The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)
On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.
What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”
2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.
The question of “What Would Jesus Cut” raised in new ads for John Boehner’s, Harry Reid’s, and Mitch McConnell’s home states is fundamentally wrongheaded. It reverses the proper approach of religious leaders to politics and threatens to mislead their flocks.
The PowerBlog has already addressed the Left’s inclination toward class warfare rhetoric during the debt ceiling debate. Much to our surprise, President Obama didn’t seem to have read that post in time to include its insights in Monday night’s speech. Instead, we heard the same disheartening lines about corporate jets and big oil: the president doubled-down on his jealousy-inducement strategy and continued to ignore economic reality.
The country’s religious leaders who have begun to parrot this class warfare language are failing an even greater responsibility than the President’s. It is good that they enter into the debate, but as we explained last week with reference to Archbishop Charles Chaput, religion must always guide political engagement, not the other way around. Evangelization is the necessary and proper motivation of political speech by a religious leader. To reverse this engagement—to turn to religion secondarily, as a means to solving political ends—is to court error.
Aristotle writes his Nicomachean Ethics first, and then his Politics, for precisely this reason. Ethical inquiry (and metaphysical before it) must precede and direct political inquiry. To reverse that order is essentially to justify means by ends.
Father Sirico addressed the WWJC question in April, during Wisconsin’s showdown with its public sector unions. On the Paul Edwards Program he explained the invalidity of Sojourner’s WWJC approach:
I have a very difficult time taking a question like that seriously. It politicizes the gospel: it reduces the gospel—the mission of Jesus Christ—to a question of budget priorities…. It really attenuates the whole thrust of what the gospel is.
The very name the group behind the ads has chosen for itself, the Circle of Protection, is reflective of their misunderstanding. Rather than venturing into the political realm driven by an evangelical spirit, they circle the wagons around a particular policy and use Christianity as a shield.
None of this is to say that the practical solutions advanced by the Circle of Protection are necessarily wrong—only that if the group is right, it has stumbled upon the best policies without the enlightenment of Christianity that it claims.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was named the next archbishop of Philadelphia on Tuesday, and mainstream coverage of the story immediately turned to sex abuse scandals. Which makes a lot of sense because, you know, that has dominated his tenure in Denver. As John Allen pointed out, that’s not the case at all, but George Weigel reminds us not to expect anything else.
What Archbishop Chaput is justly notable for is his Christian contribution to public debate. In his books, including the influential best-seller Render Unto Caesar, his writings in periodicals, and even his testimony before Congress, the Archbishop has been a model of evangelization of the secular world. He sees the Christian vocation to preach the Gospel as inseparable from an engagement in the public square. As he told John Allen, evangelization “is about trying to see the best of the world around us and to show how the Gospel makes it better and richer, and how the Gospel at the same time corrects it and purifies it. There’s no way the Gospel can embrace and purify the world unless it knows the world.”
Now Archbishop Chaput has been considerably more engaged in public life than many bishops, but he insists that an engagement driven by the Gospel cannot be a passive one, that a cleric is “unavoidably a leader, not a facilitator or coordinator of dialogue. A priest can’t just be a man of dialogue and consensus, because at some point he also has to lead.”
The Archbishop is a model for other Christian leaders whose congregations look to them for guidance when religion and public policy intersect. He combines Christian charity with absolute fidelity to Christian moral precepts and proper circumspection. His position on Health Care exemplifies this attitude:
Health care, of course, is one of the things the church has done in imitation of Jesus Christ, who came to heal the sick and to drive out evil in the world. It’s very important for us to be involved, but in a way that Jesus is involved, and not to do anything at all that would contravene the teachings of the Gospel.
As St.Paul said, “We may never do evil that good may come about” (Romans 3:8). Chaput is one of those bishops who understands that while Christians may have prudential disagreements about how to realize a good end, there are certain accommodations that a Christian may never make. The distinction is missed by many Christians and non-Christians.
Archbishop Chaput’s approach to public discourse may best be summed up by his answer to Allen’s Benedict-or-John Paul question at the end of their interview: “I hope that I have the evangelical energy of John Paul II, and the clarity of preaching of Benedict XVI.” That is quite an aspiration, but it is one which all Christians, and especially clergy, ought to share.
Easter is fast approaching, and in light of this revered day, we take a look at Easter messages the Acton Institute has published in the past.
