The Common Good

Why the Government Shutdown Is Unbiblical

One of the most depressing things I heard on the first day of the government shutdown was that it was a record fundraising day for both parties. Washington, D.C., is no longer about governing; it is just about winning and losing. But the people who will lose the most during a government shutdown — and then an impending United States government default on paying its debts — are those who live day to day on their wages, those at the lower end of the nation’s economy, and the poorest and most vulnerable who are always hurt the most in a crisis like this. And what happens to those people is the focus of the faith community; that is our job in politics — to talk about what happens to them. Faith leaders have been meeting to discuss what we must do in response to this political crisis brought on by absolute political dysfunction.

The government shutdown seems to have gotten the attention of the nation. And if this ends in a default on our debt, the potentially catastrophic crashing of the economy will certainly wake us up. The only positive I see in this crisis is that the right issues — the moral issues — might finally get our attention.

Let me make myself clear on the politics here: Debates over fiscal matters — budgets, taxes, and spending — are supposed to take place within the political process, in negotiations, compromises, conferences between the Senate, House, and White House, and settled by elections. We can’t use government shutdowns and debt repayments as bargaining chips in these debates. Most political leaders I know, both Republicans and Democrats, believe in government and governing. They may differ over how big or small or limited, but they are not hostile to government itself.

The issues here are deeper than politics now; they are moral, and, I would argue, theological. Too often our political affiliation drives our theological worldview instead of our theology driving our politics. The Bible speaks clearly about the role of government, and that is what really is being challenged here. It’s time for those people of faith who want to shut down the government to read their Bibles. Because pressuring the nation to shut down the government, instead of keeping debate within the political process, is contrary not only to our best political traditions, but also to what our Scriptures say. And underlying this current crisis, there is a clear hostility to government itself, government per se, from a group of political extremists that I believe is unbiblical. It is a minority of our elected officials who are demonstrating their anti-government ideology. But that extreme minority has captured their party and the political process, and has driven the nation into dangerous crisis based upon fear.

This kind of crisis should cause people of faith to fast and pray and read their Bibles. And whether or not you are a person of faith, you might find it interesting to see what the Bible says about the mess we are now in.

The biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good — protect and promote. Government is meant to protect its people’s safety, security, and peace, and promote the common good of a society — and even collect taxes for those purposes. Read Romans 13 by the apostle Paul and other similar texts. The Scriptures also make it clear that governmental authority is responsible for fairness and justice and particularly responsible to protect the poor and vulnerable. Read Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, the Psalms, and even the book of Kings to see that God will judge kings and rulers (governments) for how they treat the poor. And it wasn’t just the kings of Israel who were held accountable for the poor, but also the kings of neighboring countries — all governments. That’s what the Bible says; so let me be as clear as I can be.

There are two ways the political extremists are being unbiblical. First, to be hostile to the role of government is unbiblical according to the Scriptures. Second, because of their hostility to government, many of those who are promoting this crisis are also hostile to the poor, who are supposed to be protected by the government. They blame the poor for their poverty instead of asking how government can protect the most vulnerable and even help lift them out of poverty.

The facts and the faces of those who suffer first and worst from these crises must be lifted up — and that is the role of the faith community. Already, thousands of children are losing their Head Start programs, mothers with children are losing WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program), and many of those most dependent on their paychecks are now losing them.

Jeremiah, speaking of King Josiah, said, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.” The subsequent line is very revealing: “‘Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 22:16). Of Solomon, the Scriptures say, through the words of the queen of Sheba, “Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9). Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for kings or political leaders: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. … May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Ps. 72:1–4).

There is a powerful vision for promoting the common good here, a vision of prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor and to “deliverance” for the most vulnerable and needy.

That vision of “common good” is what we have lost, and there is nothing more important in our public life than to find it again.

For people of faith, government is never ultimate but needs to play the important and modest role of servant. The criteria for evaluation and judgment of civil authority is whether it is serving the people, whether it is guarding their security, whether it is maintaining a positive and peaceful social order, whether it is helping to make the lives of its citizens better, and, in particular, whether it is protecting the poor. To be opposed to government per se, especially when that opposition serves the ultimate power of other wealthy and powerful interests, is simply not a biblical position. Transparency, accountability, and service are the ethics of good government. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” is still a good measure and goal of civil authority.  

But people of faith will ascribe ultimate authority only to God, to whom civil authority will always be accountable.

My wonderful publisher, Brazos, is making available as a new eBook the chapters on the biblical role of government on how the parties could work together, called “Conservatives, Liberals, and the Fight for America's Future” (FREE for a limited time). That will be my 2 cents (actually less than 2 cents) to contribute to the debate now before us.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis

Image: Government shutdown illustration, Alice Day / Shutterstock.com

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