Let Loose the Line
Nov 14, 2016
38 Min read time
Protest is not merely a matter of personal awakening, but of organizing and mobilizing the power needed to change social relations.
“I would’ve never been a slave,” Wally insisted. His voice was strained with age but rested calmly on the bedrock of conviction. “They would’ve had to have killed me.”
We were taking a break from mulching blackberry bushes with amber heaps of October’s damp leaves that we’d hauled across the hillside on weatherworn tarps, and found ourselves, once again, talking about civil disobedience. Juanita, Wally’s partner, joined us at the round stone kitchen table with a bowl of sun-dried sweet corn to nibble on. I drank a cool sip of well-water from a homemade ceramic cup, poured from a beaten copper ladle that caught the afternoon sun as it hung from a wire above the sink. I was fifteen and infused with awe to be sitting at that round stone table, sharing stories with two people who I knew were among the most remarkable I would ever meet.
“You see,” Wally continued, “I don’t believe it’s the president’s fault we go to war: Each of us allows it to happen by going along with it, by not resisting. It was the same with slavery. It happened because people accepted it, went along with it, even the slaves.”
My heart repelled that degree of responsibility like the backside of a magnet. I knew we all bore responsibility for the world we lived in, but the notion that soldier and president, never mind slave and master, held equal shares of responsibility for these powerful dynamics of oppression felt nearly impossible to entertain. But Wally and Juanita Nelson, themselves descended from enslaved people, insisted that an unblemished and irrevocable kernel of our freedom always lay in the capacity to reject compliance with any dehumanizing force, no matter the cost. Ultimately they were right; if we all refused to cooperate, these things wouldn’t happen. But who lives in ultimately, really?
War Tax Resistance was their fundamental strategy for making peace in the world.
From my view, Wally and Juanita lived in ultimately every day, and they held everyone capable of the same. In 1947 Wally participated in the first interracial Freedom Ride through the south after spending three and a half years in federal prison for his refusal to participate in the second World War. While inside, he spent 105 days on a hunger strike, 18 during which he ate nothing and 87 in which he was force-fed through a tube in his nose. In 1959 Juanita was hauled to jail in her bathrobe for her refusal to pay $959.83 in federal income taxes which she believed would do more to perpetuate war than support humanity. Wally once wrote,
Nonviolence is the constant awareness of the dignity and humanity of oneself and others; it seeks truth and justice; it renounces violence both in method and in attitude; it is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and others. It is the willingness to undergo suffering rather than inflict it. It excludes retaliation and flight.
By the time I met them, in 1993, Juanita was seventy-one and Wally eight-five, and their lack of ethical compromise was engrained in a way of life. For twenty years they had lived in an austere but richly textured rhythm of subsistence farming—in a house made of salvaged materials, without electricity or running water, in Deerfield, Massachusetts—as a way of withdrawing support for the forces of violence and inequality in the world. Their primary aim was to avoid income tax, and they had long ago identified War Tax Resistance as their fundamental strategy for making peace in the world. At the same time they believed their simple lifestyle was a model for sustainable resource use and resistance to the dehumanizing influence of the mainstream economy.
I visited them and worked after school each day on their homestead, which quickly became for me a sanctuary from the challenging social dynamics of high school and a toxicity toward the world that was growing in my mind. A friend was working in the garden with Juanita once and asked her, while kneeling between rows of beans, what did she really believe in? After a bit of time gently but firmly pulling the weeds from their roots, she stood up and announced, “Quality, kindness, and living in a way so that there’s enough for everybody.”
I grew up in a family that honored a long legacy of revolutionary heroes, but Wally and Juanita were the first people I’d met whose full offering of themselves to the cause of justice was undeniable. They were also the first I’d sensed that had resolved the tension between violence and social change that gnawed impatiently at my heart. Throughout my childhood a giant portrait of the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata glared out over my living room reading, “What are you doing to defend the conquests to which we give our lives?” The burden of this question smoldered through the undercurrents of my youth. The realities of human oppression were so grave, so pressing, and so deeply entrenched that only radical challenges seemed to meet them with the necessary urgency. Yet many of these strategies had revolutionary violence as a core tactic, which added an irritating moral complexity to them and carried the practical downside of so often recreating the dynamics of oppression they sought to abolish.
