Why Pray for Peace and Pay for War?

Friends challenge their governments and take personal risks in the cause of peace. We urge one another to refuse to participate in war as soldiers, or as arms manufacturers. We seek ways to support those who refrain from paying taxes that support war. We work to end violence within our own borders, our homes, our streets, and our communities. We support international order, justice, and understanding.
—Faith and Practice,
Pacific Yearly Meeting, 2001.

An internal conflict has been seething within me for years. I prayed repeatedly that it would just go away. As a citizen of this country and of the world, I tried to do everything possible to promote peace. I prayed, wrote letters, organized, marched, committed civil disobedience, and more. Every year, as winter turned to spring and April 15 approached, I felt dread grip me. How could I not only pray and work for peace and justice, but also take a public stand and stop paying for war?

These are the painful and complicated dilemmas that challenge Quaker believers in peace and justice who love life and care for our natural world. There are many opportunities for us as well.

I have symbolically refused to pay the federal tax on my phone bill since the 1970s. In the mid 1980s I refused to pay my federal withholding taxes, and then painfully watched as my wages, and those of a few other war tax resisters, were garnished—along with penalties and interest. It felt painful and disempowering.

I crumbled. Social conditioning, fear of the Internal Revenue Service, taboos about challenging the government, concerns about economic security, and the lack of a collective war tax resistance strategy in my community led me back to paying my taxes in the late 1980s. I felt there was no other choice. After all, I could be a peace and justice activist and still pay for war. Keeping under the radar on the tax front and giving back as much as I could to my community (the world) became my mantra.

Fifteen years later, through renewed spiritual commitment and membership in a Friends meeting, I was led to take action with other Quakers on war tax resistance. It began among a few of us, and that’s all it takes.

Early in 2006, my meeting began co-hosting war tax resistance gatherings with Northern California War Tax Resistance. We urged Friends in our meeting to engage in symbolic war tax resistance—refusing federal phone taxes, paying under protest, withholding symbolic amounts, or living below the tax line—and letting our legislators know about it. We found that a number of households in the meeting partook in some form of war tax resistance, symbolic or otherwise.

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and proxy conflicts elsewhere raged on, funded by my tax dollars, and ever more resources paid for death and destruction while growing needs went unfunded here at home. I felt a heightened sense of urgency to resolve the issues that kept me from being a public war tax resister.

Philosophically, it’s a slam dunk. No more war. Not with my dollars.

Logistically, though, it’s easy to become fixated on the mechanics and legal aspects of war tax resistance. There’s a lot to learn and consider. My journey, through discernment, prayer, and the support of others, led me to focus on complex social and financial issues. Mostly, I have been confronting my fear of the IRS and the insecurity of not knowing where this will lead.

In my formative years I was emphatically taught to vote when of age, pay my taxes, and speak up when I disagreed. These values are inculcated in many of us, in our families, throughout the educational system, and socially and institutionally as we move into adulthood. Paying our taxes is seen as a civic duty. It’s also an individual and private process between an individual (or couple) and a large, bureaucratic entity, the Internal Revenue Service. It makes most taxpayers feel quite powerless. For millions of us, handing over our hard-earned dollars for the good and the not-so-good—for needed social programs, the operation of government bureaucracies, and the fueling of the war machine—is simply a fact of life. The phrase Thomas Jefferson coined, "There are two certainties in life, death and taxes," is a stark and true reality.

Fear of losing what financial security I have, worry about how my family and friends will react, and anxiety about what the IRS would do add confusion and doubt. Will I have to reduce my quality of life to be a tax resister? What are my responsibilities as a family wage earner? What will extended family members think? What about my larger community of friends when my resistance becomes public?

I am fortunate in this regard to be single and a renter with some savings and retirement benefits. Still, I have needed to face family and friends—some supportive, some not, some withholding judgment through silence or making jokes. I would like their understanding and support, but I have little control over the reactions of others.

My choice to be a war tax resister means that I will continue to grapple with these issues. There are no easy answers. I often reflect about those living on the streets in the neighborhood of our meetinghouse, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in so many other places. There is no easy way to do this. But I am glad to grapple with all the turmoil, joy, and self-discovery this decision brings forward.

It is the fear factor that has caused the most difficulty in my decision to be a public war tax resister, and not knowing how the government will respond. If 9/11 has taught me anything about our country, it is how many of us were manipulated by that tragic event into becoming terrified of Islam, of al-Qaida, of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Fear is real and it can paralyze and poison. When I sit in silent worship, I am aware of how true this is for me, too. I pray that I can, through action, transform my fear into hope.

In fact, these fears pale when I reflect upon what is being done with my tax dollars, 41 percent of which, according to Friends Committee on National Legislation, go for military preparations and war. My doubts slide away when I think about the effects our government policies have on people here at home and around the globe, about my privilege living as a middle-class U.S. citizen, and about my responsibility as a member of the global family of God’s creatures.

For the 2006 tax year I have held back $1,040 from the IRS (symbolic of the IRS 1040 form). Living with multiple feelings—fear, joy, and liberation—makes life whole. My faith as a Quaker, striving to be nonviolent and to oppose all wars, has led me down this path. I am sustained by the knowledge that many Quakers throughout history have resisted paying taxes for war. When I think that we as a faith community need to do more, I know that the we starts with me.

Yes, the IRS will get what I owe in taxes, plus more in penalties and late fees. I can afford it. The privilege I enjoy, compared to over half of the world’s population who live in dire want, makes me realize that whatever hardship I face is small in comparison. I can truly say I am overjoyed to not pay for war voluntarily.

When April 15 rolls around this year, I expect my experience will lead me to step up again, not only to pray and work for peace, but also to refuse to pay for war.

I am finding hope, though not always easily, in the process of being a war tax resister—in learning more about myself, my intention, my F/friends, and my community. This is action that will be consistent with my faith and belief in a just, peaceful, and humane future.

Steve Leeds

Steve Leeds is a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting.