Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wrestling the Angel of our Better Nature

Karl Barth never heard of cable news, but he’d be reeling this week if he read the bible with CNN blaring in his ear.

With the federal debt ceiling deadline looming and civilization hanging in the balance, Republicans and Democrats in Congress grappled to a sweaty impasse. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31), politicians of both parties stubbornly refused to yield. And while politicians tussled over which federal programs would be slashed to cut the budget by billions or trillions, few worried that proposed cuts will do serious damage to programs that support the very poor. It’s as if, when Jesus told his disciples to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000, the disciples told the kid with the fish and chips to get lost (Matthew 14:13-21).

The partisan stalemate in Washington is infuriating. A half century ago, when I was about 15, the faculty of Morrisville-Eaton Central School presented a whimsical drama for the entertainment of our tiny central New York community. I don’t remember the name of the play but I remember Mrs. Drake, the school librarian, portrayed a character given the memorable line:

“Thirty needles and thirty pins and thirty dirty Republicans.”

As one of the town’s rare Kennedy supporters, I liked the line. But Mrs. Drake, a pillar in our mostly Republican village, resented the line and suggested it be changed to:

“Thirty dogs and thirty cats and thirty dirty Democrats.”

Copyright issues and the fact that Mrs. Drake was playing a left-leaning dowager convinced her she had to say the line as it was written. But fifty years on, I’m beginning to agree with her on both counts. The wresting match between dirty Republicans and dirty Democrats is not pretty.

No one knows what will happen Tuesday if Congress does not raise the federal borrowing limit, but most analysts think it will be bad – very bad. Fictional White House staffer Toby Ziegler said on an episode of the NBC television drama The West Wing, failure to act will mean this: “The immediate collapse of the U.S. economy, followed by Japan sinking into the sea, followed by a worldwide depression the likes of which no mortal can imagine. Followed by week two.”

Yet Republicans and Democrats continue to tumble on the brink. Clearly some 307 million of us innocent bystanders have the right to ask: What the hell is wrong with you?

What is wrong is that leaders of both parties have danced to the edge of disaster because they think their posturing will help them consolidate power. They are seeking to maneuver their way into majorities in both houses of Congress and take over the White House in 2012. Never mind that increasing numbers of American voters are disgusted by their inability to compromise on a plan to avert economic disaster. This week-end’s legislative drama made that clear enough. First Speaker John Boehner posted a bill that would require the government to revisit the debt question in the midst of next year’s campaign. The bill passed the House late Friday, despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would never pass the senate, President Obama said he would veto it, and a score of Tea Party Republicans refused to support it. Then Saturday, Reid presented a Senate bill which purported to include all the provisions demanded by Republicans, but it was dismissed in a symbolic vote in the Republican House. Back to the brink.

If all this wrangling is about winning control of Congress and the White House next year, one wonders how valuable these acquisitions will be in a post-default America. I envision passing the tattered figures of the House and Senate leaders as they stumble in the steaming rubble of post-apocalypse Washington. “How’s that take-over plan working out for you, Guys?”

Republicans and Democrats have made their positions clear. The GOP calls for lowering the national debt by making massive cuts to the budget but without raising taxes. Democrats say the debt must be reduced by spending cuts and by implementing new revenue streams, mostly in the form increased taxes on the very rich. Both parties say their approach will require huge sacrifices in order reduce the debt, and both say they are acting in the interest of the American middle class. But who is making the sacrifices? Obviously not the rich. And really not the middle class. I haven’t been asked to sacrifice anything to save my country. Have you?

Sisters and brothers, we face a scary week. Both the president and the speaker express confidence that they will work out a compromise before the economy of the United States slides into Sheol, but what if they don’t? The situation has become so bad that you’ve got to wonder if human wisdom can prevail. We have found ourselves inside a Roman tragedy in which human greed and folly have created a situation so twisted and bound with knots so complex that human hands will never untie them. When classical plays got to this stage, there was only one solution: the deus ex machina – the god in the machine, which is to say, Mighty Mouse – here I come to save the day – or some godlike figure who will be lowered onto the stage to offer godlike solutions to human dilemmas.

Come, Captain America!

Actually, if you’re the type who reads the back pages of the paper, you may have noticed that the god in the machine has actually landed on stage. The question now is whether the god will win enough audience applause to attract the attention of the wrestling wretches on stage.

Last April, a group of unusual Christians came together with the idea that the budget debate in Washington, which focused on taxing the rich and protecting the middle class, was omitting an element that breaks God’s heart. That element was the struggling poor in the United States – families who lost their homes in the recession, who live in their cars or on the street, working families unable to rise above the poverty line, children who go to bed hungry most nights, elderly and disabled struggling to survive – when was the last time you heard your favorite politician speak about these poor and vulnerable populations?

