In Early December I visited the Agape Community (http://agapecommunity.org/) , an intentional Catholic community centered on non-violence, simple living and sustainability. Here I found inspiration on living out what my faith in Christ should look like.
Brayton and Suzanne Shanly, long time residents of Agape, told us how they got started in 1982 from their commitment to nonviolence. They believe as Christians that they should do everything they can to teach nonviolence and spread that message. They want no part of war, violence or aggression. None. So this translated in their real life in a variety of ways, sit-ins, protests, supporting a tax choice bill, and not paying their taxes. Sixty two cents of every tax dollar in the 1980s went to the military, and funded people to kill people. That’s violence. They saw what wars have done to people and couldn’t justify being forced to give part of their income to support that violence. To protest this violence and support of weapons and defense, they, along with close friends agreed not to pay their taxes. They claimed all the casualties of Vietnam as their dependents! The IRS gave them a good talking to. They spent their fair share of time in jail for this and other protests, but held fast to their beliefs and changed their lifestyle to live under the taxable income so as not to support the military with 62% of their tax money. Now that’s simple living, and intentional living at its finest!
Christians have interpreted the Biblical call for peace in many ways throughout the centuries, and tax evasion is certainly not the only way, and is sometimes done for other reasons. I’m not saying the Bible says to skip your taxes. Look at what they are being spent on and make your own choice. How many of us are aware of what are money is spent on once it leaves our wallet? Agape’s story can encourage us to be more aware of the injustices, we support through our spending, (with our without our knowing) not only in our taxes, but behind the scenes in restaurants, stores, programs, and companies that receive our money.
These individuals followed where their money was being spent, and when they found it was against their beliefs, they did what they saw fit to stop supporting that form of violence. Note that Brayton and Suzanne believe in non-violence first, and then align their life and finances to that belief.
Eventually they co-founded the Agape Community as a registered non-profit organization. Their income is only financial donations to the community which pays the bills for maintenance and upkeep of the property. Their salaries come from what’s leftover and stay under the taxable income. In fact for our retreat, we were told not to donate more than a certain amount because it would put their income over the taxable amount! We were given a maximum donation suggestion!
They don’t pay taxes running this community as a retreat center, and education center for religious simple living and non-violence. Several church retreats, and college alternative break service trips visit annually. And they offer several internships each year. They’ve temporarily hosted homeless and former prisoners until they get on their feet. The tax-free income has them living simply a straw bale house, with a wooden cabin for guests both made from wood from the forested property, built by themselves and other community members. Both are heated by fuel efficient wood stoves. Solar heat collectors for hot water and additional space heating alongside photovoltaic panels cover their south-facing roofs. The straw bale house has a composting toilet, wood stove for cooking, and a small greenhouse. A small garden provides the food needed to feed visitors and interns throughout the year.
Their one car is fueled with free used cooking oil from a nearby Ninety Nine restaurant. Oil is also a cause for most of our conflict and violence and environmental problems, so they are working toward a lifestyle free of fossil fuels to avoid supporting those forms of violence, similar to avoiding supporting war through taxes.
I was impressed. But the key is they weren’t suffering. Their solar panels were connected with the electric grid so they could still have light inside at night, and on cloudy days. There is enough hot water that showers are bearable. They ask retreat groups to bring some of their own food, so there is enough to eat. The wood stove takes a little work to keep going, but not much. They didn’t have to suffer. We didn’t suffer staying there in the winter for a few days. They had some extra work to do without many modern conveniences, but the work is well worth it if it’s working toward a more faithful, just, peaceful lifestyle.
They call this the integrated lifestyle, recognizing that all aspects of life are integrated. Food, energy, transportation, work, leisure, hygiene, you name it are all ways we should live out our beliefs. And for them violence and non-violence all tie into all parts of life. They don’t want to do violence to their bodies so they eat healthily, they don’t want to do violence to the earth so they heat and power their home with solar, use discarded straw to insulate their house, etc. they don’t want their countrymen doing violence to other countries so they boycott paying taxes, and they are working on boycotting fossil fuels.
Honestly I was uncomfortable hearing this tax evasion business. Even as fan of solar energy and Jesus, I wasn’t completely on board with avoiding my taxes. I thought they were just anti-government and still living in the sixties, but the more I listened I could see this was a belief deeply rooted inside. The biblical call to nonviolence was provoking them to act this way. Not a political agenda, a deeply spiritual agenda. A calling. I came to see it. They wanted to put their money where their beliefs were. And they did. They paid the consequences, and then re-formed their lifestyle to show that belief.
Here is my challenge to myself and to all reading this. Follow their example. Live out your faith. Listen to what God is saying to you, find a community doing the same, and do it. It’s a discipline. At BFJN we call it economic discipleship—following Jesus with our money. BFJN members who’ve made this commitment have seen challenges from society by living differently than the norms, but seeing the value in living more of our faith. How far are we willing to go? Will we get arrested or avoid paying taxes while following Jesus with our money? Will we start small and make one simple change today? What are the practices we will take on that are shaped by our belief in Christ?