God Hears the Cry of the Poor

Woe to the legislators of infamous laws,
to those who issue tyrannical decrees,
who refuse justice to the unfortunate
who cheat the poor among my people of their rights,
who make widows their prey
and rob the orphan.
-Isaiah 10:1-2

Recently, a delegation of members of Congress visited a church not far from where I live. Many had never visited the inner city or spoken to a homeless person before. The pastor gave them an afternoon tour of his church's ministries and of other church-based projects in our area.

The legislators were all very impressed, especially with the after-school programs for children, the housing construction for low-income home buyers, and an array of new community-based economic development initiatives in our section of Washington, D.C.

"We are really supportive of all these wonderful efforts," one of them exclaimed after the tour was finished.

"No, I don't think you are," answered the pastor politely. Startled, the politicians asked him what he meant. The inner-city minister told them that they had voted against the very tax credits and other funding that helped make these hopeful community gains possible.

"What we opposed goes to support all this?" they asked incredulously.

"Absolutely," replied the pastor.

"Well, I guess we had better re-examine our policies then," said one of the Republicans.

"Absolutely," said the preacher.

A policy war between political elites is occurring at the top levels of power in Washington, D.C., and the primary casualties will be poor children who live at the bottom of this society. Republicans and Democrats are locked in a bitter political confrontation in which few are really looking for a way out of the impasse regarding what to do about poverty in America.

The current welfare debate offers a false choice between unsatisfactory alternatives. In order to meet their goals of spending and tax cuts, conservative Republicans have ended up targeting the poorest and most vulnerable citizens to bear the brunt of deficit reduction. At the same time, the Republican Congress proposes to give even more money to the Pentagon than it has asked for, despite the major role 1980s military spending played in creating the current huge budget deficit. A few Republican deficit hawks, including Budget Committee chair John Kasich, have urged the cutting of expensive weapons systems like the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine. But their pleas fall on deaf ears.

The Republicans have also loyally preserved "corporate welfare" to agribusiness and Wall Street, while determinedly cutting resources for poor women and children. Those corporate lobbyists whom Colin Powell recently dubbed the "welfare kings on K Street" have all blessed current budget proposals that cut and cap everything except their own benefits and entitlements. While McDonald's will get more tax dollars to advertise Chicken McNuggets in Europe, single mothers will somehow have to get by with less, and senior citizens on fixed incomes will have to pay more for their medical care.

The wealthiest Americans, however, will have to get by with more. They will be the biggest beneficiaries of the tax cuts the Republicans are proposing. A budget is also a moral document, and the morality of further benefiting the rich while balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, the young, and the old is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view.

However, for their part, the Democrats have failed to offer any real alternatives to the present welfare system. Time and time again they have failed to reform the system when they had a chance to, most recently in President Clinton's presidency. Large and distant bureaucracies have too often created more dependency than opportunity, more control than caring, and more wasteful inefficiency than personal and family success.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have mostly defended systems and institutions that haven't won the war on poverty, but still provide them with a political base. Wedded to old approaches and vested constituencies, the Democrats have long been mere defenders of the status quo. And they too have not been willing to take on the powerful interests behind military expenditures and corporate welfare.

That failure at reform is about to result in a disaster as the Republicans seek simply to dismantle the old while offering nothing new as replacement. Change-fundamental change-is desperately needed in the way that we approach the complex of issues around poverty: the failures of the welfare system itself; the social disintegration of family and community; the corporate downsizing, loss of jobs, and decline in real wages through a changing global economy; and the assaults upon positive personal and social values in the popular culture. These factors combine to devastate the lives of poor people, especially children.

The need to create approaches and strategies that are community-based, locally focused, value-centered, family-building, job-creating, and solution-oriented is urgent. Neither party seems to have any real vision. These solutions cannot just depend on government programs, which the Democrats have preferred, nor can they simply "dump" the problem onto churches and charities as Republican leaders have suggested. The New York Times recently estimated that in order for churches to take up the slack of cut government aid to the poor, each church in America would have to increase its budget by $250,000 per year.

