This article first appeared as a sermon at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, NE, in April, 1999. It later was printed in The Mennonite although I’m not sure of when that was. It has been used as a sermon in Fresno at Mennonite Community Church, the Unitarian Church in Fresno ( where I got the only standing ovation for a sermon ever) and in several other places. So, the data on Mennonite giving is dated although I would doubt that it is much different today.
As most of you are aware, this Thursday is the date that our tax returns are due at the IRS offices across this country. April 15 creates a moral dilemma for most Mennonites, although most of us would never really acknowledge it. Paying taxes fosters a type of split personality in most Mennonites . . . a Jekyl and Hyde way of looking at this issue.
On the one hand, we staunchly believe that we cannot help our government by fighting in the armed forces, while at the same time we provide that same government with all the cold hard cash it needs to pay others to do it. This split personality allows us to pay for war without having to fight in it.
But it takes a great deal of mental gymnastics for us to make this leap . . . our consciences are used to it by now, though. We really don’t even think about it anymore. What’s to think about? The government requires us to pay taxes, but since we obtained conscientious objector status in the ‘40’s we no longer are required to join the army. Open and shut case, except for that split personality disorder.
Think about this for a minute. How is it possible for people who don’t believe in violence, to actually pay for war? That presents us with a moral dilemma. It isn’t possible to pray for peace and pay for war unless you suffer from delusions or a split personality. The two concepts are polar opposites. But ninety-nine percent of Mennonites do pay for war while they pray for peace.
John Steen, in a 1969 leaflet entitled “Death and Taxes”, challenged us with these words:
If you were handed a gun, right now, told to shoot a man – or drop napalm on a village – you couldn’t do it. . . . But the same good people who would vomit at the sight of burning flesh and blood on our hands have no qualms paying taxes for somebody else to kill and burn. If we are forced to face the issues, we make excuses. . . . The managers of the Empire will let us speak – as long as we hand over the young men and the cash. And we are afraid to refuse. . . .The government could never get away with murder – in Vietnam or anyplace [Iraq or Kosovo] without help. The War Machine must be fed warm bodies and cold cash by the millions.
Steen penned these lines nearly 30 years ago at the height of this nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but they are even more incriminating today. The United States spends nearly three times as much money for the military machine today than it did at that time.
That amounts to $8,271 per second, $725, 274,725 per day and more than $5,076, 923,976 per week on military power!
This annual drain on our resources not only keeps us from attacking the problems of poverty, the deficit and Social Security in our country, it also equips the rest of the world with weapons which kill millions of people every year. The weapons of the military kill. They kill when they are fired. And even when they are not used, these weapons kill by consuming valuable resources that are essential in meeting human needs.
These are not new thoughts for Mennonites. We have always believed that peace is the will of God and that we are to be peacemakers in this world. The latest Mennonite Confession of Faith, approved in 1995 by both the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) and the Mennonite Church (MC) states: “We believe that peace is the will of God. . . as followers of Jesus, we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice. . . .”
Both MC’s and GC’s have also passed resolutions that support those Mennonites in their midst who refuse to pay for war. These same resolutions also urge all Mennonites to support the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund and to work towards passage of legislation that will allow people of conscience to pay taxes that go only for peaceful purposes. Our history would suggest that peace is something vitally important to our faith . . . something that we should pay more than lip service to.
The problem lies in our split personality . . . in the mental gymnastics we use to excuse ourselves from the reality of our actions, from the reality of paying for war. The reality is that we do pay for war while we pray for peace. We have separated our actions from our belief by rationalizing that we don’t really have any choice . . . the government requires us to pay taxes. That is true. But the government required that we serve in the army before the Alternative Service Act was passed in the ‘40’s. We refused to serve in the armed forces then. Once they accommodated us by granting us CO status we gladly gave them our money so that they could continue to kill in our names. And they do kill, through aggressive military maneuvers and by supporting almost every government in the world through the sale of arms.
