Rep. Joe Kennedy to Faith Leaders: ‘We Are Locked in a Battle Over the Character of Our Country’

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By the Web Editors 6-26-2017

Editor's Note: On June 21, the day before Senate Republicans released the text of their health care plan, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) spoke at The Summit, Sojourners' annual gathering of faith and justice leaders, about the Christian call to recognize the inherent human dignity in those who would be most affected by drastic health care cuts. Below is the full text of his remarks, as prepared for delivery.

Thank you Jim for that kind introduction, for your friendship, and for the powerful voice of moral reason you offer a city in desperate need of good counsel.

It is a privilege to join you all here tonight.

When I was growing up, the idea of speaking in front of a group of priests and pastors would have kept me up all night. Then I married a preacher’s daughter. Which explains why I haven’t slept since I got this invite.

On a serious note, ladies and gentlemen, I am here tonight with a simple mission: to ask for your help.

It is no secret that we gather in the midst of turbulent times in Washington. A president of the United States under investigation for obstructing justice. A foreign adversary knee-deep in our democracy.

A Justice Department backing away from civil rights protections by the day.

A budget, a tax reform plan, a health care bill that will bring the sick and struggling and suffering to their knees.

Immigration and refugee policies that are leaving devastated families and communities in their wake.

Elected officials cheering these painful choices.

In the midst of such onslaught, such unrelenting attacks on everything we hold dear, it can be easy to write off this madness as political theater.

To dismiss every sporadic executive order or late-night tweetstorm as the actions of an administration still struggling to get its bearings, of two hopelessly divided political parties, of a commander-in-chief who just can’t help himself.

But if we do that – we do so at our peril.

Because if we take a step back. If we connect the dots. Then the chaos clears and reveals a strategy breathtaking in its calculation, it’s coldness.

This administration believes that our nation’s strength comes from empowering those at the top, ignoring those in the middle, and abandoning those at the bottom.

Their policies and politics outline a consistent worldview: where to be different or diverse is to be weak. To be vulnerable is to be shameful and scorned.

By their account, human dignity isn’t something you’re born with – it’s something you measure. By the size of your crowds, the depth of your bank account, the names of your friends, the number of your headlines.

Not to mention the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The God of your prayers. The color of your skin.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the gravest threat we face. A rebuke of our highest American ideal — as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution.

The belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal, we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God, and our government.

“Rich and poor have a common bond. The Lord is maker of them all.”

For those of us in this room tonight, this is a deeply personal fight. Because the lesson of fundamental human dignity – of decency – lies at the heart of the our Christian faith.

Throughout the Gospel, we are called on to acknowledge the humanity of those who are suffering, impoverished, or oppressed. Matthew summons us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and comfort the afflicted. Luke tells us of the Good Samaritan’s gentle mercy, kneeling beside his bleeding neighbor on the road to Jericho while others simply passed by.

For men and women of faith, these stories outline the measure of our goodness and our greatness: not the power we give the strong, but the strength we give the weak.

A noble country sees potential not only when we are at our best but when we are at our worst. When we are broken or inadequate or insufficient. When we fall short or do wrong or don’t measure up.

When we suffer not because we are failures but because we are human. And because there is nothing more universal to our brief experience here on Earth than the fact that each of us will feel the sky fall.

But for the grace of God there go I. We offer mercy because we know at some point we will need it too.

For generations this has been a higher calling that has united Americans across the aisle. It was the patriotic edict laid out by President George W. Bush in his first inaugural address:

“I can pledge our nation to a goal: when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

But today I tell you in no uncertain terms that this collective commitment to dignity is at risk.

We cannot write it off, we cannot pretend it’s otherwise, we cannot relegate it to “politics” with an eye roll or a sigh because it is infiltrating every inch of American life, and we know that. You and I feel it. Deep within us and all around us.

This new guard in Washington isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worth protecting.

In doing so, they are, by carelessness or calculation, giving cover to our darkest human instincts— hatred, intolerance, supremacy, discrimination.

An official commission launched to legitimize voter suppression.

A rejection of our global responsibility to care for this precious Earth. Cuts to food stamps totaling nearly $200 billion.

The elimination of programs to help families in need afford heating oil during the winter or access legal assistance when their homes are in jeopardy.

A health care bill that scapegoats the sick, the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the addicted with terrifying precision.

A president of the United States that calls this greatness. A speaker of the House that calls it mercy.

And we wonder why it feels like our country is being torn apart at the seams.

Last week, friends of mine were targeted by a man with a gun and a cold mission. After the shock and horror and grief dissipated in these halls, you could feel a sense start to set in: this has gone too far. This is not who we are. This is not what we do.

You all know that sensation. You’ve felt it in your bones for many months.

You’ve seen it in the worried eyes of your congregations. The neighborhoods and nursing homes and classrooms and living rooms of your proud communities. A feeling that we might become something we don’t believe in.

But in that space is our guiding light, our opportunity, our opening: the simple fact that, when given the chance, the vast majority of people choose decency in their own lives every single day. They lean towards goodness. They seek out grace.

They may disagree over education or criminal justice reform or foreign policy.

But they rally around community members who are suffering. They raise money for medical treatments, drop off home-cooked meals, offer rides home and safe harbors and kind words.

They set out to teach their children kindness and respect, not coldness and contempt. They volunteer, they clean up, they rescue, they give back.

You know this because it is your life’s work; the great legacy of our religious tradition, that communities of the faithful gather every day, around the world, to bless and to serve the poor, the meek, the mourning, the hungry and the persecuted. That dedication makes our communities stronger, our lives richer, our connections deeper.

But how long can we ask our people to make up for their government? “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” St. Augustine reminds us.

Today we are locked in a battle over the character of our country.

For those of us committed to social justice, those of us guided by the moral goodness of this faith — we could not have more skin in the game.

So I am here tonight to ask you to get in this fight more fully and fiercely than ever before. To expand and extend your pulpit to new heights and preach to new depths.

You have all spent your careers in defense of our better angels, fluent in our frailties and fallibilities. You have born witness to our crowning moments — marriages and births, christenings and graduations, anniversaries and memorials.

And you have held our hands through darker days, of shame and anguish, at our weakest and most vulnerable.

You lead your communities through life’s soaring heights and painful falls by reminding them of a moral compass that will always guide their way.

This moment demands more of us than we might feel capable of giving; more than we have traditionally done; more than we have ever expected.

But those of you in this room tonight — with your reservoirs of faith, of wisdom, of gentleness and justice and generosity – with the trust you have righteously earned from the people you serve — you are the ones to meet this moment.

Help us tell America an alternative story. Help us show our fractured, fearful country a different way.

Not a Democratic agenda or a Republican agenda – but a decent one.

“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

Where you lead with strength and surety, a grateful nation will follow.

Thank you, for showing up today. Thank you for your faith, your example, and your open hearts. I am humbled to call myself your partner and friend. Enjoy the night.

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