Wally and Juanita, on the other hand, held themselves and everyone else to the highest ethical standard in every action. They seemed to live in an ever-deepening alignment with their moral sense: ever-perfecting, ever-honing the precision of their fixedness on that wobbling point between impulse and action. But their concentration was not tense and they were not anxious to judge. Theirs was a joyful renunciation of all that bound them to injustice and oppression. They were confident but gave no sense of being at a moral plateau: there was always a deeper level of commitment to attain.
Wally had grown up in a black sharecropping family in Arkansas, and because farm work was so intimately woven with his experience of racial subjugation, the idea of going back to an agricultural livelihood initially chaffed at the most tender place of his self-respect. But he and Juanita came to believe that farming was the only way they could live in accord with their deepest values, to sustain themselves without contributing to the forces of oppression in the world. After years of experimenting with various forms of livelihood, in 1974 they came to Woolman Hill, a Quaker center in Massachusetts that offered them a few acres of land on which they would build a home and farm without obligation of any kind.
Once, when Wally was a boy, his father fell ill and Wally was tasked with tilling the field with the family’s mule, something he had never done on his own. He was small, nervous, and hesitant, and the mule quickly lost confidence in Wally’s ability to control it. The animal rampaged across the fields; Wally barely managed to keep hold of the reigns as he was dragged wildly through the dirt, screaming for help. A neighbor heard the cries and rushed over to the fence yelling out, “Let loose the line!” but Wally couldn’t hear. Eventually the mule dragged him close enough to the fence that he heard his neighbor cry, “Let loose the line, fool, and you’ll be free!” Wally let go and came to a bruising stop in the dirt. Ahead of him, the mule also slowed to a halt, released from the grip of agitation.
This experience of volatility and release was deeply absorbed into his consciousness and the message—Let loose the line, fool, and you’ll be free—became one of the guiding strategies of his life. Humans were at war with each other, abusing, exploiting, killing—and much of the agitated work to address these behaviors actually fueled them, recreated them, were dependent upon them, practically and spiritually. But let loose the line—to all that bound us to these contorted social forces—and we, and the world, might become free.
• • •
Soon after the invasion of Iraq, I decided to become a War Tax Resister.
In August 2001, I was introduced to a Buddhist meditation practice called vipassana, which encourages a careful and determined observation of body and mind. From the first time I sat down on a cushion, closed my eyes, and stopped trying to force anything to happen, I knew I wanted to spend my life deepening the descent into that quiet darkness. Life had always felt like a relentless barrage of experiences demanding my attention, so the permission to turn inward and attend to these phenomena one by one opened me to a kind of relief I had never imagined. I could sense that somewhere in that vast inner landscape lay a freedom from the burden of my personality, my petty neuroses, and from the pressure of the world around me.
The Buddha’s strategy was compelling, in part, because it pointed to a war that finally seemed winnable. When I looked at the world, radical social change seemed almost unimaginable: most of our society’s best efforts seemed merely to be dulling the sword that was hacking it to bits. But in my meditation practice, I could begin to trace the domino-like flow of life: beginning with a sense-experience, leading to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure and to the mental contraction of grasping or rejecting, to the fire of greed or hatred, and to the social outcomes of violence or control.
With this observation of what the Buddha called paticcasamuppada, or dependent origination, came an appreciation of a way out. A mind that clearly sees the changing and conditioned nature of all experience will release itself through non-grasping, cutting off this chain of events at the source. I had always believed that the most important roots of human suffering were embedded in our oppressive social dynamics, so the only meaningful way of addressing them was to transform the legal, economic, and social structures that provided the relational foundation of society. But in the cauldron of my untrained mind I had now witnessed the primal source of my own suffering and my social propagation of it. The tension between these notions drew me in: Could the individual mind be a meaningful fulcrum for social change? The possibility felt entirely aligned with Wally’s dictum to let loose the line, and while I had no clear idea how the principles of this meditation practice might scale up to the societal level, like Wally, I felt that it must.
Within weeks September 11th happened, and like a cultural black hole pulling us in, the momentum of a catastrophic social response felt overwhelmingly inevitable. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was announced on the radio when I was driving on a winding parkway in upstate New York in early October. Overcome with tremulous emotion, I pulled off the road and got out of my car, desperate for the space outside to hold what I didn’t feel I could contain in my body. My hope that our society could simply learn to let loose the line folded into the rolling avalanche of wind.
