, in the planning already done, in the possibility of bringing the dissenters into dialogue, despite differences in theology and nationality, and in the voice of the discerning church. “I came to the Mennonite church because of discerning congregations. If we cannot discern in a process like this, then we have missed the boat,” reflected Don Steelberg.
That was the next step.
They reminded themselves that the Anabaptist movement grew out of several forms of civil disobedience.
They decided to adjust some of the personnel for the consultation. They decided to promote serious study of the civil responsibility issue among congregations so that delegates would be conversant with it. They decided to book the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis as the place for the midtriennium conference.
The General Board also affirmed the action of its executive committee when they refused to pay a tax levy from the Internal Revenue Service. The personal income taxes are owed by Heinz Janzen (general secretary) and his wife, Dorothea Janzen. Under U.S. tax laws an ordained minister is self-employed, is not subject to normal payroll deductions, and hence, Heinz has refused to pay the military portion of his income tax.
Normally the IRS simply confiscates the amount owed from the bank account of the person protesting. But with the levy the IRS is attempting to collect directly from the General Conference as employer. The General Board agreed with the executive committee that the Janzen case is civil disobedience by individuals, and not by an incorporated body, the General Conference.
Editor Bernie Wiebe, himself based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, wrote an editorial for the edition expressing his unease about the direction Canada was taking, at how blasé his fellow-Canadian Mennonites were about it, and at how comparatively little concern there seemed to be there about the war tax issue that was roiling the Conference:
I am uneasy because I don’t hear my brothers and sisters protest against Ottawa. Somehow we manage to wash our hands and keep pointing at the Pentagon…
At Bluffton, the majority voted for a midtriennium conference on the war-tax issue. Every discussion I have since heard on this subject turns to the fear that the Canadian third of the General Conference may refuse to participate; after all, that’s a U.S. question.
The conference was meant to bring in experts on the question who could help better inform the upcoming debate.
Participants in the General Conference Mennonite Church invitational consultation on civil responsibility have been named and the schedule outlined.
The consultation will convene at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Elkhart, Indiana.
Beginning , Ted Stuckey and Reg Toews, representing the business administration arms of the General Conference and Mennonite Central Committee respectively, will present information on the administrative dimensions of the war tax question.
The question, Is there a biblical case for civil disobedience? will be the focus of scholarly input Friday morning. Millard Lind, professor at AMBS, will speak from an Old Testament perspective; confirmation from the scholar asked to provide a New Testament analysis is still pending.
A more specific look at the issue of war taxes is scheduled for . Is civil disobedience called for in this specific case? David Schroeder, professor at Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, and Kenneth Bauman, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana, will speak to the question. Erland Waltner, president of Mennonite Biblical Seminary, will respond.
Corporate action and individual conscience is the theme for . Speaking to this are J. Lawrence Burkholder, president of Goshen (Indiana) College, and William Keeney, professor at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. Another person has yet to confirm acceptance. Peter Ediger, pastor of the Arvada Mennonite Church, will respond.
Elvin Kraybill, legal counsel for Mennonite Central Committee, will talk about legal questions related to civil disobedience. Responding to his presentation are Duane Heffelbower, a member of the Division of Administration of the General Conference, and Ruth Stoltzfus, an attorney living in Linville, Virginia.
In addition to the formal input, various church leaders and administrative staff will contribute to the consultation. These people are Heinz Janzen, general secretary of the General Conference; Harold Regier and Perry Yoder, cosecretaries of peace and social concerns of the General Conference; John Gaeddert, executive secretary of the Commission on Education; William Snyder, executive secretary of MCC; Urbane Peachey, executive secretary for MCC Peace Section; Hubert Schwartzentruber, secretary for peace and social concerns of the Mennonite Church; Ed Enns, executive secretary of the Congregational Resources Board of the Canadian Conference; Peter Janzen, pastor, representing the Canadian Conference.
Six persons will form the findings committee. They are John Sprunger, pastor, Indian Valley Mennonite Church, Harleysville, Pennsylvania; Palmer Becker, executive secretary of the Commission on Home Ministries; Elmer Neufeld, president of the General Conference; Hugo Jantz, chairperson of MCC (Canada); John Stoner, executive secretary for MCC Peace Section (U.S.); and Larry Kehler, pastor of the Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg. Kehler is also the writer for the study guide which is to be published by fall.
