Social Gospel

The Federal Budget and Kingdom Economics

The financial crisis of 2008 created havoc with economies around the world threatening virtually every government and economic system with potential collapse. No country lives in a vacuum anymore, not even the once forbidden kingdom of China, and so this crisis created challenges for every nation. It also created opportunity—the opportunity to reexamine our priorities. In the United States that opportunity presents itself in the form of three documents.

Of the thousands of documents that make up the body of American life, including speeches by great presidents, senators and congressmen, these three stand out. One reason is that these are the people’s documents. They define us collectively, and, not unlike the human eyes, they allow us to peer into the soul—in this case the soul of a nation.

The first document is unchangeable. It is the Declaration of Independence. Singular among our founding documents, it grounds the philosophical principles from which a new nation would be born. The passion and commitment to these principles give rise to the second great document.

The Constitution of the United States establishes the supreme law of the land. Because its authors could not anticipate every vicissitude of American life, the Constitution is constantly being interpreted. In extraordinary situations, to address unforeseen concerns and rights, it also can be amended. In the end, it serves to guarantee that the principles of the Declaration are extended to all.

At first, it may seem absurd to link the third document, the Federal Budget, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To begin with, the budget is in constant flux--at minimum from year to year. Even within a single year, it is frequently adjusted as politicians and special interests wrangle over its appropriations. And since most Americans have no real input on expenditures, it hardly seems like one of the people’s documents.

However, the budget is the practical application of the principles of the other two documents. It determines the priorities that allow (or do not allow) those principles to be lived out and secured in daily life. There is a reason that we use the term “shut down” to refer to an unfunded government. Without the budget, there is no government. Without a government, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, at best, the dreams of philosophical genius. Precisely for this reason, the Federal Budget, more than any other piece of legislation defines the true soul of the country.

The process of crafting a budget does not just allow us to look into the soul of a people. It also allows to identify and to question the foundations on which priorities are determined. It may be that the world of economics, from the principles of the market economy to the funding of the government is the primary point where the Good News of Jesus Christ intersects modern life. It is certainly the most practical point. Unfortunately, that intersection does not merge into a common path. These days, at least, it leads in the exact opposite direction.

If we take the Gospel seriously, we find ourselves called to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. This Kingdom is not territorial. It is defined by neither a particular political system nor an economic structure. It is a community of shared responsibility and also shared resources. This Kingdom does not benefit one people or group of people over another.

In my last blog I suggested that the current vision of the American dream is incompatible with the Gospel. Human beings will always struggle with tendencies to be self-centered. Yet when major decisions are driven by personal gain, the Gospel call to build the Kingdom goes unheard, and subsequently unfulfilled.

For those who reject any notion of social justice in the Gospel, there is, unfortunately, no possibility of discussion. However, much benefit accrues to those who actually hear the Good News and are willing to examine it. In the parable about vigilant and faithful servants, Jesus speaks about the responsibilities of the servants. Peter asks if the parable is also meant for them. Jesus concludes with the startling statement “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

One might expect that the budget is a document of shared resources benefitting all the people. In fact, much of the budget discussion in Washington is misguided in the extreme. It centers on balancing the budget by cutting resources to the poor. Worse still, is that some in Congress, like Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, couples those cuts with outlandish benefits to the rich.

The despicability of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor should be obvious. I would like to suggest that Ryan and company display a total moral vacuum, and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the American people by suggesting that this is the way for everyone to share in reducing the deficit. What Ryan’s proposals do is take the United States of America, still the richest country in the world, and swell the ranks of America’s poor while expanding the wealth of the super rich. In the process the middle class simply evaporates.

The Paul Ryan types have probably never listened to the teaching of Jesus nor understood Gospel values. Still, it is not just the Gospel call to build the kingdom that is at odds with many of today’s budget proposals. History, also, is being ignored. While people have always balked at paying excessive taxes, most did not object to paying their fair share. The rallying cry of the American revolution was not “No taxation”. It was “No taxation without representation”—a significant difference. The idea that taxes are evil in and of themselves, and that the larger populace is not responsible for the poor must have arisen from the corrupted American dream that centers only on the individual and the self. Sadly, that is the dream adopted by many a Tea Party activist.

