We’ve created a Christmas monster: a grotesque assemblage of pagan, Christian and capitalist symbolism into something that resembles something we’re both attracted to and repulsed by at the same time. We’re fueled by an admixture of both guilt and greed, while the domestic economy pins its annual hopes on our propensity for spending far more than we have or want to spend.
All in the name of baby Jesus.
It seems that we have no means of escaping the vortex of materialism, partly because whoever is the first not to buy gifts is the cheap jerk who throws the whole transactional nature of gift-giving out of whack. But one Christmas, a few years back, my wife, Amy, and I had finally reached our limit. We were in the midst of our Financial Peace budget slim-down and Christmas spending was an obvious target.
In the short three months that I have been at Sojourners as the director of individual giving, I’ve been humbled and inspired by the countless social justice activists who make up our community. In these three months, I have witnessed activism for immigration reform, a vigil for those most affected by congressional dysfunction, organizing for climate change, a prophetic stand for racial justice, the launching of a new campaign to empower women and girls, and much more.
Gov. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) did a shocking thing recently. He broke with his political allies and decided to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor people in his state through the Affordable Care Act. Then he called a spade a spade, saying: “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor.”
Kasich’s statement came just two days ago. And today, 47 million low-income Americans will see their food stamps benefits decrease as stimulus funding ends. In light of this newly named “war on the poor,” I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and the man’s question to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” What an intriguing question.
Of course one of the most incredible things about this story is that Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question. Rather, he tells a story about a man beaten by robbers on a dangerous road. He was stripped naked left lying there, clinging to life. Both a priest and Levite pass him by, but a Samaritan went out of his way, broke his usual routine, used up his own gas (or at least his donkey’s energy) to bring the man to an inn. And he took care of him overnight at the inn, offering the innkeeper what would today be about $330.
And then Jesus flips the script! The lawyer asked who exactly is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? And conversely who can I cross off my need-to-love list?
Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Jesus returns his question with a question: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Nowadays we hardly have a concept of what it means to be a neighbor anymore.
The common good is not only about politics. The common good is about life and how we live it. It is ultimately about how we are all connected. It is about how our love or lack of love affects our families, our neighbors, our communities, our cities, our nation, and our world.
The common good is about personal brokenness. Have we taken the time to let Jesus come in and heal the wounds that distort the image of God within of us — wounds that drive daughters and sons, mothers and fathers to self-destruction? Have we taken the time to let the Great Physician heal the personal wounds that break families and friendships, slicing the central fabric of society? We are all connected.
While immigration and gun violence issues are capturing most of the week's headlines, the budget battles have re-emerged in Washington, D.C. Last month House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) released competing budget proposals. And today, President Barack Obama released his own plan, which aims to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases.
As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas note:
Today’s budget is the White House’s effort to reach the bedrock of the fiscal debate. Half of its purpose is showing what they’re willing to do. They want a budget compromise, and this budget proves it. There are now liberals protesting on the White House lawn. But the other half is revealing what the GOP is — or, more to the point, isn’t — willing to do. Republicans don’t want a budget compromise, and this budget is likely to prove that, too.
As the White House sees it, there are two possible outcomes to this budget. One is that it actually leads to a grand bargain, either now or in a couple of months. Another is that it proves to the press and the public that Republican intransigence is what’s standing in the way of a grand bargain.
The effects of the federal funding sequester are beginning to hit, and it’s not a pretty picture. Amanda Terkel and Sam Stein at Huffington Post write that while the damage is being downplayed, it is very real and painful.
“Organizations and companies have begun laying off workers, while many more have decided not to staff vacant positions. Schools on military bases are contemplating four-day weekly schedules. Food pantries have closed, as have centers that provide health services. Farmers have been forced to go without milk production information, causing alarm in the dairy industry and the potential of higher milk prices. Workers at missile-testing fields are facing job losses. Federal courts have closed on Fridays. Public Broadcasting transmitters have been shut down.”
They go on to list 100 specific stories from the past week of cuts that are taking place across the country. It’s a broad swath effecting many thousands of people. And the longer it goes on, the worse it will become.
This week a large number of Americans are celebrating Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. Churches will be packed with both the regulars as well as the once- or twice-a-year worshippers for the "Super Bowl of Sundays" to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and sin and his glorious resurrection.
In the midst of an exasperating and polarized political debate around the U.S. budget, our national and political leaders can learn valuable lessons from Holy Week. Whatever your faith background may be, we could all benefit from a greater commitment to the humility, shared sacrifice, and hope that Holy Week embodies. An extra dose of humility, sacrifice, and, ultimately, hope represent the balm that could bridge many of our ideological differences and resolve the current political impasse around the budget that has paralyzed our political system and divided the nation.