A day celebrated by all Christians, Easter can mean many different things for people. The article, “An Easter Message for Business” explores what it means for entrepreneurs and business men and women. In the article we find that business is a calling and business men and women are called to utilize their Christian principles by applying them to in their every day lives on the job:
As the ability to work and function in the market system is a gift from God, it must be carried out according to moral precepts. Thus, a moral code must be present and alive in everyday business life. Every transaction, trade, or exchange must have at its core values based on natural law. In the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the description of Pope Pius XII’s teaching on social doctrine emphasize this point: “He insisted on the notion of natural law as the soul of the system to be established on both the national and the international levels”(53–54). How can the businessman know whether his actions are based on natural law? “Society, its structures and development must be oriented towards the progress of the human person” (56).
One might object that business cannot always take into consideration every person. How can a business function and make a profit while trying to maintain the dignity of all? In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II provided a response: “A business’s objective must be met in economic terms and according to economic criteria, but the authentic values that bring about the concrete development of the person and society must not be neglected.”
The business cannot be responsible for every person; rather its responsibility is towards its employees and contacts. Again, John Paul II admits, “The social doctrine of the Church recognizes the proper role of profit as the first indicator that a business is functioning well: when a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed.” Prosperity and human flourishing need not be opposed, so long as corporate productivity and human dignity are brought into concord. The Church reminds business, “The legitimate pursuit of profit should be in harmony with the irrenounceable protection of the dignity of the people who work at different levels in the same company” (Compendium, n. 340).
On Easter we are reminded the powerful meaning of Christ conquering death. Ray Nothstine explains this influential message in “Easter: The Resurrection & the Life” which can resonate with all Christians:
Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.
The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.
Another important message found in Easter is the message of hope. Hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus, and as Ray Nothstine articulates in, “What the Resurrection Means to Me” just when we find ourselves full of despair, we are reminded to look to the resurrection of Christ and are reminded that God is always with us:
Often in the burdens that afflict our inner most being we can only find meaning in the resurrection. The trials, despair, and pain of this life crushes us too much. But when we spend our time dwelling on the risen Lord, our despair turns to hope. We know that he will not abandon us or forsake those who love and worship him, especially beyond the grave. The resurrection is a cause for endless celebration. It is the seal that we will fully dwell in the everlasting with the Triune God who created us for relationship with him for his glory.
As Jesus conducted his public ministry, he drew considerable crowds. Within the throngs were, of course, the peasants of the neighborhood, along with longer-term disciples. There were many who wished to see miracles, many who wished to hear his sayings of peace, love, hope and promise. There were those who wanted reinforcement of the Law and those who wished to see some of the Law abandoned. And within all these groups were many who were troubled by personal doubt.
Jesus spoke with these people, engaging them, answering their questions, asking them questions, all the while proclaiming the authority and the efficacy of the Law. He said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish – but to complete them.” He then goes on – he’s trying to make sure his listeners understand: “In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.” (Matthew 5:17-18 – NJB)
Some of Jesus’ most engaging images come from these conversations. Rich and poor, titled and powerless, legalists and apostates, disciples and strangers all had encounters with Jesus that fleshed out for them his view of the Law. However, our lack of knowledge regarding the economic, political and cultural environment in which Jesus lived and preached sometimes hampers our understanding of his message.
One of the more famous of these encounters was with the rich young man. This story is found, in almost identical versions, at Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. He approached Jesus and asked what was necessary to be saved. “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied that the young man should keep the commandments. “I have kept all these,” stated the rich young man, “What more do I need to do?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me.” This was too much for the young man. Scripture says that he “went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”
This story seems too hard for most of us. What is fundamentally wrong with being rich? Preachers try to make sense of this passage by assuming that the rich young man was too materialistic, and that the story is a warning to us about that failing. That much may be true, however, that interpretation is about the young man’s reaction, not about Jesus’ words. Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Why? (more…)
Ray’s post pointed to something that’s been bugging me about Jim Wallis’ “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. As with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign (“Transportation is a moral issue.” What isn’t these days?), Wallis’ campaign assumes the moral high ground by appropriating the Holy Name of Jesus Christ to advance his highly politicized, partisan advocacy. Jesus becomes an advertising slogan. And what is implicit here is that those who oppose Wallis are somehow at odds with the Gospel of Christ; those who agree with him are on Christ’s side and especially as it concerns “the least of these.”