The scheduled conference arrived. From The Mennonite’s coverage:
[T]he issue was how Mennonite institutions should respond to those employees who request that the military portion of their income taxes not be withheld by the employer.
Several Mennonite organizations are facing the issue. The General Conference is seeking the will of its 60,000 members in answering such a request from one of its employees, Cornelia Lehn. The consultation in Elkhart was one part of the discerning process leading to a delegate assembly, and a decision in .
Bible scholars, theologians, pastors, administrators, attorneys — twenty-nine persons in all — presented papers, exchanged insights, and probed the issue. Much of their analysis will be incorporated into a study guide to be published by .
There was general agreement that militarism and the nuclear arms buildup are a massive threat to human existence. “We are in pre-Holocaust days,” asserted John Stoner, director of Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section.
How does one change the direction of society? How does one influence government policy so that it is prohuman? Some individuals claim that the witness of taxes withheld from the military could do much to change American priorities.
Is civil disobedience biblical?
Is there a biblical case for civil disobedience? Seminary professor and Old Testament scholar Millard Lind said the question was wrong. He declared the question assumes that the government provides the norm for the person of faith, and asks whether there may be a religious basis for sometimes disobeying it.
On the contrary, he counseled, the biblical accounts emphasize the absolute sovereignty of the God of Israel. Biblical thought challenges the sovereignty of the civil authorities, calling it rebellion. Not only individuals, but above all, the state, with its self-interest and empire building, are against the rule and order of Yahweh.
Is civil disobedience called for in the specific instance of taxes spent for military purposes? Two papers were presented on this question, one by David Schroeder of Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the second by Kenneth Bauman, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana.
“It is clear,” said Schroeder, “that the New Testament speaks for civil disobedience, but it is difficult to determine the form.” Interpreting the will of God must be done in the community of believers. The Scripture must not only be searched to know the will of God, but also to bind ourselves to doing it.
He observed that the issue of taxes for military purposes is often seen in isolation from other options. He counseled that the church needs to look at all avenues which would lead to peace, and then choose those options which would be effective at the individual and corporate levels.
A noticeable reaction of surprise was evident after Schroeder indicated that as a Canadian member of the General Conference he would abstain from voting at the mid-triennium conference in .
“Those (Americans) who must take the consequences of tax withholding must take the responsibility,” he opined. When questioned on this Schroeder said he held the position because he would not, as a Canadian national, be able to effectively support an American practicing tax resistance. Later in the conference, however, he appeared to modify his position.
Bauman’s paper was a careful overview of the tax situation in the time of Christ, of Jesus’ stance relative to the authorities, and of Anabaptist practice.
He indicated that Jesus’ political stance was not with the ecclesiastical nor with the social establishment. Nor did Jesus identify himself as a radical social revolutionary. Rather, Christ was a representative of the kingdom of God with a prophetic call to repentance, faith, and righteous living which transforms society through the transformation of the individual.
“It is amazing,” he reflected, “to see the early church and the Apostles show such respect and subordination to a political system that crucified their Lord and killed their leaders.”
When asked at what point he would practice civil disobedience, Bauman said, “For me it would be more than taxation; it would be when government becomes an object of worship.”
Mennonite practice he noted has been to pay taxes. Only the Hutterites have a consistent pattern of resisting taxes.
Kings and prophets
In a humorous manner, J. Lawrence Burkholder, president of Goshen College, illuminated the tension between individual conscience and management responsibility.
“The Bible is stacked against managers,” he remarked. The managers (kings) were always getting critiques from the prophets. Burkholder confessed that before becoming a college president (a “king”) he had often been prophetic in his utterances.
But now as a manager he values continuity, order, and making life possible. Decisions often have ambiguity built into them. Further, although individuals are free to order their lives as they wish, a corporation incarnates the many wills of its supporters into a limited function. Is it right to expect a corporation to respond in the same way as an individual?
Burkholder did conclude though that a corporation must be willing to die for the sake of principle. For a Mennonite school he suggested such a case would be required ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps).
In his paper on the same topic, William Keeney of Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, warned that biblical and Anabaptist history illustrate that the voice of the majority is not necessarily the voice of God. He also noted that for many people there is a double ethical standard, one for the Christian, and one for the state. Keeney said Christians should have a bias in favor of loyalty to the prophets, and to the way of the cross and costly discipleship. From this he concluded that corporate action needs to respect the individual conscience.