The sun managed in isolated bursts to pierce through giant clouds rolling past, before, just as quickly, being engulfed in gray. My eyes were drawn to a distant stand of maples, glorious in their autumnal brilliance, being plowed through by these powerful billowing winds from the west. Each leaf trembled amid the multitude, each acting on its own but in concert with the hoards of green, orange, red, and yellow that sprawled across the horizon. The beauty and chaos of the vision, of the utter wildness and perfect harmony of it, penetrated me with a knowledge of a complexity about life that I desperately wanted to understand but didn’t.
My meditation practice felt like the most important key I had ever found to unlocking the mystery of violence and change in my own mind. At the same time, the world had begun to spiral into familiar contortions of violence and retribution. Something in the wild beauty of this turmoil of trees seemed to contain an answer to how these things were related so I watched for as long as I could bear, yearning to absorb the fullness of it. But my mind was just sensitive enough to see that it wasn't sensitive enough to understand, and eventually, filled only with incomprehension and a solidifying sense of distance from the beauty and the wildness of nature, I got back in my car and headed home.
• • •
The unremitting paranoia necessary to keep one’s meager earnings and negligible property hidden away proved a relentless hustle.
Soon after the invasion of Iraq, I told Juanita I was considering becoming a War Tax Resister. I felt powerless to stop the war but the ethical repugnance of paying for it had become too great. The anti-war movement had failed but I believed, at the very least, I should not contribute to the mayhem and havoc our government was inducing. Juanita was glad to hear it. She rummaged under her desk and pulled out a filing box, and then another, ruffling through their disheveled contents. Finally, she withdrew a dusty blue folder marked “WTR” on top in square permanent marker and handed it me. It was stuffed with yellowed papers outlining things to consider if you were planning on tax refusal. There was a regional meeting coming up in a few weeks that I should attend, she added, and then asked if I might go outside and chop some wood for her stove.
In the aching darkness of February in New England, I made my way to the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, curious to meet the people with whom I might be traveling on this new path. Dark but for two dimly lit rooms, the Victorian home felt like a safehouse. The owner was not there. Those present were nearly all elders, life-long pacifists, and, with the exception of Wally, Juanita, and a young librarian, white. The smell of wood smoke from each of their own homes drafted behind them and blended with a pervasive sense of burden they carried from decades of integrity that had been haughtily ignored by the rest of the world. It gave the room the dense feeling of culture I had known existed but in which I had never set foot.
Over quinoa salad and humus, they caught up and, in a circle in the living room, shared updates from their lives on the lam. The practical realities of not paying their taxes had necessitated lives that functioned on the outer rims of society: registering their cars in their children’s names, holding cash in friend’s bank accounts, avoiding new digital technology for its obvious traceability. Notwithstanding their leaden integrity, what was most striking to me was the weariness they seemed to carry from evading any relationship with the state for so many years. The unremitting diligence and paranoia necessary to keep the scent of one’s meager earnings and negligible property away from the hypersensitive antennae of the Department of Treasury proved a relentless hustle that appeared to have taken its withering toll on many of them.
I imagined that the appearance of a young new recruit like myself might have been exciting to this aging group, but I was barely acknowledged. They were insular: old friends who didn’t feel the need to hide their idiosyncrasies from one another and who, for all their commitment to community, were perhaps equally, if unknowingly, committed to their own culture. They agreed they needed a bigger group of people to attend their annual April 15th protest at the Federal Building, but whinged at the notion of sending out an email about it, as very few of them had accounts and, really, they distrusted it. Instead, a fund for envelopes and stamps was proposed and approved by consensus.
The meeting felt like something slowly coming to an end, a candle burning low, the smoldering embers of a once commanding fire. It was beautiful and pure but had no room for me. I knew that community might provide critical protection for the risk I was about to take, but I also felt I needed something different to support my commitment—something that better reflected my personality, my culture, and the social reality of the times we lived in.
The practical realities of not paying taxes had necessitated lives that functioned on the outer rims of society.
My Buddhist community was equally mismatched to my sense of belonging, and the work it would have taken to make it less so felt like a diversion from the solitude that was its primary appeal. The Buddha insisted that spiritual friendship was the entirety of the holy life, but if one couldn’t find it, he suggested, “Walk alone and do no evil; at ease like a tusker in the woods,” which was starting to seem like my best, perhaps only, real choice.
