(March 13, 2012). Paying taxes that are used for war has long been a vexing problem for those whose conscience forbids direct participation in war. If it would be wrong to take up arms and kill, then isn’t it equally wrong to provide the means for another to commit the same act? The conventional escape from this dilemma is found in the legal obligation to pay taxes. Payment is compelled, not voluntary, and thus one’s conscience remains clear.
“Conscience and Taxes in a Culture of War,” a March 11th forum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania sponsored by 1040 for Peace and Every Church A Peace Church, asked a different question about the upcoming April 15 tax deadline: how can we use the filing of our annual federal tax return to witness for peace and against the wars that have become a permanent feature of U.S. foreign policy?
For Shane Claiborne, the activist who co-founded The Simple Way in Philadelphia, commitment to Jesus the Nazarene has prompted him to adopt a posture of “revolutionary subordination” vis-à-vis the federal government. “I respect the law and those who administer it but I also have been called to be prophetic, to expose injustice.” Thus, when he filed his federal tax return for 2010, he paid only 70 percent of what was due. In a letter sent along with his return, Claiborne described his reasons for not paying the other 30 percent.
When asked if he also would support the practice of sending a letter of protest while overpaying federal taxes, Claiborne said, “Yes. I support provoking our imaginations to witness, to raising the right questions, stimulating more conversation and not more polarization.”
For Pat Hostetter Martin, the Harrisonburg, Virginia resident who has engaged in tax witness for nearly 40 years, it all began with the friends, neighbors and colleagues victimized by war during the ‘60s when she was working in Vietnam. “I expect the federal government eventually will get the money I withhold. That’s not the point. The point is that I speak on behalf of those victimized by my government’s wars.”
Jack Payden-Travers also began witnessing via nonpayment of taxes during the Vietnam War. These days he works on Capitol Hill where he leads the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. Citing the witness of the Berrigan brothers and their acts of protest during the ‘60s, Payden-Travers urged the audience not to de-value symbolic acts, such as withholding $10.40 from one’s tax payment. “There is great power in symbolic acts, in refusing to offer the pinch of incense.”
Moravian College professor Kelly Denton-Borhaug, shifted the focus from government to the need for witness to the church and broader society. “The necessity of war as sacrifice has incredible resonance within American culture,” combining the potent image of Jesus on the cross with the war-making of U.S. military personnel. “This use of religious imagery to talk about war is so powerful that continuous war is now seen as normal and dissent has been largely suppressed. Meanwhile, the peace movement hasn’t measured up to the power of this message.”
Although “the sacralization of war” has long been a device political leaders of all stripes have employed to win popular support, Denton-Borhaug insisted the stakes are higher now. “The U.S. military is so dominant, and the U.S. war culture so pervasive, that we dare not ignore it. The threat to the world is too great.” Besides, she said, it is our faith that is being hijacked for military purposes.
When it comes to taxes, what does conscience require? Purity may be a pipe-dream, beyond our reach. Witness is something each of us can achieve. And it is what conscience requires.
For more information, go to www.1040forpeace.org
and/or contact Berry Friesen (717) 471-9691 or H.A. Penner (717) 859-3529.