In his response to the above papers, Peter Ediger, pastor of the Arvada (Colorado) Mennonite Church, cried out, “I would hope that management could be prophetic. Can leadership in institutions not give evidence of faithfulness to God? Why do we see this question (tax withholding) as a threat to our institutions? We need more faith in the powers of resurrection. Do we foster fear or faith? Spread the rumor that the Lord is going to do wonderful things.”
The attorneys present provided a legal framework, as distinct from a biblical rationale, for approaching the issue of not withholding taxes used for military purposes. The General Conference could, if it wished, simply stop remitting taxes and wait for the government to take action.
A long process of litigation might ensue in which the church could argue that using the corporate body to collect taxes violates the conscience of tax objectors, and also violates the principle of separation of church and state because the church is held hostage by the state, under penalty of fines or imprisonment of its officers. The attorneys also observed that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) could decide to avoid litigation and its attendant publicity, and simply go to the individual to collect.
In essence the attorneys said there were ways of working on the issue through legal, legislative, and administrative channels.
A findings committee — Palmer Becker, Hugo Jantz, Elmer Neufeld, John Stoner, Larry Kehler — drafted a statement. After hours of discussion and subsequent changes the persons at the consultation agreed that the statement fairly represented their thinking. Some excerpts:
- “Our Christian obedience has to find new and creative responses to the proliferation of military weaponry and technology…
- “Christians respect the governing authorities… which leads to a broad range of activities in support of the public good. Nevertheless, at times our call of prior obedience to God’s sovereignty leads us to disobey the claims of the state…
- “We… have differing convictions about refusing to pay taxes for the military.
- “Let us be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God may lead some of us in a direction that is both prophetic and full of risks.
- “We agree that a way should be sought which will facilitate the expression of the convictions of conference employees who request that their taxes not be withheld.
- “We need to seek the counsel of and work with other Mennnonite groups and denominations, particularly the historic peace churches, in developing the most appropriate response to this issue.”
There were also study materials that came out of the process. These included the books The Rule of the Lamb by Larry Kehler and The Rule of the Sword by Charlie Lord, and Mennonites and War Taxes by Waltr Klaassen.
Two multi-part articles and two additional stand-alone articles stretched across multiple issues of The Mennonite and also served to summarize some of the points of debate:
- “The North American military” by Harold Fransen (part 1 and part 2)
- “Is this our modern pilgrims’ progress” by Vic Reimer
- “Countdown to Minneapolis” by Bernie Wiebe
- “Our Christian civil responsibility” by Larry Kehler (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4)
“The North American military”
These articles begin with an unflattering look at U.S. military personnel, suggesting that even if you put the violence of war off to one side, the drunkenness, ignorance, and sexual immorality found among those in uniform is enough not to recommend the institution to Mennonites. The first part ends: “If we have come to the realization that we can not go to war, maybe the time has come to… say that no one can go to war on our behalf either. As we fill out out income tax forms this year, so that the military can do the job which we refuse to do, let us remember what effect it has on the lives that are bound up in its powerful grip, and be in prayer as we move toward the General Conference’s midtriennium session to deal with this issue.”
Part two looked at this issue from the Canadian perspective, noting that Canada was deeply involved in the international arms trade and was boosting its own military spending. “Can we any longer brush off war taxes as a U.S. issue?”
“Is this our modern pilgrims’ progress”
This article summarized the recent history of the General Conference in grappling with the issue that would come to a head at the session:
If the conference delegates decide that nonpayment of military taxes is justified the decision is binding on the administrators of the General Conference.
Impetus for such an assembly began in when employee Cornelia Lehn requested the General Conference business office not to remit the military tax portion of her paycheck to the IRS. Prior to 1974 the issue of “war taxes” had been discussed, and as early as , delegates at the triennial sessions in Fresno, California, passed a statement protesting the use of tax monies for war purposes. The delegates also said, “We stand by those who feel called to resist the payment of that portion of taxes being used for military purposes.” However, the General Board did not think that directive from the delegates authorized them to stop remitting Lehn’s military taxes. Her request was refused.
Three years later… [at] the next conference… delegates called for education regarding militarism, reaffirmed the 1971 statement, and agreed that serious work be done on the possibility of allowing General Conference employees to follow their consciences on payment or nonpayment of military taxes.
