Tax Refusal as Conscientious Objection to War

By Melvin D. Schmidt
Originally published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, July, 1969, and reprinted/posted here with permission of the author and the Review.

Ⅰ. Historical Notes

Taxation or levying of tribute dates from ancient times as a method of tyrannical subjugation, colonial exploitation, or raising revenue for the normal uses of a civil state. A frieze found on the wall of the Egyptian king Mereruka (ca. 2350–2200 B.C.) depicts men being flogged for non-payment of taxes.1 The cause for the division of the Israelite kingdom is attributed by Jeroboam and his fellow rebellious Israelites to the oppressive taxation and corvee exacted by Solomon and attempted by Rehoboam.2 The tribute mentioned in Matthew 22:17 when the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus evidently refers to the multiple taxes that were laid upon Judah by Herod the Great.3 In more recent times, unjust or hated taxation has played a large role in many historical movements such as the Reformation and the American Revolution, or Gandhi’s Revolution in India.

Almost as old as taxation itself is rebellion against it. Tax protest has usually been directed either against the unjust taxation, as in the case of a subjugated country revolting against being forced to pay tribute (cf. “No taxation without representation!”) or against oppressively heavy taxation, leaving the principle itself unquestioned. Not to be disregarded are the anarchists who have consistently opposed the principle of taxation itself.

Tax Refusal as a Moral Protest

This paper addresses itself to tax refusal as a moral protest against the uses for which tax monies are being spent, which is a relatively new phenomenon. In I860 members of the Society of Friends in England refused to pay taxes which were used for the support of the established church. They kept up the protest for at least forty-two years. The same protest was carried over to American shores where “they were imprisoned for their refusal, subjected to a capricious seizure of goods… Appeal to the king had been made in 1724 by Quaker assessors who had been imprisoned for refusing to collect taxes to support the ministry.4 In 1709 the Quaker assembly of the Colony of Pennsylvania refused to grant £4000 which was requested by the English Crown for an expedition into Canada, but voted to give £500 to the Queen as a token of their respect, provided that “the money should be put into a safe hand till they were satisfied from England it would not be employed in the use of war…”5

In 1755 John Churchman and others again protested a direct war tax, their concern being that it should not be used to kill Indians. A protest was made to the governor indicating that they refused to vote for munitions but as “tribute to Caesar” were willing to grant £4000 for “bread, beef, pork, flour, wheat, or other grain.” Benjamin Franklin informs us that the government spent all the money for gunpowder, declaring that this was the “other grain” intended.6 According to one irate critic, the pacifist Church of the Brethren before the Revolutionary War

not only refused to take up arms to repel the savage marauders and prevent the inhuman slaughter of men, women and children, but they refused in the most positive manner to pay a dollar to support those who were willing to take up arms to defend their homes and their firesides, until wrung from them by the stern mandates of the law. They did the same when the Revolution broke out… They might at least have furnished money, but no; not a dollar!7

During the American Revolutionary War the Friends’ testimony against war taxes did not diminish.

There was plenty for the overseers to do in these early days of the war… shutting their hearts against the pleadings of mercy for their brothers and sons who had joined the “associatore” (pro-war) or paid taxes, or placed guns for defense upon their vessels, or paid fines for refusing to collect military taxes, … they cleared the Society of all open complicity with it. The offense was reported to one Monthly Meeting, and at the next the testimony of disownment would go out.8

It is apparent that as the churches became acclimated in America, tax refusal as a form of protesting against war gradually diminished. By the time of the Civil War, the Quakers were still vigorously protesting against war taxes, but the Brethren and the Mennonites had decided that they should pay without protest what the government required.9 There were individual protests such as the one made by a Quaker named Maule who became concerned over the lax spiritual condition of many of his brethren who were not disturbed by taxes levied for war purposes. He refused to pay the County Treasurer 8%% of the tax for 1861 “which was the part expressly named in the tax list as for the war at that time.”10

Perhaps the most famous American tax refuser was Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay the special tax levied for fighting the Mexican War. His consequent imprisonment occasioned the writing of his essay “On Civil Disobedience.”