Wally passed away that spring and when I visited Juanita to see how she was doing, I told her of my decision to begin tax refusal. She nodded in approval, ruffled through a small wooden box, and gave me a button that said, “Ask Me About War Tax Resistance.”
• • •
Wally and Juanita had lived below the taxable income level for decades, earning less than $5000 per year. My livelihood was dependent on email, Internet, and air travel, and required all the trappings of the age—a cell phone, a computer, an apartment, and the resulting bills. In order to control my tax payments I happily left the world of full employment and began to make money as an independent consultant. I wasn’t hiding my income; these organizations still filed 1099s for my work. I just wasn’t paying.
My heart pounded thatwhen my first remittance letter arrived from the IRS: a calculation of my debt, a request for payment, and a subtle suggestion of a deeper threat.
My heart pounded that summer when my first remittance letter arrived from the IRS: a calculation of my debt, a request for payment, and at the end, a subtle suggestion of a deeper threat. When I visited Juanita, I let her know the letter had arrived. “Hmm,” she mused matter-of-factly, “Well, that was quick, wasn’t it?” as she fiddled around, trying to light the fire in her stove. What was for me a pivotal moment in my resistance, a cannonball crashing onto my doorstep, seemed to be as trivial for her as dust gathering on the window sill, and she quickly turned our conversation toward the more pressing matter of deer that seemed to be gorging themselves on her bean patch.
• • •
In 2007 I moved to North Carolina to help start a retreat center for people working to integrate their spiritual practice with their work for social justice. Juanita wasn’t very compelled by the spiritual part. To her, non-violence seemed mostly to be a matter of willpower. But her demeanor brightened when she thought I would be “living in community.” She and Wally always felt it was important that people learn how to live collectively but admitted that they found it hard to give up the autonomy of their way of life. It was a tension I also felt and one that gave me the sense of a deeper paradox they lived with—wanting to be both a part of and apart from the collective.
War Tax Refusal gave me the sense of resolving this tension: I was freed from a ludicrous relationship with society that perpetuated violence and, at the same time, felt more ethically bonded to the world by the ways I chose to redirect those resources. When April came, I didn’t share in the stress about taxes that pervaded the world around me. My life was simpler, my heart calmer. When news of a wedding in Afghanistan getting bombed, a school in Iraq being obliterated, Guantanamo prisoners tortured, or any of the other unspeakable horrors our government regularly enacted came into my awareness, I felt the same shock as always, but without the accustomed shame. I felt relieved. I didn’t pay for that, I would think. I might not be stopping it, but I didn’t support it. If we all stopped supporting it, it wouldn’t happen.
I was freed from a ludicrous relationship with society that perpetuated violence and, at the same time, felt more ethically bonded to the world.
This feeling of profound shamelessness is exquisite and its richness and subtlety is impossible to convey. Unburdening my heart from responsibility for terror, unfettering myself from the aggression of empire, gave me a moral relief that seemed to filter through the spaces between the cells of my body. It was not even so much a palpable sense, in and of itself, but the absence of rottenness, of compliance with evil, that unburdened me so completely. There is a particular flavor of emotional security that only arises from ethical commitment. It heightened my repulsion to the unattended corners of my own immorality in a way that propelled me deeper into my commitment and was at the same time a reminder for me of our collective potential for goodness. It was like breathing fresh alpine air after years of drifting in smog: it was pure and addictive and the thought of going back produced the darkest dread.
Initially, I held the money I would have owed in a separate account to be used in case the IRS came after me. After a few years, the logic felt silly. Of course they were going to come after me; was it my intention to pay or not? I began to offer that money in small and large amounts to the people and institutions I believed were doing work that benefited the world. At some point, I sensed my bank account wasn’t secure, so I began to keep as little money in it as possible. Finally, I stopped using banks altogether and instead purchased money orders from the post office to pay my monthly bills. Eventually, the IRS placed a lien on me, ordering my various employers immediately to stop paying me and direct any money they still owed me to the Department of the Treasury.
There are ways of working around all these obstacles, but over time the energy of constant strategizing creates a sense of diffuse but pervasive stress. There is a way things are designed to work in our society, and when you resist them you are bound to feel the friction. I traveled for work, often to remote places, and getting to a post office to make my payments on time was not always easy. My credit tumbled, and I knew I would never be approved for a loan. I needed to carry cash wherever I traveled. While daunting, it was also a relief: Who wants to live in debt? It felt like the path of my future was narrowing into a pure beam of light.