During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer.
But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)
In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)
In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so.
“I believe the sequester is a pittance.”
Those were conservative Sen. Rand Paul’s words in an opinion piece this week about the sequester – severe and arbitrary cuts to the federal budget that Congress did nothing to stop. We could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn’t seen the numbers:
- The nutrition program for women with children — WIC — will have to turn away 600,000 to 775,000 women, many of whom have young children.
- The 3.8 million currently unemployed workers will have their support cut by 11 percent.
- 100,000 low-income families will lose their housing vouchers.
- 125,000 individuals and families are now at risk of homelessness.
That doesn’t sound like a “pittance” to me.
The sequester battle is a good but tragic example of how the idea of the common good is failing in American politics. By contrast, the growing bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform is an alternative example of how a moral issue can rise about our ideologically driven politics.
The faith community has stepped into both issues with a call for political leaders to serve the common good. On immigration, political leaders are listening to the faith leaders; on the debates about our nation’s fiscal soul, political leaders need to listen better.
New reports this afternoon are that House Republicans have agreed to vote next week on extending the debt ceiling for about three months, giving time for passage of a budget. The agreement would not require immediate spending cuts, a retreat from the previous GOP position. Democrats so far have responded cautiously to the plan for a short-term increase.
According to the Washington Post:
“House Republicans will scale back their ambitions in an upcoming fight over the nation’s borrowing limit, saying Friday that they will try to pass a bill next week to raise the debt ceiling for three months. But they indicated that the Senate must pass a budget before the lawmakers would agree to a longer-term increase in the limit.
“Under a bill to be considered next week, members will propose raising the debt ceiling through mid-April -- long enough, they say, to give both chambers time to pass a budget. Under the measure, if either chamber fails to adopt a budget by April 15, Congress would not be paid.”
For the past two years, Sojourners has been in the middle of every budget battle speaking out on behalf of poor and struggling families and individuals. With your help and support, we made news across the country by asking, “What Would Jesus Cut?” More than 30,000 people joined Jim Wallis in a fast for a moral budget. We’ve run print, radio, and TV ads.
But, this work isn’t over. We need to prepare now.
That’s why Sojourners has teamed up with PICO, one of the nation’s largest community organizing networks, to create and distribute “The Choices We Face: A Guide for Faith Leaders to the Federal Budget and Tax Debate.”
We must be very careful about bringing theological judgments to political ones. Most policy decisions are prudential judgments — compromises between two political parties, neither of which represents the kingdom of God. But sometimes, political ideologies come to a place where they so clearly threaten the well-being of so many and the very foundations of the common good that they must be challenged by theology. This is a moment like that.
Speaker John Boehner’s tax bill that failed, and spending bill that passed in the House yesterday both fail the basic test of protecting the poor and vulnerable. While it does not look like even the spending bill has much of a future, what it portends for the future of the debate is grim.
The discussion we are having about “the fiscal cliff” is really a debate about our fiscal soul. What kind of nation do we want to be? We do need a path to fiscal sustainability, but will it include all of us — especially the most vulnerable? It’s a foundational moral choice for the country, and one with dramatic domestic and deadly global implications. It is the most important principle for the faith community in this debate.
I had a recent conversation with an influential senator on these fiscal issues. I said to him, “You and I know the dozen or so senators, from both sides of the aisle, who could sit at your conference table here and find a path to fiscal sustainability, right?”
“Yes,” he said, “we could likely name the senators who would be able to do that.” I added, “And they could protect the principle and the policies that defend the poor and vulnerable, couldn’t they?”
“Yes,” he said, “We could do that too.” “But,” I asked, “Wouldn’t then all the special interests come into this room to each protect their own expenditures; and the end result would be poor people being compromised, right?”
The senator looked us in the eyes and said, “That is exactly what will likely happen.”
It will happen unless we have bipartisan agreement, at least by some on both political sides, to protect the poor and vulnerable in these fiscal decisions — over the next several weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year, and then for the longer process ahead in 2013.
But for that to be viable, the arithmetic must work.
There is some good stuff on the God’s Politics blog this week encouraging Christians to drop their concern about the “war on Christmas.” It’s a good idea. However, as we’re getting over our huff about “Happy Holidays,” we’d like to shift your attention to the real war on Christmas: the priorities of Washington politicians that are fundamentally at odds with the hope, love, joy, and peace celebrated by Christians during the Advent season.
As political leaders engage in negotiations to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” we need them to preserve programs that reduce poverty and keep our families healthy. Unfortunately, House Speaker John Boehner and others in Congress are pushing to cut programs for the poor and vulnerable, while protecting tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.