Income Tax in the United States

The first income tax was imposed under Lincoln in 1862 when the costs of the Civil War were resulting in an increase of the public debt by as much as two million dollars per day. This tax was abolished in 1872. Attempts were made in the second Cleveland administration to reinstate it, but the move was defeated in the Supreme Court on the ground that such a tax was an infringement on the rights of personal property and unconstitutional in that it did not adhere to the principle of taxation in proportion to the population of the various states. In 1913 the Constitution was amended to authorize Congress “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever sources derived, without apportionment among the several states and without regard to any census or enumeration.”11 Thus the principle for the present system was established, and with American involvement in the First World War, the subsequent depression and entrance into the Second World War, rates of taxation and number of persons taxable have been constantly on the increase. The withholding system was instituted by the U.S. Revenue Act of 1942.

Income Tax Refusal Since World War Two

Refusal to pay the income tax was practiced by only a few scattered individuals during the Second World War. Most pacifists felt that the refusal to join the armed services constituted a significant witness because manpower was badly needed to win the war. It was assumed by the pacifists that keeping oneself out of the conflict by refusing to join it bodily was the least that one could do, thereby exercising a hard won legal privilege. With the end of the war, however, pacifists were disillusioned because of the heavy involvement of the United States in the Cold War. It became increasingly clear to many that the primary weapon in the arsenal of the United States was her technological lead immediately following the end of the war. To sustain this technological advantage, continued intensive research and outlay of great amounts of money would be necessary. With the full commitment of the United States to a policy of containment during the Truman administrations and with the continued upward escalation of the national military budget in the late forties, some felt that the mere refusal to be inducted into the armed services had become an anachronism and was no longer relevant. The alternative service programs were functioning with government approval and were becoming recognized generally as a valid form of patriotic service, especially after the well-publicized involvement of conscientious objectors in several radioactive food tests. The pacifist witness, having been legalized and accepted by the American public, had lost its potency as a witness against violence.

Many pacifists felt that the mere refusal to engage in military service was irrelevant for the simple reason that most pacifists are in the wrong age, sex or profession to be eligible for military service. The “money draft” was considered to be at least as important as the “manpower draft.”

The search for a more revolutionary approach to the whole problem of war and violence led to a meeting of about 250 pacifists in Chicago in early 1948. Several speeches were given, and a committee was formed, which began vigorously to present nonpayment of taxes as a form of protest and as a method of reaching the public with a vigorous witness against the increase of armaments. As formulated in the Chicago meeting, tax refusal took two main forms: (1) avoiding tax liability by earning less than a taxable amount, and (2) creating tax liability but refusing to pay the government what is owed.

An organization called “The Peacemakers” has been active since 1947 urging nonpayment of taxes and publishing a periodical called “The Peacemaker.” Ernest Bromley, founder and present head of the organization, has offices in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Ⅱ. A Survey of Tax Refusers

A small research project to determine the extent of tax refusal in the United States was undertaken in the spring of 1964. The names of about fifty tax refusers were gleaned from issues of “The Peacemaker,” and about fifty more tax refusers of personal acquaintance were added to the list. A questionnaire sent to 105 persons yielded sixty-one who have engaged in some form of active protest against war taxes. With no possible method of measuring how representative this sampling may be, a brief description of the findings may nevertheless he helpful.

Age, Sex and Race

The age spread of tax refusers in the sampling ranged from nineteen to seventy-seven with no clustering of ages that would indicate tax refusal to be significantly related to age. Most subjects were male and nearly all were white.


The sampling included twenty-four engaged in professions (physician, teacher, architect, writer, minister, etc.), ten in business and administration, three in skilled labor, fourteen in unskilled labor, and ten miscellaneous (student, prisoner, unemployed, retired, etc.).

The significant finding in regard to occupation is that tax refusers sometimes choose their occupations on the basis of preventing the withholding of income tax. A respondent lists “window cleaner” as his occupation, but adds that he is a lay minister in his church and has several years of postgraduate training. He has chosen to be a window cleaner in order to maintain freedom from contractual agreements. He earns about $900 per year. The carpenter has chosen his vocation because it allows him to maintain several part-time jobs. He escapes the withholding system by refusing to earn more than $600 per year at any one of the concurrent jobs. He earns $1800 non-taxable per year.

