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War-Tax Resistance -- Why Not?

by Howard W. Lull

Father Lull is vicar of the Church of the Ascension (Episcopal), Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 2, 1975, pp. 332-334. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used to say that he liked to pay taxes because he felt he was buying civilization. One wonders how the good justice would react to the civilization we are purchasing with today’s federal taxes, of which, in 1974, 46 per cent went for current military operations and another 7 per cent for care of disabled veterans and the largely war-derived interest on our national debt. A majority of the taxpayers’ dollars pay for past wars and present war preparation.

The 46 per cent of our tax dollars earmarked for current operations buys the world’s greatest military machine: troops, weapons, bombers, submarines, and the research and development to strengthen our war-making capability. In 1974 this expenditure amounted to $80 billion; armaments worth an additional $8.5 billion were sold to other nations. War-making accounts for our government’s largest expenditure and is the nation’s chief business.

I

The head of one of the U.S’s less spendthrift administrations, Calvin Coolidge, had no use for prodigality of that sort. He declared: "Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery." There is no doubt that today’s taxpayers are being robbed: parades of experts have testified that at least one-third of the military budget is sheer waste. The Pentagon literally throws away much of our tax money. Three current examples:

(1) There are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons stockpiled, with over 7,000 actually targeted and ready for instant use. Yet, in an all-out exchange, civilization would virtually be destroyed by only a few hundred of these weapons at most. Why, then, this huge stockpile? And why do we continue to add to it?

(2) To deliver nuclear missiles we have 41 Polaris submarines, each able to destroy 100 cities. Apparently this is not enough; our taxes are now paying for the Trident submarine, twice as large, designed to carry even more missiles.

One might well wonder how many major cities potential enemies have.

(3) A new bomber, the B-1, is in the works to replace the long-range and far-from-decrepit B-52. Each B-52 can carry a hydrogen bomb with more destructive power than the combined explosives used by all sides in World War II. But the B-1 can carry even more. Taxpayers might ask: To what purpose?

The Trident and B-1 programs combined will cost over $100 billion -- this in a world where an estimated 500 million people face malnutrition and starvation this year alone.

It is widely recognized that our taxes pay for legalized waste, but considering the worldwide devastation implicit in our military spending, the taxpayer’s acquiescence also extends to legalized murder. And it is at this point that Christians may well ask: Why should I help pay for the weapons of mass murder? Would Jesus suggest rendering these taxes to Caesar or to works of mercy? Specifically, should Christians buy more nuclear bombs; or food for the world’s starving?

Further, for all these mammoth expenditures, our security is not increased; in fact, it is lessened. The higher the stockpiles, the graver the peril. The nuclear weapons and carriers we are paying for will, many experts have assured us, be employed in our lifetime. We are buying the death of our children; our checks purchase the destruction of the world.

Since World War II we have lived under this shadow of nuclear destruction, darkening as missiles and carriers grew in numbers and power, darkening as our defense budget doubled every decade: $10 billion in the ‘40s, $20 billion in the ‘50s, $40 billion in the ‘60s, and $80 billion in the ‘70s. This great outpouring for armaments has produced no usable product and has done no human good. Such incredible waste, in the face of heartbreaking human need, has also been a major factor responsible for the inflation now so prevalent and for the threatening worldwide depression.

II

Has the taxpayer no recourse? The answer is Yes: war-tax refusal. We are told that wars are fueled by warm bodies and cold cash; both are necessary, and both can be conscientiously opposed. If Christians continue to pay war taxes, they must then justify the use the money is put to. A. A. Mime (in The Pacifist Conscience, edited by Peter Mayer [Regnery, 1967], p. 268) describes our dilemma:

Modern war means, quite definitely and without any mental escape, choking and poisoning and torturing to death thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of women and children. Whether you are Christian or Jew, atheist or agnostic, you have got to fit acceptance of this into your philosophy of life. It is not enough to say: "What else can nations do?" It is not enough, nor is it even true, to say: "It has always been so." Here is the fact now, and you have got to justify it to yourself, your acceptance of it; and the justification has got to be based on such ultimate truths as will always be sacred to you.

