U2's lead singer and anti-poverty crusader Bono headlined the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, a couple of days ago. Better than any political or religious leader has done lately, it took a rock star to lay out what Christianity -- indeed, all the world's major religions -- demand from those who lead our nation: a real commitment to the least among us. Specifically, Bono called for an additional one percent of the federal budget be devoted to fighting global AIDS and extreme poverty.
President Bush sat right there in front. So did ousted Republican House leader Roy Blunt, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and dozens of others in our national leadership. I wonder, in today's political environment, could they hear what Bono said?
Karl Rove and the mainstream media have successfully portrayed religion and values as wholly-owned properties of the right wing. Many in the Democratic Party and on the American left have been complicit by giving up any claim to a values agenda. Religion has become a political tool to be used or avoided depending on raw calculations.
Bono offered something different by calling for a non-partisan agenda that is both God-inspired AND driven by charity, justice, and equality.
First, Bono challenged the hijacking of God, especially by those who profess to be its keepers. "[R]religion often gets in the way of God," he said. He rejected what some religious people - "God's second-hand car salesmen on the cable TV channels" - have done in His name.
Bono's fundamental message, however, was this:
"[W]hatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor."
He used the words of the Bible itself, noting that poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times.
"That's a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor. 'As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.' (Matthew 25:40).
Bono makes a last point that really socks it to conventional thinking in the US and the West overall. "Finally," he said, "it's not about charity after all, is it? It's about justice." We are good at charity, he offered, but we are lousy at justice.
Africa is Bono's marking point. Despite our current level of giving, he noted, "6,500 Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. "This is not about charity, this about Justice and Equality."
In a way that no politician can, but that poets always do, Bono opined, "It's annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren't they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain." Extraordinary.
Opportunity, fairness, compassion, charity, and forgiveness are Jesus' core teachings. I am a Democrat because of these lessons and because of my Christianity, not despite it. Yet I continually hear from many conservative religious leaders that I cannot be a Democrat and a believer. No. Jesus spent his time with children, prostitutes, the destitute, and the sick. He did not go to the country club and promises his rich friends a tax cut while advocating war.
It took an Irish rock star to remind America's most powerful political leaders of the highest calling of religion.
Thank God (and Yahweh and Allah) for Bono.
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