Forty-six of the subjects earned $4,500 or less per year, ten earned $4,500 to $8,900, five earned $9,000 to $20,000.

The question of how people manage to survive on extremely low incomes may be explored briefly. Six of the subjects are farmers and raise most of their own food. Several are living in “intentional communities” where little or no income is claimed by individuals because all earnings are shared communally. Several of the subjects are engaged in relief work with a church agency that provides free board and room. Several are associated with peace groups and spend much of their time in marches and demonstrations; their meals are provided by local churches and peace organizations along the route of march. Two of the subjects eat and sleep at boarding houses which they operate for vagrants. They claim very little personal income because it is all considered the income of the institution. About two-thirds of those earning less than $1,300 are single.

Some of the larger incomes may be “below taxable” by virtue of deductions. One subject earning $7,000 has enough dependents and other tax deductions to enable him even at this level to “keep income below taxable levels.” Some of the retired persons drawing Social Security and other nontaxable benefits keep part-time jobs and manage to maintain a reasonably comfortable standard of living, but they still consider themselves “tax refusers” because they are avoiding payment of income tax. One subject “adopts” adult derelicts and keeps them in his home, thus claiming them as his dependents, by sanction of an Internal Revenue Service ruling.

Correlation of Income to Extent of Protest

Considerable effort was made to determine what relationship, if any, exists between the level of income and the extent of noncooperation. A “hierarchy” of tax protest was established, with numerical values assigned as follows in decreasing order of importance:

  1. Refuse to file income tax report. (May be charged with fraud.)
  2. File tax report as prescribed by law, but refuse to pay tax due.
  3. Withhold a part of the tax due and give it to charities.
  4. Pay the tax due, but write a letter of protest.
  5. Keep income below taxable levels. (Not civil disobedience, but accommodation to the law.)

Several mathematical tests, including the chi-square and coefficient of correlation were applied, yielding results that seem to support the hypothesis that those in high income groups tend toward milder forms of protest. Only one subject in the $9,000–$20,000 group refuses to file a report, whereas sixteen below the $9,000 level refuse; such refusal may be considered a serious form of civil disobedience.

Religious Affiliation

Almost thirty percent of the group disclaimed any religious affiliation whatever. A significant number of the tax refusers seem to feel that the church is too closely identified with society, and since they do not feel at home in society, they do not feel at home in the church.

Furthermore, an investigation of those tax refusers who claim religious affiliation reveals that about fifty per cent of them do not consciously base their tax refusal on the teachings of the New Testament. Humanitarian principles may have more relevance than the teachings of Christ as such. Rational casuistry, not literally interpreted teachings of Christ, is involved by the typical tax refuser. A seminary professor of New Testament who is one of the subjects writes: “It would seem… that any protest against income taxes in the United States on the basis of the proportion of taxes going into the military effort or the size of the taxes per se cannot appeal to the New Testament.”

Motives are not measurable. It is possible that the tax refusers, while intent on applying the ethical teachings of Jesus in the best sense, would still admit that the New Testament, literalistically interpreted, is of very little assistance. The study indicates that radical pacifism has a rationalistic, humanitarian bent, rather than a dogmatic, deontological tendency. Persons not affiliated with the church tend to make stronger tax protests, according to the study.


The sample would indicate that tax refusers generally are well educated, averaging approximately two years of (post) graduate study. The group that makes the most radical type of protest (refusal to file) has the lowest average educational level, while those who conform in all respects to tax laws but register their protest in a legal manner have the highest educational level. The study shows quite clearly that a highly educated tax refuser tends to avoid direct civil disobedience, but will try to register his protest in a legally accepted way.

Marital Status

Persons with few or no family responsibilities tend to make stronger protests. No generalization can be made for persons with family responsibilities. The unmarried tax refusers are found mainly in the “refuse to file” column, which is the most radical form of tax refusal.

Political Participation

The general tendency of tax refusers, with a few exceptions, is withdrawal from participation in the two-party political system. Over two thirds disclaimed political affiliation with any political party. One subject inserted the following comment, which is probably indicative of the political philosophy of many tax refusers: “I would not abstain in principle, but never was around an election that seemed to matter.” Another typical sentiment: “In local and regional politics some political choices exist for a person with my views. At the national level as concerns foreign policy, there are no real political choices for me.”

