Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
What Would Jesus Cut?
June 24, 2011
by Tim King
One of the problems in political discourse today is a lack of common language. Various sides debate the same topic but start from such different assumptions that discourse is often not possible. Our common faith and especially a Biblical concern for the poor should influence how we talk about the federal budget and the decisions that we make. Through reason we can apply the values we see in scripture to a very different political system and social reality of today.
In responding to this challenge, Sojourners tried to come up with a simple, provocative question that could help guide our discussion: “What Would Jesus Cut?” While we aren’t advocating for Jesus to take over as budget director, we do hope to instigate a debate about how what we believe influences the decisions we make in regards to our budget. Our appropriation of a 90’s Evangelical fad has been criticized by some for not being theologically precise. To those critics I apologize but remind them that at least we didn’t use the Prayer of Jabez, the short-lived wave of Christian ska music or any of these Christian t-shirts.
When using the framework of Christian values, it is essential that both our personal and federal budgets demonstrate a priority for poor and vulnerable people. In the Old Testament we see two categories of commands concerning the poor. The first is encouragement for individuals to be personally generous and hospitable. The second consists of laws, like gleaning (Deuteronomy 24) or the jubilee year (Leviticus 25), which were mandates for justice concerning the poor. In an agrarian society these laws ensured that basic needs were taken care of. They required a society to provide for and ensure opportunity for those in need. Today we have a continued need for private charity and public justice for the poor. It is not a question of one or the other but how to do both well.
These concerns are broadly shared among most mainstream Christians, while there might still be significant disagreement on implementation. A group of 50 Christian leaders who head denominations and organizations that serve the poor signed a statement called “The Circle of Protection.” This statement expresses eight principles derived from Christian values that these leaders believe should be taken into account by our political leaders when making decisions about the budget. These principles include: “The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of hungry and poor people. Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut. National leaders must review and consider tax revenues, military spending, and entitlements in the search for ways to share sacrifice and cut deficits.” This principle of ensuring that poor and needy people don’t suffer because of deficit reduction was expressed in the Simpson-Bowles reduction plan but has sadly been left behind by Congressional proposals since then.
In order to meet the challenges our federal budget presents in a moral way, we will need to consider how to increase revenues and decrease spending. For example, returning tax rates to the levels they were in the 90’s under President Clinton would raise enough revenue to stop the growth of the deficit (as a percentage of GDP) in its tracks. A bi-partisan congressional task force identified $1 trillion in savings over 10 years by cutting military spending while still maintaining a global presence and ensuring national security. The defense budget is a good place to look for unnecessary expenditures. Military spending currently accounts for well over half of our discretionary budget, and the United States is responsible for 43% of total global military expenditures while the runner up, China, is responsible for only 7.3%. These few changes wouldn’t eradicate our national debt, but they would make enough progress to pull us back from the “emergency mode” we are currently in. This would allow space for productive dialogue on other drivers of our debt, such as health care spending.
There are a lot of powerful forces with armies of lobbyists influencing what gets kept in and what gets left out of the budget. Poor people don’t have many advocates representing their issues on Capitol Hill. This is why I believe people of faith need to step up and speak out on behalf of those who wouldn’t have much of a voice otherwise.
—Tim King is Special Assistant to the CEO of Sojourners.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”