It was over 20 years ago I started nonpayment of taxes owed to the IRS. I was scared, and I was young. But youth also breeds a sense of immortality, and when accompanied by a bit of a chip on my shoulder and a desire to be faithful to what I believed, I withheld my money and sent the IRS a letter stating clearly why I was opposed to military taxation. I received a few letters in response, and waited. I did some research and read some stories of property seizures and levies, but thought it was worth the risk.
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 I didn’t want any of it to support wars or the nuclear arms race or government sponsored torture. I suppose someone somewhere knows that I still owe that $80. Plus 20 years of interest.
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 have changed and I found myself owing what to me was a substantial amount of money on April 15. It had been a long time, and I had to think about it for a while, but I decided to withhold payment again. I decided that in the grand scheme of things, I really don’t have much to lose. Others, however, do. As I write this, someone somewhere is grieving the loss of a child, be it American, Iraqi, or Afghani. And 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, because the IRS will get my money if they want it. But I also know that even if I am not suffering much, someone else is. 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. No, I won’t suffer much if the IRS seizes my bank account, and it galls me that they will actually get to take the interest too. It’s not the most I can do to protest; it’s not a huge sacrifice, but it is something I can do.
When I was young, it mostly angered me. It also energized me. But it doesn’t excite me much anymore to take on the IRS, to pretend to be David slaying the giant with his $80 slingshot. Now, it truly saddens me to have to take the action of nonpayment. I don’t like to have to do it. Paying taxes is my right and responsibility. But paying taxes does not allow me to choose where my money goes, so it necessarily involves what I believe it is my responsibility to prevent – loss of life. Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch believed Christians should not withdraw from the world, but had 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.
In the end, it really doesn’t cost much. What can they do, really? They can and have seized my money. They may get a little extra because of interest. In fact I tell them where to find it. I also write my elected representatives in Washington. I am not hiding. But I also know I won’t lose much at all, so 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. But 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, “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
Reflecting on the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. has 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. I know that withholding a few thousand dollars isn’t such a great price to pay, but it is my belief that we should do what we can to create peace. I recall being fearful when we invaded Afghanistan that a draft would be reinstated. I had one son in college, and one in high school. I knew that I could let the IRS seize my money if they chose to do so, but I would not let the government and the military seize my children. When I was their age, Canada seemed like a good option. Today, a better option seems clear. 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. We are the ones who make the laws and the policies and the decisions, so we should be the ones to do the fighting if it comes to that. I do believe there would be fewer wars. But I would not go to fight; 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 them. Their parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and politicians who make the policies, are ultimately responsible, so we should be the ones paying the ultimate price so our children can live in peace. Not the other way around.
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