The study showed that those few tax refusers who claim political affiliation tend toward mild forms of protest, such as writing a letter each time they pay taxes. Of the nineteen subjects who are either Republicans or Democrats, one refuses to file an income tax report.

The Armed Services

Not a single subject indicated a willingness to serve in the armed forces. Twenty-two would be willing to engage in alternative service to fulfill military requirements, while twenty-six indicated that they would refuse to register. One of the subjects was in jail at the time of the study for his refusal to register, and several others indicated they had spent time in jail for the same reason. It is clear that there is no compromise on this issue among tax refusers.

Ⅲ. The Internal Revenue Service

It is difficult to make a generalization about the Internal Revenue Service in regard to tax refusal. Correspondence with the IRS would indicate, as could be expected, that “no exceptions are allowed to the citizen’s responsibility to contribute to the government’s fiscal needs.”12 We may expect that the main intent of letters from the IRS will always be to persuade the citizen to adhere strictly to the laws of the land. Answers vary in terms of thoughtfulness and thoroughness of response.

Judging from the treatment accorded several tax refusers, it would appear that the Internal Revenue Service is less than consistent in its actual dealings with people. Subjects disagreed widely concerning the treatment received, some indicating that the IRS is “firm in keeping to the letter of the law,” while others described the IRS as “considerate of a person’s motives and thus not willing to prosecute.” One person wrote that the IRS “goes beyond the letter of the law to punish me.” Another said that the IRS is “respectful of reasoned refusal, slow to prosecute, perhaps because publicized refusals could stir up more opposition.”

That the Internal Revenue Service is in a thorny predicament in regard to tax refusers can hardly be denied. The letter of the law must be followed and the IRS, being merely the collecting agency of the government, has no authority to change existing tax laws. Yet in nearly every instance when it has sought to enforce the letter of the law, it has gotten itself into two main kinds of difficulty.

(a) Adverse publicity. In 1961, Internal Revenue Service agents seized three horses plus harnesses from Valentine I. Byler, a Pennsylvania Amish Mennonite who had refused to pay the tax imposed on his income to cover the cost of the old age and survivors’ insurance (Social Security). His grounds for refusal were conscientious objection to publicly supported insurance programs. The affair received wide coverage and the reaction was disastrous for the IRS. Irate citizens of all political persuasions wrote in protest, but the issue had particular appeal for the conservatives who were convinced that the Amishmen should be left free of government encroachment. The barrage of public criticism was quite unfairly directed at the IRS for doing the job it was supposed to do.

A bill to exempt the Amish from compulsory participation in the old age, survivors and disability insurance program (Social Security) has since become law.

(b) Financial difficulties. The cost of collecting money from delinquent tax payers is so high that prosecution in most instances is prohibitive, except where large amounts are involved. In one unusual case, a tax refuser is bringing suit against the government, seeking to recover taxes already paid, on the grounds that “freedom of worship” is denied him whenever the government compels him to pay for armaments against his religious beliefs. It has already cost the government $3,000 to keep the $33.94 which he paid in taxes several years ago.

Thus it is understandable that the Internal Revenue Service appears to be following a policy of caution.

The fact that so few have been arrested shows that there has been no policy of crack down. Instead, it would seem that, for one reason or another, local officials who have brought criminal action have probably acted on their own initiative. There has been little indication that the headquarters of the IRS or the Department of Justice has wanted to prosecute.13

Ⅳ. Theological Critique

This part of the essay will attempt to delineate various theological predispositions which might lead to tax refusal. Obviously not all of these perspectives are of equal significance.

Tax Refusal as Absolutism

There are three absolutist positions which could lead logically to tax refusal.

First, a rigorous and literalistic interpretation of New Testament “commands” could lead to tax refusal, much in the same sense that the pre-Constantinian church was pacifist through strict adherence to the “law of love” (cf. especially Tertullian). The radical antitheses of Jesus found in the fifth chapter of Matthew are understood as literal dicta which a Christian seeks to follow as absolute prescriptives. The logical extension of “Love your enemies” is that you may not kill them, the logical extension of which is that it is impossible to become part of an organization whose primary task is to destroy enemies. It follows from this that one cannot consciously submit to tax laws which force one to support such an organization. In the words of John Woolman, how can a Christian conscientiously support with his means the activities of his society in which he refuses to engage bodily?

