Compassionate Priorities

In January 2005, Sojourners and Call to Renewal began a campaign to tell our political leaders that “budgets are moral documents” that reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. A budget tells us who and what are most valued by those making it. Who benefits and who suffers, who wins and who loses, what things are revealed as most or least important? We said that the question all of America’s religious communities must ask of any budget is what happens to the poor and most vulnerable—especially what becomes of the nation’s poorest children in these critical decisions.

We concluded that the administration’s proposed budget was morally unacceptable. It projected a record deficit, promised to make tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest permanent, and made cuts in vital programs and services for low-income people. We said a budget that scapegoats the poor and further benefits the rich—that asks for sacrifice mostly from those who can least afford it—was a moral offense.

Before long, that language and the phrase itself were picked up and used by political leaders and the media, with headlines such as “One More ‘Moral Value’: Fighting Poverty.” Clearly, the influence of the faith community was being felt. Words like “Christian” and “religious groups” were now associated with words like “poverty,” “low-income families,” and “economic justice,” instead of just “abortion” and “gay marriage.” The issue of poverty was also a unifying and galvanizing issue in my national book tour last spring. Poverty’s moral and political urgency was seen by many as the natural outcome of faith.

Then came Hurricane Katrina and pictures from New Orleans that stunned the nation and exposed the stark realities of who suffered the most, who was left out even before they were left behind, who was waiting in vain for help to arrive, and who faced the most difficult challenges of recovery. From the reporters covering the unprecedented disaster to ordinary Americans glued to their TVs, a shocked and even outraged response was repeated, “I didn’t realize how many Americans were poor.”

But only a few months later, as Congress began to finish its budget work, cuts were again on the agenda. When I told people around the country that congressional leaders in Washington again were planning tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor, “Have they no shame?” was a frequent response. After all that Hurricane Katrina revealed about poverty in America, how can we balance the budget at the expense of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

When Congress reconvened after its Columbus Day recess, the budget reconciliation bill was the first item of business. Among the expected cuts was one to food stamps. But when Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) introduced his “chairman’s mark,” there were no cuts in the Food Stamp Program. Objections from several committee Republicans, along with Democrats, had prompted the change. Those Republican senators were from states where faith-based organizations and leaders, including many Sojourners and Call to Renewal partners and allies, had actively pressed the lawmakers during recess visits not to cut crucial programs for the poor. The e-mails and calls to congressional offices, and letters to local newspapers, raised a moral and faith-based voice to protect the most vulnerable in society. Those religious voices were heard.

As the budget moved to the House, we said that a moral battle was unfolding, with our national integrity at stake. Politicians regularly pat faith communities on the back for serving the poor. It was now time for those same people of faith to turn around and tell their political leaders to change the priorities and policies that hurt the poor. We suggested that it was time for the members of Congress who talk about their Christian faith to dust off their Bibles and take a fresh look at what Jesus said about the poor; before votes were cast, some good Bible studies in the House of Representatives about God’s commands for social justice might be just what the political process needed.

In the early hours of the morning before leaving for their Thanksgiving break, the House passed a budget that cut $50 billion, including essential services for low-income families. Funding for health care, food stamps, foster care for neglected children, student loans, and enforcing child support orders all fell to the ax.

So we issued an “altar call” to come to Washington. On a bitterly cold December day, we brought our message to the steps of the Cannon House Office Building. After powerful preaching on the steps and a press conference that was more like a revival, we continued our praying and singing in front of the entrance, symbolizing the denial of access to Congress for low-income people. A total of 115 pastors and leaders were arrested. Many of those who took part in the nonviolent civil disobedience were from groups such as the Christian Community Development Association, whose member organizations live and work alongside poor people every day. Their founder, John Perkins—who at 75 was one of the oldest people arrested—inspired us all, as he has for 40 years of faithful ministry. We sounded like a choir (and a good one at that), as we sang Christmas carols while being arrested, handcuffed, put into buses, and taken to a large holding facility to be processed. Our vigil in Washington was followed that evening by more than 70 vigils in more than 30 states.

The struggle for a moral budget—and a more moral society—of course doesn’t end with this latest legislative battle. We remain committed to a budget that does not harm people in poverty, and in fact supports and empowers them. We had a strong impact in 2005 with the combination of our speaking, media, and online work, organizing with constituency partners, and policy relationships with members of Congress and their staffs. This year, we will work to maintain and expand that capacity.

It is said that the truest test of the morality of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. On that test, the stakes are too high to fail.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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