Matthew 25 doesn’t say, “As you have done to the middle class you have done to me."
What it records Jesus saying is, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Chances are that will never be the central message of political conventions during election years.
But every four years for the last 40 years (even before we were called Sojourners), our community has done what we can to lift up the issue of poverty during presidential elections. While political party platforms have changed, our commitment to the least of these has not.
So it is with that spirit, this election year, that I am proud to present a new short film called The Line.
Written and directed by Emmy-award winning producer Linda Midgett, it chronicles the very real stories of four real people struggling with real poverty in America today.
You’ll meet a banker in the suburban Midwest who used to earn six-figures a year and now, after the economic collapse, must go to a food bank to feed his three kids; a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana who has watched his livelihood and his culture wash away in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a devastating off-shore oil spill; a blue collar guy in North Carolina who worked hard his whole life but lost his job, became homeless, and started over as a restaurant bus boy; and a single mom in Chicago who battles daily to ensure that her son is safe, healthy, and has the opportunity to go to college.
I’ll be honest … I’m a coward. During the political season I find myself avoiding certain conversations that I do care about. Mind you, I do have opinions. My wife would say I have an opinion on everything. Faith and social issues are extremely important to me, and I have spent a lot of years studying and following the trends and their impact on people I care a lot about. I am especially focused on issues that affect the poor, mentally ill, unemployed, addicted, and homeless. Topics of Medicare, unemployment benefits, the death penalty, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, state and federal budget and deficits, immigration, and foreign policy all matter to me. I do have opinions! (And I vote!)
Yet during the final months of America’s presidential street fight, I tend to lay low. I know that one simple conversation with almost anyone can turn volatile and unleash the beast within them. If educated congressmen, presidential candidates, governors, and even local representatives can be as nasty and polarized as they have publicly shown, there is little reason to honestly discuss an issue, since the potential for alienation and misrepresentation is at an all-time high. No one seems to be listening, having crystallized their presuppositions with a crafty skill of spinning any topic into their agenda. Ironically, our children are watching adult leaders model behavior we wouldn’t let them get away with.
There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than that around the role of government. The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: how big, how small should it be? Some famously have said government should be shrunk so small that it "could be drowned in a bathtub."
But I want to suggest that what size the government should be is the wrong question. A more useful discussion would be about the purposes of government and whether ours is fulfilling them. So let's look at what the Bible says.
The words of Paul in the 13th chapter of Romans are perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government. Paul says those purposes are twofold: to restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior. Civil authority is designed to be "God's servant for your good" (13:4). Today we might say "the common good" is to be the focus and goal of government.
So the purpose of government, according to Paul, is to protect and promote. Protect from the evil and promote the good, and we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes. So to disparage government per se — to see government as the central problem in society — is simply not a biblical position.
Maybe the serpent in the Garden of Eden story actually was a cute little girl in pigtails. Sure would have been more persuasive than some stupid talking snake.
Explaining to kids who have grown up their entire lives with such privilege is almost like trying to translate a foreign language for them. No, not everyone just goes in and grabs whatever they feel like from the fridge or the shelves. They don’t order in when they’re too tired or lazy to cook, and they don’t mark every mundane occurrence in their lives with a celebratory dinner out. It’s normal to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal.
“So what are food stamps anyway?” my 8-year-old son, Mattias, asked as I drove him to his summer camp this morning. “Are they, like, stamps that you eat that taste like different foods?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
My family was less than thrilled when I presented the idea of living on the equivalent of what a family of four would receive on food stamps for a week. Actually, the program is now called “SNAP,” which stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” and involves government-issued vouchers or debit cards, rather than the antiquated stamp method. But the result is the same; we have a lot less to spend on food this week than usual.
“But I don’t want to be poor,” Mattias moaned as I explained the challenge to him.
“We’re not poor,” I said, “but it’s important for us to know what it’s like to struggle to feed our family.”
“Because,” I paused, trying to figure out a way to explain privilege and compassion to a third-grader who was quite content to have all he has, and then some, “Jesus tells us to have a heart for the poor, but how can we really do that if we don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with less?”
“Hmm,” he wrinkled his brow, “I guess we can do it for a few days.”