The criticism which we would bring against biblical literalism is that it represents a serious misunderstanding of Jesus as a religious teacher. To extrapolate “law” from the teachings of Jesus is to misunderstand Jesus. The error of the Pharisees is repeated, for the truth of Jesus Christ does not bind men; it sets them free. Hence, a more adequate basis than biblical literalism is required, and as already noted, biblical literalism in fact has no appreciable significance among tax refusers.

Secondly, “adherence to the voice of conscience” can be the absolutist basis for tax refusal. A biblical literalist would maintain that the Bible is his voice of conscience and would not recognize a disparity between the “commands” of the Bible and the dictates of his conscience. This type of absolutism would be subsumed under our first point. What we are referring to here is that the maintenance of personal integrity is accepted as the ultimate principle, more or less devoid of any specific dogmatic content.

A good number of tax refusers believe that the “inner voice” which speaks to a man transcends any theological doctrine which he may propound. They admit that Jesus Christ does not influence their behavior as much as does Thoreau, the Yankee individualist who tended to base the laws of the universe on the experience-born, thought-produced convictions of one man, namely himself. Tax refusal may in some instances be a way for people to reassure themselves that their consciences have not become atrophied or underdeveloped from lack of exercise. The saying of the one syllable “no” is considered a duty to oneself, or an exercise in moral discipline which has value in itself.

If maintenance of personal integrity becomes the absolute principle, tax refusal lapses into solipsism. The “voice of conscience” itself is entirely relative, largely determined by social conditioning. A man may be the victim of misinformation, and his actions, although conforming to the best insights available to him, may be palpably wrong. Some atrocious crimes have been perpetrated upon humanity by persons acting conscientiously, as witness Saul of Tarsus persecuting the Christians, the Roman Church during the Inquisition, Calvinist persecution of heretics, etc.

A third absolutism that may lead to tax refusal is the principle that human life must be preserved. Destruction of human life is taken to be absolutely wrong under any circumstances, and the tax refuser, having accepted the preservation of life as his principle, will not knowingly permit his person or his resources to become involved in the destruction of life. The Aesculapian oath to do good if possible but in no case to do harm is frequently invoked by tax refusers.

The principle to refrain at all costs from doing harm or killing persons acknowledges the negative side of the paradox of love but neglects its positive side. The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has tried to interpret the love ethic in the radical sense, derived from the New Testament, as that love which goes to the very heart of the most desperately sinful situations that can be found, and there gives itself in sacrificial service in whatever way possible, toward the end that human relationships may be restored and the love of God be made manifest. Such an ethic requires more than adherence to the absolute negative principle of refusing to destroy human life at all costs. The principle, instead of being ultimate in nature, is a derivative of Christian love.

Tax Refusal as a Catalyst for Social Change

Tax refusal is practiced by some with the idea of bringing about social change. Pragmatically inclined tax refusers tend to see one or a combination of three goals for their action.

(1) The idea of changing tax laws provides the impetus for some tax refusers. Several of the tax refusers studied are avowedly anarchist. All taxation is in principle confiscatory. The objective of some conscientious objectors (anarchist or not) is to change the present tax laws so that conscientious objectors to war would enjoy the same privileges with regard to payment of war taxes that they presently enjoy with regard to military service. Church groups continue to draw up proposed tax bills along these lines, and many tax refusers look forward to the day when there will be available to them an exemption from the offensive taxes.

Tax refusers whose purpose is to bring about desired legislation see their action as a forceful tool to affect policy making in Washington, for every tax refuser knows that if tax refusal were practiced by a sizable number of citizens, immense economic pressures would be brought to bear upon the policymakers. The present tax structure depends to some extent upon the goodwill and continued support of the American citizenry. The withholding system, inaugurated in 1943, removes a great deal of the voluntary nature of taxpaying, but Mortimer Caplan, former Commissioner of Internal Revenue, said repeatedly during his tenure that “95 per cent of the taxpayers are honest and… the entire system could collapse if this underlying taxpayer morality should change for any reason.”14

The pragmatically oriented pacifist sees tax refusal as one of the most powerful tools to bring about change, since the withholding of funds is seen as potentially much more effective than mere verbal protests, demonstrations or any other kind of peace witness. Since “money talks,” the pragmatic tax refuser attempts to make it shout with a loud voice, for he is convinced that nothing short of the most intense pressure will ever bring about change in anything as unyielding as the military establishment.

