Thursday, April 14, 2011

Petitioning Government By Fasting

So, what should Christian think of the bongoing budget talks in Washington. Is it just a matter of math? We don't need a Christian accountant, just an honest one, right?

Ah, but this is a government budget. So where it allocates spending, whether it takes oln debt to pay for various priorities, and whether it cuts spending or raises taxes are all political decisions. And even accountants are moved by political passions...I bet.

Evengelical Left leader, Jim Wallis, the CEO at Sojourners, is deeply concerned about the morality of our budgetary choices. He says he is all for reducing the deficit (first I've heard of that), but why pick on the poor instead of going after where the real money is: defense spending, corporate subsidies, and tax cuts for the rich. (Never mind that defense spending is already way down under Barack Obama, corporations create jobs when we make the USA a business friendly environment, and the top 5% of income earners pay 59% of the taxes whereas the bottom half of earners pay just 3%. The top 1% pays 38% of personal income taxes. Accountants say the darnedest things.)

For this reason he has pulled together a coalition of Christian leaders and other "people of conscience" to ask What Would Jesus Cut? As part of this campaign he has undertaken a four week fast that will continue until Easter Sunday when Jim will rise and feast. I consider the politics and the piety of this in my column, "Jim Wallis's Public Petition to God and Government."

For Wallis, this is not just about playing the moral gadfly to elected officials who all too easily lose their moral bearings in the duststorm of DC politics. He is pursuing what he understands to be the Kingdom of God. Jim Wallis has a Social Gospel understanding of the Kingdom. As he says in his HuffPost piece, "Because I am an evangelical Christian and the root of the word "evangelical" is found in the opening statement of Jesus in Luke 4, where Christ says he has come to bring "good news (the 'evangel') to the poor." So to be an evangelical Christian is to try and bring good news to poor people." So, for Wallis and his politico-theological circle, the good news of Christ is essentially political and economic. It's the redistribution of wealth.

It is perfectly legitimate to criticize how government spending is allocated. As Wallis says, budget choices are always moral choices. I agree with this, but in support of it I would argue that resources are inherently scarce and God established government as an instrument of his justice in the world. But Wallis sees government spending, especially federal government spending,  as primarily for addressing the needs of the poor and suffering (don't we all suffer in one way or another?). His rhetoric assumes that if you oppose federal government action, you are simply against addressing those needs in any way. You are a heartless monster and a two-faced Christian if you are a Christian at all.

But that aside, in my column I point out where I think Wallis is at his strongest and where his piety just looks like a power play. What he presents as fasting before God to turn the heart of the king looks a lot like a hunger strike to pressure Congress.

In that regard, he comes across looking ridiculous. Michel Martin of NPR asked him if his voice was being heard in this call to fasting and turn the tide of budget discussions. Oh yes, he said. But his only concrete example was a church youth group in Tennessee organizing a three hour fast. A three hour fast! (Play the Gilligan's Island music.) Imagine. No snacks for three hours. Now if they went on a three hours texting fast, that would be impressive.

Religion has to be in politics because Christ is Lord of all of life. Nonetheless, when religion wades into politics, religion is in greater danger from politics than politics is from religion. There is always foolishness in politics, and a good political system like ours is designed to set one class of fools against another and limit the damage of both. But when the religious undertake political change in the name of religion, they tend to ruin both.

That is not to say they shouldn't try. They just need to be sober, humble, and consciously self-critical about it.

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