Last week, before the budget vote, I talked with several senators on the phone as they were about to cast their vote. The ones I spoke to were friends, and I told them that I was praying for them. I said that many of us in the faith community were watching this budget vote very carefully, because it would impact low-income families and vulnerable people in such critical ways. We talked about some of the policy details, the amendments being put forward that could water down or eliminate many of the budget's most important provisions or sources of revenue, and about how hard many of their constituents were being hit by the economic crisis. But at the end of each conversation I would always come back to a promise: "Know that right now across the country, people of faith are watching and praying around this budget." After a slight pause, they each told me that they would vote for this budget and especially would defend the key commitments for struggling families and our poorest people. The senators thanked me for those prayers and ask that they keep coming.
Perhaps the hesitation, that slight pause, that occurred before they thanked me for my prayers and the prayers of so many of you was the realization of what it means when people of faith commit themselves to "watch and pray." Often, "to watch" is thought of as a passive activity that requires little or no effort on the part of the one doing the watching. But that's not how Jesus used the phrase.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane and asked them to stay with him and to watch and pray. He told them that his soul was troubled to the point of death, he prayed to his Father that "the cup would pass," and the scriptures tell us that his sweat was like blood. Three times Jesus left the disciples to pray, and each time when he returned they were sleeping. Jesus told them, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." To watch and pray was not the role of a passive observer but an invitation to be an active participant in the scene that was about to unfold. Instead, the disciples fell asleep.
In the black church tradition, "Watch Night" services, which are anything but passive, are held on New Years Eve, a tradition that has its roots in the celebration of "Freedom's Eve" the night before the Emancipation Proclamation began to take effect on January 1, 1863.
It is the act of both watching and praying that allows us to resist temptation and allows the weakness of the flesh to be overcome by the desires of the Spirit. And most insightful legislators will tell you that is a battle they face most every day.
I have often said that a budget is a moral document. Well, after studying this first Obama budget carefully, many of us who have been fighting poverty for years believe this one really is a moral document-with more commitments to struggling families and people than any budget in our lifetimes. But while the president's budget did pass last week, it is far from finished. In fact, this is only the beginning. After a conference committee reconciles the differences between the House and Senate versions, the final budget language will be approved when the members of Congress get back to Washington from their spring break. And then the real work begins. The crucial appropriations process will continue for months with most decisions on the many crucial programs to support low income people yet to be decided. Without continued pressure, without phone calls, letters and e-mails, visits, and conversations with members of the House and Senate, the "temptations" of special interests and the "weakness of the flesh" (Washington's bad habits and priorities) could still block the hopes for the poor in this budget. This is why we need to watch and pray.
While many good steps have been taken in this budget, it is far from complete and we have already seen several key provisions challenged and spending weakened. I have been told by members of the Obama White House team that key provisions for nutrition, child care and early education, the child tax credit, affordable housing, job training, educational opportunity, health care, and vital foreign aid to combat hunger and disease will all be "big fights." Our politics and this budget will revert naturally to old habits and bad priorities, with the poor bearing the brunt, once again, of deficit reduction unless there are powerful, even spiritual, forces pushing better and newer priorities. Now, more than ever, we need to watch and pray.
April 26-29, more than 1,000 Christians from across the country will come to Washington, D.C., to learn, worship, and lobby Congress for a budget that remembers the least of these and pushes forward policies that break the chains of poverty. And we hope President Obama will be speaking to us. I hope you will join us in Washington at the Mobilization to End Poverty to watch and pray.
Over the years we have said time and time again to our elected officials that a budget is a moral document. Now, to each and every one of our fellow Sojourners, I'm saying that your calendar is also a moral document. Each of us, as we are able, is called to commit our time to God's work in this world. More of God's work could be done if this is a good budget for poor families. So I encourage you to join us in person in Washington, or back home to tell your political representatives that you are watching and praying. And keep watching Sojomail and God's Politics blog to keep you informed about when the "big fights" are coming up in Congress.
As people of faith, to watch and pray is never passive but always active, and that is exactly how God has called us to change the world, both outside and inside of politics.