The Christian ethic, in the interpretation of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, is decidedly eschatological. This means that right action is not judged on the basis of the probabilities and possibilities for the present age, but rather in terms of God’s ultimate purposes. This kind of ethic is radically imprudent and manifestly absurd in any but the eschatological sense.

According to such an understanding, conscientious refusal of tax payment toward the end that tax laws will be changed makes little sense. There is no reason to suppose that the conscientious objector living in a country where no legal provisions exist for him is any less “successful” in bringing the love of God into human lives than is the man living in a state where he enjoys comprehensive freedoms. Exemption from offensive taxes is a goal in only the most tentative sense, and legislation toward that end should be seen as penultimate.

(2) The practice of the freedom of religion provides some tax refusers with a motive for their action. The United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Some pacifists feel that because up to 80 per cent of the taxes imposed on them is used to support the military establishment, they are in effect being forced to support with their money an establishment which their religion forbids. Tax refusal is seen as a way to put democracy into action. It is a way of claiming the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

If the only or the dominating motivation for the tax refuser’s action is to claim his rights it would appear quite inadequate in the light of Christian ethical perspectives, for we can find no indication that Jesus encouraged or exhorted men to claim their temporal rights from temporal authorities. No guarantee for civil liberties is given Christians, nor are they told to demand them. Christians are sent into the world as sheep among wolves. Persecution, misunderstanding and suffering are much more likely to be their lot.

(3) Tax refusal is engaged in by some for the purpose of jarring the conscience of American churches and the American public. It is hoped that the country will be aroused to the urgency of the issues facing us, and that ethical awareness and action will follow. The contention is that “American Christianity no longer tends to be a chain of narrow negativisms, but rather a blur of cushiony positives.”15 Instead of being concerned over the fact that pacifism is to a large extent understood as a negative withdrawal from the problems of the world, these people are rather worried over the fact that pacifism has become too mildly and positively acceptable. It is pointed out that since conscientious objection to war has been given legal status and has largely overcome public antagonisms it no longer has value as a protest against war. Draft refusal is no longer the resounding “no” that it was in the days of tar and feathers. Tax refusal is seen to be a way of bringing positive pacifism up to date in the sense that it can regain its former potency as a conscience-jarring action.

In a certain sense this kind of “witness,” seeking always to produce the greatest “conscience-jarring” effect, is hopelessly negative, for there must be a continual search for ways to engage in illegal or risky activities. It can quickly degenerate into a martyr complex with an evangelical halo. Should the government obligingly provide exemption from war taxes, the method of tax refusal as a conscience-stirring action would no longer be available as a strategy. Legislation would render tax refusal impotent as a moral witness.

Tax Refusal as a Prophetic Task

It is the contention of this paper that tax refusal is most consistently engaged in by Christians if they see it primarily as prophetic task. To view the task prophetically removes the moral pitfalls of absolutism and social activism.

First, when tax refusal is seen as a prophetic task, the act itself is tentative and is seen in the proper perspective of having no efficacy of its own. A prophetic sign-act makes no absolutist pretensions. The act itself is understood as tentative and symbolic, giving witness to one’s love for all humanity. The prophetic tax refuser does not pretend to be keeping himself morally clean in a world situation that is dirty. He may agree that, logically considered, his action might be thought of as irresponsible and imprudent, but he realizes that prophets in any age are called upon to be radically imprudent. The prophetic tax refuser refrains from prescriptive value judgments. “God help us if everyone acted the way I do!” may be his candid appraisal of his imprudent act.

Secondly, tax refusal, when seen as a prophetic act, escapes the charge often hurled at social activists to the effect that the historical situation writes the agenda for the Church. The prophetic tax refuser takes his cue from history, but his call from beyond history. His task is not to accomplish a specific juridical task or to accomplish a certain piece of legislation. The purpose of a prophet is not merely to bring about changes in the tax law, although such a change is not disparaged.

