Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1980

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we enter the 1980s.

The Mennonite

The edition began with an article about the global military build-up and possible Christian responses to it. Tax resistance was one example:

During the first and second world wars the Mennonite “presence” to the world was the shock of refusal to bear arms. That’s not an issue now; most military service is voluntary. What are we refusing now?

Not many are doing it, but some Mennonites in the U.S. are refusing to pay the portion of their income tax which will be used for military expenditures. For instance, Cornelia Lehn, director of children’s education for the General Conference, has shared this witness: “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 that this is not the perfect answer… It is, however, the best answer I know at this time. Finally I could no longer acquiesce and be 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.’ ”

Is Cornelia Lehn speaking as a prophet? Does she have a word from the Lord to help us respond in a meaningful way to demonic forces?

Peter Ediger writes with prophetic urgency about what people like Cornelia Lehn are doing: “Do we know that there are hundreds and thousands of people out there waiting for a word from the church, waiting for some action from the church? Have we some sense of the explosive evangelistic potential of this kind of action? Do you know that the day of the police state is not only coming but that it is here in its roots, and the issue will not go away?”

Whether we follow Cornelia Lehn’s example or not, we would do well to have her sense of urgency about our own allegiance to the Prince of Peace and ask God for help in making our own faith relevant to our times.

The Commission on Home Ministries met in . Military conscription was prominent on the agenda (President Carter had recently revived military draft registration), but war tax resistance seems to have been pushed aside except for a brief mention:

Chairperson Don Steelberg asked, “How can we who are older support those facing this decision?”

[Robert] Hull replied, “If we counsel them to say no to registration then we should say no to paying war taxes.”

This was part of a “council of commissions” gathering. Another report on that gathering mentioned the “Smoketown Consultation” rebellion of conservative Mennonites . Three of these dissenters were at the council, and one, Albert Epp, reportedly “said the preparatory materials for the war tax conference in Minneapolis were slanted in favor of war tax resistance.”

The West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation co-sponsored a “first annual” workshop on war tax resistance.

Local tax resisters told their stories.

Gray-haired Helen, a Friend, donates the amount of her military tax to organizations working on justice. Diane works at a state institution for the mentally retarded and realized that military taxes take money away from human needs.

All hope for a mass movement by citizens but stressed the consistent commitment necessary. They write letters of explanation to the Internal Revenue Service, editors of newspapers, their churches, members of Congress, the President. They educate employers and bank officials of the possibility of their wages being garnisheed or a lien put on an account.

The IRS is sensitive to “principled tax refusal,” said Irwin Hagenauer [sic], retired social worker who now serves as volunteer resource person to those who would refuse war tax. He gives advice on every method, from W-4 exemptions to war-crime deductions.

The edition carried an article by Weldon Schloneger on Biblical Authority that discussed the difficulty of interpreting even straightforward-sounding biblical passages in context, and urged charity toward other Christians with differing interpretations. Among those verses he describes are Matthew 5:44 (“Love your enemies”) and Matthew 22:21 (“Render unto Caesar”) and he mentions how war tax resisters and their opponents each accept the authority of these verses, but interpret them differently.

On , a hundred people from the traditional peace churches came together to discuss whether the abolition of war was feasible. War tax resister John Howard Yoder addressed the gathering, which came up with a set of questions to bring back to their churches, including this one: “have we recognized that while we lament the arms race we continue to pay for it through our taxes?”

The edition included another poem trying to drive home the point about taxpaying and complicity: “I fueled the fire / Pumped gas in the the furnaces at Buchenwald / Its flames have lingered within us, smoldering / Today I paid my taxes, that’s all” and so forth.

Conscription was again the topic when 400 Mennonite conscientious objectors met in to condemn the revival of the draft. Again, in passing, the question came up: “How can the too-old-to-draft people expect draft-age people to not serve in the military if they pay war taxes?”

The edition included the article “Tax form for pacifists” by Colman McCarthy. It started by pointing out taxpayer complicity with military spending, and “the hollowness of denouncing increases in the defense budget and ‘the wicked Pentagon’ [when c]itizens pay for both.” The article took a detour into wishful thinking about the World Peace Tax Fund bill before finally returning home:

Without this kind of legislative relief conscientious objectors are left with three options: violate their moral values by financing the military, violate the tax laws by not paying, or earn so little income that it is not taxable.

