What would Jesus think of Sojourners' new campaign?
Sojourners is a liberal Christian group whose mission is "to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world." It is based in Washington, DC, and engages regularly in the capital's political battles.
Religious groups with a political agenda are as American as the First Amendment, and Sojourners has not been shy about weighing in on the current congressional fight over federal spending. On its website, in e-mails sent to members of Congress, and most recently in a full-page ad in the political newspaper Politico, Sojourners has been asking: "What Would Jesus Cut?"
The ad, signed by Sojourners' president, Jim Wallis, and other leaders of the Christian left, argues that "a budget is a moral document" and the moral test of any nation is how it treats the poor and vulnerable. It acknowledges that government debt is a serious problem, but implores lawmakers not to balance the budget by cutting the "sound investments that a just nation must protect." Among the "investments" Sojourners mentions are school lunch programs, tax credits for the working poor, and international aid for fighting pandemics.
As a believing Jew and a conservative, I don't share the religious outlook or political priorities of Wallis and his co-signers. But you don't have to be Christian or liberal to believe that in God's eyes, a society is judged above all by its concern for the unfortunate. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25 -- "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me. . . . Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me" -- echoes what Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets preached centuries earlier: "Learn to do well: seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."
But does it really follow from these timeless injunctions that God expects legislators never to eliminate any poverty program or social-welfare line item, or even to roll such spending back to where it stood a few years ago?
Wallis fumed in an interview that Congress should be cutting defense spending instead of health or nutrition programs. "House Republicans want to beat our ploughshares into more swords," he said. "These priorities that they're offering are not just wrong or unfair, they're unbiblical." Unbiblical! Does Wallis really believe that no one advocating budget cuts he opposes can have serious ethical grounds for doing do? It must be wonderful to be so certain that what Wallis wants is precisely what God wants. Not all of us are as confident that our religious faith translates as readily into a detailed partisan agenda.
A more fundamental problem with the "What Would Jesus Cut?" campaign is its planted axiom that Jesus would want Congress to do anything at all. Yes, we are emphatically commanded by Scripture to help the poor, to comfort the afflicted, and to love the stranger. But those obligations are personal, not political. It requires a considerable leap of both faith and logic to read the Bible as mandating elaborate government assistance programs, to be funded by a vast apparatus of compulsory taxation. I admit that I am no New Testament scholar, but I cannot recall Jesus ever saying that the way to enter Heaven is to dole out money extracted from your neighbors' pockets.
In a new book (Jesus: A Biography from a Believer), the historian Paul Johnson points out that Jesus of Nazareth "took no steps to disturb the political status quo" and "was not concerned with political arrangements." His purpose "was not to found a new regime but to portray a new way of life." He was speaking to individuals, not to Congress. The Sermon on the Mount was meant as ethical instruction, not as a blueprint for federal budgeteers.
To be a lawmaker in a democracy is to choose, and the choice is often between alternatives for which reasonable arguments can be made both ways. For religious believers, Judeo-Christian principles may sometimes offer guidance on difficult issues of public policy. But God is not Republican or Democrat, socialist or libertarian. Above the Speaker's rostrum in the House of Representatives are engraved the words "In God We Trust." But He doesn't tell congressmen how to vote. And Jesus won't tell them what to cut.