On Wednesday afternoon, a small group of faith leaders stood in a chilly rain outside the Capitol and began to read all the 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor and vulnerable, about suffering and indifference, injustice and oppression — all with God inviting compassion and calling for justice. And it is the poor and vulnerable, who are the collateral damage of the government shutdown and will suffer most from a default on the nation's credit. Christian leaders from across the political and theological spectrum joined together in a "Faithful Filibuster" across the street from the Capitol. For every day that Congress is in session during the shutdown, we will read those verses to remind our lawmakers that justice for the poor should always be our priority, but now more than ever.
Today it is raining once again, but our vigil continues until the government shutdown ends, and politicians no longer threaten economic catastrophe that would come from defaulting on the country's debt unless they get their way.
The stakes here are high: if the shutdown continues until the end of the month, many programs that serve vulnerable people will be at risk of severe cutbacks or termination. Energy assistance, early education programs, and nutrition assistance to women, infants, and children could be the greatest victims of Washington's political game. At Wednesday's vigil, David Beckmann of Bread for the World expressed his fear of financial collapse, saying, "It would hurt us all, but the poor most."
I had the privilege of reading from Matthew 25, the passage of scripture that converted me to faith in Jesus Christ. "Whenever you fail to help any of my people, no matter how unimportant they may seem, you've done it to me." (Matthew 25:45, CEV).
On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.
The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.
We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.
We plan to give out copies of The Poverty and Justice Bible, which has all 2,000 verses about the poor highlighted in orange, to each member of Congress and their staff during the shutdown. We want the politicians who assault each other and the nation with their words every day to hear what we Christians call the Word of God, just across the street from their verbal battles. And when people of faith don't know what to say or do about a terrible crisis like this, it's always a good and "faithful" thing to just read the Scriptures again. In the midst of all the political words on Capitol Hill, we believe it's important that God's voice is heard during this crisis.
On Wednesday, I was joined by my colleagues Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners, David Beckmann from Bread for the World, Galen Carey from the National Association of Evangelicals, and Kathy Saile of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Yesterday, David, Galen, and I were accompanied by Carol Busroe of the Salvation Army and we made it through Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. As I finished up my reading, a young woman came forward and asked if she could join us. She said that she worked for the Peace Corp and was furloughed, but read about the #FaithfulFilibuster on Facebook and wanted to participate. So she started on the book of Numbers.
We're going to keep sharing God's message of good news for the poor to help our elected officials rediscover the vision of the "common good." We invite you to come down and support the Faithful Filibuster. And if you can't join us in person, tweet one of the 2,000 Bible verses on poverty with the hashtag #FaithfulFilibuster. Let's remind the politicians and pundits whose babble has dominated, that it is only the Word of God that endures forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
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.