Traditionally courts have had little patience with tax resisters. Often judges mistakenly see those citizens as evaders, when actually they are pacifists who want to put their money where their convictions are.

According to William Samuel of the [National Council for a World Peace Tax Fund], cases of conscientious tax resistance have not only been increasing in recent years, but they have also been going on to higher courts of appeal. In at Richmond the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from three citizens claiming First and Ninth amendment rights not to pay taxes for military spending.

While Congress and the courts mull over the issue a few individuals are acting on their own. Only blocks from the White House, Collective Impressions Printshop has been refusing for the past two years to send its federal withholding tax to the IRS. Instead this corporation submits the money to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

The defiance of these pacifists unloosens only the smallest of screws in the U.S.’s vast military machine. The arms-control agency politely returns the checks and eventually the IRS seizes the group’s bank account. But it doesn’t seize its moral integrity or squash the option for dissent that is so crucial.

That issue also included an interview with Harold R. Regier and Hubert Schwartzentruber, until recently the peace and social concerns secretaries for the Mennonite General Conference and the Mennonite Church respectively. The former, when asked what the highlights of his term had been, mentioned the General Conference resolution that had announced church support for war tax resisters, and also God and Caesar:

This little newsletter of information and dialogue about war taxes brought together a community of people struggling with the question of supporting with our money what we could not participate in personally. We discovered increasing numbers of people responsive to the dilemma of being Christian peacemakers and their support of war with tax monies. Working on the war tax issue as a new frontier for Anabaptist discipleship was perhaps the single most exciting highlight of my as PSC secretary.

A special Commission on Home Ministries supplement, dated , listed “some ideas we are testing” which included this one:

Just as our forefathers clarified important church-state issues in objecting to war participation, we may be able to make a significant contribution for freedom of religion and against state religion in the area of paying taxes to support war. An outside-our-conference-budget fund could finance test cases in the U.S. and Canada to clarify the church-state issues involved in paying taxes used for war. A creative proposal could be tested with legislators, such as one just surfacing: persons contributing “sabbatical service,” a VS term every seventh year to work for the good of others, should be allowed to designate their taxes for constructive purposes.

This idea apparently came out of a discussion between Robert Hull of the CHM Peace and Social Concerns group and a young conscientious objector facing a trial on tax charges.

The task force that had been assigned to try to find some legal avenue for the General Conference to stop withholding taxes from its conscientious objecting employees seems to have come up with its first concrete action plan:

Tax exemption resolution to be presented

A resolution seeking approval to initiate a judicial action to exempt the General Conference from withholding taxes from the income of its employees will be presented to delegates attending the denomination’s triennial meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, .

At a special meeting of church delegates in Minneapolis in the highest governing board of the church was instructed to vigorously search for “all legal, legislative, and administrative avenues for achieving a conscientious objector exemption” from withholding taxes. Implicit in the initiative is the view that if it is wrong for pacifists to countenance the drafting of their bodies, it is also wrong to agree to the drafting of that portion of income taxes which go to the military.

The judicial action would be based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the church from laws causing it to violate its principles. The estimated cost of a judicial action is $75,000 to $130,000. It would likely require several years to reach a final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Delegates will be asked to authorize an annual church offering to fund this action and also a stepped-up drive to gain congressional support for the World Peace Tax Fund act.

That resolution would pass “easily” at the conference, 1,156 to 353 with seven abstentions.

In the issue, John Stoner of the Mennonite Peace Section (U.S.) encouraged those readers who were war tax resisters to redirect their taxes to a draft resisters’ mutual aid fund.

The New Call to Peace­making in­i­ti­a­tive had another na­tion­al con­fer­ence in . The article an­nounc­ing the up­com­ing meeting in­clud­ed this news:

The Church of the Brethren has af­firmed “open, non­e­va­sive with­hold­ing of war taxes as a le­git­i­mate wit­ness to our con­sci­en­tious in­ten­tion to fol­low the call of dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus Christ.”

A later article about the meeting noted:

With respect to the pay­ment of taxes used for war pur­pos­es, the New Call re­stat­ed its com­mit­ment to urge Christ­ian peace­makers to “con­sid­er with­hold­ing from the In­ter­nal Rev­e­nue Ser­vice all tax monies which con­tri­bute to any war effort.”

