First, some preliminary comments:
1. This blog post is in response to a comment posted on one of my former student’s Facebook page. The student (we’ll call him “Brad” – names have been changed to protect the innocent, though those who know him will know who I am talking about) had posted a quote from Dom Crossan to the effect that the Bible – both testaments – is very forthright and unapologetic in its call for “distributive justice.” This is laid out in the Torah very clearly, and then bluntly reenunciated by the prophets. Jesus also picks up the theme and is unapologetic about it – especially in the Gospel of Luke. Among the comments to this post of “Brad’s” was a friend of his who curtly dismissed the quote as being warmed over “communism” or “socialism.” Brad politely disagreed. Well, I will not be quite so polite in my response to the silly and uniformed comment.
2. Herman Melville was one of America’s greatest writers. My favorite of his short stories is “Billy Budd,” which was adapted into one of the 20th century’s greatest opera librettos (not to mention the music – which makes it one of the all time greatest operas ever written, but that is a real digression). E.M Forster and Eric Crozier are the librettists and as the plot is cascading towards its cataclysmic climax the Master-At-Arms (John Claggert) requests permission to speak to Captain Vere on the Quarterdeck. Tensions are high and so are suspicions and fears. The H.M.S. Indomitable is in French, enemy waters. The fleet has been hit by high profile mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. The crew for the most part have been pressed and so they are hostile to the officers. It is an explosion waiting to happen. Claggert suggests to the Captain that a very popular sailor, named Billy Budd, is disaffected and is leading others astray. He is, says Claggert, “ripe for the crimes of Spithead and the Nore,” he is turning men’s hearts to, “dare I mention that foul word – mutiny!” “Mutiny! Mutiny!” Responds the Captain abruptly, “Mutiny, Mr. Claggert, I am not to be scared by words!” That is the point of this digression. Just throw in a hot word – like “mutiny” into the powder keg of late 18th century navel discipline – or “communism” and “socialism” in the context of early 21st century political and economic discussion and the result is an end to any hope of intelligent conversation.
3. So, while I usually do not venture into politics, as I feel my calling is not to be political but to be faithful to my calling to follow Christ I begin this short reflection on budgets and justice with a categorical rejection of these silly hot words which most people do not understand. And besides they are completely irrelevant to any discussion of the Gospel. The Gospel emerged in the 1st century while these economic positions emerged in the 19th century philosophically. So to Brad’s commenter I would simply say, go study up before you start throwing words around that you do not know or understand. I am not to be scared by words.
4. This is not a partisan rant. Both parties in my view are responsible for the current mess; there are leaders of both parties who have provided courageous and visionary leadership; and there are politicians and business leaders of both parties who have been petty and greedy and have done everything they can to further their own agenda at the expense of the nation. I will lay out my cards here though. I long for real republicans to step forward and oppose the hijacking of their great party by this group of pseudo-republicans who are really libertarians in disguise and whose economic philosophy seems founded on greed and self-interest.
So, we – as a nation – are in an economic mess: unemployment is at its highest levels in years, there is a housing crisis and the national debt has grown to astronomical size. What is the solution? Well, one group of politicians seems to have devised a perfect solution: cut entitlement spending, cut education spending, cut spending on programs that provide a life line for thousands of American men, women and children and at the same time cut taxes; maintain current tax cuts and find new ways to exempt the wealthiest individuals and companies from paying taxes. Does that make sense? Well, no – not to me it doesn’t. This approach, which is spelled out in the budget offered by Representative Paul Ryan is nothing short of immoral and would have a devastating impact on thousands and thousands of individuals and communities. And, as the “1000 Pastors for a Moral Budget” letter states (see below), as open hearted and well intentioned as many Americans and churches are, they simply cannot provide the level of assistance that is needed. Do thousands and thousands would be thrown into poverty without a life line, children are abandoned to starvation - all of this if the house libertarians have their way.
So, what is the solution? I am not an economist but I know enough accounting to know that you cannot keep spending what you don’t have. So I agree that the deficit is a serious problem. It is a serious problem that has been contributed to by many quarters of the society and political spectrum over a number of years. So the first thing is that we need to stop pointing fingers and playing the blame game. The deficit is not only Obama’s fault. There is plenty of blame to go around. Let us not forget that when Clinton left office the budget was balanced. The tax cuts and the military ventures of the following administration of George W Bush have also contributed to this terrible deficit mess.
So, then what to do? The congress seems to have determined that the way to deal with the deficit is to cut, cut, cut and cut. And what are they cutting? Well, primarily entitlement programs, programs that provide food and clothing and education. Politicians claim they are going to cut fat. But it has gotten to the point that there is no more fat to cut in some programs and we are seeing muscle cut and programs gutted. These kinds of cuts are simply immoral. (Aside = They also want to cut the NEA and NPR and PBS and other cultural programs. These cuts would also have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of Americans, additionally they would create more problems then they would solve. Support of the arts actually provides an economic incentive and puts money and jobs into the economy. To make these cuts would be counter-productive.)
What other alternatives are there? Well, why is it that there has developed this senseless and destructive libertarian attitude about taxes? The new republicans in the congress (who are hardly republicans at all – they are libertarians in republican garb) seem to be ready to destroy the lives of millions, gut the economy and allow the country to be destroyed just so they can avoid paying taxes. Tax rates need to be raised! We need to go back, at least, to Clinton era tax rates and all of the tax cuts for everyone which were ridiculously extended by the congress and signed into law by Obama need to be rescinded. The no-tax attitude of this group does not make sense. It is simply selfish. We Americans expect our government to provide a lot, but we do not want to pay for it. It is time to grow up and be responsible. It is time for republicans to start being republicans again and not libertarians.
Back in the 80’s when Ronald Reagan was first running for the presidency one of his catch phrases was: “Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?” That I have always believed is the wrong question. The question should be – “is my neighbor better off?” Is there enough food to go around? Is there housing and shelter for everyone? Do those who are ill have access to quality health care? What are ways we can help folks find employment? These are the questions we need to be asking?
As a Christian, I believe the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus, into which we are called as Baptized Christians to enter call on us to put the care of our neighbor above all and to work for distributive justice. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Mary, a poor village girl receives a visit from the Angel who tells her she will bear God’s son. Later when she visits her cousin she can no longer contain herself: My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty… This is a vision of the Kingdom which has come into our midst in Jesus. Jesus affirms this in chapter 4 when he opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then proclaims that Today this saying has been fulfilled in your hearing. We who claim to be Christians have a responsibility to care for “the least of these.” We who claim to be Christian have a responsibility to stand up to the economic philosophy of greed, otherwise known as libertarianism, and denounce it. Because we are called to care for our neighbor, to love our neighbor as ourselves and if our neighbor is suffering, then we are suffering too.
So, don’t go bandying around words that have no meaning; try to look beyond your own selfish and self-centered concerns and see the pain and need that is all around you and then reach out, in anyway you can. This is our calling as Christians and as we do this we do experience the Kingdom of God come into our midst.