Peacemaking and War Taxes - A Dilemma of Conscience

By John C. and Zora Lea Darrow

(Cover article in March-April 1988 Liberty magazine)

Hans Klaasen (a pseudonym) is a Mennonite, and a self-employed professional. As a young man, he performed alternative service rather than serve in the military. Now, each year, when he figures his income taxes, he includes a check only for the nonmilitary portion, and a statement of conscience that he will not voluntarily pay for killing or preparations for killing. And, each year, the IRS collects the withheld funds, plus heavy penalties, through liens against his bank account. Hans does not have an alternative to the use of his money for violence, as he did to the direct violence of military service. He is also frustrated since, ultimately, the IRS collects much more money than if he had not taken this step of conscience.

Hans is not alone. Many people of conscience face the same dilemma - U.S. law allows them to perform alternative service rather than participate directly in the military, but provides no alternative to indirect participation through the use of their tax money for military expenditures. The use of over 50% of federal income taxes for past and present military purposes makes this an especially significant issue.

What are "war taxes," anyway? And who are the people concerned about them? Broadly speaking, a war tax is a tax to support military purposes. Some draw a distinction between taxes to pay for past military purposes and those for current or possible future military purposes. Historically, war taxes have been levied in two ways: (1) as a direct tax earmarked for the military, and (2) as part of a general tax.

The first type, the direct military tax, often appeared as a tax on those who did not themselves serve in the military for conscience' sake, and was intended to pay for a substitute. These taxes were opposed by members of the historic peace churches, especially the Quakers (the predominant peace church in America at that time), as early as the 1650's. During the American Revolution, several Quaker groups passed resolutions to disfellowship anyone who paid such a tax. Those who resisted these war taxes suffered fines, imprisonment, and/or floggings from the governmental authorities. Some other people, such as Henry David Thoreau, took the same stance against war taxes even though they were not part of the historic peace churches. A recent example of such a direct war tax is the federal excise tax on telephone service, which was explicitly identified in Congressional debate as being to support the Vietnam War.

The second type of war tax, a general tax of which part goes for military purposes, has not historically been as universally opposed by conscientious objectors. Many who would not participate directly in the military see the military use of a portion of a general tax as sufficiently indirect to render this a separate issue, with no objections to such a general tax. During the American Revolution, Quakers argued strongly over this very issue. Although there was strong feeling that such taxes should not be paid, the issue was considered complex enough that an individual Quaker could in good conscience choose either to pay or not to pay. Thus few assemblies took official positions.

As previously mentioned, many members of the historic peace churches - Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren - have been involved over the years in resisting war taxes, just as they resist direct participation in the military. This stance comes not from antiAmericanism, not from a belief that a particular war is unwise or wrong, nor from a concern that governmental priorities may be wrongly set, but rather from a principled objection to violence per se. That is, while others might feel that 50% of their federal income taxes going to the military is excessive, but that perhaps 30% would be proper, the pacifist opposes any participation at all in the military or its support as wrong.

The theology of the historic peace churches relating to this issue is not new, but is classical Biblical pacifist theology. We do not intend to attempt to give a thorough treatment of this theology in this article. However, one verse, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Luke 20:25 (NIV) and parallels), is often raised as a challenge to this position and so must be properly understood. In this passage, Jesus had been asked if taxes should be paid to Caesar, the established governmental authority of that day. He asked for the coin to be brought which must be used to pay these taxes. After calling attention to the coin as bearing a graven image of Caesar, and the blasphemous inscriptions "Caesar is Lord" and "Divine Son of the Divine God," Jesus repudiated the idea of giving to Caesar that which belongs to God alone - in this case, worship. Rather than supporting paying to the government whatever taxes it demands, Jesus is at best silent on that portion of the question. In fact, the accusation in Luke 23:2 that He opposed payment of taxes to Caesar shows that His remark could be understood at least by some as actually opposing these taxes. The pacifist does not see this passage as a blanket opposition to paying taxes, but as requiring that the Christian first determine if paying certain taxes violates other requirements of Scripture. In the case before Jesus, the issue was idolatry. In the case of today's war taxes, the issue is killing, or, rather, paying others to kill in our stead.

Recently, some people from movements other than the historic peace churches, such as the Catholic Worker movement and the NAACP, have also joined in war tax resistance. Sometimes this more recent involvement has been based on opposition only to particular military spending, such as that for the Vietnam War or for nuclear weapons, rather than on opposition to military spending per se.

A clear distinction should be drawn between war tax resisters, who have no objection to paying taxes per se, and those tax resisters who regard income taxes as beyond the proper scope of government or as unConstitutional. The latter group bases its stance on a philosophy of government, rather than on deeply held religious beliefs, and approaches the matter in an entirely different way.

