The human condition is a precarious one; we cannot separate ourselves from others who are suffering. All of us are vulnerable, and in these particularly vulnerable times, we have to be counted upon to do more to alleviate suffering in the world.
But with all the chatter about religion these days, too often the faith-based imperative--to help those in need--has been missing from the conversation. That includes, unfortunately, some discussions on Capitol Hill around funding for development assistance. As a country founded on religious freedom and equality, we must remember what the faiths actually call on us to do for people in need.
Priests, imams, reverends and rabbis all recognize the significance of the individual and our obligation to him or her.
The ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah, states: "A single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish, scripture imputes it to him as if he had caused a whole world to perish, and if any man saves alive a single soul, scripture imputes it to him as if he had saved alive a whole world..." Similarly in the Qu'ran, "the destruction of one innocent life is like the destruction of the whole of humanity and the saving of one life is like the saving of the whole of humanity." (Al-Ma'idah "the Tablespread" 5:32). Matthew 25 famously states, "As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me."
Equality has special meaning in the Abrahamic faiths. Equality does not refer solely to the spiritual equality of every human being, nor primarily to those of equal rank, or those of the same class, or who have equal possessions. And it is more than justice in the sense of rectification of wrong.
Equality is something positive and it refers to those who are weaker than oneself i.e. the poor, the stranger, the widow, orphan and the slave. Equality means raising those who are vulnerable, disadvantaged, to the status of those who are secure. Thus the Biblical legislation mandates that there be one law for the home born and the stranger. (Exodus 12:49)
These laws and teachings spell out the rights of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger, who share a common bond. All of them lack a protector that can stand up for them. They do not have a next of kin to intercede for them and therefore the law intervenes as the next of kin. And the guarantee is God.
Amos takes it further. He is the first prophet to claim that social injustice will bring about not individual punishment, but national ruination. This is a revolutionary idea: that the value and destiny of the nation is dependent upon how it treats its most vulnerable members. No longer was it enough to engage in sacrifice to be right with God; and no longer was punishment to be meted out only to the individual. Amos is the first of a line of prophets who view the exploitation of the poor and destitute as a crime equivalent to idolatry. A crime against God.
Isaiah chapter 58 gets to the heart of it all: "When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh." This is the new insight that true monotheism brings about: the poor man is your own flesh.
Thus it is only through justice and righteousness that God is properly served. Isaiah 5:16 affirms that God is "sanctified through righteousness" and Leviticus 19 clearly states that the holy and the ethical are inseparable. The Koran is clear: "O you who believe, stand up firmly for justice as witnesses to Almighty God" (al-Nisa "The Women" 4:135) and Jesus gives the "commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12)
So how can we possibly serve God when 4500 of our world's children die every single day from the lack of clean water; when our girls are relegated to the cycle of poverty because they are denied education; when the lack of sanitation contributes to 50 percent of all child malnutrition; when life-saving drugs are denied our impoverished fellow world citizens. We are not embodying the historic goal represented by Messianism and its corresponding idea that humanity as an ideal to be achieved: to embody God's attributes of compassion graciousness, patience, steadfast love and truth. (Exodus 34:6)
To the members of Congress, we know you understand that there remains a humanity to be achieved and the US government and the American people play a critical global role in achieving that humanity. Reducing suffering and improving lives in the world's poorest communities has represented, since WWII, the finest facet of American foreign policy and a true measure of American public compassion.
Our development assistance programs around the world also help others understand the humanitarian and compassionate sides of the US government and American people. It is important to remember that US foreign aid is only 1 percent of the federal budget but that 1 percent cost-effectively helps millions around the world, including us. Every US dollar invested in safe drinking water and sanitation, for example, sees a return of $8 in increased productivity--due in part to lower rates of disease and a healthier workforce. Small economic investments like these exponentially benefit today's closely linked global economy.
The single most important argument for aiding others in greater need than ourselves is the religious argument. And the task is to legislate it so that it can become a reality not just in word but in deed.
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