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Last updated April 03.

April 03

Mennonites in Harrisonburg hold forum on War Taxes

By Margaret Foth

How is it that we — Mennonite Church USA — do not believe in physically participating in war but we cooperate in paying our taxes — about 46 percent of which pay for war and related military spending?

The Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society of Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.) invited lead pastors of three local Mennonite Churches to address this question in a Feb. 28 afternoon forum: Jennifer Davis Sensenig of Community Mennonite Church, Duane Yoder of Lindale Mennonite Church and Craig Maven of Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

Speaking from a variety of personal experiences and perspectives, two of the pastors described the tensions inherent in our struggle to follow Christ in this particular concern with two references. The Luke 20 story where Jesus concluded: “Give to God the things which belong to God, and to Caesar, the things that belong to Caesar,” is one text which sets up this tension.

“It calls for discernment; if I believe that all things belong to God, what really belongs to Caesar?” Maven asked.

In her reading from Romans 13, Davis Sensenig also highlighted Paul’s version of this dilemma and his summary: “… but love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

Yoder began with quoting Menno Simons’ “the regenerated do not go to war.” He described his changing understanding of how he lives out the historical Anabaptist position: “If God is the author and creator of life, I cannot take a life… . I am a follower of Jesus… . I don’t take a life. I see a continuum on which I take a stand, but I continue to see opportunities … including looking at ‘war taxes.’ ”

In response to a second question, do you personally withhold any of your taxes, Davis Sensenig described her actions, beginning with living under the taxable income while she was in school, but choosing a variety of options after becoming salaried.

“We have withheld the portion of our taxes, made symbolic withholdings, and paid under protest,” she said. Neither Maven nor Yoder has actively withheld income tax, although both choose to make charitable contributions which reduce the level of taxes.

When forum moderator Rick Yoder, who with his wife Carolyn are long-time war tax resisters, posed the third question — what do you teach about war taxes in your congregation — all three pastors stated that they are not presently teaching on this subject. Along with the ending of the military draft, the question of taxes has slipped out of focus.

Following the panelists, a number of questions and comments from the audience brought out concerns that the Mennonite Church no longer becomes the community which supports war tax resistance.

continued on next page »


  • Thank you, Margaret, for your fine report on the February 28 war tax forum in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I also commend the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society of Eastern Mennonite University for sponsoring such an important and necessary gathering.

    I'm grateful that the online edition of the Mennonite World Review published the article that, interestingly enough, appeared alongside the advertisement that encourages readers to "bear witness; exercise your conscience; practice democracy" regarding federal taxes that underwrite war making. I hope the article also appears in the Mennonite World Review's print edition alongside the current advertisement there.

    In the future, might similar war tax forums be held all across the United States? Since paying for war is a form of participation in war, non-payment of the approximately 50% of our federal tax dollars that underwrite the U.S. military appears to be the form that conscientious objection needs to address in our lives. My prayer is that the peace churches will again assert their tradition of conscientious objection to global militarism that is, in fact, impoverishing all of God's creation.

    It seems to me that every time we are asked to pay our federal taxes we are afforded an opportunity to exercise our God-given conscience on the question of why we pay for war while we pray for peace. It is incumbent on those of us who believe war is wrong to determine ways both individually and collectively to make the most positive and effective witnesses possible. Let’s pursue those ends together!

    Meanwhile, we can support the passage of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill in the U.S. Congress.

    - H.A. Penner (apr 4 at 2:14 p.m.)

  • On the issue of military tax refusal, it is worth remembering that the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1983 took a stance of civil disobedience. Some workers at the GCMC office, initially led by Cornelia Lehn, had asked the conference to stop deducting money for income tax from monthly checks because they wanted to refuse tax payment for military purposes. After many years of vigorous debate, include a "mid-triennium" conference on the matter in Minneapolis in February 1980, the church informed Internal Revenue Service that it was disobeying the law for some of its employees. There was fear in the church offices of potential IRS legal action, and of possible penalties and court costs. The church treasurer, who personally disagreed with the church's new policy, worried that he might have to go to jail. As it turned out, the IRS ignored the denomination's action and proceeded to collect the unpaid taxes from the individual bank accounts of those who refused full payment. The GCMC policy continued until merger with the MCs to form the MCUSA. Although our denomination's policy did not have dramatic outcomes, some of us GCs considered the ending of our church civil disobedience to be one of the unfortunate costs of the merger.

    - Jim Juhnke (apr 4 at 9:22 p.m.)

  • Thank you, Jim, for this historical note.

    I recall the '70s as a time of considerable ferment within Mennonite circles around the issue of taxes and war. But I had forgotten the specific action the General Conference took on the matter and the significant risk it accepted.

    Nowadays, there's much less concern about our complicity in war-making via our payment of taxes. How we got from there to here is worthy of our attention.

    - Berry Friesen (apr 5 at 6:50 a.m.)

  • I have long said, and still contend, that to be relevant on this issue as a church we must be honest. The figures from MCC and from the War Resistors League are erroneous and greatly overstate the percentage paid for 'war'. Using various sources of data, to get anywhere into the 40%+ range you must calculate all defense/veterans costs/security + all debt service costs + NASA and more. Combining Defense Dept./Interest on Debt/Veterans Affairs yields 30-35%. How do you expect to convince skeptics using faulty data?


    I say this with great respect to those who have resisted war taxes, but I think the movement itself is built on a fabrication intentionally designed to mislead on the problem. It is intentionally designed to create the perception that we greatly underspend on social programs and overspend on defense....which to those who see even $1 of defense as a waste has merit.....but not to most of the general population. This tactic will not convert or even begin to persuade the 'rational' or 'traditional' believers among us who already view the issue with open questions from a biblical standpoint.

    Therefore it will continue to be regarded as fringe issue unless we talk about it openly and honestly.

    - BJW (apr 8 at 2:27 p.m.)

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