The statement of find­ings rec­om­mend­ed the fol­low­ing as al­ter­na­tives to the pay­ment of war taxes: (1) ac­tive work for the adop­tion of the World Peace Tax Fund bill which, if passed by the U.S. Congress, would serve as a legal alternative to payment of war taxes just as conscientious objector status is a legal alternative to military service, and (2) individuals are urged to consider prayerfully all moral ways of reducing their tax liabilities, including sizable contributions to tax-exempt organizations, reduction of personal income, and simplification of lifestyles.

In the edition, Peter Farrar shared a letter he wrote to his senator saying that he was going beyond draft resistance “to sever all personal connection with the federal government of the United States”:

I will no longer vote in federal elections, pay federal taxes, nor use federal services, and I will do everything in my power, privately and in the press, to influence others to join me.

The magazine also covered the annual conference of the Center on Law and Pacifism. Among the things discussed:

Ed Pearson gave an update on an “escrow fund” originated in , to which people can send the part of their taxes they refuse to pay… The government is notified that the money will be released when the World Peace Tax Fund Bill, pending in congress, is passed. Similar efforts are under way in Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Holland, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. addressed the World Conference on Religion for Peace (Canada) in . In The Mennonite’s description of his remarks is this note:

Perhaps the time has come for civil disobedience, suggested Coffin, citing tax resistance as a strategy which the church should lead out in.

Finally, “The Historic Peace Church Task Force on Taxes” met again in .

The Historic Peace Church Task Force on Taxes will undertake a major effort to inform and educate members of its congregations and meetings on the implications of the payment of taxes used for military purposes.

The committee has commissioned the preparation of a packet of study materials on the biblical basis of war taxes, the World Peace Tax Fund (WPTF) bill currently pending in the U.S. Congress, and suggestions for personal and political action.

Meeting at the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) headquarters here on , the task force also heard a report that William Ball, noted constitutional law attorney from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has indicated interest in representing the GCMC in its proposed judicial action on the withholding of taxes from its employees.

Among other attorneys being considered to carry the case are Alan Hunt of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; William Rich of Topeka, Kansas; and Harrop Freeman of Ithaca, New York. The selection of a legal representative will be finalized .

Preparation of the tax study materials will be coordinated by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section in Akron, Pennsylvania, in consultation with the National Council for a World Peace Tax Fund in Washington, D.C., and representatives of the historic peace churches. These groups include the General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren Church, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, and Evangelical Friends Alliance.

Several members of the task force voiced concerns over the lack of understanding on the part of lay people within these congregations and meetings of the magnitude of the nuclear and military threat, of which the U.S. is a major participant.

The decision to prepare study materials came in response to the need for greater awareness of the sizable contribution which each taxpayer makes to the “morally bankrupt” process of gigantic military expenditures.

“Our congregations need to be educated to understand the issues and the policies of our [U.S.] administration,” said Alan Eccleston of the National Council for a World Peace Tax Fund.

Eccleston noted that the WPTF bill has entered a critical phase; during the elections, 5 of its 35 sponsors were lost. Efforts to see the legislation through Congress must be redoubled, or the bill will soon have to be abandoned and energies channeled in other directions, he said.

Regarding the legal action to seek an injunction against the Internal Revenue Service concerning the collection of taxes from General Conference employees, Vern Preheim, general secretary of the GCMC, indicated that other historic peace churches have been invited to join in in the suit in some way. Responses from other church groups however, are still in process.

The General Board of the GCMC was empowered to undertake the court challenge at the triennial meeting of conference delegates at Estes Park, Colorado .

At the meetings, task force members seemed to differ significantly in terms of their interests in war tax issues. Committee members such as Eccleston and Robert Hull, secretary for peace and justice for GCMC, were concerned about the future of the peace witness in comprehensive terms, and specifically as it related to the war tax issue. Others, such as Duane Heffelbower, an attorney from Reedley, California, were interested in the tax question in more professionally restricted terms. Heffelbower stated that he could face disbarment if he became an active tax resister; therefore, the passage of the WPTF is an attractive option because it involves no risk to his profession.

Other task force participants included Heinz Janzen, Hillsboro, Kansas (chairperson); Delton Franz, North Newton, Kansas; Paul Gingrich, Elkhart, Indiana; Janet Reedy, Elkhart, Indiana; John Stoner and Ron Flickinger of Akron, Pennsylvania; and James Thomas, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The entire task force will meet again on in Chicago.