Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:6
The passage from Isaiah provokes us once again to do what Karl Barth suggested: read the Bible with one hand and a newspaper in the other.
(Actually, no one has been able to find where Barth said this, so he probably didn’t, but it’s a good idea anyway.)
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate failed by one vote to extend unemployment compensation for 1.7 million Americans who lost benefits when the program expired in December.
Opponents of the bill, Republicans and a handful of Democrats, complained the measure would increase the deficit by $6 billion in three months.
Others cited an unproven theory than unemployment benefits encourage people to stay unemployed.
As to the second point, advanced by high-net-worth Tea Party Republicans, I offer the immortal words of Colonel Sherman T. Potter: Horse Pucky.
I have received unemployment benefits twice in my life when the mercurial tides of non-profit church organizations dumped me out of the ecumenical boat. At no time did I think the unemployment check was to be preferred to a real job, and neither did millions of my fellow Americans struggling to keep our heads above water in the swirling eddies of joblessness.
For those who have shared this experience, as well as millions of other persons of good will, the refusal to extend unemployment benefits seems mean spirited.
And many Christian organizations, including some that hurled their employees into the jobless briny to solve their own budget crises, chastised opponents of the unemployment benefits extension bill.
“With 10.4 million people unemployed and three job seekers for every job opening, a moral obligation exists to help protect the life and dignity of unemployed workers and their families,” Christian leaders told Congress when the benefits expired in December.
Some even raised the question that is as familiar as the answer is elusive: “What would Jesus do?”
Most people expose their own prejudices when they answer the question. Some believe Jesus would provide loving shelter and sustenance for the poor and despised, while others convince themselves he condones picketing funerals to protest homosexuality. (The latter folks have neither the wit nor the insight of the great Dorothy Parker, who observed, “Heterosexuality is not normal, just common.”)
But, clearly, the WWJD question does not advance the political debate over whether supporting the poor is a “moral obligation” or an encouragement of idleness and indolence.
The problem is, the Jesus we see in the Gospels is not always a clear model for behavior.
In an essay in The American Scholar, which became a chapter in his book, What Jesus Meant, Professor Garry Wills offers a warning:
But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a 12-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus’ parents in Luke: “How could you treat us this way?” Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying 2,000 animals? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of another person’s property and livelihood.
The basic question, what would Jesus do, has been debated for centuries as imitatio dei, the imitation of God. In 1897, Charles M. Shelton published In His Steps, a novel about middle-class Americans who were challenged to ask themselves the WWJD question before they made life decisions. Often the characters make decisions you or I might consider dubious, but the book sold 30 million copies. Unfortunately for Mr. Shelton, the original publisher failed to register the copyright. Other publishers, perhaps asking themselves what Jesus would do, reprinted the book without paying royalties to the author.
The answer to “What would Jesus do,” perhaps, is the same as Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it.
And, personally, I don’t think it’s difficult to discern that Jesus would be dismayed by the gridlock on Capitol Hill over the issue of what should be done to help persons struggling for survival below the poverty line.
This week, as the unemployment insurance extension act failed in the Senate, millions of Americans dependent on the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) may have less to eat. On Tuesday, the Farm Bill passed by Congress cuts the SNAP program by $8.6 billion.
On Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner said immigration reform legislation is unlikely to pass this year. He blamed the impasse on Americans’ distrust of President Obama, though critics suggested Boehner’s own party does not want to be in the position of voting against a popular bill prior to midterm elections.
These are just the latest examples of Congressional wrangling over bills to support working class and poor families, or provide paths to citizenship for 11 million persons living in the U.S. without visas or green cards.
I suppose some will make the case that this is what Jesus would do: cut benefits for the poor and disenfranchised while offering tax breaks to the rich, and opposing legislation that would guarantee equal pay for women and men in the workplace.
But that’s not the Jesus most of us know. The Jesus we know loved the poor, and spoke on their behalf out of a tradition that existed thousands of years before he was born.
No doubt he knew the passage from Isaiah by heart:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. Isaiah 58:5-9
Jesus spoke the words plainly for all who wonder what he would do:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40
Jesus’ words are so transparent that the least discerning of lobbyists should be able to figure them out. Yet a lot of people don’t think they apply to government.
I had the honor of working for the late Bob Edgar, a Methodist minister and six-term member of Congress. He was also a seminary president and, when I knew him, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Bob was president of Common Cause when he died suddenly last April.
Bob was the first of the Watergate generation of Congressional representatives elected in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation with the aim of restoring integrity to government.
He and the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, were the only clergy members of Congress in the seventies, and they shared Father Drinan’s political philosophy: “It goes back to the fact that you’re a Christian and a Jesuit,” Drinan said. “It means you have to love each other and that you can’t persecute people. It means you have to be compassionate to everyone in the world.”
Both Edgar and Drinan opposed the Vietnam War. Both were concerned about the rampant expansion of poverty and political injustice around the world. Both were advocates of human rights. And both received the same score from a Jerry Falwell lobby that evaluated representatives on the basis of their support of war and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment: Zero.
“We were both proud of that,” Bob said.
Clearly Falwell perceived a bizarre answer when he asked himself what Jesus would do: support war and oppose the rights of women.
Bob was frequently in trouble with the National Council of Churches governing board because he waded hip deep into political and moral issues that made persons-in-the pew uncomfortable. He helped negotiate the return of Elian Gonzales to his father in Cuba, co-authored “Deny Them Their Victory” after the 9/11 terror attacks and urged the U.S. not to respond with military action. He opposed war against Iraq, and went to George W. Bush’s Texas ranch to invite him to join mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq in prayers for peace (the President declined). He raised money for the rebuilding of Indonesia when it was struck by a murderous tsunami, and he established a “Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast” after Hurricane Katrina. Bob led boycotts of food companies that treated their farm workers poorly. He established an eco-justice program to maintain “God’s beautiful Creation,” and personally lobbied former Congressional colleagues who were voting to cut programs for the poor. He was often controversial, but few persons I knew had a clearer notion of what Jesus would do – or what Jesus wanted us to do in the name of peace, love, and justice. (See my web tribute to Bob when he left the Council.)
For me and many others, Bob set a high standard for Christian conduct in society. There have been many times since last April that I have missed his voice and moral leadership as politicians face off with widely divergent views of what Jesus would do. Shoved aside in the process are the poor, the under-represented, the under-paid, and the unemployed.
Even before Jesus walked the earth, the prophets were setting the stage for the message God wants each of us – our leaders included – to hear.
“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:10-12.
All too often, that message is falling on deaf ears in chambers of government.
Our prayer is that the prophet will nudge them closer to a more logical understanding of what, in circumstances such as these, Jesus would do.
We don’t know the answer to that precisely because Jesus never had to watch modern democracies in action.
But he was very much aware of the cruel dominance of the rich over the poor. And one of the best jokes in his repertoire invoked comic images of the corpulent rich squeezing through a needle’s eye.