Last April this unusual group of Christians came together to form a Circle of Protection around government programs that support the poor. The group is unusual because it's composed of Christians who usually don’t talk to each other: the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, Sojourners, Bread for the World, the Alliance to End hunger and more – liberal Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, historic African American churches, living peace churches and others. These groups have historically followed different paths of ministry. But last April, they agreed on one thing: when the politicians in Washington talk about cutting the budget, they have an absolute imperative to protect programs that support the poor – Social Security, Medicaid, support services for the hungry and homeless, or foreign aid that keeps millions of people alive. Yet Washington isn’t worried about the poor because the poor can’t afford to hire lobbyists. So these Christians decided that the Circle of Protection will speak for the poor. When the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches agrees on an issue, it’s clear both are listening to God’s voice.

On July 21, Religious leaders representing the Circle of Protection met with President Obama in an “extraordinary” 40-minute meeting. They emerged expressing confidence that the chief executive sees the need for a circle of protection around government programs that support the poor.

“We were asked not to quote the president directly,” said the Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the National Council of Churches poverty initiative, who was among the Christian leaders who met with Mr. Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

“But the president used a biblical phrase that has been quoted in the church for two thousand years,” Livingston said. “He referred to ‘the least of these,’ which was the phrase Jesus used to describe the poor and hungry who needed to be fed and clothed and treated as sisters and brothers.” (Matthew 25:45)

Obama’s use of the phrase showed he understood why the group had come to the White House, Livingston said.

Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said the group stressed with the president “the fundamental moral principle that we should put the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce resources. Matthew 25 has gotten all twisted to say ‘whatsoever you do for the forgotten middle class you do unto me.’ We’re not interested in which party wins but we support those who are likely to lose, the families feeding kids looking for work.”

Ramirez noted that there are several “givens” in the debate over the budget, including the Republican given that there be no tax increases and the Democratic given that tax breaks for the rich should be eliminated.

“When you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor is not a given,” Ramirez said. “We asked the president to join us in forming a circle of protection around the poor. They have no lobbyists, but they do have the greatest moral claim.”

Last Thursday, these Christian leaders, joined by Jewish and Muslim leaders, took the deus ex machina to center stage.
Frustrated that their pleas to the Administration and Congress to protect funding for the nation’s most vulnerable are being ignored, nearly a dozen leaders from the faith community were arrested inside the U.S. Capitol Building.
Despite repeated warnings from the U.S. Capitol Police, the leaders refused to end their public prayers asking the Administration and Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

Among those who were arrested was Rev. Livingston.

“Congress is paralyzed by toxic partisan politics while people suffer,” he said. “Our elected officials are protecting corporations and wealthy individuals while shredding the safety net for millions of the most vulnerable people in our nation and abroad. Our faith won't allow us to passively watch this travesty unfold. We've written letters, talked with and prayed for our elected officials, and prayed together daily in interreligious community. Today, we 'offer our bodies as a living sacrifice' to say to congress 'Raise revenue, protect the vulnerable and those living in poverty.'”

The God in the Machine is on stage now. Yet the wrestling between parties continues. In a sense, the modern Jacob wrestles stubbornly with the angel of his better nature.

Genesis 32:24-32: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. ’Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Jacob, who stole his birthright from his twin, Esau, has been a dirty, rotten scoundrel until this night at Peniel. All his life he has sought power and advantage at the expense of everyone else. And then an angel came, and wrestled with him, and Jacob realized for the first time in his life that God was calling him to a higher service. This is one of the great conversion stories of Genesis, as Jacob the liar and fraud realizes this may be his last chance to get right with God. He holds desperately to the angel and will not let him go until the angel blesses him. And when the blessing comes, Jacob realizes: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

This week the members of the Congress believe they are wrestling with each other over issues they believe to be important. Let us unite our hearts in prayer that they will realize who they are really wrestling with – the God who loves the poor and blesses those who create circles of protection around them.

Political deals to protect the rich from higher taxes, or win the support of the middle class, may win votes. That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: supporting the rich while ignoring the poor is no way to win the blessing of God’s wrestling angels.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your cogent comments as usual. I recently sent a "robo-email" (at the behest of "Sojourners" ( to my congressman and received a robo-response. I sent a personal response to his robo-response and received another robo-response. I am sure that a computer program scanned my emails for keywords and sent a prepackaged answer.

    How are we as ordinary citizens supposed to make a difference if our leaders will not engage in real dialog? I am glad for the pressure the "circle of protection" movement is putting on our "leadership" but would like to know how us ordinary citizens can make our voices heard as well.

    The compromise seemingly reached today is not the end of the crisis but just a short term solution. The next step will be to see that the Bush era tax cuts are allowed to expire. Given the "circle of protection" that our congress people surround the rich and corporations it will be quite a battle but one that has to be fought and won.