Educational materials have included the periodical God and Caesar and two study guides, The Rule of the Sword and The Rule of the Lamb. In addition to these efforts two major consultations were convened in and in . At these consultations scholarly papers were presented on militarism, biblical considerations for payment or nonpayment of military taxes, and Anabaptist history and theology related to war tax concerns.
Despite the protracted input the General Board could not reach a consensus on the issue. Consequently the problem was brought to delegates at the triennial… [where] the delegate body committed itself to serious congregational study of civil disobedience and war tax resistance during . The delegates also decided to discuss the issue in detail at a midtriennium conference in .
In an effort to implement the Bluffton resolution an eight-member civil responsibility committee was formed. Several actions were taken by it to encourage serious study. an attitude survey on church and government was conducted. Approximately 2,500 responses were received, including 463 from a select sampling in 31 churches. A scholarly consultation was held in . One of the key ideas which came out of this consultation was whether those who feel strongly about not paying military taxes should be encouraged to form a separate corporation within the General Conference. To assist churches in their study of the issue two study guides were published. The Rule of the Sword deals primarily with facts and concerns related to militarism. The Rule of the Lamb centers about the sovereignty of God and biblical texts on taxes and civil authority.
Each of the more than 300 congregations in the General Conference is being encouraged to prepare a statement to bring to the conference. It is evident from the sale of the study guides that a minority of congregations are actually making an effort to study the issue, although all congregations have received sample copies of the guides. Many Canadian churches feel the issue is strictly an American problem, and there is a considerable diversity of conviction and thought among American congregations. Some congregations do not intend to send delegates.
What this means for the Minneapolis conference is difficult to assess, except for one feature. There will be a lot of stirring debate. After will there be some resolution of the withholding question? No one is predicting the outcome.
“Countdown to Minneapolis”
This article tried to put the debate into a larger context of what it meant for the congregations in the General Conference to be deliberating together in this way. It also seemed to be trying to drum up more attendance; there seemed to be some worry that Canadian Mennonites, and more conservative congregations, might just not turn up.
“Our Christian civil responsibility”
This article, by Larry Kehler (author of The Rule of the Lamb), attempted to put all of the pieces together for readers ahead of the conference. Excerpts:
General Conference churches have the opportunity of either growing through the process of working on the war-tax question or of stagnating and splintering. I am somewhat more confident now than I was even six months ago that we will mature through this experience, and in the process perhaps reassert some of our Conference’s flagging leadership in the field of peace.
Perhaps it is only because I have been talking to more optimistic persons. But I do have the impression that General Conference people are more ready now to participate in the struggle for an answer than they were even as late as last winter. The easy answer of letting this debate be the occasion for some congregations to sever their ties with the General Conference seems to be more of a “cop-out” than a reasonable response to a difficult question.
Will your congregation have delegates at the midtriennium sessions in Minneapolis? If it won’t, both the conference and the congregation will be the poorer for it. You see, the question is not only how we will respond to the issue of tax-withholding as a witness against war, but how we go about dealing with questions on which we have not yet achieved clarity or unanimity. The process we go through may well be much more vital to us than the answer we finally come up with, and that is not to diminish the seriousness of the problem of militarism.
Coming to Minneapolis without advance preparation, however, could be almost as destructive as not coming at all. Each congregation should do some serious struggling within its own setting on the various dimensions which this issue is raising for us.
The war-tax issue offers the General Conference one of its best opportunities in many years to work seriously at Bible interpretation on a question about which we have widely differing views. How do we make decisions when we disagree?
The tax texts
What does the New Testament say about taxes?
Here are the four primary passages: Mark 12:13–17 is a description of the Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus with the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus responds by taking a coin and showing them Caesar’s image on it and saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke 23:1–5 recalls the accusations made against Jesus before Pilate. Among them is the charge that he has forbidden his people “to give tribute to Caesar.” In response to Pilate’s question about his kingship over the Jews, Jesus replies ambiguously, “You have said so.”
Matthew 17:24–27 talks about the temple tax. Some Bible interpreters feel that the tax question is a secondary issue in this passage. The writer’s main purpose in telling this incident, some scholars say, is to underscore Jesus’ sonship.
Romans 13:6–7 urges followers of Christ to be subject to the governing authorities and to pay taxes where they are due.
