Mennonite Weekly Review Logo Mennonite World Review

Feb. 16, 2009 issue

War-tax resisters seek to owe nothing but love

By Susan Miller For Mennonite Weekly Review

War-tax resisters believe a consistent witness for peace includes refusing to pay for war.

Goshen, Ind., area war-tax resisters: standing, from left, Tim Godshall, Anne Meyer Byler, Virginia Showalter, Karl Shelly, Luke Birky, Mary Ellen Meyer, Mark Byler, John Driver and Stan Liechty. Sitting: Ruth Liechty, Bonny Driver, Verna Birky. — Photo provided by Anne Meyer Byler

Goshen, Ind., area war-tax resisters: standing, from left, Tim Godshall, Anne Meyer Byler, Virginia Showalter, Karl Shelly, Luke Birky, Mary Ellen Meyer, Mark Byler, John Driver and Stan Liechty. Sitting: Ruth Liechty, Bonny Driver, Verna Birky. — Photo provided by Anne Meyer Byler

“I realized it made no sense for me to pay for others to do things that my conscience wouldn’t let me do,” said Tim Godshall of Goshen, Ind., who has resisted paying war taxes since 2002. “Resisting war taxes has been a meaningful place for me to start making my life more consistent with my beliefs.”

So how can anyone keep from paying war taxes? One way is to live with less than a taxable income.

“As one who seeks to follow Jesus, I see inherent good in lowering my earnings and learning to share more and depend on others for my security rather than my earnings and savings,” Godshall said.

He monitors his income and pays Social Security taxes on the total amount but reduces his taxable income — most years to zero — by contributing to an IRA and taking the federal tax credits available to low-income workers.

Willard and Mary Swartley of Elkhart, Ind., kept their income low throughout their working years at Bethany Christian School and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. To lower the taxable amount of their earnings, they asked their employers to withhold money from their paychecks to donate to projects at the schools. A consequence of this is that their Social Security payments were also lowered, so that now, in retirement, their income is still below the taxable level.

According to the War Resisters League, 54 percent of the 2009 federal budget (not including dedicated trust funds such as Social Security) goes to pay for current and past military expenses. That percentage includes $390 billion interest on the national debt due to military spending in the past.

War-tax resisters — sometimes known as WTRs — who refuse to pay the full amount of their taxes redirect the unpaid portion to humanitarian causes or put it into escrow accounts that allow them to withdraw their principal if faced with IRS collections. The War Tax Resister’s Penalty Fund receives donations and gives money to WTRs to lighten their financial burdens due to penalties and interest on resisted taxes.

Peace-tax fund

Typically, conscientious objectors to military taxation who owe federal taxes send letters to the IRS, legislators and newspapers about the dilemma of being forced to choose between obeying tax law and following their conscience.

Many ask legislators to support peace-tax legislation efforts led by the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. The campaign seeks to “restore the rights of citizens whose conscience does not permit physical or financial participation in all war.”

This legislation would provide conscientious objectors the right to do alternative service with their tax money, just as drafted COs have had alternatives to military service since World War II.

In a letter asking his senator to support the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill, Ray Gingerich of Austin, Texas, depicted the dilemma as “like being required to pay taxes for a hospital which gives medical care to half its patients and butchers the other half.”

The IRS tries to collect from WTRs who’ve refused to pay a portion of their assessed taxes. Garnishments from checking accounts, wages and Social Security payments have caused some WTRs to pay more than twice as much (when penalties and interest are added in) as the amount of taxes originally assessed.

To avoid such loss and still state their opposition to paying for war, some WTRs redirect a smaller percentage or a symbolic amount of their assessed taxes.

Last year Harold A. Penner of Akron, Pa., withheld $90.04 — an amount equal to one dime for every billion dollars in the 2007 U.S. military budget, as computed by the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Resisting payment of the federal excise tax on telephone services, a tax that historically has been tied to paying for war, is a low-risk way to object to paying for war.

Information about this and other war-tax resistance actions, including the 2009 war-tax boycott, can be found on the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee Web site.

Principled disobedience

Whether living below a taxable income, lobbying for peace-tax legislation, redirecting refused tax money to charitable causes, or signing public pledges to refuse to pay for war, WTRs seek to witness and stay true to their conscientious beliefs.

“We see war-tax resistance as principled civil disobedience,” wrote John and Janet Stoner of Akron, Pa.

Longtime WTR Albert Meyer of Goshen wrote: “Mary Ellen and I … are not ‘cogs in a wheel.’ We want to do what we can to work for peace, rather than voluntarily to support war.”

Don Kaufman of Newton, Kan., author of What Belongs to Caesar? and The Tax Dilemma, wrote: “My wife and I believe our task as good citizens is to faithfully resist any coercion of conscience by the majority who demand support for military solutions instead of respecting our trust in a loving God.”

Despite the drawbacks — war-tax resistance hasn’t reduced the U.S. military budget, IRS collections are a hassle, and lack of support from fellow church members is discouraging — most WTRs surveyed for this article stressed the positive consequences of following their consciences.

“For us it is a matter of integrity and faithfulness,” wrote Titus and Linda Gehman Peachey of Lancaster, Pa. “We feel we cannot talk of peace without also trying to resist the ways we contribute to violence. We also want to resist the lie that superior violence will bring security.”

Finding support

As a small, radical segment of the peace community, WTRs can feel isolated and misunderstood. One survey respondent said he experienced open hostility to his war-tax resistance, and he fears the Mennonite church has lost its peace witness.

Other WTRs have found that their support comes from outside their congregation, through groups such as the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, and Conscience and Peace Tax International.

The NWTRCC offers an online support and discussion group for WTRs.

Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen includes a pledge to support members who refuse draft registration and war-tax payment in its understandings of church membership.

Stan Bohn of North Newton, Kan., is planning a gathering of WTRs at the Mennonite Church USA assembly in Columbus, Ohio, this summer.

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