How does the federal income tax fit in to this discussion? Estimates for 1985 are that 58% of these taxes went for past, present, and future military purposes. If past military expenses are excluded (primarily interest on that portion of the national debt resulting from past military expenditures), the 1985 military portion was 43%.

For those who are opposed to payment of war taxes, what avenues currently exist? Many of those who, like Hans, are not subject to withholding of taxes, simply refuse to pay all or a portion of their tax liability. Instead, they wait for the IRS to collect the taxes. Often they file a return with the full tax liability stated, along with a letter of explanation regarding their conscientiously held beliefs, but pay only the nonmilitary portion. The military portion (58% in 1985) is either sent to a peacemaking fund, or placed in an escrow account to be used for peaceful purposes until collected by the IRS. Such action is subject to heavy penalties, as well as interest, imposed by the IRS. The Tax Resisters Penalty Fund (Box 25, N. Manchester, IN 46962) is a fund that has been established to help disperse these penalties among a broader base of supporters, and to provide a way for those not directly involved in war tax resistance to support those who are.

Those who are subject to withholding do not have quite the same options. Here either funds must be prevented from going to the IRS in the first place, or recovered from the IRS after they have been withheld. Only after this step do they have the same options as the person not subject to withholding. The first avenue is carried out by declaring enough withholding exemptions on a W-4 form to appropriately reduce the amount withheld. However, for the last several years, the IRS has required employers to report employees claiming more than a "trigger" number of exemptions. The IRS then contacts the employee with a stern warning and a request for information to help it determine if the claimed exemptions are "legitimate." If the individual does not substantiate these exemptions to the satisfaction of the IRS, the IRS orders the employer to withhold according to its calculations. This effectively closes this avenue for tax resisters.

The second avenue, that of recovering the military portion of your taxes after they have already been withheld, is generally done by claiming a "war tax deduction" or a "war tax credit" in an amount to appropriately reduce the amount your tax form shows as due. The IRS computers often will check your arithmetic and issue your refund without checking the nature of your deductions or credits. When the IRS later reviews your return, they will then collect the money from you, along with interest and penalties.

Some people, knowing that the IRS will eventually collect these taxes in some way, choose instead to withhold a token symbolic amount - $.58 to represent the 58% of 1985 income taxes going to the military - and, of course, enclose a statement of conscience. Even these token amounts may trigger penalties.

Still others express their position by not paying the federal excise tax on their phone bills. As previously mentioned, this tax was at one time expressly identified as being for military support. The telephone companies may not cut off your service if you pay the portion of the bill due them and clearly identify that the portion you are not paying is the federal excise tax. Instead, they will leave it to the government to collect these taxes from you.

The courts have consistently rejected all these approaches. Any of them could result in serious penalties. Is there any other way for an individual opposed to military participation, direct or indirect, to follow the dictates of conscience?

Some individuals figure their taxes just as anyone else does. They then write two checks. Using the 1985 percentages, a check for 42% of their tax (the nonmilitary portion) is written payable to the IRS. Another check for the remaining 58% is made payable to some nonmilitary agency of the federal government, such as the Department of Health and Human Services. Both checks are sent, along with a letter of conscience. Obviously, this can only be done if your taxes have not already been withheld.

Others have chosen a very costly step. They have moved to forms of employment paying less than a taxable income. This requires a commitment from an entire family, since all members are affected financially. It may also limit your ability to support other ministries financially. However, quite often this move to a lower-paying job involves moving to a job of direct ministry to other people.

Still others have chosen charitable giving as a vehicle to reduce their tax liability. They regard taxes and charitable giving together as a total amount, and increase their giving to a point where the giving is 58% or more of the total. Since charitable contributions do not result in a direct dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes, this approach is not straightforward to implement.

In each of these approaches, it is important that the individuals choosing them first examine their motives. They must then plainly express the concerns of conscience that have led them to the particular approach.

These approaches have all arisen because there is not an equivalent mechanism regarding war taxes to the mechanism of alternative service regarding direct military service. This problem is addressed directly by legislation known as the U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill (S.1468/H.R.3032, 99th Congress). This legislation provides that taxpayers may elect to have their taxes spent for nonmilitary purposes only. In order to participate, the taxpayer must meet criteria similar to those used by Selective Service for conscientious objectors. Mechanisms are provided to direct what otherwise would be the military portion of one's taxes to "alternative service" supporting peace-related projects. The taxpayer electing this method would still pay the full amount of taxes due. One objection seen by some pacifists is that expenditures due to past military purposes are not redirected to peaceful uses. Only spending for current and future military projects is redirected to peace. Further information on this bill is available from: National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, 2121 Decatur Pl. NW, Washington, DC 20008.

For Hans, and many others like him, this is a serious issue of religious liberty. Your support for this legislation will be appreciated.