Editor's Note: The following remarks were given on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1 as part of a call from faith leaders across the religious spectrum urging Congress to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit for low- and moderate-income Americans.
A budget is a moral document. That phrase was coined by the faith community and has become a refrain in the ongoing debates over deficits and budgets. But in this week’s House vote on extending the Bush era tax cuts, we see one more example of the priorities and principles of the broader GOP budget and how they apply to the rich and to the poor. Because of this, we must conclude that the Republican budget is an immoral document—in the way it treats the poor. I certainly don’t believe that all our Republican lawmakers came to Washington to hurt poor people, but it’s time for some of them to challenge the dominant forces in their party and face the consequences of such indefensible choices.
We have a genuine hope for a long term bi-partisan solution and, in particular, a moral non-partisan commitment to protect the poor and vulnerable from being expendable in these fiscal debates. We should also say that Democratic budgets have not been models of fiscal responsibility and social justice, either. But what the House budget is calling for is morally objectionable on religious and biblical grounds—and people of faith from all political stripes should say so. In particular, to roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible, and the faith community has to speak out.
Chris Hedges has a fascinating piece for Salon on the betrayal of the most vulnerable by war:
"We condition the poor and the working class to go to war. We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure. We promise boys they will become men. We hold these promises up against the dead-end jobs of small-town life, the financial dislocations, credit card debt, bad marriages, lack of health insurance, and dread of unemployment. The military is the call of the Sirens, the enticement that has for generations seduced young Americans working in fast food restaurants or behind the counters of Walmarts to fight and die for war profiteers and elites.
The poor embrace the military because every other cul-de-sac in their lives breaks their spirit and their dignity. Pick up Erich Maria Remarque’sAll Quiet on the Western Front or James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. Read Henry IV. Turn to the Iliad. The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do."
Read the full article here
In the name of protecting the “middle class” some politicians have been pressing for extensions of the Bush Tax Cuts for all earnings up to $1 million. They are calling folks in the top 1 percent “middle class.” This week, President Obama announced that he would extend the Bush era tax cuts for all earnings up to $250,000, but not beyond this threshold. Still hard to swallow the idea of those being “middle class” tax breaks but it’s an improvement from calling millionaires “middle class.”
While Jesus loves everybody, there is no Christian tradition of teaching God’s “preferential option for the middle class.” For Christians, it’s still about the poorest and most vulnerable, and here is why these tax issues matter to those Jesus called “the least of these.”
Sister Kathy Long turned toward my 13-year-old daughter and asked one question: “What will you tell your friends about spending this month in Mexico?”
In a public park in Cuernavaca, Mexico, we sat on a concrete bench next to six women who chatted and stitched embroidery patterns with brightly colored thread.
I glanced toward the sewing group, realizing that Maya would have rolled her eyes if I had asked her that same question. An intrusive query from a mother seemed compelling coming from a Catholic nun who worked in Mexico, promoted justice amid poverty, and even spent three months in jail for protesting the military training of Latin American leaders in the U.S.
“I will tell them that rich people and poor people are all people in the end,” Maya responded. “If you have three cars and two houses, you are a person just like someone whose house is made of cardboard or metal.”
A growing number of cities across the United States are making it harder to be homeless.
Philadelphia recently banned outdoor feeding of people in city parks. Denver has begun enforcing a ban on eating and sleeping on property without permission. And this month, lawmakers in Ashland, Ore., will consider strengthening the town's ban on camping and making noise in public.
And the list goes on: Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Oklahoma City and more than 50 other cities have previously adopted some kind of anti-camping or anti-food-sharing laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“Middle class” is the chemical weapon of political warfare. We know applying the “middle class” label broadly works and can help us win in the short term. But those victories come at a cost to who we are … and tend to result in long-term (and not insignificant) casualties for those we are supposedly fighting to defend.
Republicans are the Party of the Rich. Democrats now fashion themselves the Party of the “Middle Class.” Can anyone think of a group left with no champion? Here’s a hint: 20 percent of Americans with a full-time job are getting paid so little that--even with both parents working full time—their family of four is still living in poverty. But when’s the last time you heard a Democratic politician even mention the word “poor?"