But as the years passed, and the letters got more frequent, my debt more astounding, and the threats more intense, I found myself feeling increasingly vulnerable to their impact. I had no community of support and no sense of reassurance from anyone around me. In fact, most of my friends and colleagues were ambivalent about my decision; their compassionate anxiety hardly shored up my own sense of inner strength. Reading these letters felt like an invitation to emotional turbulence, so a stack of unopened IRS “fan-mail” began to accumulate in my bottom drawer.
I asked Juanita again if she had any guidance about what I might to do to protect myself if the government actually moved against me. She didn’t, suggesting instead that I reach out to the War Resisters League in New York, acknowledging “They might know things I don’t.” I contacted them a few days later, but when they learned I knew Juanita, one of the great contemporary heroes of the movement, they encouraged me to seek help back in her circle.
• • •
The next time I visited Juanita she was spending the winter in a friend’s apartment, recuperating from a stroke. Her overstuffed reclining chair was surrounded by boxes and stacks of papers that she rummaged through bewilderedly. Exasperated, her mind seemed elsewhere. Among the papers I found Wally’s minutes from old C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) meetings in Washington, D.C. with Bayard Rustin in attendance. I also came across Wally’s first letter, in 1949, to Harry Truman, informing him of his decision to stop paying taxes. He wrote,
It would seem to me that during these historic times, those of us who sincerely want to see a durable and lasting peace established must not only support peaceful measures, but must as vigorously refuse to cooperate with those forces and measures which are war making.
Beside it was the disapproving but personal reply from someone at the Department of the Treasury.
When I visited again that summer, she was relieved to be back in her home, if unsteadily so. We sat at her table eating asparagus spears from her garden, spraying them with lemon and dipping them in mayonnaise with our fingers—her favorite way. The orbits of her mind had by then narrowed into tight, familiar ellipses. She never wished for death out loud but the pain of losing Wally did not seem to lessen, and she often wondered whether it might not have been better if her friend hadn’t happened to come by after her stroke and find her paralyzed on the frozen floor. “That would have been it,” she acknowledged pensively. Friends had been encouraging her to move in with them and it seemed clear to everyone but Juanita that she would soon have to leave her cherished home.
Two IRS agents visited my old home, inquiring about my whereabouts.
I had come to see how their unique arrangement had provided Wally and Juanita with a fantastically rare situation that protected them from many of the stresses I was dealing with in my own tax refusal. Yes, they had been unquestionably willing to die for their freedom, but they hadn't actually risked that for a long time. They had lived as renunciates, and doing so provided them with a great security: they needed little from society, and society asked little of them. I might disappear for months at a time to be on silent meditation retreats, but I was still living with one foot solidly in society, and society expected me to pay for it. I began to wonder how I could expect the moral fruit of renunciation without the actual renunciation. To be sustainable, practically and emotionally, my tax resistance would require a deeper social withdrawal, like theirs, that wouldn’t trigger a destabilizing conflict with the state.
I told Juanita that I would be leaving North Carolina soon and was looking for an opportunity to live in a way that was akin to what she and Wally had created, that I was buckling under the pressure from the state, that this was the only way I could imagine continuing my tax resistance. She approved in silence.
When I asked her what she imagined, or hoped, would happen to her house when she could no longer live there, she replied dismissively, “Whatever the folks at Woolman Hill want to do with it, I suppose.”
“I would love to be able live here if I could,” I had to force the words out of my mouth. I was desperate and had hoped this notion might have occurred to her too, but Juanita just stared out the window, into a distance unknowable to me.
In my mind, it would have been effortless, even exciting, for her to say, “Yes, why don’t we ask the folks here if, when I’m gone, you could move in and take care of what we created.” But it didn’t happen. Ashamed that I had acted in such an openly self-interested way, I let the topic go, embarrassed that my anxiety might have already propelled me over an unsurveyed boundary in our friendship. I was living on the fringe, trying to do something so far off the beaten path that there were no trail markers or road signs; an intense and explicit dependency on others who were in a position to help was my only way to survive. Many friends had accommodated and practically supported my peculiar situation over the years, but there was a limit to what I would ask of them, how much risk I could burden them with. Juanita was my last hope of finding a way to make it work.
