The Common Good

Honor Your Father and Mother

Sojomail - May 2, 2005

Special Issue on Social Security: Honor Your Father and Mother 05.02.2005


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Honor Your Father and Mother
by Jim Wallis

The following is an open letter written by Jim Wallis as convenor of Call to Renewal, a coalition of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. The letter was distributed last week to all members of the U.S. Congress as the House and Senate begin hearings on Social Security, and outlines the moral framework with which Social Security should be discussed.

"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land..." (Exodus 20:12)

As discussion about Social Security reform begins in the Senate Finance Committee, beware of those who tell you that God spoke to them and they have the "fix" for Social Security. To guarantee the solvency of this bedrock institution in American life will not be easy; it will require our best bipartisan thinking and collaboration. But one aspect of this debate does indeed raise some fundamental moral - and even religious - issues that we ought to consider.

The Judeo-Christian faith tradition has much to say about intergenerational commitments. The Old and New Testaments could not testify more clearly that we must "honor thy father and thy mother" - and care for widows and orphans, the ill, and the disabled. And there is no trust more sacred to biblical faith than the injunctions to care not only for our immediate families but also the larger family of all humanity, especially the least, the last, and the lost. In Jesus' words from Matthew 25, "As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me."

We are commanded to "Honor your father and your mother," which is linked to our own well-being and security, "so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). Deuteronomy 5:16 repeats the commandment and adds the motivation "that it may go well with you," again connecting the generations in a mutual sense of responsibility for one another. Proverbs 23:22 tells us to respect the generation that has gone before: "Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old." Proverbs 28:24 goes further and warns against any economic ill treatment: "Anyone who robs father or mother and says, 'That is no crime,' is partner to a thug." Ezekiel 22:7 extends the warning to "orphans and widows." The Christian New Testament picks up the same themes and in Matthew reminds us again to "honor your father and your mother." Ephesians 6:1-3 says: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother,' this is the first commandment with a promise, 'so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.'"

The constant theme is that the well-being of our parents and the next generation is spiritually connected to our own. Social Security is a major way in which our society honors the previous generation by representing a civilized nation's answer to the age-old problem of old-age poverty. This covenant assures the old in our community that growing old should not be a tragedy, and this commitment is strongly interwoven into the fabric of American society. Without Social Security, nearly half of elderly Americans would be in poverty; with it, only 10 percent are. For nearly two-thirds of the elderly, Social Security provides the majority of their income. In addition, over one-third of benefits from Social Security go to non-retirees, increasing opportunity for families facing unpredictable challenges. Social Security helps more low-income children than welfare (TANF), providing support to children who have lost a parent to death or disability. And when a worker becomes disabled or dies, the entire family is protected from poverty by benefits. There are now more than 4.5 million widows and widowers who depend on Social Security.

Privatizing Social Security threatens to dismantle our nation's commitment and breach a covenant held between child and parent, worker and retiree, employed and unemployed, able and disabled. Casting it aside disrespects the biblical covenant. Social Security offers a guarantee of security for the elderly and many others that the stock market can never provide. President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security would take a significant portion out of the Social Security benefits that so many Americans depend upon and divert it for private investment in the stock market. Turning what was a public promise into a private gamble could create a serious breach in the covenant between generations and raises deep questions about the moral priorities of our society. Social Security privatization could easily "rob" mother and father. Our faith requires that we consider carefully how privatization would hurt children, women, and people with disabilities.

Social Security is about we, not me, and us, not I. It is a common thread for the common good, a tie that binds a nation's people together. Social Security is about faithfulness to a covenant between "we the people" not to forsake our parents, grandparents, children, and neighbors. It is a modest but critical bedrock of hope. To go from assuring the elderly and needy of this critical and dependable support to offering "private accounts" is a potential risk to seniors, a boon to the stock market, and an uncertain "prize" for younger generations. Putting our commitment at risk and increasing debt for a transition to a private system has implications for the old and young. For the old, the danger is the anxiety of potential poverty; for the young, the danger is in endangering their own children with massive debt.

Social Security is an expression of national values - and for Christians, our biblical priorities. It is about protecting the American dream, but also honoring God's community by providing opportunity and dignity. Fostering dignity for families, children, and elders in need is the true measure of our compassion, the true measure of our commitment to - and covenant with - the common good. Those who want to radically change a system that has worked so well are saying, in principle, that "me" is better than "we," that private solutions are better than shared responsibility. They want to weaken and shrink the places where we solve problems in common. They would rather each of us seek our own private solution to the issues of security, which always works to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

Honoring the intergenerational covenant has everything to do with our society's moral behavior. We are intimately bound across lines of age, economics, and community. Let us not be a nation where "Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you" (Ezekiel 22:7).

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