If the Federal Budget is to remain in place alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it must again become the people’s document. For that to happen, the people must rediscover the communal values that made America such a great nation, and then elect representatives who possess those same values.

The budget reflects the soul of the nation. What soul will we project?

Kingdom Economics and the American Dream

The fallout from the economic meltdown has created great hardship for many Americans, just as it has for people around the globe. It seems that our current situation requires more of us than many citizens, and certainly most elected politicians, are willing to give. So how do we respond to this economic crisis and uncertainty?

One possible starting point is to reimagine the so-called American dream, a task that may prove very difficult, indeed. After all, the idea of the American dream has been around a long time, but it has been defined in different ways at different times. At the risk of political heresy, I suggest that the current version of the dream, as advanced under Ronald Reagan, is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel and should, therefore, be redefined again.

When the American dream was synonymous with owning a home and building the middle class, there was no inherent conflict with Gospel values. In those days workers, to some extent, shared in the profits of the companies for whom they worked. At least the salaries of the executives were not 500 times those of the workers. There seemed to be some acknowledgment that the workers, the ones who actually made the products, were the ones who really made the companies profitable.

Today, politicians are colluding with corporate and financial executives to dismiss the contribution of the workers in pursuit of their own profit. In this collusion, just wages and benefits are not part of their equation. Most amazing has been the way the politicians have deceived so many Americans, duping them into voting against their own best interests. Unfortunately, the effects of this duping extend far beyond the realm of political power.

Since the Reagan Administration, there has been an increasing disregard for the poor and an almost fanatical desire to expand and fill the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, even though Reagan’s “trickle down” economics has been proven a failure. The fact that so many non-wealthy Americans over the last 30 years have bought into this version of the dream (more properly an illusion) makes change difficult, but not impossible. Reagan, of course, is not solely to blame for the corruption of the American dream and the loss of Gospel values. A religious irony is also at play.

Since the advent of televangelism, we have seen numerous preachers restrict their vision of the Gospel to abundant, lavish living. And quite a few of them have demonstrated such living in their own lives. On the surface it may seem silly and gullible for Americans to believe that if they give all their money to the TV preacher, God will return it to them 100 times over. But this is the religious version of a Ponzi scheme, and like all Ponzi schemes it requires gullibility. Unlike Bernie Madoff, however, these preachers are protected by the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Religion, coupled with the fact that donations are not investments. More insidious, though, is the fact that the televangelist’s scheme is proclaimed in the name of God. The outcome leads otherwise good people to turn their backs on the poor, the sick and the immigrant, in a self-centered pursuit of wealth.

I see two problems at work. The first is one of interpretation, and yes, everyone interprets, even fundamentalists. In John’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Like any passage it can be, and often is, taken out of context. The “abundance” Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with wealth. Being inseparable from the word “life”, it is an image of Jesus, himself, who we are told a couple of chapters later, is the “way, the truth and the life.”

There is no authentic interpretation of the Gospel that does not embrace the plight of the poor and the suffering. Catholic social teaching (sorry, Glenn Beck) uses the profound language “preferential option for the poor.” This theology undergirds how Christians should interact with the world in which we live. One tragedy of modern economics is that the vast majority of our world’s population is being driven deeper and deeper into poverty and destitution. In the United States, the American dream is dissolving with the middle class. I am not attempting to invoke the spectre of class warfare. I am simply noting the repetitious results of studies on the American economy. The disparity and gap between the middle class and the wealthiest Americans has become an almost unbridgeable chasm. These realities lead to the second problem.

Christians are called to build the kingdom of God, but that kingdom appears to be at odds with today’s version of the American dream. At least since the Reagan era, that dream has championed the supremacy of the individual. By contrast, the Gospel calls for building up the community. I have long puzzled about the inability of Christians in America to grasp this inherent contradiction. For some, comprehension has not really been the issue. They have simply chosen the false values of individualism over the Gospel principles of community. Of course, the individual and the community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. But the American view of individualism that has grounded today’s economic system is blatantly anti-Gospel.

The value of our dreams, whether personal or collective, is determined by the effects they have on others. If the American dream is to re-emerge as a legitimate and worthy goal of our citizens, if it is to develop in harmony with the building of the kingdom, then our economic policies cannot be geared toward the few, nor can they benefit primarily the rich. We must, once again, become a nation that cares for the young, the old, the sick and the poor—for all our people.

