Gambling on the Rapture

For thirty years, ever since I first heard the phrase, I’ve been wanting to write an article called “Gambling on the Rapture,” and I finally have my chance! It’s Tax Day and I have a tax story that involves gambling on the rapture.

In the early 1980s, Dale and I decided to express our conscientious objection to war by refusing to pay the military portion of our federal income taxes, which has been a significant percentage of the total federal budget for many years. We wanted to take our mutual commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence seriously, and reasoned that if we could not in good conscience join the armed forces and potentially kill people, it also didn’t seem right to pay for others to do it on our behalf. Refusing to pay taxes, however, is not easily done and is costly. (There’s a reason for that old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”) As we prepared our tax return and itemized our deductions, we claimed a “war tax deduction” in an amount high enough to give us a refund of the military portion of our income taxes. Amazingly, for three years, we received the refund. We always sent a letter to the IRS explaining what we were doing and why. We were always very honest and straightforward, never trying to conceal anything. We also always contributed the entire refund to an organization working for peace, such as Mennonite Central Committee, because we were never opposed to paying taxes per se but rather what the taxes were used for. We were pretty sure the IRS would eventually catch up with us, and when they did, it was not likely they would accept our explanation and respect our reasons and just let it go. They would collect the unpaid taxes with penalties.

At the same time that we were refusing to pay a portion of our income taxes, we were also involved in advocating for Peace Tax Fund legislation to allow conscientious objectors to redirect the military portion of their income taxes to peaceful purposes (education, social services, etc.), similar to how conscientious objectors during the draft were permitted to do alternative service instead of joining the armed forces. Unfortunately, even though the legislation has had multiple congressional co-sponsors and been introduced in each session of Congress for many years, it has never gained enough traction to get very far.

After about three years, our act of conscience caught up with us and we were called in for audits. One auditor we worked with was Jewish, and we had an interesting conversation with him about the Holocaust. Another auditor was a member of the Assemblies of God Church. We explained the moral, theological and biblical basis for our war tax resistance, but he wasn’t buying it. At one point, somewhat out of exasperation but perhaps also facetiously, he said, “Were you gambling on the rapture coming before your taxes were collected?” (in other words, were you hoping Jesus would come again and take you with him before we collected your taxes?) That was most definitely not something we had thought about, and so the phrase “gambling on the rapture” became sort of an iconic and humorous summary of our war tax resistance experience.

Since we had decided we would not voluntarily agree to pay the amount we had resisted, the IRS eventually collected all the tax we owed plus penalties by garnishing Dale’s paychecks for however long it took to extract the full amount. During that time of significantly reduced income, we received some much-needed financial support from our parents (who supported us even though they didn’t agree with what we were doing), friends at church, and a fund created by a peace organization founded specifically to help war tax resisters. The IRS also placed a lien on our house to make the point that we weren’t going to get away with not paying our taxes. Even though there may never have been a real threat that our house would be seized, knowing it was a possibility caused stress, especially for our daughter who still remembers her fear that we would lose our house. (I don’t remember ever being informed when the lien was removed, and when we sold the house in 1992, I had to go to the county courthouse to get proof that there was no longer a lien on it.)

When we ended our war tax resistance, it was not because we changed our opinions and beliefs about the morality of it, but because it was too difficult and stressful. The difficulty and stress can be explained several ways: 1) we had a family we needed to support and we didn’t want to keep dragging them into what was our thing not theirs; 2) we naively assumed there would be a wave of other like-minded people who would start doing the same thing and we would be part of a larger community where we could all support each other (we knew and connected with other war tax resisters, but there was no one in our immediate circle of family and friends); 3) the mechanics of doing it were always a challenge; 4) never knowing when we were going to be summoned for another audit was anxiety-producing; 5) we quite simply didn’t have the energy for it anymore and preferred to use other methods to communicate and model our commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.

For awhile, we continued to include a letter in our tax return expressing our conscientious objection to the use of our money to wage war and kill people. Who knows what if any positive effect that letter had on anyone or whether it immediately went into the trash without even being read. For a long time I kind of felt like we had wimped out even though I have to admit that it was something of a relief to file a normal tax return every year. On April 15, however, I can’t help thinking about how much the nation spends on military weaponry and actions that kill people, I remember our act of conscience, and even though we are now paying our full share of taxes, I want to keep finding ways to practice my commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.

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10 thoughts on “Gambling on the Rapture

  1. I nominate you and Dale for the Henry David Thoreau Tax Resistance award.
    This is indeed a complicated issue. I recall a classmate of mine at Messiah who did the same thing.
    The two main complications I see are how insidious and necessary taxes are–so, while we have never been as committed as you have been, I prefer to think that my taxes go to the programs that are needed. Second, it is undeniable that our nation is now a hugely militaristic nation. Anyone who doubts that need only review the history of the 20th century and on into the 21st thus far to see how many wars or military actions we have been involved in and how many of those we initiated. We lull ourselves by thinking–well, we didn’t start World War I or II but thank goodness we were there. And that of course is true. But what about the Korean War, Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan. Oh, and don’t forget Grenada–Grenada? Really? We always have good reasons for when we march into a country. I am sad to say the reasons too frequently involve our unfettered access to the riches of a particular country, usually oil. We are fed political pablum by our leaders, and all too often go around mindlessly mouthing “defending our freedom” as our reasons.
    Complicated–oh, yes indeed.

  2. Those of us who are still resisting would love to have you back among us. The tax resistance method you chose was bold, confrontational, and risky, and I can understand why you found the consequences daunting. But there are other methods with different risk profiles, and you might find some of them less frightening. If you haven’t already, you might take a look at the resources at NWTRCC’s site, or call them up, or talk to a war tax resistance counselor in your area (http://nwtrcc.org/contacts_counselors.php) to discuss various options.

    • Thanks for this note. I am familiar with NWTRCC and will certainly take a look at your resources. Just out of curiosity, how did you happen across this blog post?

      • I’m a researcher about tax resistance, and so I keep some robot sentinels alert and watching the web for when people mention the tactic.

  3. Thanks for your witness of conscience Harriet, and for sharing your experience. May we all find ways to act more ethically and courageously.

  4. I appreciate your action and witness in respect to war and taxes. It is a difficult issue for many reasons — not least that now, paying taxes in Canada, I know that we (Canadians) have a much smaller military at least in part because we live in the shadow of the US military. We can pursue peace more easily because the USA helps to defend us by default. Uncomfortable!

  5. Pingback: Honoring People While Opposing War | Pieces of Peace

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