We have separated our pocketbooks from our consciences. Money has become that topic which is nobody’s business but our own. As a result, we allow no one to hold us accountable to the way we spend it. That includes our tax money as well. That is a money issue and no one has the right to tell us how to handle it. Consequently, we take the path of least resistance and pay the military portion of our taxes even though that violates our consciences.
I have to admit that Mennonites are sick. We suffer from a split personality disorder when it comes to taxes that go for war. We have taken the road of least resistance. And our government is thankful for that. It was a small price to give us the option of alternative service. They really are more concerned that we continue to provide them with the cold, hard cash needed to pay for their wars and military build-ups, one of which we see in our living rooms each and every day now. They do it with our blessing because we have convinced ourselves that we have no other recourse. The reality is that we do have other options. . . but not options without risk.
If we are really serious about following after Jesus, we first need to be healed. . . healed of our sinfulness. We seem more concerned about other’s sins these days than our own . . . as exemplified by our concern to keep the church pure and sin-free while we happily continue to indulge our own sinfulness by paying others to kill. We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to keep homosexuals out of the church, women out of leadership and defending our own interpretation of scripture while we continue to pay for war with little thought or concern. In order to be healed we need to recognize that we have a problem. We need to ask for forgiveness. And we need to strive to sin no more. But these kinds of mental disorders are hard to cure. However, we believe that God can do just that. And God will help the minute we come to grips with our complicity in the military endeavors of our nation.
It is time for Mennonites to do some serious soul-searching on the issue of war taxes. John Stoner, of Every Church a Peace Church, has said: “We are tax resisters because we have discovered some doubt as to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God.” It is time for us to realize that we have given the benefit of the doubt, when it comes to paying for war, to the government. It is not acceptable or consistent to pray for peace and pay for war. If we believe that peace is the will of God, then how can we pay the portion of our taxes that are used to kill, even if the government requires it?
Right now, nearly half of our national budget goes for present military expenditures or for the interest on loans taken out in the 1980’s when the Reagan administration tripled the defense budget. We budget over $400 billion on defense every year, not even counting additional unbudgeted money to fund the war in Iraq. And recently we have heard cries from military leaders about how they need even more in the future. Even the countries that could be considered our five “enemies” together barely spend half of the amount annually that we spend on the military. The unconditional support of the military that our government asks of us is obscene. They withdraw support from welfare mothers and aid to dependent children while they increase corporate welfare to the military industry. As a people of peace we cannot continue to pay for such irresponsibility in good conscience. It is time for us to listen seriously to our consciences again . . . and to refuse to pay for such atrocities. We are a conscientious people that has lost its way and fallen ill. It’s time to address our personality disorder and listen once again to Jesus’ call to be peacemakers not war supporters.
We can refuse to pay for war in many ways. We can withhold the 3% federal tax on our telephone bills. We can withhold a percentage (from 1-50%) of our income taxes and give that amount to Mennonite Central Committee. We can keep our income below taxable levels. We can support the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund with our time and our dollars. Whatever we do, we can no longer rationalize our decision to pay for war. We know better. Our actions need to be consistent with our beliefs. God has not changed. Peace is the will of God. We are the ones who have strayed. We need to change. We need to pray for peace and we need to refuse to pay for war.
Jesus encouraged us to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. God is the God of Peace. Those who call themselves Christian must also be people of peace. By paying for taxes that go for war we are not acting as people of peace, regardless of how we rationalize it.
John Stoner did an analysis that found that for every $9 Mennonites spend on their military taxes they give $5 to charitable causes. With one hand we destroy and with the other we build. In fact, we pay almost twice as much to destroy as we do to build up. Is that the kind of witness we want to give the world? The millions of people in this world that suffer because of the sway of the US military are waiting for us to do something about this imbalance. 32,000 children die each day because there isn’t enough money to pay for vaccines and food needed to help them live. Add to that the thousands of others who are killed by these military weapons and land mines . . . how can we possibly continue to support such irresponsibility?
We need to think seriously about what we are doing. Pray about it. Pray that God will give us the courage to stand up for our convictions. It is time for us to come to grips with our complicity in this carnage. May God guide our discernment.