Threats of a government shutdown are behind us, but the national budget debate continues. As legislators fight over what and how much and where to cut, Christian activists are advocating to preserve the lives, dignity and human rights of the poor.
The people of faith are pointing to a third way between liberal and conservative factions in Washington: deficit reduction based on fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice while maintaining a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our country and around the world.
Jesus was always concerned with the least of these, so we should be too (Matthew 25:31-46). This is why many U.S. Christians believe any budget, personal or public, is a moral document that should reflect priorities of justice and compassion.
When legislators choose other priorities, we are called to confront and challenge them to act justly. The proposed national budgets are antithetical to Jesus' teachings on protecting the poor. "The Bible says that God has a special concern for the poor," Ron Sider, a Mennonite who's president of Evangelicals for Social Action, recently told Religion News Service.
On March 3, Sider's organization and The Center for Public Justice released A Call for Intergenerational Justice. Their proposal says, "The biblical call to stewardship demands that we pass on an economic order in which our children and their children can flourish."
Meanwhile, a group of activists fasted for four weeks during Lent. Ambassador Tony Hall led this 36,000-member Hunger Fast, which urged members of Congress not to cut programs for hungry and poor people as they work to reduce the deficit. Participants included 28 legislators, David Beckmann of Bread for the World, Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive Worldwide and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
The group recently strengthened its voice. More than 50 Christian leaders released a statement April 27, in which they form "a circle of protection" around programs for poor people. The statement says government programs should be made more effective and cites eight principles for ethical decision-making regarding moral budgets.
Old Testament writers repeatedly said a nation's righteousness and justice hinges on caring for the poor. The Hebrew prophets directed many of their messages to people with power. These prophets, Wallis said recently, "demanded justice for poor and oppressed people and called politicians to account for why people were in need in the first place."
Though no government can bring God's reign to Earth, it can maintain order and provide for the common good. The 1995 Mennonite Church USA Confession of Faith says, "Governing authorities of the world have been instituted by God for maintaining order in societies" and as "servants of God are called to act justly . . ."
Churches can't uphold the common good alone. According to Feeding America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of current funding for hunger programs comes from the federal government; only 6 percent comes from charities and private donations.
"Those who believe the government should not be involved in helping poor people have a spiritual obligation to restructure the missions budgets of their churches and re-evaluate their own giving priorities if they want their views to be taken seriously," Hall wrote April 15 in a blog at hungerfast.org.
Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, noted that one in seven Americans are living in poverty and more than a billion people worldwide are barely surviving. "This is not the time to cut vital programs for hungry and poor people in an attempt to cut the deficit, even though it must be reduced," he said.
As Christians, let's protect the poor and increase, not decrease, our efforts to fight poverty in the U.S. and worldwide.