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Will Politicians Listen to Pastors?

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The way you think and feel about the world is shaped by what you see when you get out of bed in the morning. I remember hearing this from civil rights activists. It simply means that perspective is hugely determined by place, context, and vantage point. This is profoundly true for me and most of the people I've ever met. You see the world from the place you live.

Part of the problem in the current budget impasse in Washington, D.C. is the perspectives of the politicians in the debate. Every morning they see and hear each other; the gladiator ring of national politics; the Washington media; their donors; their ideological base; and their latest poll ratings. Sure enough, the perspective that dominates politicians of both parties on the budget is who's up and who's down; whose power is growing or diminishing; whose constituents and donors are better organized and get their interests in front of the lawmakers; what the pollsters say; and how the end result of the debate will impact electoral gains. This perspective also dominates the news coverage.

So we at Sojourners thought there needed to be another perspective in this debate, and that the nation needed other voices. We need to hear from people who see and hear something different from politicians when they get up in the morning -- real people who are struggling, some of whom are poor, families, children, and the elderly, and maybe people whose job forces them to have to read the Bible.

I'm talking about local pastors. Every day, pastors relate with the people in their congregations and communities. Pastors can't avoid the real world, which is so easy to do in Washington, D.C.

We wondered, what do pastors think about the budget debate? We decided to go to them and ask them to speak out, and now they have. "An Open Letter to Congress and the President" was initiated by a group of pastors two weeks ago and sent out to their colleagues. Their letter talked about the real people who will be most impacted by this debate, and that any budget deal should be evaluated by how it affects the poorest and most vulnerable. God requires this of us, they asserted. We decided to try for 1,000 signatures from local pastors -- in July, when so many people are away, when things are shutting down for the summer, when it's hardest to get a response on anything. It was an act of faith. So far, in two weeks, 4,700 pastors have responded and made their voices clear. A full page ad titled, "Listen to Your Pastors" appeared in Politico yesterday. A copy of the ad with a full list of signers is here. You can also listen to a press call I moderated on Wednesday featuring Rev. Rich Nathan, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Rev. Derrick Harkins.

"The recession has cost hundreds of our church members' jobs and homes," said Rev. Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus in Columbus, Ohio. "But I am concerned about something that has even more devastating consequences for our nation: the adoption of a philosophy that says, 'I got mine! You're on your own!' Jesus had an infinitely wiser philosophy for building a flourishing society: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' This is as meaningful in today's budget debates as it was two thousand years ago in ancient Israel."

Growing numbers of Christians are condemning the immorality of extending tax breaks and benefits for the wealthy, while programs that help the poor and vulnerable meet their most basic needs are being cut. The clergy signers of the letter told political leaders, "We work, pray, and do whatever we can to remain faithful to the responsibility of every Christian to help the poor. Still, we can't meet the crushing needs by ourselves." They reminded Congress that government is a critical and necessary partner in serving the common good.

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, was also a recipient of a program that could be cut. "As a member of the clergy and a mother of two children with strong minds and bodies -- which benefited for three years from WIC [the Women, Infants, and Children program] -- I stand with all Christians in America who believe the cries of the poor and the cries of the children are not only the very voice of Christ, but are indeed the sound of our future waiting for response," Rev. Bolz-Weber said. "How shall we answer?"

In their letter, the clergy rejected the false choice between moral and fiscal responsibility, and reminded political leaders of the need to get our country's finances in order without making the poor bear the burden of deficit reduction. "This is not about some nameless, faceless 'other.' The choices politicians make about the budget will harm or help our neighbors," said Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "We want to serve those who don't have lobbyists on K Street. Our budget is a moral document, and it is either going to reflect the best of who we are, or the worst."

Christian opposition to budgets cuts that harm low-income people continues to grow. In May, more than 50 of America's most prominent Christian leaders formed a "Circle of Protection" coalition that laid out principles and values for a moral budget. Thousands of people of faith have since joined this campaign.

Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor, and it is a moral imperative that people of faith and conscience fight on the side of the most vulnerable. Pastors have spoken up. Will the lawmakers listen to their pastors? This may be the only hope we have as we grimace in listening to reports of their budget debates. Hoping the politicians listen to their pastors is also an act of faith in July. But you never know.

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Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.