I left North Carolina in December, and in January got a call from a friend warning me that two IRS agents had been out to my old home, inquiring about my whereabouts.
• • •
The Buddha insisted that ethical actions lead to positive outcomes, like a cart that follows an ox. But anyone who knows anything about civil disobedience understands implicitly, if not through blood and broken bones, that a moral stance can have mortally painful consequences. This is as true for the mind as it is for the body.
Midway through a six-month period of silence and meditation that year, I noticed that each time I heard a car turn onto my street, a ripple of panic would reverberate through me. They’re here, I would think. This is it. Dark fantasies would leak into the foreground of my consciousness and replay themselves over and over: a sheriff’s car coming up the driveway, his boots on the porch, a knock on the door, me, frozen in my room, wondering what to do. Should I accept the inevitable results of my actions with dignity? Or hide in the closet? Sneak out a window? How long would he wait?
On one hand, it was a powerful way to practice: the trajectory from sound to perception to fear, then back into a cycle of mental proliferation was a classic example of the Buddha’s insight into dependent origination. On the other hand, I was living in a tremulous state of distress, falling into the same trenches of paranoia that had repelled me so deeply in the group of tax resisters I once met. And rather than protecting me from the experience, mindfulness was intensifying it.
The Buddha described the path to enlightenment as a war with mental defilements. In my meditation practice, when I pushed through challenges like intense pain or fear with brute willpower, I ended up reinforcing the very patterns of aversion and identity I was trying to untangle. So I had to learn to treat my practice as a kind of guerrilla war: robust engagement when conditions were balanced, but having the humility to back off, regroup, heal my wounds, and gather strength when outgunned by life. As I accepted the nearly inconceivable distance of how far I actually needed to retreat, like Mao’s long march, it became a strategy in itself: basically, Let loose the line, fool, and you’ll be free.
Until this moment, I had never considered that the same lesson that inspired Wally’s civil disobedience might lead me to renounce my own. The notion made me nauseous, but it also sparked in me a faint glimmer of relief. I had been fighting a war on two fronts—against the state and against my own mind—and aligning the two along the path I had chosen seemed impossible.
• • •
The total cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually be between $4 and $6 trillion. In 2017, 44 percent of federal income tax revenue will go toward current military spending and debts from past wars.
The total cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually be between $4 and $6 trillion. In 2017, 44 percent of federal income tax revenue will go toward current military spending and debts from past wars. I knew that the amount of money I owed wouldn’t quite prevent the production of even a single $110,000 Hellfire Missile, the combustible commonly used in Predator Drone attacks, but for a time it felt possible that the significance of my actions would be augmented by a larger movement for change. As that potential lay dormant, the stinging irrelevancy of my tax refusal felt increasingly painful. I had believed my tax refusal was a radical social strategy with a spiritual dimension, but I had come to see that it wasn’t. It was a spiritual strategy with a social dimension. Social change takes social power; without the robust orchestration that makes individual action meaningful at scale, the significance of change is fantastical.
The social impact of a course of action is not the only, or even most important, measure of its value, but when the improvement of society is part of its explicit motivation, it is a relevant consideration. Wally’s and Juanita’s life was radical but so dramatically irreplicable that it was infused with a kind of inverse social potential: How can you mobilize society when you are living so far outside of it? What is the social value of a radical principle without a radical strategy?
Part of the value of such principled action is the inspiration it provides. We need examples of people who have broken through the dehumanizing entanglements of the social spectacle to nourish our faith in the possibility of it happening at a greater scale. The power of Thoreau’s sojourn into the woods at Walden is not negated by the fact that it only lasted two years, and the inspiration derived from his tax refusal is not undermined because it ended after a single night in jail. But neither are those facts irrelevant when we wrestle with the meaning of his actions. Scott Nearing, who left the world of Communist organizing to homestead in northern Maine along with his wife Helen, were among the first to plunge into the back-to-the-land lifestyle in modern times. It didn’t create a revolution, but it had an impact: much of the sustainable farming movement of today can trace its roots directly to their decision to live directly and simply off the land.
But their strategies, like Wally and Juanita’s, aligned with their intentions. I had nothing to show for my course of action but my shining remorselessness, which ultimately satisfied neither my social nor my spiritual ambitions.