Is the “irresponsible” action of a prophet not in conflict with the ethic of responsibility? Is “radical imprudence” consistent with Christian love, which takes responsibility for a sinful situation? The tax refuser’s answer is that he rejects the “prudent” definition of responsibility and displaces it with the eschatological definition. As a prophetic tax refuser, he measures his action only in terms of God’s ultimate purpose for the world and the radical demands of Christ. An analogous situation is the case of the pacifist who is charged by his compatriots with not being a “good patriot” because of his refusal to bear arms. The pacifist rejects the criterion of the other citizens and sees himself as being a “good patriot” for entirely different, and higher, reasons. Likewise, prophetic tax refusal is not a denial of responsibility for the social situation, but acceptance of it in a personal encounter with evil.

Jeremiah’s prophetic act of buying a choice piece of land while Jerusalem was already under siege is instructive at this point. The act was imprudent and unreasonable. Moreover, it was not consistent with his pronouncements of unmitigated doom and destruction which he had foretold for Jerusalem. His act was understandable only in the eschatological sense in terms of the message of hope he was trying to convey. In the symbolic act of buying a piece of land the prophet chose to make known his absolute faith in the God of Israel who would restore the future. Jeremiah’s act was not the logical thing to do at the time, nor was it prescriptive in any sense, for we can hardly assume that he would have recommended that everyone buy the land.

Ⅴ. Conclusion

Tax refusers have an immensely important message to convey to our world, for the probability of a nuclear holocaust is a lurking threat which awaits only one mistaken judgment, one slight but terrible accident of history, to end all history. The only hope for this sick world is for men and women of all nations and races who have glimpsed the vision of “the family of man” (or “the Kingdom of God”) to respond to the call of God and accept their prophetic task of confronting their fellowmen with their hopes and ideals for a better world. The response may require some to disobey tax laws; for others the response may be obedience to the same laws. Obedience to laws which are manifestly evil is not necessarily acquiescence, for Socrates, in a symbolic act, drank the poison hemlock in voluntary submission to a law which he felt was unquestionably wrong. Tax refusers should give thought to the crucifixion, which is a model for all Christians. What was this great redemptive act but the voluntary submission of a victim to a human verdict which was manifestly evil — a tragic miscarriage of justice in which we could have expected at least a few words of self-vindication from the victim? But the victim of this absurd ecclesiastical blunder says nothing in self-defense. He suffers silently and prophetically. To search for any specific “reasonableness” in this act borders on blasphemy.

“Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) The kingdom of God is, for the Christian, his eschatological hope. It is the goal toward which all history moves. Yet the kingdom of love for which he hopes also resides in him. In his decisions and actions there is the possibility — indeed the responsibility — to make this hope real and bring it into concretion. A man’s response to this transcendent call may involve him in absurdities, but his action, humbly carried out as responses to the call of God, may yet bear fruit in eternity.

  1. J.A. Sanders, “Tax, Taxes,” The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (1962), Ⅳ, 520.
  2. Ⅰ Kings 12.
  3. Sanders, 521.
  4. Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies (London: Macmillan, 1923), 153–56.
  5. Isaac Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government (Philadelphia: Ferris, 1898), Ⅰ, 199.
  6. Margaret E. Hirst, The Quakers in Peace and War (London: The Swarthmore Press, 1923), 372
  7. U. J. Jones, History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley quoted in Rufus Bowman,The Church of the Brethren and War (Elgin, Illinois: The Brethren Publishing House, 1944), 74, 80, 93.
  8. Jones, 564.
  9. Bowman, 154; cf. Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace and Nonresistance.
  10. Carl D. Soule, Review of Conscientious Objection in the Civil War, by Edward Needles Wright, The Reporter for Conscience Sake, ⅩⅨ (June, 1962), 2.
  11. Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S.A.
  12. Letter, Internal Revenue Service.
  13. Arthur Harvey, Handbook on Nonpayment of War Taxes (Raymond, New Hampshire, 1963), 19.
  14. New York Times, May 23, 1964, 23.
  15. Dale Aukerman, “A Call to Income Tax Protest,” Brethren Service Commission, Elgin, Illinois


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Mennonite Quarterly Review website (original publisher of this article, July 1969)