Caleb Shenk ’24: Protesting taxation as a peace-seeking accountant

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of The Bulletin

Editor’s note: Caleb Shenk, a junior accounting major from Goshen, won second place in the 2023 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest at Goshen College with his speech titled “Protesting taxation as a peace-seeking accountant.” This feature is a written adaptation of his speech.

I started my internship with a public accounting firm at the beginning of January — and so began my career of what my fellow accounting students and I have affectionately called “crunching and hunching.”

It’s much more exciting than that, though, trust me. My internship basically consists of helping businesses decide what parts of their income they pay taxes on, and it’s fun to get a feel for how local businesses operate. They generally appreciate our services — especially when we find ways to lower their taxes, whether through credits, deductions or by delaying the tax into future years.

Accountants don’t often criticize the idea of taxes; however, I’ve found it hard to reconcile parts of the tax system with my personal faith. My concern with taxes is not of dollar amount, but of what the taxes are spent on.

Personally, if I were drafted to serve in war, I would be compelled to ask for alternative service, since it goes against my beliefs. Jesus said to love your enemies, and for me, that means I can’t serve in the military.

And in a draft, the United States would probably allow me to refuse military service. The Supreme Court has repeatedly allowed citizens to object from physically participating in war due to deeply held religious or moral beliefs.

What puzzles and frustrates me, however, is how this right ends at physical participation in war. I can be granted an alternative to physical killing, yet have no choice in paying taxes that fund the killing. For context, according to the War Resisters League, 37 percent of each dollar we’re taxed on goes to the military.

So why should I be forced to pay others to take up arms? The issues at stake are fundamentally the same: whether it is with being drafted or taxed, I want an alternative to contribute nonviolently. As the National Campaign for Peace Tax Fund says, paying for war is morally equivalent to participating in war.

Back to my internship. About a month ago, I had to fill out a form applying for special status from the IRS to let me prepare tax returns for people other than myself. And in doing this, I came upon a question that made me pause. I had to check a box, acknowledging that I was “compliant with federal tax laws … and [would] pay all taxes timely.” Now, this question was meant to be quickly acknowledged and confirmed — there’s certainly not many accountants who are willfully evading their taxes or had to ponder this.

This issue of paying taxes that fund the military can be complex for anyone, but as an accountant, it was especially difficult for a couple of reasons. For one, I had to check that box under oath, so if I were to withhold my taxes, a mere tax evasion crime could become tax evasion plus perjury. Scary, right?!

But on top of that, the issue of war taxes as an accountant is perhaps more internal. I’m helping the government collect revenue from nine to five, but on the side, I’m challenging what those taxes are spent on. It’s hard to speak out of both sides of my mouth — if I really have a problem with taxation that funds the military, why am I working as an accountant?

Now, taxation itself isn’t the problem — taxes fund many social services that we benefit from, and I’m all for raising them — but the way that our country prioritizes military spending can’t be separated from taxation. The question we face, then, is what to do about that 37 percent of taxes if we’re compelled to resist violence.

I’ve wrestled with this issue in various forms throughout college. Last semester, I wrote a research paper for a Bible class on how Jesus answered the question of paying taxes to Caesar. And after choosing this topic for my paper, I realized that I had actually chosen the same passage for an economics essay two years earlier. And, in a journalism class, I wrote an op-ed a year ago on this same issue of what to do about taxes that go to the military. I sent it to my representative — she said that she’d keep my thoughts in mind.

And perhaps most obviously, I’ve felt conflicted as someone with an accounting major … and Bible and religion minor. This question of what to do with my taxes had plagued me long enough, and I wanted to use this speech to see if I could wrap a bow on it and finally figure out where I stood.

When I wrote my op-ed one year ago, I was not conflicted. I said that “I plan on not paying [the 37 percent] of my taxes [that go to the military]. I cannot in good faith pay taxes that will support [it], and I am ready to accept the consequences that may come.” I knew this was illegal, but I was fine with that. I saw civil disobedience as the best and perhaps only way to protest an unjust system in hopes of changing it.

One other legal alternative that I acknowledged, and perhaps you’ve thought of, is the option to lower your income below the taxable line, either through taking tax deductions or refusing pay raises, so that you don’t pay any income tax — and then, nothing to the military.

Ideally, though, the government would set up a legal way for peace- seeking people to redirect their taxes to nonviolent means, such as healthcare or charity. That 37 percent could pay for insulin or local public transit, instead of guns and tanks. In fact, there’s a bill in Congress to establish that fund; H.R.4529, the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act — but it’s been sitting there in some form since the late-1960s, and it’s no closer to passing.

I realized soon after writing the op-ed, however, that if it’s difficult to illegally withhold taxes from the government, then it’s especially difficult to do it as an accountant. When I checked that box one month ago saying that I have completely paid my taxes, I had a pit in my stomach as I knew that my gutsy sophomore self would have been a bit disappointed to see me not take a stance.

But what would taking a stance look like? Is it best to break the law and lose my ability to be an accountant? I’ve talked to some Mennonites who believe that until we start going to jail for tax evasion, we won’t see changes. That seems pretty scary.

In the accounting field, we deal with the “hows” and “how much” of taxation — the question of whether to pay taxes is a bit like asking whether basketball players should practice free throws: the morality of taxation to accountants is unquestioned.

And for good reason — of course accountants need to advocate for fair taxation. Our entire profession, from our rules to our paychecks, is built on the assumption that people and businesses pay their fair of taxes.

If accounting looks at laws for morality, Jesus finds another path. When asked whether to pay taxes, Jesus’s famous response was to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” Well if only it were that simple! What does that mean today? In my research, I found that the best scholars think that … Jesus wasn’t clear. Jesus didn’t really take the position to reject taxes, and he also didn’t take the position that you must pay taxes. Somewhere in between is the way of Jesus.

In the end, I think that neither my accounting major, nor my Bible and religion minor, has all the answers for my taxes. My op-ed that thought it had all the answers probably doesn’t, either. It’s better to give others grace about how they choose to pay their taxes, and that grace should extend to myself as well.

The tax fund bill, for example, isn’t a silver bullet. The proposed bill, decades ago, used to allow taxpayers to contribute the military portion towards charity or peace initiatives, but the proposed bill now would just pool the money to be not used for the military, and everyone else’s military contributions would effectively increase — so, not actually reducing any military funding.

At least in the short term, military spending isn’t likely to change, and so the larger question that remains for me is the best way to work for peace. Is it by conforming to the laws for a personal peace, like paying no taxes? Or is it by uncompromisingly protesting injustices, and withholding your taxes? Does sitting in jail promote change? I’ve struggled to discern when to work for a middle-ground solution, and when to be uncompromising, and when to check a box.

So, for my final answer? This year, I plan to take advantage of tax deductions like retirement accounts and health savings plans to keep my income under the limit for taxation. I might not be able to lower it completely to zero, but I’ll continue working at it and find my way forward, year by year.

In 2023, defense spending is budgeted to be $756 billion. Nonprofit organizations estimate that the United States could end world hunger and world homelessness with half of that budget (half!), and just half of one year of one country’s spending on the military.

I have a fundamental disagreement with the way that our country prioritizes defense spending. My hope is to be able to, in some small way, participate in rerouting money from guns to food, from killing to life, and from violence to a vision bold enough to hope and work towards peace.