A straightforward reading of these passages has led many persons to conclude that taxes are to be paid regardless of the use to which they might be put. “How can you argue against such clear, simple statements?” they ask people who suggest that there may be more to these comments than can be seen on the surface.
It is the tension between these two approaches to the Bible which lies at the heart of the problem which the General Conference is now facing in its attempt to come up with a biblical response to the “war tax issue.” How do we interpret and understand the Bible? Is the easiest reading of a biblical passage always to be taken as the most likely intention of the writer? Some Bible scholars say that it is sometimes quite deceiving to accept the easiest reading. Others wonder if that sort of remark doesn’t simply underscore the Bible’s assertion that some truths will confound the wise and yet be very clear to more down-to-earth and average persons. Well, maybe. But doesn’t it cheapen the Bible if we think that a book which has come to us from another millennium and a decidedly different culture can be read on the surface — much like one reads a twentieth-century pop-psychology book — and applied to situations in our day without adaptation?
Can any statement in the Bible be taken by itself without first testing it against the background from which it came and against related statements elsewhere in the Bible?
Modern, easy-to-read paraphrases of the Scriptures and our general attitude toward the Bible have led us to believe that “hermeneutics” (the interpretation of the Bible’s message) is not a difficult task. In some cases it isn’t, but in others it is. In places the Bible is so inscrutable that we can seemingly never be quite sure about its full intention. So we have to launch out in faith on some questions, hoping that more clarity will come as we proceed. We may discover as we go that we have started off in the wrong direction. Then we need the humility to admit our error and change our direction.
The major agenda item at the midtriennium sessions in Minneapolis may turn out not to be “war taxes” at all. This issue may be God’s way of prodding us into becoming more of a “hermeneutic community”…
The tax texts need to be studied intensely at the congregational level, each participant bringing an open mind and heart to the discussion. If clarity and unanimity do not come immediately let us not be discouraged. Other groups have had similar difficulties before us. That is all the more reason why we should continue to struggle with this question.
The summary statement prepared by the people who attended the war tax conference contained this paragraph: “After considering the New Testament texts which speak about the Christian’s payment of taxes, most of us are agreed that we do not have a clear word on the subject of paying taxes used for war. The New Testament statements on paying taxes (Mark 12:17 and Romans 13:6–7) contain either ambiguity in meaning or qualifications on the texts that call the discerning community to decide in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.”
For Canadians too
The war tax issue is a U.S. issue and should be decided by them. Right?
Wrong! It’s an issue for the entire General Conference.
But Canadians wouldn’t be taking any of the risks if the U.S. Government should bear down and hand out some jail sentences or fines for the Conference’s not withholding its employees’ income taxes.
Too much emphasis has been put on the possibility of fines or jail terms. These consequences might come, but they’re not likely. The fear of a confrontation with the law has taken the focus off the main point of this whole exercise. The purpose is to give a firm, clear, and prophetic witness against the diabolic buildup of the machines of war, which is occurring at an ever-increasing pace in the United States and in many other nations. Are we going to sit back and allow this escalation to continue without at least giving our governments some sort of message that we cannot any longer go along with this race toward self-destruction?
The arms race and the manufacture of war goods is very much part of the Canadian scene too… I have not yet been able to discover any tax resisters in Canada, but this does not mean that militarism is not a front-burner issue in Canada. It is, and it should be.
I don’t know why there aren’t tax resisters in Canada. There are certainly other forms of objection to the military buildup. “Project Ploughshares” is an interchurch witness against militarism. Mennonites are actively involved in its program of research and information-sharing. Thus, even though tax resistance isn’t part of the Canadian experience now, Canadian Mennonites shouldn’t withdraw from the General Conference discussion. They can legitimately be fully involved on the basis of principle.
If the General Conference is going to say, “Yes,” to those of its employees who don’t want their income tax withheld, that should be the decision of the entire Conference, not just a portion of it. The decision, whichever way it goes, will carry much more weight, I believe, if all the congregations in the Conference have participated in it. Canadian involvement is important.
Some have indicated that the present set of options offered to the delegates — that is to vote either yes or no on the withholding question — is not sufficient. Other alternatives must be developed. If not, the Conference may become polarized, and it might even split.
