In his recent lecture “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity,” Rev. Robert Sirico reminded us that “We should not minimize the demands of the scripture but we should embrace them.” The quote was in context of caring for the vulnerable among us. He also talked about the need to be wholly devoted to the Lord despite the distractions of technology and prosperity in our midst.
At the same time, Rev. Sirico also admonished religious figures who offered superficial exegetical statements condemning all wealth. A great example being a topic I previously covered on the PowerBlog, “The What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. In my devotional reading this week, I came across a very appropriate quote by 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs. The words compliment the pastoral tone Rev. Sirico set during the lecture, and reminds us just how woefully inadequate superficial pronouncements are when it comes to the gospel call. Burroughs words are below:
Suppose a man had great wealth only a few years ago, and now it is all gone-I would only ask this man, When you had your wealth, in what did you reckon the good of that wealth to consist? A carnal heart would say, Anybody might know that: it brought me in so much a year, and I could have the best fare, and be a man of repute in the place where I live, and men regarded what I said; I might be clothed as I would, and lay up portions for my children: the good of my wealth consisted in this. Now such a man never came into the school of Christ to know in what the good of an estate consisted, so no marvel if he is disquieted when he has lost his estate. But when a Christian, who has been in the school of Christ, and has been instructed in the art of contentment, has some wealth, he thinks, In that I have wealth above my brethren, I have an opportunity to serve God the better, and I enjoy a great deal of God’s mercy conveyed to my soul through the creature, and hereby I am enabled to do a great deal of good: in this I reckon the good of my wealth. And now that God has taken this away from me, if he will be pleased to make up the enjoyment of himself some other way, will call me to honor him by suffering, and if I may do God as much service now by suffering, that is, by showing forth the grace of his Spirit in my sufferings as I did in prosperity, I have as much of God as I had before. So if I may be led to God in my low condition, as much as I was in my prosperous condition, I have as much comfort and contentment as I had before. – Jeremiah Burroughs, from his book Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment
During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.
Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.
Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.
Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.
During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).
In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”
Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.
Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Jeff Jacoby says that a “more fundamental problem with the “What Would Jesus Cut?’’ campaign is its planted axiom that Jesus would want Congress to do anything at all.”
As a believing Jew and a conservative, I don’t share the religious outlook or political priorities of Wallis and his co-signers. But you don’t have to be Christian or liberal to believe that in God’s eyes, a society is judged above all by its concern for the unfortunate. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 — “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me . . . Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me’’ — echoes what Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets preached centuries earlier: “Learn to do well: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’’
But does it really follow from these timeless injunctions that God expects legislators never to eliminate any poverty program or social-welfare line item, or even to roll such spending back to where it stood a few years ago?
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.
Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.
Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.
As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.
Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?
Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.
What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.
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.