An ultimate truth of Christianity is the nonviolence taught by Jesus, by word and example, and this precludes murder or paying for murder. This teaching is the basic rationale for war-tax resistance, which, as Karl Meyer points out (Catholic Worker, November-December, 1969), has had its place in history:

Did not the French Revolution begin with tax resistance? Was not tax resistance the slogan and rallying cry of the American Revolution? Did not Thoreau fashion the cornerstone of American resistance theory out of his own experience as a tax resister? Was not Gandhi’s largest and most significant campaign of civil disobedience, the Salt March, based on the strategy of tax resistance?

Tax resistance as a means of opposing war is a more modern development; a 1971 issue of Peacemaker stated:

. . . the generally accepted position of pacifists was that although it was wrong to drop bombs on Germans, Japanese, or somebody else, it was at least permissible to buy the bombs and pay someone else to drop them. . . . [After 1947] many pacifists said they were seeing for the first time that their position of "refusal to give military service" had been a little empty, considering the fact that they were the wrong age, sex, or profession to be called upon. Some observed that the new push-button type warfare was going to call for more drafted dollars than drafted men. The question they felt needed answering was whether they were going to respond to this money draft.

Essentially, then, the Christian position cannot justify giving Caesar money to pay for his wars. As Caroline Urie writes in a 1974 issue of Peacemaker: "What of us who have accepted the Christian injunction with all of its implications -- to love our enemies and overcome evil with good? . . . Are we not morally bound to hold back this money?"

Out of the war-tax resistance of the ‘60s was born a national organization:

War Tax Resistance, 912 East 31st Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64109. It publishes a monthly newspaper, Tax Talk, which provides readers with the latest on tactics and strategy. Countrywide there are about 50 War Tax Resistance centers.

III

Tax resistance is no light matter: it does not come easily, and it carries penalties. To the majority of taxpayers a war-tax resister appears foolish, impractical and sadly lacking in patriotism. Legally, the war-tax resister is a lawbreaker, facing criminal charges which could result in a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a prison term of up to a year. In practice the Internal Revenue Service, through correspondence and levies, tries to collect refused taxes without engendering publicity through court actions. These penal ties notwithstanding, once the Christian’s rationale for war-tax refusal is accepted, such resistance becomes a necessary and continuing part of living the Christian life. The hazards involved in defying the government weigh less than the hazards invited by defying God.

The total number of tax resisters is not known; quite likely, they constitute no great proportion of our population. But it was Albert Einstein who argued that if no more than 2 per cent of the male population of the globe refused to fight, wars would be stopped, for there would not be enough prison space to contain the objectors. If 2 per cent of the taxpayers refused to pay war taxes, no doubt the Internal Revenue Service would be swamped by the extra work entailed.

Power originates with a dedicated few; Jan Smuts estimated that if 5 per cent of any body of people is wholly convinced about anything, that number can swing the rest. Even so, as the writer of I Maccabees assures us: ‘With the God of Heaven it is all one, to deliver with a great multitude, or a small company" (3:18). Unless a small company of resisters faces up to the real threat of nuclear holocaust, we may well be the last evil people on earth.

IV

Accompanying these considerations, the question inevitably will be asked: "But if our country unilaterally disarms, will not the reds march down Main Street?" More likely they would begin, with enormous relief, to turn their own guns into butter. But if aggression were contemplated, an adversary would have to consider that any country with the foresight and courage to disarm unilaterally would have equal courage and foresight in protecting itself by a program of nonviolent resistance of such magnitude as to preclude any successful occupation.

The questioner persists: "Yes, but would we not then be defeated?" Perhaps so. But George Kennan (quoted in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, by Roland H. Bainton [Abingdon, 1960], p. 261) has made the classic reply:

I am skeptical of the meaning of "victory" and "defeat" in their relation to modern war between great countries. To my mind the defeat is war itself. In any case it seems to me that there are times when we have no choice but to follow the dictates of our conscience, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and not ask too many questions. Beyond that our main concern must be to see that man, whose folly drove him from the Garden of Eden, does not commit the blasphemous act of destroying, whether in fear or in anger or in greed, the great and lovely world in which, even in his fallen state, he has been permitted by the grace of God to live.

Finally, we must remember that unilateral action and nonviolent resistance are the ways of Christ. According to Frank Epp, "God and His prophets have acted unilaterally to save the people. He sent His Son in the supreme act of unilateral love" (A Strategy for Peace [Eerdmans, 1973], p. 106). The divine unilateral risk and Christ’s nonviolence were the means of our salvation. Can the body of Christ do less?


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