It’s Time to Be the Conscience of American Politics | Sojourners

It’s Time to Be the Conscience of American Politics

President Joe Biden addresses the nation after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Pool/File Photo

Yesterday’s inauguration felt like a hopeful and dramatic reset: President Joe Biden’s inaugural address called for an end to “this uncivil war pitting red-versus-blue, urban-versus-rural, liberal-versus-conservative;” Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian American to be sworn in as vice president; and Amanda Gorman, the brilliant young poet, reminded us that “ being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” And before his first day in office ended, Biden signed 15 executive actions (and two additional directives), including orders to expand coronavirus relief, rejoin the Paris climate agreement, and reverse the travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries, among others.

It was a stunning preview of how character, honor, and integrity matter immensely for presidential leadership. I pray that in the days ahead, the Biden administration will demonstrate that good governance, sound management, and bold policy change also matter.

I believe fervently in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “the church is not called to be the master or servant of the state, but to be the conscience of the state.” In that vein, we will be neither chaplain nor sycophant to our new political leaders. Instead, we seek to be a faithful conscience, serving as a bridge-builder and offering prophetic critique (and pressure) when necessary.

Below are some of our hopes for the new Congress and presidential administration. This is not an exhaustive wish list; it’s a list of what we believe is both possible and necessary in the days and years to come. —Adam Russell Taylor

Economic Justice

We have an economy of contradictions: While people at the top are benefiting from a strong stock market, historically low taxes, and historically unequal wealth generation, low and middle income Americans are dealing with the economic insecurity of slashed hours, high unemployment, and lost healthcare — on top of racial inequities that create dramatic racial wealth gaps, especially for Black and Hispanic Americans.

Controlling the pandemic is essential to beginning to address these challenges. With many of the economic safeguards enacted in response to COVID-19 set to expire in the coming months — including the eviction moratorium, rent assistance, increased SNAP benefits, expanded Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, expanded unemployment insurance, and extended paid sick days — extending those benefits will be key. We also must provide more assistance to states and robust funding for continued health needs and vaccine distribution. The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion plan to address the health and economic crisis includes these priorities, and we will be working to ensure these measures are passed in the coming weeks.

But we need to move from helping people survive to helping people and communities thrive — something that will require prophetically imagining an economy in which every person has what they need to support themselves, their families, and their communities. It will also require a deep examination of the legacy of racism in the U.S. and a commitment to repair the inequalities experienced by so many. The Biden administration has already laid out many of these principles, and we will work with them, push them, and hold them accountable to those promises. —Jim Simpson

Racial Justice

The insurrection riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 follows centuries of racial oppression evident in every aspect of our public life. We must recognize that white supremacy, systemic inequality, and structural racism are a threat to our entire nation. We are calling on the Biden administration to make racial justice a top priority during these first 100 days and beyond.

We are anxious to work with the administration to support the restoration of critical provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that provided federal protections to every citizen and prevented the rampant voter suppression of Black people. The gutting of the VRA led to an environment where voter suppression and voter intimidation ran rampant and nearly upended our democracy.

We will call on the Biden administration to support the establishment of a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission devoted to addressing systemic racism and dedicated to racial healing. After the death of George Floyd, citizens of this nation protested in numbers not seen since the civil rights movement and later cast their ballots for new and bold leadership to end systemic racism. We must now go from protest and the polls to policy that brings change.

Finally, we want the Biden administration to reimagine our broken justice system — which disproportionately criminalizes and incarcerates Black citizens — so that it is truly transformed to ensure equal justice for all and is focused on justice and rehabilitation. We hope this administration will reestablish a intersectional group, modeled after the Obama-era 21st Century Policing commission, to assess these challenges and develop bold solutions. —Terrance M. McKinley

Climate Justice

We welcome ripe opportunities to take bold and lasting action on climate and environmental justice. Biden has already committed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, hosting a world climate summit, revamping the Clean Power Plan, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline construction, and re-establishing and strengthening landmark environmental laws (such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Act) that were rolled back by Trump. We will hold Biden accountable to these actions.

We will also advocate for the new Congress to pass bills like the Environmental Justice Act, which would require all federal agencies to consider environmental justice issues while crafting policy or issuing permits; the act would also establish a permanent National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. We also will support bipartisan legislation that champions reforestation and replanting efforts that act as natural buffers against climate change, such as the newly introduced Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act. —Melody Zhang

Immigrant Justice

Fortunately, on his first day, Biden announced a new bill to create a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without documentation; this needs to be a priority for Congress, which has the power to make this dream reality.

We will be pushing for Biden and Congress to keep families and communities together and end rules that prevent people in low-income situations from receiving immigration benefits — something that contradicts Jesus’ teachings in the Beatitudes. We will support the use of community alternatives instead of detention centers and push the Biden administration to restore asylum and refugee programs.

It’s time for a humane and effective immigration system. We will continue to fight for it, hopefully now alongside the administration instead of against it. —Paola Fuentes Gleghorn

Gender Justice

We know all people are created in the image of God; our laws need to reflect that truth. We will be pushing this Congress to pass legislation that empowers women, particularly against domestic and sexual violence. President Biden should strive to expand and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which he introduced as a senator in 1990.

However, we don’t want to return to the past; we call on Biden to ensure the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is added to the U.S. Constitution so that the supreme law of the land reflects the truth of Genesis: Men, women, and all people are created equal by God.

We also need to invest in alternative models for survivors of sexual and domestic violence to seek safety and justice; we know that many of the criminal justice systems that are supposed to help these survivors wind up hurting Black and brown communities. We will work to strengthen the role of communities and faith groups in creating safety for survivors of violence. —Paola Fuentes Gleghorn

Global Justice

We applaud the Biden administration’s commitment to re-engage with international bodies such as the World Health Organization and global COVAX initiative. We also call on the administration to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, and support the nuclear weapons ban treaty. Our nation must also re-commit to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and rededicate ourselves to championing human rights and fighting against political repression and corruption.

We recommend the Biden administration assess how the Trump administration’s internal nuclear policy decisions have hindered initiatives to reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear risks. We call on Biden to align the U.S. in support of the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is set to enter into force on Jan. 22, 2021, and extend the New START treaty — the last remaining treaty on nuclear disarmament, set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021. We advocate bringing the “two-person” rule to the top of the nuclear pyramid so that the U.S. president cannot make a unilateral decision to launch all U.S. nuclear weapons.

The Biden administration should also reverse former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to declare Yemen’s Houthis rebels a “foreign terrorist organization” and immediately work with the U.N. and E.U. to open secure channels for humanitarian aid to prevent the imminent starvation and death of millions.

In federal appropriations bills, the Biden administration should seek to increase funding for and promote unarmed civilian protection as a way to provide direct physical protection to civilian populations and assist U.S.-funded stabilization forces. The administration should also empower the secretary of state and USAID to incorporate unarmed civilian protection and local nonviolent peacekeeping in their protocols. —Rose Marie Berger