Prophets and Politics, Part 2: The Response

In my previous post, I noted the prophets seem to be primarily concerned with justice, particularly how its administered toward the poor. On top of that, God says more than once through different authors writing no fewer than 100 years apart that he doesn’t care what we can do for him; he cares what we do for others.

This point strikes me as particularly salient given what’s happening in Texas right now. Gov. Rick Perry, who seems likely to join the 2012 presidential race, has organized a massive prayer vigil in Houston for Aug. 6. In announcing the event, which is called “The Response,” he wrote the following for the event’s website:

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.

Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response.

There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Meanwhile, comes a report from The Dallas Morning News that the state, despite experiencing record-high levels of extremely dangerous heat, is withholding money usually allocated to help the poor and elderly pay their electric bills.

The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday the state has collected $130 million this fiscal year to help financially strapped Texas residents pay for the cost of electricity used for cooling, but has provided only $28 million so far to those who need it.

The reason: State lawmakers have locked away the money to deal with the budget shortfall. The state is now spending only half as much as it did to help the poor and elderly get through the summer a decade ago.

Texas has a rainy-day fund, one that could significantly alleviate the state’s major budget shortfall for the 2012-13 fiscal years, but Perry refused to tap into it. And since he has veto power, the Texas Legislature made up for the $12 billion shortfall it faced in those years by slashing education and items that help the poor, such as the above-cited assistance for electric bills.

So, given the verses cited in my last post, it seems Perry’s priorities are not really in line with what the prophets indicate are God’s priorities. He’s focused on giving up thank offerings to Jesus when God is really interested in how Perry is helping the least of his people. Which is ironic because Perry himself cites the prophets as justification for the event.

But this brings up a larger issue: When Christians enter politics, to what extent should they mingle the perceived demands of their faith with their constitutional duties?

When I was growing up, this was clear to me: The Bible obviously mandated a social conservatism that included abolition of abortion and gay marriage and a libertarian economic philosophy that fetishized individual rights and rejected assistance programs as unjust incentivization of others’ poor choices.

After all, Proverbs 14:34 is pretty clear: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.”

Of course, what is meant by “righteousness,” and to which “nation” the author is referring given the semi-theocratic government of Israel at the time, are probably a little more ambiguous than I once thought. And picking one verse out of Proverbs to support a raft of conservative social and political beliefs is probably not the best way to use the Bible (I’ll let you know if any of my professors recommend that particular hermeneutical style).

This question of how we, as Christians, should govern has been foremost in my mind lately, thanks mostly to the budget debates that have been roiling Washington since November.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, has taken quite a lot of heat — rightly so, in my opinion — for his plan to essentially turn Medicare into a voucher program that would provide decreasing levels of benefits each year, then use some of the savings from that plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Given the distress the plan would cause for low- and middle-income retirees, Ryan felt obliged to defend himself, not just as a politician, but as a practicing Catholic:

Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government. 

See what he did there? Ryan makes a statement with which no one would disagree — “social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party” — then immediately ties it to a reasonable-sounding statement that obscures the true argument.

Ryan speaks a lot in the piece about the immorality of debt, sidestepping two important points: 1. His own role in supporting the policies that created the debt, namely the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and 2. The immorality of asking the poor to pay for it while spending additional money on the wealthy.

“Immorality” is a strong word. But for those of us with a moral code based primarily on the teachings of God and his son, it’s difficult to use any other.

God seems pretty clear about how he expects his followers to treat the poor in relation to the wealthy:

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” Psalm 12:5

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Psalm 140:12

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. Proverbs 14:31

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty. Proverbs 22:16

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. Ecclesiastes 5:8

The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty. Isaiah 3:14-15

“Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 22:15-16

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. James 2:5-9

The all-powerful God of the universe is clear, over and over and over again. Protect the poor. Give to the poor. Uphold the rights of the poor. When he deigned to became one of us, he was born to poor parents miles from home. Then he taught lessons about the rich man and Lazarus, instructed the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor, praised the poor widow and her two mites, and spent his entire life hanging out with the poor and outcast and criticizing the ruling authorities for their oppression of the poor.

Then there’s Matthew 25, the famous “least of these” passage.

Over and over and over again. The poor.

And it’s not just an individual mandate or a church mandate: When setting up a government in Leviticus, God institutes numerous rules designed to protect the poor. He lashes out at the governments of Israel, Judah and their secular neighbors for failing to look after the needy.

Can we as Christians ignore this clear mandate when we enter politics? Can we overlook it in the voting booth?

Further, this isn’t something that violates our own Constitution. God’s desires, unsurprisingly, create positive outcomes for society, regardless of whether the poor are Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists. This isn’t legislating a specifically religious viewpoint — such as condemnation of homosexuality, adultery or divorce — onto those who don’t share those religious beliefs. This is basic human decency, which is the heart of Christian morality.

As Christians, what is our response to this clarion call of scripture? And should we expect a better response from our political leaders, especially the ones professing to follow a God who, above all, has told us to protect the poor?

Let me put it this way: What if, instead of holding a massive prayer vigil, Rick Perry called on the organizations sponsoring it to spend their money on helping the poor and needy of Houston pay their electric bills and keep the air cool inside their homes?

That would be true leadership, and it would be true Christianity.

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