IN CONTRAST TO BOTH liberal and conservative approaches, fresh solutions must involve partnerships among non-profit community organizations (both religious and non-religious), the business sector, private foundations, and government on all levels. New configurations in the "civil society" must create strategies and mobilize the resources (both public and private) to make them work. In many communities around the country, new projects and partnerships with such vision are already under way.

In the midst of the debate that now grips the nation's capital, the voice of prophetic outrage must be lifted up along with a clear moral vision of fresh possibilities. That prophetic voice must not simply defend systems and approaches that have failed to transform poverty and sometimes have further entrenched it. But it must clearly say that the poor, and especially our children, must not be punished for the welfare system's failures. That voice must offer another way, and open up a new moral dimension in the public debate at the national level and in every local community.

On December 7, as the welfare and budget bills were being debated, evangelical pastors, Catholic priests, and inner-city church workers from around the country entered the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol to proclaim a prophetic biblical word and to pray for the poor in the face of their assailants. We offered more than a protest; we gave an invitation. All of us are deeply involved in our local communities to create the new approaches the nation sorely needs. We not only called for an alternative vision, but actually represent it.

We kneeled and prayed for the poor of our neighborhoods who are under attack and called the nation's political leaders to repentance-to seek new solutions together, to find common ground, and to protect the poor-recognizing the Bible's insistence that the best test of a nation's righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.

Together we testified that a fundamentally new approach to the alleviation of poverty in America is critically needed. But we also clearly stated that it is absolutely immoral, from a Christian perspective, to slash and burn systems and safety nets without offering anything to replace them.

After proclaiming the Isaiah text in a strong unison voice, we were arrested in the Rotunda and taken to jail, but the point was made. On December 7, we came to visit the politicians. Now we have invited them to visit us-to come and see our projects around the country that are seeking to offer a different way.

After the budget fight in Washington, the battle will shift to the states and to local communities. Official government reports show that the restructuring of the nation's welfare system could push more than a million more children into poverty. The Children's Defense Fund estimates are even higher. When those changes occur, churches and non-profit organizations can't hunker down for survival while our communities sink further into poverty, despair, and violence. On the contrary, it will be time for new leadership, especially from the religious community. It will be time both to insist that the poor not be abandoned and to create a fresh approach.

That new approach will depend on everyone's involvement. It will call for increased volunteer activity from every sector of the society-both the energy of young people and the expertise of older generations. It will demand that businesses take much more responsibility for the communities in which they work and profit. It will need the strategic and collaborative investment of private foundations on national, regional, and local levels. And it will require the active engagement of government-federal, state, and local-though perhaps in different ways.

Private-public partnerships must shape the strategies that will work for each community and then make sure that the resources are there to accomplish the necessary tasks. Because of their vocation to moral leadership and their presence throughout the country, churches and religious communities could play a catalytic role in developing and convening such new partnerships and strategies. Indeed, they must.

Much is at stake. If the old paradigms and programs simply are dismantled and destroyed, we could devolve into great chaos and even more suffering for those whom Jesus called "the least of these." Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps the Senate's leading expert on welfare policy, recently lamented, "Through 11 Presidents and 31 Congresses, we have tried to help dependent children and never, until now, have we undertaken to do them harm."

Nevertheless, that welfare system is about to change. In too many instances, the weeds of the welfare system have choked out healthy growth toward work, family, and stability. Moynihan and a few other political leaders have repeatedly called for needed changes, to no avail. Now the changes are being accomplished by demolition experts instead of gardeners.

But if another vision and paradigm can emerge in the ruins of the old structures, a fresh set of opportunities could result. The responsibility to offer a new voice and to construct different networks and models of community responsibility belongs to all of us. You can help organize these needed efforts. You can make clear to your local political leaders that they must take responsibility and be part of the solution. You can show that people do care about each other and that the churches will not leave the poor just to fend for themselves.

The Call to Renewal and Sojourners are prepared to help you connect with others in your community. Let us know how we can help.


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"God Hears the Cry of the Poor"
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