The question therefore is: How can the General Conference, as an international body, make a clear-cut witness against militarism without splintering the Conference? Some U.S. Mennonites have stated that Canadian participation is crucial to the process.
After the conference in Bluffton in it appeared that there would be minimal Canadian involvement at Minneapolis. There is still no guarantee that participation from Canada will be adequate, but good efforts are being made to encourage Canadian churches to send delegates.
The General Board of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada at its last meeting went on record urging Canadian participation. It will communicate this concern to the churches. Several congregations are making special efforts to prepare for the convention. Bethel Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba, held a weekend seminar on this topic. Grace Mennonite Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, arranged a similar event.
The Winnipeg meeting was covered in a later issue. About fifty people met and came up with a set of recommendations as they prepared to select their delegates to the conference.
Sharon Sawatzky of the Canadian Conference staff in Winnipeg prepared a Canadian supplement for the study booklet The Rule of the Sword by Charlie Lord. Copies of the supplement have been sent to all Canadian congregations who have ordered the five-lesson study booklet on militarism.
Faith and Life Press, Newton, reports that to date (I write this on ) more orders for the study materials (The Rule of the Sword and The Rule of the Lamb) have been received from Canada than from the United States.
The prophets and the managers
The tension created by the war tax question in the General Conference is heightened by people’s disparate understandings of what it means to be good stewards of our church-related institutions. Some have seen it as a tension between the “prophets” and the “managers.”
Who shapes the direction and philosophies of our churches and their agencies? Is it the people who have a “prophetic” vision of biblical responsibility? Is it the administrators who have been charged with “managing” these organizations and creating as few waves as possible? Both? Partially? Neither?
Questions related to this apparent tension are included in the study guide The Rule of the Lamb…
J. Lawrence Burkholder, who is himself the “manager” of a major Mennonite institution (Goshen College), has frankly described the predicament in which leaders of institutions find themselves.
Here is a summary of his observations…
An efficient and well-trained corps of managers has emerged to run the Mennonites’ growing number of institutions. The “constituency” of each of these institutions insists that it is to be run in a businesslike, fiscally responsible, and basically conservative way. Actions which might jeopardize the welfare of an institution are not likely to be looked upon with much favor.
The war tax issue, said Burkholder, is a problem of personal ethics as opposed to corporate ethics. Our way of understanding the Bible is based on a one-to-one decision-making process, where the individual can respond quickly and simply to a situation.
A corporation’s response to an ethical question, on the other hand, involves many wills. A number of “publics” make demands on the institution to decide the issue their way. This does not mean, the Goshen College president emphasized, that moral demands cannot be made of corporations. Nor should it be said that all institutions are alike.
Corporations tend toward the status quo. They emphasize different values than “prophetic” Christians. Corporations tend to take a positive view of the broader culture in which they operate, they recognize the ambiguity of the situations in which they are making their decisions, and they look less judgmentally on people than do the “prophets.”
On the other hand, prophets have the luxury, according to Burkholder, of being able to speak abstractly, of idealizing certain things from the past, and of talking about perfection and ideals in an imperfect society.
Managers of church-related institutions have a clear line of accountability to their constituency, he said, “but who holds the prophets responsible?” Prophets are usually judged to be true or false in retrospect. A prophet, therefore, doesn’t have to take responsibility for actions, words, and decisions in the same way that a manager does. “Sometimes,” said Burkholder, “present-day prophets come off ‘cheap.’”
He emphasized that Mennonites should continue to identify with the prophetic tradition. They should be aware, though, that this means they will have to be willing to remain somewhat on the edge of society.
“We will also need to develop a theology of corporate life,” he added. “We already have a theology of fellowship, but we don’t have a theology of the institution.”
Debate in the Letters Column
There was plenty of debate about the propriety of war tax resistance itself in the letters-to-the-editor column, sometimes explicitly prompted by the debate over withholding and the upcoming conference, other times more general.
- John K. Stoner said that if the Conference were to fail to endorse war tax
resistance, “I would like to be able to have the confidence that they made
their decision in full awareness and with truly informed knowledge of the
dimensions of the nuclear abyss into which we are staring. At this point I
do not find it possible to have that confidence.” In short, they seemed to
be unaware of just how bad things had gotten.