Why Drinking Coffee is Good for the Soul

I confess. Although I drink coffee in the morning, and sometimes at night, I like a good cup of tea in the afternoon. I used to think it was good for my health and my diet. Then came the Tea Party. No, this is not the disconnect some might think. Hopefully it is a successful play on words that allows us to look at our current political environment in light of the Gospel. By the way, one does not need to believe in Jesus (or even God) to comprehend the principles involved. One just needs to be a person of good will.

There is much to bemoan in the current U.S. economy, as well as that in other parts of the globe. As a result, pundits from across the spectrum are analyzing this past Tuesday's election, spinning the outcome to support their own biased perspectives. That is not what I intend, although I would suggest that the U.S. election was more about economics and unemployment, than anything else. The Tea Party, of course, believes the election was about economics AND the "anything else"--particularly their desire, nay, their demand that they be allowed to pursue their individual passions and the rest of the country be damned. It is precisely here that the Tea Party runs smack against the values of the Gospel.

For months the American public has been subjected to Tea Party activists who have espoused a philosophy of government and economics that has gone largely unchallenged in principle. Those who have opposed the Tea Party have done so primarily by focusing on policy and arguing about the value of the stimulus bill, the financial and health care reforms, etc. While acknowledging the dismal employment statistics, they have suggested that things would be worse without some of the emergency legislation passed by Congress. But there are deeper issues at work in the country, issues that go to the heart of the Gospel, and this is where I believe the Tea Party must be challenged.

We frequently hear activists speak of smaller government, using phrases such as "keeping the government out of our pockets." A very careful analysis of the language and issues of the Tea Party unveils a thinly disguised self-centeredness that demonstrates no concern whatsoever for others. In reality, it is simply another incarnation of the "me" mentality, but from a different generation. They want to get everything out of life and keep it for themselves. The hubris of this approach was on display during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The same people who were decrying government spending and regulation of industry were demanding more and faster federal response, not to mention their demand for federal dollars and prosecution of the responsible parties. I guess that when your world revolves only around yourself, you don't need to be rational or consistent.

It has been a long time since politicians have spoken of the common good--or at least a long time since using that specific language. Even President Obama, with all the hope of a new future that he brought to national politics, does not use the term. I realize that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Scriptures. How else could anyone preach the absurdity of literalism! Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the concept of the common good, so it is baffling how the core of the Tea Party movement, those Christians who claim religious superiority over others, can dismiss with such apparent ease everything that Jesus stands for.

Take, for example, the miracle of the loaves and fish. A quick side note: this is the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels, so it is uniquely significant. Whatever explanation one offers for this miracle, it is a demonstration of sharing with and caring for those in need. When Jesus told the disciples to give food to the multitude, they objected. In a phenomenally prescient expression of Tea Party politics, they protested against spending their own money to feed the others--those people who did not have the foresight to bring their own food! Sounds like a page out of Sarah Palin's, and by extension, the Tea Party's handbook. The problem is that their handbook is not the Gospel.

It has become practically a national sport to attack any idea that sounds "socialist" such as the redistribution of wealth. Of course, that is pure ignorance and exactly what the Tea Party preys upon. Pity the poor Christians who do not recognize the socialism in the words of Jesus, or the redistribution of wealth in the miracle of the loaves and fish. In this miracle, with just a few loaves and fish, Jesus demonstrated what happens when people do not think only of themselves or put themselves first. Not only did everyone eat their fill, but there was food left over.

For the record, Jesus did not preach that we should take as much as we can from this world and everyone else be damned. This kind of self-entered individualism inevitably leads to division and a sense of superiority or disdain. It also leads to a misguided independence. Sadly, though, like cholera it is highly contagious and possesses the ability to infect an entire nation. The Tea Party are among those people who believe that America is the best in everything and does not need anyone else. As much as I love my country, this is delusional. We certainly have much to offer the rest of the world, but then we also have much to learn from the rest of the world.

The Tea Party takes its name from the 1773 revolutionary protest in Boston when colonists threw English tea into the harbor. Instead of tossing it overboard, it seems that today's tea party has been drinking the stuff. The story of the loaves and fish does not tell us what Jesus gave the people to drink, but it's a good guess it was not tea!