War Taxes and Other Matters of Conscience

Thanks for the March issue, which I’ve finally completed. And thanks to Nadine Hoover, New York Yearly Meeting, and others for challenging us around conscientious objection to war taxes. As someone who regularly pays her taxes, I found it a pretty uncomfortable read.

I would imagine there were other Friends Journal readers as well who took an un-easy look at this series of articles, fantasized briefly and unsuccessfully about drawing a line here in the sand, shook off a feeling of guilt, and went on to more easily digestible articles.

But my reaction has troubled me. I don’t think the problem is just lack of courage, at least I hope not! Part of the difficulty, I believe, is the extent to which we are embedded and enmeshed in a deeply violent world. It’s not just the portion of my tax dollars that goes to deadly warfare. It’s my computer, the disposal of which poisons poor people in Africa and Asia. It’s my everyday purchases from invisible corporations that destroy lives and habitats far from mine. It’s my energy consumption that threatens the very viability of future generations.

If war tax resistance seems too hard for most of us, what do we do if that’s just the tip of the iceberg? Some Friends are not deterred by the seemingly impossible and set out to disentangle themselves from the whole mess—living below taxable level, with only the bare necessity of purchases and a minimal carbon footprint. This may be a true calling for some, and certainly a courageous one, but I know it’s not mine. To me the focused goal of living a life free from complicity with institutional violence would involve participating in another sin, that of separation from my neighbors.

I think the more common response to this seeming impossibility is to just turn our attention to things over which we have a greater measure of control. We can educate others about war and injustice. We can attend to our spiritual lives. These are good things, and may be true leadings as well. But I still think the tax resisters are on to something about conscience. How much do we avoid it because it just makes us uncomfortable? Perhaps the first thing we all need to do is to acknowledge our complicity with things that we oppose in conscience. This is a very painful place to be. But it roots us in truth and keeps us open to that precious human ability to sense what is right and what is wrong.

One good thing about the complexity of the system that enmeshes us is that there are so many possible acts of conscience to be taken. All can be celebrated. We can learn to be gentle with ourselves and others about the stands we don’t see our way clear to take, but firm in our intention to stay open to being pricked and to respond with faithfulness and courage.

In the process of composing this letter I’ve thought of a variety of ways to continue this conversation about conscience. I’d like to make a dinner date with the new young couple from our meeting for whom this is a live issue (and play with their baby as we talk). Perhaps I could get our meeting’s ad hoc group on responding to poverty to invite the meeting to set up circles of conscience, where people back each other in taking action on these hard issues, or I could talk with someone from Peace and Concerns. I’d like to check in with the woman in the yearly meeting who is so passionate about right sharing of world resources; perhaps I could support her to set up some conversation over simple meals.

As we get better at noticing and acting on the little things that prick us, and as we encourage others to do the same, I believe that we will be laying the groundwork for ever more powerful acts of conscience.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, Pa.