I do not wish to imply that tax resistance or some other form of civil disobedience is the only kind of response which faithful Christians should be making to the unprecedented evil of the nuclear arms race. (It is my judgment that the situation confronts us with more than adequate grounds for civil disobedience.) However, I do wish to imply that those who counsel against tax refusal and civil disobedience would be much more convincing if they were leading out in other visible kinds of response to the nuclear crisis.
- Carl M. Lehman wrote in to again remind readers that there was no such
thing as a “war tax” and that such nomenclature comes from “a less than
completely honest persistence in using labels to create a straw man to
Money is only a convenient medium of exchange and not a real necessity to conduct war…
I have no quarrel with the person who simply wants to refuse to pay taxes as a protest technique. As an attention-calling device it may very well be effective. It is not exactly the kind of role I would feel led to play, but I would not want to condemn anyone who felt they must use such a tactic. I would, however, strongly protest any attempt to make such a tactic mandatory for all Mennonites, and this is exactly what is being attempted. Not mandatory, of course, in the sense that it would be a test of membership, but mandatory in the sense of a normal commitment expectation for a nonresistant Christian.
I maintain that tax resistance is a deviation from our heritage of faith. The fact that it is a deviation in no sense makes it wrong and certainly does not mean that we pay no heed. It does, however, very much suggest that the burden of proof is on the deviant, and that the deviant ought not to equate obedience to God with conformity by others.
- John Swarr called on Mennonites to repent for war and in true repentance to “change our ways.” He disagreed with Lehman’s dismissal of the moral import of money. “Money is indeed a medium of exchange, but as Christian stewards of God’s gifts we must be concerned about the things for which that money is invested, donated, or paid.” He also disagreed that war tax resistance was a deviation from Mennonite tradition, pointing to examples from history in which Anabaptists took the issue seriously and came down on both sides.
- Karl Detrich took a hard Romans 13
line on the question, saying that the question of whether Christians
should or should not pay taxes had long ago been closed by that chapter.
While the New Testament also contains examples of civil disobedience, “in
each case these men were following the dictates of a higher law, namely,
that we should have no other gods besides our Lord.”
Jesus tells us that in the last days there will be, among other tribulations, wars and rumors of war. Rather than going against the teaching of God’s word in a vain effort to forestall the inevitable, should we not give our time and energies to the worship of God and the proclamation of his gospel, so that we can do our part to hasten the day of his coming?
- Paul W. Andreas saw simple living as a key to avoiding war taxes, and
resisting war taxes as a key to avoiding despair:
The submission to evil (no government has been free of it) produces despair.
I believe that love of my fellow humans is fundamental to not only Mennonite faith but to Christ’s message. If I am compelled to violate that message by hiring killers and providing weapons, I despair. For me, no charitable contribution undoes the evil I unleash by paying taxes that are used for such ends. Fortunately the practitioner of the simple life can reduce his wage and thus avoid the income tax used for evil.
- James Newcomer, in the course of taking Mennonites to task for the
“red-baiting” he’d found in their midst, took some time out to praise war
I am deeply moved… by the witness of Peter Ediger at Rocky Flats, Colorado, and by many others who through war tax resistance and protest are trying to focus their own understanding of the modern Christian experience at the risk of losing middle-class luxuries and future security.
And if that weren’t enough, there were several other news items that discussed war tax resistance without relating directly to the upcoming conference or the specific debate to be dealt with there. For example:
- “A weekend seminar on war tax resistance” organized by Philadelphia Mennonites at which “[s]pecific strategies for implementing war tax resistance were discussed,” and the usual biblical verses were hashed out.
- News that the IRS had sued the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors for their refusal to pay the tax debt of a former employee.
- The Eastern District Conference quashed a pro-war-tax-resistance resolution:
A four-point resolution on peacemaking called the Eastern District to: (1) serious Bible study on peace and a General Conference resolution on “The Way of Peace” (2) involvement in disapproval (through congressional representatives) of national actions promoting war, poverty, and terror; (3) support of those who feel led to withhold portions of their taxes; and (4) a midyear assembly to promote peacemaking.
After vigorous discussion, point three was stricken from the resolution and point two was amended to include encouragement for righteous actions. The amended resolution was adopted.
