Persistent questions about war tax resistance

It is tax season.  And once again I am confronted by the fact that nearly nine percent of my income tax goes for military purposes.

stop paying for warFor nearly forty years, Conscience Canada has been faithfully encouraging Canadians to withhold the military portion of their income tax as a form of modern-day conscientious objection. It has provided a peace trust fund as a repository where “conscientious objectors to military taxation” (COMTs) may send their withheld tax until such a time as the federal government creates a legal peace fund were they may re-direct the military portion of their tax.

I recently heard a good friend and Conscience Canada supporter speak publicly about his own journey of war tax resistance. He spoke with passion and eloquence and a heartfelt commitment to peace. He noted that Canada has spent $20 billion on a 12-year war in Afghanistan. He posed the question, “What might happen if people opposed to Canada’s participation in war simply refused to pay for it?”

I too have withheld the military portion of my income tax as a way of saying NO to military expenditures that I believe harm humanity and the planet. I was able to do this during several years of self-employment when I did not have an employer deducting income tax from my paycheck. Since I have returned to a salaried job I don’t have the option of actually withholding my military tax. And, to be honest, I have been less than consistent in offering other forms of protest in subsequent years.

Those who persist in war tax resistance over a sustained period of time are courageous people. They are choosing to break the law for the sake of deeply held religious beliefs or commitments of conscience. They are prophets among us.

They are often also quite lonely. My friend asked his audience why more people – presumably pacifists – don’t embrace war tax resistance. He wondered why the wider church has not given greater support to people who seek to express their conscientious objection to war in this way. I sensed a deep loneliness.

As I think of my own responses, I wonder why I personally have been an inconsistent promoter of war tax resistance. I think it boils down to this:  When individuals choose to withhold their tax, they are seeking a way to remove themselves from war and military preparations. Their actions do not directly challenge Canada’s involvement in war or other highly militarized “peace support” operations. They do not critique levels of military spending. Neither do they address Canada’s eagerness to sell military equipment around the world.

To be sure, Mennonite conscientious objectors traditionally sought provisions that would exempt them from military service. They did not really question the notion of war itself or Canada’s role in prosecuting war.  They wanted to make sure that people whose religious beliefs (or conscience) prevented them from killing others would not be required to do so by the state. So the approach of COMTs is in keeping with the longer tradition of conscientious objection.

I guess I wonder if, today, we are called to speak more intentionally to the bigger systems.

Some years ago, MCC Canada’s peace network made that choice. The Canadian government (first Liberal and then Conservative) involved the country deeply in war in Afghanistan, it drastically increased military spending, and it fostered a kind of militarized patriotism unknown to several generations of Canadians. Our peace network (MCC peace staff across the country) was confronted with the question:  Do we use our limited resources of time and money primarily to advance the idea of war tax resistance and a legal peace tax fund for conscientious objectors? Or do we use those resources to speak to the larger policy framework and ethos? To put it crassly, do we advocate for special accommodations for the few? Or do we confront the system that says peace can be built through war and military force?

armedbannerAt the time, our peace network decided for the latter. We subsequently carried on a several-year campaign called O Canada: armed and ready. We resisted Canada’s participation in war in a variety of ways: letters, petitions, a women’s fast, prayer vigils and other forms of public witness.

Did we make the right decision?  I’m not sure. No doubt many COMTs would say that my framing of the issue is a false dichotomy. They would insist that by withholding their tax they are confronting the war system itself. It is not a question of “either or.”

I am moved and inspired by people like my friend who make the difficult and courageous choice to withhold tax, not knowing what this might ultimately mean for them.  “Will you visit me in jail?” he asks.

My own questions persist …

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office. From 2000 to 2010, Esther was peace program coordinator for MCC Canada.

3 thoughts on “Persistent questions about war tax resistance

  1. What is the mentality of predominately Mennonite federal ridings that have consistently elected MPs of Mennonite upbringing presumably that ardently and publically support abolition of gun registration and supporting the war during their 8-year term in office? Do they really reflect the views of non-resistance and peace? Canada is no longer seen as supporting PEACEKEEPERS- a Canadian idea! Is more money in our pocket of greater concern? If so the idea of withholding war tax money will not wash. Perhaps we as Mennonites can have a greater effect by placing people ahead of money.

  2. Esther, thanks for writing this article. Charlotte and I very much appreciate the way you and others within and beyond MCC continue to address and challenge the warmaking which goes on in our country and in our world. We continue to wonder, pray about and question whether we (individually and collectively as MCC, Churches …) are doing enough and whether we need to take a more definite stand such as COMT in addition to the advocacy we are doing. Is it time to give this matter another round in our MCC system?

    We would like to say that we are not COMT’ers who are just trying to remove ourselves from war and militarism. I hope that we are moving further than the “tradition of conscientious objection ” to which you refer. We are doing this to also speak to the “bigger systems”, as MCC’s peace network seeks to do, but hopefully with more emphasis.If we are indeed serious about working for peace, should we, can we continue to pay for war? As I mentioned at the meeting, would our witness to the people of Syria not have so much more integrity if we said no to war and warmaking with our wallets?

  3. Thanks so much for this, Esther.
    My thoughts, and we’ve talked about this numerous times over the years, are as follows. As a lifetime justice and peace worker and a follower of Jesus’ way of non-violence, and as one rooted in our Mennonite history and biblical theology, I don’t give much time to CO war tax efforts for two basic reasons:

    On a political philosophical level, it seems to me that a community (country) can’t be organized based on giving a tax exemption to all who oppose some measure due to moral/ethical reasons. If so, then while I support an exemption from paying the military portion of my taxes, I also must allow an exemption for those who oppose abortion, or blood transfusions, or stem cell research, or whatever as long as it is on “deeply held moral or religious grounds”. So, not only do I not want to open the door to anyone opting out of paying for whatever they disagree with, I think the effort is futile as no government can allow this. At the same time, I do recognise and support the role of civil disobedience. So perhaps those who are so led, can simply refuse to pay, rather than seeking official exemption. Obviously with this I’ve moved quite a ways away from the Schleitheim dualism with which I was raised.

    Secondly, I’d rather give all my available energy to working at reducing Canadian militarism in general, at reducing the military portion of the Canadian budget. This would have the effect of taming the military machine at least a bit, and thus reducing war and violence for all people, rather than just keeping our pacifist dollars unblemished. War tax resistance at times smacks of an inward-looking desire to keep ourselves pure, to wash our hands a la Pilate of our country’s war-making. Refusing to pay the war tax doesn’t change the military budget; it’s just an accounting trick, the old “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In effect, 16% of your neighbour’s taxes goes to the military so that 0% of yours goes there. Are our hands even clean with that kind of arrangement?

    And yet, as with you, “my questions persist.”

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