The Faith Community and the Wisconsin State Budget

By Phil Haslanger 6-13-2011

Jesus never said anything about collective bargaining. He never called for the continuation of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers. He never addressed giving tax breaks to corporations.

So why are all these church folks like me talking about the moral dimensions of the state budget debate?

There's been quite a push from the faith community this year, you may have noticed. Religious folks have had a regular presence in the variety of demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol, including one last Thursday described as the Interfaith Budget Morality Vigil. That demonstration spilled over into the Capitol hallways as the Joint Finance Committee moved toward concluding its work on the budget even as protesters periodically disrupted the proceedings.

In a society where people hold differing religious beliefs or none at all, it's not like a religious argument ought to be used as a trump card in public policy debates. But religious values do motivate people like me to speak up on behalf of the poor.

So let me try to lay out the basis for why folks like me, who come out of the liberal Christian religious segment of society, argue that government policies need to make sure to protect the most vulnerable in society before looking out for the wealthiest or even those who have reasonable financial stability in their lives.

The standard pushback is that when Jesus said people should care for the poor, he was talking about individual acts of charity and not about governmental programs that take everyone's tax dollars whether they want to help the poor or not. That overlooks another theme that runs alongside of charity in the Bible -- it's a call to justice.

When Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem, he turned over the tables of the money changers who were exploiting the Jewish folks who had to buy items for their sacrifices. This was an act of justice - of standing up for the poor in the face of those who tried to profit off them.

When a Jewish man named Zacchaeus was collecting taxes for the Romans and taking a nice cut for himself, he encountered Jesus and was so moved that he promised to pay back four times all he had defrauded and give half of his wealth to the poor. Another story of justice.

Christians draw heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures in their Bible, and justice was a recurring theme there, as it is in Judaism today. Consider this line from Isaiah, the prophet of old, speaking in God's voice to the leaders of that era: "It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?"

This goes beyond simply donating to a food pantry. It means paying attention to the way society is structured. In Jesus' day, when the Romans occupied the land, the only route to help the poor was to create alternative structures. In our day, when we elect the people who make decisions on things like budgets, people whose faith includes a sense of both charity and justice seek their place in the midst of these debates.

These are the kinds of messages that propel contemporary Christians to call for not just personal charity but for a sense of justice in public policy. They start with a recognition of the inherent dignity of each person that emerges from the Bible, they reflect a sense of interdependence among people that recurs in the Scriptures, they seek a world that reflects the biblical vision of a just society where all have the essentials for living in the dignity that we all share.

That's why there has been so much more action by Christians and people of other faith traditions in the past few months around the proposals of Gov. Scott Walker. Those proposals tilt the balance away from that vision of a just society toward one that caters to the wealthy and enshrines private gain over the common good. It's exactly the kind of thing that provoked the ire of Hebrew prophets and that man from Nazareth named Jesus.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison. This post originally appeared on The Cap Times.

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