Those who wish the see the wall of separation between church and state burned down have a rather colorful – if not exactly truthful – spokesperson on their side these days. Evangelical preacher, founder of “WallBuilders Live” and perennial headline grabber David Barton is known for his “out there” claims, but his most recent is a keeper.
Barton is fairly well known for his argument that the notion of separation of church and state is a myth. He, like many fellow conservative Christians, believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that our founding father intended for this to be a country governed by Christian values, if not specifically Christian leaders.
This, by itself, is not particularly outrageous, at least in the sense that his views are not unique to him. But one of the foundational claims he makes to support his advocacy for Christian nation status is his claim that the Constitution of the United States quotes directly from the Bible.
CBS reported yesterday:
Illinois hospitals would be required to provide free surgeries and other inpatient care to many uninsured poor people under a bill the Legislature passed Tuesday, a mandate already on the books in eight other states.
This weekend, amid key discussions on the future of Afghanistan and media attention on the strained relationship between the United States and Pakistan, members of the Group of Eight (G8) announced its commitment to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition which will seek to “lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through inclusive and sustained agricultural growth.”
In a speech given at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security last Friday (May 18), President Barack Obama laid out his vision for what the Alliance could achieve, in co-operation with the private and non-profit sectors, in terms of seeing global hunger eradicated in the next decade.
And we are not going to let him forget this moral duty.
A note from the poet: Two years ago, our church opened its doors and began serving meals to our community. The immense and overwhelming feelings I felt scared me and so I penned them in this poem. Working with the poor among us has been eye-opening and has really pushed me to re-evaluate my thinking and life, for which I am immensely grateful.
~ The Rev. Dr. Martha FrizLanger
That whole camel through the eye of the needle thing: What is that about?
And, yes, the eye of the needle means exactly what you’re thinking. Not some gate in Jerusalem. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle that you used to stitch that Noah’s Ark for your child’s bedroom — than for a rich guy to get to heaven.
Let. That. Sink. In.
Unless some freakishly unexplainable phenomenon occurs where camels all of the sudden start popping out of needles (imagine the Discovery Channel documentary on that one), I have to conclude that no rich person will be in heaven.
Except that’s not the end of the story…
I’d like to think I’m pretty consistent in my advocacy for the poor. I have worked with numerous poverty-related nonprofits over the years, preached about it and worked on it in church, written about it, and so on. But in general, all of that remains at a large “macro” level. It is a nameless, faceless group known broadly as “the poor,” or worse, it simply becomes an issue.
Sometimes making it more real than that is emotionally overwhelming, if not paralyzing. When I worked in Fort Worth at an AIDS housing facility, seeing the multiple challenges first-hand that some of our residents faced was heartbreaking. In some cases it seemed they had little, if anything, on which to hang a shred of hope. At the Pueblo nonprofit I work with now, we have to turn away more than one thousand people a month when we run out of emergency assistance.
Scrooge calls Christmas a “humbug.”
When his nephew tries to convince him otherwise, Scrooge responds:
“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
The nephew retorts:
“What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
The nephew concludes with this famous line about the holiday:
“Therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say God bless it!”
I noticed this Christmas season, for the first time, that not only were Mary and Joseph forced to migrate under Rome’s census; not only was the Incarnate God born into a humiliating space — but, as they fled to Egypt, they never registered in Bethlehem with the census. A dream, an angel, told the migrant father to gather his family and run from the authorities. Unaccounted for in the empire, baby Jesus’ first movement in this world was a government-evading trek through the desert by night.
I think about this as, right now, my friend Estuardo is probably crouching in the dark somewhere in the desert along the Mexican border. At the same time my wife and I hang electric Christmas lights on our tree, get out our nativity sets, and read familiar illustrated books about the stars in the sky above the shepherds. Estuardo has told me, from previous voyages across the border by night, how clear the stars are when hiding from the border patrol lights.
Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?; Perry's Appeal To Evangelicals Catches Flak Over Ad; Obama: 'It Doesn't Really Matter' Who GOP Nominates; Heating Assistance Cut For Poor In Northeast; Alabama Governor Admits Immigration Law Must Be Retooled; Iowa Evangelicals Play Kingmakers In Crucial Republican Presidential Caucus; Why Conservatives Can’t Fix Poverty.