By Nathan Beall.
My desire to live in community and to resist war began while I was in college, studying religion and working on the campus community garden. The spiritual and intellectual seeds planted there grew during my time in seminary, after which I returned to the college and parish that I attended as an undergraduate to live and work on that same community farm in Maryland. My community and I pray together and grow food for ourselves and for the poor. After a year, I was ordained as a priest and found my way into three employment opportunities: campus minister at the college, assistant at the parish, and professor of Religious Studies. All of these represented not only promising opportunities, but various aspects of my vocation, so I accepted them. I did not, however, have any desire to enter the war machine by paying federal income taxes. Since reading the gospels more deeply, meeting the Catholic Workers, and reading about St. Francis, I had also felt a call to explore intentional poverty. I agonized over whether or not paying taxes was the right moral and spiritual choice, and whether my friends and superiors would support my decision. After much prayer and reflection I decided to inform my employers that I did not wish to receive the full salary that they were offering.
The college was the easiest with which to negotiate. I simply offered to teach for nothing. I tried to arrange diversion of my salary into a scholarship fund, but they said that I could not direct where the money went without paying taxes on it, so I simply considered it a donation to the college. I pray that it is used well. My department is incredibly supportive. They arranged to compensate me with a stack of meal tickets at the cafeteria so that I could eat with the students that I teach and serve.
The parish and diocese were a bit more complex to negotiate with because of their personal concern and investment. Even among Christians, the desire to resist war and rely on the providence of God is met with skepticism if not hostility. My supervisors repeatedly expressed their concern that I have enough to support myself, that I save for the future. Jesus does not seem to share these concerns. I did share their concern, however, for assuring fair compensation for my successors in these positions. Those who come after me may have children to support or debts to pay, and I would not want to be the cause of their inability to meet these needs. I also respect the care shown for me by my supervisors, so we discussed and prayed over all of this together. It puts one in an interesting position to argue for less money.
I finally arranged for my combined compensation from the parish and diocese to not exceed the minimum taxable income level. This process was a nightmare. I am horrible at math, and paperwork overwhelms me. I contacted NWTRCC, but my situation as clergy with multiple employment positions was a bit unusual, even for them. Through the process, I often felt isolated and frustrated. I did not tell many people about my decision, because I did not want to make it out of pride. The residents of my community were impressed by my decision, but unfamiliar with this conviction. The people at my places of employment who helped me seemed to find it strange. I waited a long time to tell my parents, and they were worried.
I was, of course, asked the usual questions about all of the good things that our taxes go to, such as roads and hospitals. I was asked about how I would provide for myself or save for my future, especially if I someday had a family. My answer to the former question is that I never asked to be part of this system. I did not ask for more highways to be built, I did not ask for the government to require me to carry health insurance, and I certainly did not ask for a government to build weapons, fund the occupation of Palestine, and build military bases across the world. In regards to the latter question, Jesus promises that the Father will feed us if we follow him. Interestingly, the people I know who most faithfully live out intentional poverty are families.
It is these families to whom I turned in support. I visited Brayton and Suzanne Shanley and Dixon George at the Agape Community in Massachusetts on a personal retreat in January. They were the first people who, when I told them about my decision, looked me in the eyes and said, “we are so proud of you.” I almost cried, because someone understood. Someone else understood the conviction in my stomach that we cannot profess love of neighbor while we fund bombs that murder children. Someone else felt the agonizing tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar, God and Mammon, Jesus and the emperor.
The Church stands in need of conversion. We thirst for a reawakening to what it means to profess Jesus as Lord in a world that worships violence, money, and politicians. As such, the Church has much to learn from peace activists, from the environmental movement, and from those who protest racial injustice. The Church must, as Rowan Williams says, be open to the judgment of the world.
Activists also have much to learn from the Church. Because I belong to the body of Christ in the tangible form of my local parish, I am still in relationship with those who disagree with my political convictions. That helps both of us to grow. I worship and break bread with people whose lives are invested in the military, and we know that we disagree. I preach about the nonviolent kingdom of God, and people are much more willing to listen to that message because they have a relationship with me and know that I care about them. If I were to yell at them on the street, they would write that message off. At the same time, I have much to learn from those who are older and wiser than I am, even if I disagree with some of their decisions. We know that we cannot judge one another, only follow our one Judge whose rulings come from love.
As soon as we ourselves strive with all of our hearts and bodies to live nonviolently, as soon as we give away our possessions and love our neighbors, the peaceable kingdom of God is among us. Some of us here have seen it.
“Take courage, I have conquered the world.” –Jesus, Matthew 16:33
If anyone has war tax resistance advice for clergy, or would like to hear more about my community or my experience, I would welcome further conversation. You can contact me at email@example.com. Thank you.