But watch the video above and listen to the language of this MSNBC program host. What Wallis and his organization have done is give occasion for the use of Christ’s name for the most partisan, mocking and disrespectful purposes. Wallis should be ashamed of himself, but instead he lets this all pass so he can right away get to his simplistic talking points about “the budget as a moral document.” He arrogantly does this as the voice for the “faith community.”
Did I say simplistic? I should have added “dishonest” to my description of what Wallis is doing.
No serious person would take Wallis’ sound bites or the Sojourners campaign as a real help to understanding our nation’s grave budget and debt problems. In that respect, what Wallis is doing is aggravating a problem that has cried out for honest, bipartisan cooperation for many years. He makes inflammatory assertions about cuts to programs for nutrition, malarial bed nets, and the like, and generally raises false alarms about budget cutters abandoning “the most vulnerable.” Really? If this were true, it would cast those Christians on the other side of Wallis — those who honestly believe we need to do something serious about the budget and mounting debt — as haters of the poor. Look at the White House chart on the budget and show me where this abandonment is happening. Just the opposite.
And all these vague, unattributed assertions, like the bed nets. If you don’t see it the way Wallis sees it, you must be indifferent to children dying of malaria. Right? That’s insulting to say the least. How many mosquito nets flow into Africa annually? Where do they come from? What share of these is funded by U.S. taxpayers? Are they effective? We don’t get answers to these questions. Maybe Wallis should read this article in the left leaning Guardian newspaper that explains why “Mosquito nets can’t conquer malaria.” How is malaria defeated? Economic growth.
Against his claims of abandoning the poor, Wallis harps on defense spending. Again, this is a dishonest diversion. Defense spending is not the main problem as this chart vividly shows (HT: Heritage Foundation).
Should defense spending be treated as a sacred cow? No. Is there waste in the defense budget? Undoubtedly. But let’s not make vague assertions about children going hungry because of redundant or unneeded military programs.
What’s more, Wallis seems to be impervious to the fact that spending on welfare and War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure. His use of anecdote and selectively trivial factoids serves as a smokescreen for this reality. Is is possible that government nutrition programs might be wasteful or redundant? He doesn’t seem to be aware of that possibility. In a recent report on duplication in government programs, the GAO said this about nutrition programs:
Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. [But] not enough is known about the effectiveness of many of these programs. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the 18 programs— including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP—is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs’ goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied.
Reality gets complicated. Talking points are easier. Writing in 2005, Washington Post columnist George Will described how a freshman Sen. Barack Obama used a string of “old banalities” to attack the Bush administration for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. Will wrote:
[Obama] included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.
At least Obama had the decency not to invoke the name of the Lord. As for the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, the “faith community” hasn’t been spared that.
My first reaction to “What Would Jesus Cut?” is that it tends to reduce Christ to a distributor of material goods through government programs. Jesus is not a budget overseer or a dispenser of government largesse. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has already countered this accusation with his own post saying, “We haven’t been trying to get Jesus to be the head of any budget committee, or think that he would ever want that job!”
But still, to use Christ as an example of a legislator writing budgetary law is facile when we recognize Christ as the fulfillment of the law (Romans 10:4). It reduces and trivializes Christ at a time when there is already too much theological confusion about the person, nature, and mission of Christ in this country. And while Christ certainly relates and guides us on the day to day questions as we work to uplift the social witness, this practice reduces the Word of Life to moralism when done in a frivolous manner.
As for how we help the poor, as we are commanded to do as Christians, we shouldn’t confuse the Kingdom of Christ with the power and agenda of the state. Evangelicalism, and proclamation of the person of Christ should not be reduced to baptizing and sanctifying the budget.
It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.
Wallis, who is a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” has a very disappointing record when it comes to fiscal responsibility. He is on record of already opposing social security reform, welfare reform in the 1990s, slowing the rate of growth of government spending in the 90s, and even checking the rate of growth for SCHIP, as my 2007 commentary points out.
I wore “What Would Jesus Do” apparel for a short time during the fad, and obviously it is good to ask WWJD. But I stopped wearing it when I realized that I already knew what Christ would do, and I should be asking myself deeper questions about what I am really doing to magnify my relationship with Christ and my witness to others.
I think that is what bothers me with “What Would Jesus Cut?” It’s a reduction of the witness of Christ, with no greater context of his redemptive mission. This is a flaw of some, but not all, on both the religious right and religious left. There is a danger in over-politicizing the name of Jesus in the public square, especially when the Church in America is crying out for sound Biblical doctrine. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and to continually reinsert him into the budget debate, which are clearly prudential arguments, shrinks his real power and authority.