- The Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section (U.S.) met. But in spite of all that was going on around them, it merely “reaffirmed its recommendation to Mennonite institutions ‘to study the conflict between Christian obligations and legal obligations in the collection of federal taxes…’” When they would meet again “a resolution on militarism, the future of New Call to Peacemaking, and the question of alternatives to the payment of taxes for military purposes” would be on the agenda. At that meeting, they took a stronger stand:
We support those who resist the payment of taxes for military purposes and call upon all members of the church to seriously consider refusal to pay the military portion of their federal taxes.
- An overview of current Mennonite war tax resistance practice:
While Mennonite church institutions continue to struggle with an administrative response to the issue of “war tax” withholding, individual Mennonites are voicing their convictions through refusing to pay the portion of their taxes designated for military use.
About $4,000 has been received by the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section’s “Taxes for Peace” fund, contributed by Mennonite war tax refusers.
Nonpayment of taxes violates national laws, but tax refusers are convinced that paying taxes is disobedience to God when slightly over half of that tax money is allocated for the past, present, and future military expenditures of the United States.
Most of these tax refusers paid only 47 to 50 percent of taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), forwarding the remaining amount to MCC and other Mennonite agencies. Statements to IRS clarified that the withheld tax money was not for personal profit but rather for meeting human needs, promoting peace and reconciliation, and supporting life instead of death.
James Klassen, Newton, Kansas, who claimed a Nuremburg Principle tax deduction in an amount sufficient to result in a 50 percent refund of the amount of taxes due, recently received the refund in full and forwarded the check to MCC. (The Nuremburg Principles, unanimously affirmed by the United Nations after World War Ⅱ, specify that crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are crimes under national law.)
“This is the first time we have deliberately broken the law of our country,” say tax refusers James and Anna Juhnke, North Newton, Kansas. “It is not an easy decision. We love our land and we respect the authority of the government. We want to show our respect by making our civil disobedience a public act and by accepting the penalties which may result from our action.”
“As a Christian who accepts the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament as normative for life and ethics, I am a ‘conscientious objector’ to participation in war and to the resolution of human conflict by violence,” concludes Marlin Miller of Goshen, Indiana. “It is my conviction that the financial support of war and military expenditures cannot be reconciled with this stance any more than actual military service itself.”
They and other Christians feel that Christ’s calling to a life of love, nonviolence and reconciliation supersedes demands of the state.
Thirty-three persons and families thus far have identified themselves as “war tax resisters” after God and Caesar in its issue provided the opportunity for people to do so. The respondents represent eleven denominations as well as those with no church affiliation.
One recent case of a non-ordained employee at a Mennonite institution hoping to resist paying war taxes involved Esther Lanting, a teacher at Western Mennonite School (WMS), Salem, Oregon, who on wrote a letter to the WMS board requesting that her income tax not be withheld from her check.
On , Lanting was invited to meet with the board to explain her reasons. The board decided to seek the counsel of the conference executive committee, and secure study papers on the tax issue.
Finally, on , after extended study, the peace and social concerns committee of the conference recommended that the WMS board grant Lanting’s request and discontinue withholding her taxes.
On , the WMS board considered the committee’s recommendation. By a vote of six to two they decided not to follow the recommendation, but to continue withholding all tax as legally required. At this same board meeting three other WMS teachers or staff members acted as follows: Ray Nussbaum submitted a letter requesting that the board stop withholding his tax; Floyd Schrock made a verbal request that his tax not be withheld; and Cindy Mullet asked that the board decrease her salary to the level where she will owe no tax.
The board granted Cindy Mullet’s request for a reduction in salary. The board is willing to reconsider the issue if more faculty members should make the same request to have the board refrain from withholding taxes.
MCC has taken no official position on the refusal to pay taxes for military use, but MCC Peace Section (U.S.) adopted a statement in which in part recommended “that Mennonite and Brethren in Christ continue to work toward reduction of military spending, not resting content with special provisions exempting us from payment of taxes for military purposes.” It affirms “those in our midst who feel compelled by Christian conscience to refuse payment of all or some federal tax because of the large percentage of such taxes used for military purposes.”
- Eighty Japanese citizens had begun resisting war taxes thanks to the efforts of Michio Ohno.
- Perry Yoder spoke about war taxes at the Western District annual session:
In concluding his war tax talk Yoder said church members are generally more ready to disregard what the church has to say than what the government says. Issuing a direct challenge to those who believe war tax resistance is wrong he counseled, “It would be more credible if those who are in favor of paying all their taxes would show through some other action what they are doing to love our national enemies.”