This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Conscientious objection to military taxation

Harold A. (“H.A.”) Penner, a member of the Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church, is the Mennonite Church USA representative to the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.

Because of deeply help religious, moral and ethical beliefs, many experience a moral dilemma when required to pay federal taxes that underwrite war-making and militarism.

What moral injury do we suffer when we pay for war while praying for peace?  Is it possible for people who don’t believe in violence to actually pay for war?  What a struggle of conscience!

John Steen, in a 1969 leaflet entitled “Death and Taxes,” challenged us with these words:

If you were handed a gun, right now, told to shoot a man – or drop napalm on a village – you couldn’t do it…But the same good people who would vomit at the sight of burning flesh and blood on our hands have no qualms paying taxes for somebody else to kill and burn. If we are forced to face the issues, we make excuses…The managers of the Empire will let us speak – as long as we hand over the young men and the cash.  And we are afraid to refuse…The government could never get away with murder-in Vietnam or anyplace without help. The War Machine must be fed warm bodies and cold cash by the millions.

As a conscientious objector to war, I have been struggling with this moral dilemma ever since Steen wrote these words in 1969, the same year I began working at my first job after college.  My immediate supervisor, Paul Leatherman, had recently returned from a Vietnam Christian Service assignment assisting refugees in South Vietnam caught in the crossfires of that war.  He introduced me to Don Kaufman’s book, What Belongs to Caesar?

Both Paul’s witness and Don’s book were influential in convincing me to redirect as much as possible of my tax obligation to organizations promoting peace.  Encouraged by my faith community, I withheld a portion of what the Internal Revenue Service said was my annual federal income tax obligation and sent a letter each year to the U.S. President, my Senators and Representative as well as the IRS.  I told them what I was doing and why and asked them to enact the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act (currently H.R. 2377 in the 114th U.S. Congress).

Some relief from this moral dilemma became available in 1974 when Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) were introduced.  I was able to begin making maximum traditional IRA contributions each year in which I had at least the equivalent of that much annual income. Through the years, this both limited the amount the IRS determined I needed to pay and decreased my financial support of war-making and militarism.  My conscientious objection to military taxation was partially addressed by pursuing this option.

But the “chickens have come home to roost,” so to speak!  Since I’ve reached the age of 70 ½, and the IRS now says I must take a “required minimum distribution” from my IRA, SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA or retirement plan account. That requirement not only affects the amount of federal taxes the IRS says I owe but also means I have to pay more for war!

Fortunately, in recent years the U.S. government has allowed a very important tax option to IRA owners over the age of 70 ½.  If you are at least that age and have a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA), the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 allows you to make tax-free contributions of up to $100,000 annually to qualified charities that count towards your annual Required Minimum Distribution (RMD).

Making a direct charitable gift from your traditional IRA, called a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD), is simple.  But it is important to get the procedure right.  You must contact your IRA Plan Administrator and have the funds transferred directly from your IRA to a qualified charity.  Depending on the manager, the gift may take a week or more to process.  Check with your tax accountant to determine the latest information about how you might most appropriately make your contribution.

One might say this is an opportunity to further pursue conscientious objection to military taxation.  If we channel up to $100,000 of our annual required minimum distribution (RMD) directly to qualified charities, we can avoid reporting that income on our federal income tax return—an amount that can be used to wage peace instead of war.

Since the 1940’s, conscientious objectors are no longer obligated to serve in the U.S. military.  While conscientious objectors cannot physically fight in the U.S. armed forces, many of us provide the U.S. government with the financial wherewithal to pay others to do it.  The government requires us to pay taxes–44% of the 2017 U.S. budget underwrites war-making and militarism according to the War Resisters League. We pay for war but refuse to fight in it.

Because paying for war is a form of participating in war, let’s continue to address our moral dilemma of paying for war while praying for peace.

This “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.

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