• • •
That summer, after ten years of refusal, I decided to contact the IRS and bear the impact of the rumbling burden looming at the perimeter of my mind like a storm approaching from just over the hills. I awoke with an effervescence pulsing through me, texted a few friends who wished me good luck, and dialed the number on my most recent piece of mail. The recording gave me various options. I followed one, which led only to a request for records. I called again and found the dry termination of another route. And again. No path down the touch-tone chain of conditions led to a human being. I tried calling the local IRS offices in the various states I had lived, numbers off the Internet, and from other pieces of mail. In my tensely anticipated engagement with the state, I stumbled upon what I should have probably guessed from the beginning: there was no one there. I was running from an algorithm, haunted by a machine, beaten, at last, by my own mind.
There was no one there. I was running from an algorithm, haunted by a machine, beaten, at last, by my own mind.
When I eventually did make contact, to plea for a compromise, I marveled to learn that, just like their grumbling adversaries, the IRS refused to use email, demanding instead the use of fax machines or the U.S. Postal Service for our urgent and high-stakes correspondence. Neither side of the battle, it seemed, valued practicality over principle.
• • •
My decision to resist taxes had grown out of the frustration that my own moral principles had very little social power, and that no collective aggregation of ethical force was having any measurable impact on the war. By withholding what meager measure of personal social power I did have, in the form of money, from the government, I both embraced my powerlessness and retaliated against it. While resistance did not enlarge my social power, I was saturated, for a time, in a sense of spiritual power. Given that my debt amounted to only a trifling fraction of the federal budget, I began to imagine that it was actually my sense of spiritual power was the true target of their enforcement. The government ignored years of my material protest in opposition to war, years of my body demonstrating in the streets, but it doubled down on my spiritual resistance—and in doing so effortlessly revealed the depths of my powerlessness in ways I had never before appreciated. As I told people about my choice to end my tax resistance, few appreciated my sense of shame and defeat. Not only was I powerless to affect society, I was powerless to even stand against it. Everyone in my life was relieved but me.
Juanita’s dementia had deepened dramatically, and while it was tempting to use that as an excuse to avoid telling her about my decision, I knew I had to visit her in the spring and face her reaction. In the meantime, I prepared for my annual silent retreat. The day before my retreat started, I received the news that Juanita had died.
Riptides of emotion moved through me as I descended into silence. I loved and respected Juanita so utterly, and I agonized over my looming failure to live up to the vigor of her moral example. Wally once told my mother, “We never had children of our own, but if we had, we would have liked them to have been like Jesse.” This sentiment was always inconceivable to me. I always aspired to be worthy of their respect, worthy of their love, but didn’t believe it could simply be granted without proving myself. What had I done to defend the conquests to which they gave their lives?
Paying my taxes again, I experienced the familiar dullness of diffuse immorality that pervades contemporary life.
Unexpected swells of resentment also arose in me as I considered how uninvested Juanita had often seemed in supporting my choice to be a resister. With her blessing I had destabilized my life and threatened my own security, but each time I sought her guidance, I was met with an emptiness of response that left my questions floating in the air until I finally pulled them back to deal with on my own. Maybe the value she placed on personal responsibility led her to respect the solitary nature of the path I had chosen. It was, of course, I who rejected her community and decided to trod a different path: perhaps her distance was simply the consequence of my distance.
Paying my taxes again, I experienced the familiar dullness of diffuse immorality that pervades contemporary life. Ethics are always experienced personally, but in our seamless field of social relations they run their course through the vast, untraceable mediations in which their oppressive character is obscured but not diminished. Killing something with your hands brings the vibrancy of moral tension into visceral and immediate clarity. Filing e-taxes on my computer with money I never saw, knowing that it would join billions of other e-funds, some of which will pay for the fabrication of weapons used in distant lands at some unknown point in the future, lacked the sense of ethical immediacy, but a faint moral putridity remained. It was repugnant, but I was resolved. My dream of ethical purity felt like a fantasy, like a leaf pretending it wasn’t attached to a tree. In the smog of collusion, I was back in community.
• • •
Organizing for Juanita’s funeral and potluck began, surprisingly, over email. “We don’t need any more people to make hummus,” explained the coordinator. I was in Massachusetts at the time and able to join a small group of people who gathered at Juanita’s old homestead to scatter her ashes, repeating a ceremony held ten years before, when Wally had died. The circle was as expected: white, full of tears, good humor, and earnestness. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more circles like this one would these dedicated pacifists attend over the coming years, as the noble veterans of their movement dissolved back into the earth.
