In honor of his 75th birthday, I was inscribing to my friend Randy a copy of a book that I co-authored. I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to “greater commitment, deeper compassion, and…”—well, something about courage. Having already used “greater” and “deeper,” my mind was momentarily absent of adjectives. After a little thought, I settled on “stronger.”
I don’t write in longhand much these days, and as I’m only a decade younger than Randy, my handwriting has become less legible with age. “Stronger” came out looking on the page like “stranger.” I laughed. Randy has indeed inspired me to stranger courage—and I think the world could use a lot more of it.
I met Randy Kehler, his partner Betsy Corner, and their daughter Lillian in January 1990 in their almost-century-old clapboard home, tucked in the mountains of western Massachusetts—a home they were in danger of being evicted from at any moment. When word finally came almost two years later that federal marshals were on their way, Betsy left with 12-year-old Lillian. Randy stayed and, trying to calm his racing heart, sat down at the piano. He was hauled away in handcuffs—but only after finishing Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria” while the marshals waited.
Betsy was arrested later that morning at a neighbor’s house. Honoring a promise to Lillian, who understandably did not want both her parents to go to jail, Betsy agreed to a court order not to return to their home. When Randy would not, he was found guilty of contempt and spent 10 weeks in jail. He had already served 22 months, two decades before, for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. In August 1969, as he was preparing to submit to his sentence, he spoke at a meeting of War Resisters International. In attendance was Daniel Ellsberg, who cites Randy’s speech as inspiration for his decision to release the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret government report that exposed damning evidence about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Since 1977, the first year of their marriage, Betsy and Randy have refused to pay for war. They don’t evade taxes. They calculate what the government says they owe each April and send that amount to peace-making and humanitarian causes they can support: organizations addressing hunger, providing affordable housing, supporting veterans and victims of war, and in other ways making the world a safer, better place.
In the eyes of the world, it’s a strange (many would say misguided, irresponsible, ineffective, and/or naïve) witness. But they’re in good company, both currently and historically, especially in Massachusetts. As Betsy has said to those who take offense that they’re breaking the law, “this country was founded by breaking the law.” The 1773 Boston Tea Party, which helped to launch our nation’s revolution, was an act of tax resistance against tyranny. Eighty years later, Henry David Thoreau, an outspoken opponent of the Mexican-American War, spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax that supported it. As he wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” his influential 1849 essay (both Gandhi and Martin Luther King claimed inspiration from it): “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”
In their statement after the IRS seizure of their home, Betsy and Randy pointed out that the United States, which persists in increasing its already massive store of nuclear bombs capable of obliterating the planet and arming much of the world, is a signatory to international treaties prohibiting the manufacture of genocidal weapons and forbidding the use of force to overthrow other governments. “Who is the real law-breaker,” they ask, “we who refuse to pay for these criminal activities, or the U.S. government and their tax collectors, who carry them out?”
Since I met them almost 30 years ago when I was covering their story for Sojourners magazine, I have admired Randy and Betsy’s courage and unwavering stand of conscience. Those of us who practice war-tax resistance as part of our refusal to be collaborators in our nation’s unbridled violence are accustomed to threatening letters from the IRS, to liens being placed on bank accounts or wages being garnished. My partner, Bill Ramsey, is among a handful of resisters who, like Randy, have served time in jail. But sacrificing a home seems like an especially high price to pay.
When Betsy, Randy, and Lillian were put out of theirs, Bill joined people from around the country who came in trained affinity groups for a week at a time, to keep vigil in their home after it was seized and in their yard after it was sold. Though Randy and Betsy owned the house, it sits on land owned by the Valley Community Land Trust. The nonviolent occupation lasted more than 18 months, the longest war-tax protest in U.S. history.
Last November many of those same people gathered again in western Massachusetts to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the campaign. Bill was on a panel that addressed its impact and its lessons for our current moment. In a particularly poignant highlight, Randy sat down at the piano and played again the “Ave Maria.”
By February, Bill and I were making an offer on a house close to Randy and Betsy and a circle of other dear longtime friends, just over the border in southern Vermont. We moved in mid-May. Living now amid these northern mountains, I hear the words of Thoreau still reverberating. He spoke of government as a large machine, declaring “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”
The machine continues to churn away, mercilessly. I have seen the personal horrors of our militarism in Nicaragua, Cuba, Palestine, South Africa, Thailand, and at our own southern border. I have lived among those targeted or neglected by our priorities: undocumented immigrants, economically marginalized minorities, homeless persons, hungry children. As profit is increasingly the bottom line of our culture—and billions upon billions of dollars are channeled into war-making and its preparations—our infrastructure crumbles, our schools and hospitals lack necessary resources, our prisons are big business. And the voracious machine grinds up more and more victims—including the very Earth itself.
The times seem to beg for more creative resistance. Calling us all to the task of counter-friction. Inviting us to collectively embrace a greater, deeper, stranger courage.