The Choice Seems Obvious

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by Rev. Bucky Beach

It was over 20 years ago that I started nonpayment of taxes owed to the IRS. I was scared, but youth breeds a sense of immortality, which was accompanied by a bit of a chip on my shoulder and a desire to be faithful to what I believed. I did some research and read some stories of property seizures and levies, but thought it was worth the risk. I withheld my money, sent the IRS a letter stating clearly why I was opposed to military taxation, and defied the IRS to come and get me. I received a few letters in response and waited.

I never heard from them again. But then, I think I owed them a grand total of $80. I didn’t make much money, but didn’t want any of it to support wars, or the nuclear arms race, or government sponsored coups, or cover-ups. Maybe someone somewhere knows that I still owe that $80, plus 20 years of interest, but maybe not. Last year when I withheld payment again, the notice of possible seizure didn’t include the outstanding tax bill.

For most of those 20 years I did not make enough money to owe the IRS. They refunded me, and I was glad to not have to pay taxes at the end of the year. Recently, circumstances changed, and I found myself owing what to me was a substantial amount of money on April 15. What was I going to do? When I was young, it mostly angered me and also energized me. But it doesn’t excite me much anymore to take on the IRS, to feel like David slaying the giant with his $80 slingshot. Now it truly saddens me to have to take the action of nonpayment. I don’t mind paying taxes for things that do not take away life, but paying taxes necessarily does exactly that, so I feel I have little choice.

Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (the Social Gospel movement in the early 1900s) believed Christians should not withdraw from the world, but had only two choices: “The Church must either condemn the world and seek to change it, or tolerate the world and conform to it.” So I guess I am making a choice again. My small effort won’t stop killing and war, but neither will paying taxes that support it. The choice seems obvious. As I write this, someone somewhere is grieving the loss of a child-American, Iraqi, or Afghani. I don’t want to be responsible for financing the reasons for their loss. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about willingness to suffer as a sign of one’s commitment to the redeeming nature of nonviolent resistance. He believed that sacrifice is the supreme manifestation of one’s commitment to serve humanity. I know that not paying my taxes will not cause me to suffer much, but I know that someone else is suffering. Even if we don’t see body bags on the tarmac in news coverage of this war, and we don’t see mothers and fathers wailing in the streets, mourning the loss of their children and the destruction of their country, we know it is happening.

I can hurt someone by giving the military-industrial-complex my money. I don’t want to do that. Resignation to its inevitability is immoral. As Dr. King wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

In the end what can they do, really? They can and maybe will seize my money this time. Or maybe not. They may get a little extra because of interest. It’s not really as big of a deal as it was when I was 25. Maybe that’s it. I’ve gotten older. Maybe braver. Maybe the sense of perspective I have now is healthier, because I know they cannot hurt me by taking my money. It’s not a huge sacrifice, but it is something I can do.

My Lenten readings on the theology of Martin Luther King Jr. have caused me to think again of what it means to suffer for a cause, to be nonviolently resistant, and to be willing to pay a price that can possibly change an opponent’s mind. This, really, is the goal. If enough people are willing to withhold their tax payments, maybe it will actually become legal for those of similar conscience to take such action.

Withholding a few thousand dollars isn’t such a great price to pay, but I remember clearly what would have been: I was fearful when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan that a draft would be reinstated. I had one son in college and one in high school. I could let the IRS seize my money, but I would not let the government and the military seize my children. I decided the military would not get my boys… they would get me. It’s not right for us to send our young people to fight wars. I would go as a Chaplain. Someone has to be there ministering to soldiers who are laying down their lives for us back home. I don’t blame the soldier. I blame us, the parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and politicians who make the policies. We should be the ones paying the ultimate price so our children can live in peace. Not the other way around.

Rev. Bucky Beach is a minister at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church / Lutheran Campus Ministry and lives in Houghton, Michigan.

* Quotes are from a book on the theology of Martin Luther King Jr.Search for the Beloved Community by Smith & Zepp.

From the April 2005 issue of More Than a Paycheck.