As we sang “We Shall Overcome” in the cold but pleasant drizzle of early June, I stared at a photograph of Juanita laughing that was placed on a small stool beside her ashes. I was immediately embarrassed that I still carried a kernel of resentment about the unfulfilled aspects of our relationship. Looking at her face, amidst the chorus of her close comrades, I was struck by the ridiculousness of my inner drama. Wally and Juanita didn’t care at all about the personal repercussions of their actions. Willing to go to jail, willing to fast and be force-fed, willing to live without amenity, willing to toil on the earth: they had total faith in their righteousness. My concerns over jail, over harassment, over financial instability and social irrelevancy would never register on their chart of meaningful things to consider. Doing what is right was the only thing that mattered. What else was there to talk about? To strategize about? Complete unwavering commitment to the principle of nonviolence was all that was required. What more mentorship did I need?
After the ceremony, I chatted with a few friends and took some time to wander around the old house that was now empty. The stove hadn’t been lit that winter and the cupboards housed nothing but a few empty mason jars. I was joined in the house by the new director of the Quaker center. He had only met Juanita once but had a deep admiration for her and Wally, based on the many stories he had heard. I asked him what the center’s plans were for the house, assuming, like Juanita, that the center would probably use it for accommodations for their own programming.
“Well, I’m not sure, really,” he said, “We’d love another person to come here to farm and carry the torch forward, you know? It’s not for everyone, of course. But for the right person, well, it would just be incredible.”
I agreed and wished him luck.
• • •
I believe it might be the equality between leaves on a tree that inclines them toward such an awesome and beautiful response to the unpredictable forces of nature, and I think our society shares in this potential. In a society founded on inequality, dependent upon inequality, perpetuating inequality, violence is inevitable, as a tactic of both the powerless and the powerful. In a society where power is shared equally, violence would be largely eradicated. But this enlightened society would not simply be an aggregate of enlightened people because, while the pain of powerlessness is a spiritual condition, the powerlessness itself is a social one. When Marx wrote, “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations in which these individuals stand,” he understood that social change is not merely a matter of courageous individual behavior or personal awakening brought to scale, but of organizing and mobilizing the social power needed to change the nature of those relations.
Social change is not merely a matter of personal awakening brought to scale, but of organizing and mobilizing the social power needed to change the nature of those relations.
At the same time, without an honest exploration of the spiritual roots of violence, it is easy to blame ideologies, governments, or personalities instead of investigating our own minds and examining our own behavior that supports and reproduces it. If spiritual practice is to be in service of social change, it is most obviously at this level: the personal development needed to make relationships and movements function along the lines of shared values rather than in contradiction to them and the willingness to journey, struggle, and celebrate together.
But it is not always a natural fit. Social change takes social power, and spiritual life often finds the social distracting and power distasteful. To make my tax refusal politically effective I would have had to organize around it and thus sacrifice the foundation of my spiritual ambitions. If I wanted to make it spiritually sustainable but less socially significant, I would have needed to renounce the world entirely. I wasn’t willing to do the former and wasn’t able to do the latter.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether the Jews should pay tribute tax to the Roman state, Jesus knew they were trying to trap him into a response that would get him arrested. He responded, “Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God.” I always found this answer irritating. Of course the Jews, occupied subjects of the Roman Empire, shouldn’t pay the tax. Why didn’t he just say it?
Now, I appreciate the pragmatism of his words as well as the spiritual truth in them. The holy life and the social life can rarely be entirely separated, for even the mystic has to eat. But they can be pulled far enough apart so that neither law will encroach upon the other, and there are benefits to that arrangement: more supportive conditions for spiritual realization and political governance free from religious dogma. Certainly the practices and teachings I hold dear have been fulfilled and passed down by countless people, many of whom withdrew dramatically from the social world. But I also believe that the social and the spiritual can inform and strengthen one another, and that the process of wrestling with this dynamic can be fruitful for the resolution of the inner and the outer war.
Then there are times when the distinction might not matter. Jesus’s acquiescence on taxation wasn’t enough to keep the Roman’s off his case. The social potency of his gospel was still perceived to be too serious a threat to ignore. This is something that should give us all confidence, no matter how meager our efforts. May all the masters of war and oppression tremble at our aspirations for holiness.
November 14, 2016
38 Min read time