“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously everyday. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” (Lk 16: 19-21).
For years now, many faith leaders have been making the argument that the Federal budget is a moral document. The argument is simple: the choices we make reflect what our national priorities are. Federal and state budgets are behemoths; their size and complexity makes it easy to feel disconnected from what they do and who they impact. But the principles that go in to them are exactly the same as the principles in a family budget. We put money into the things that are most important to us; where our treasure is, there are hearts are also. What, then, does it say about our country that the vast majority of cuts to the federal budget that Congress is proposing are to domestic and international programs that aid the poorest among us?
Let’s be honest, the poor are easy to pick on. Unlike CEOs or multi-million dollar industries, the poor rarely have anyone to speak for them or people working the system to their advantage. They face monumental obstacles of systemic injustice, inadequate housing, education, high crime, unemployment etc. Then, when middleclass Americans get screwed over by crooks on Wall Street, they are sold the story that it is social programs for the poor that are draining our economy. When the budget debate is framed that way, who can blame blue collar parents struggling to put food on the table for thinking America can’t afford to help the poor? As much as we would love to help people in need, now is the time to tighten our belts (or so the argument goes). When the middle class and poor are pitted against each other for the same resources, the poor are going to lose, every time. Never mind that both are fighting over crumbs from the table while the rich feast sumptuously.
The proposed cuts in foreign aid are a prime example. The majority of American’s erroneously believe that around 21% of our budget is dedicated to foreign aid (and when asked what would be a more appropriate percentage, say around 10%). In reality, funding for foreign aid makes up only 1% of the federal budget. Yet, this is what Republicans want to slash drastically. Foreign aid includes funding to respond to humanitarian disasters, like the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. It also includes food and water assistance, development aid for impoverished areas, and adaptation funding, which helps build resilience among those most affected by floods and droughts caused by climate change. Michael Gerson puts it best when he asks, “These reductions were intended to be symbolic, but what do they symbolize?”
On the domestic front our priorities are no better. Programs on the chopping block for massive cuts include funding for children, low income housing, job training (because with record unemployment, naturally we should cut programs that help people get jobs), and women’s health. The moral bankruptcy of these cuts is only further compounded when they are viewed in light of the extension of the Bush era tax cuts. The Center for American Progress put together a compelling chart that can only be understood as a catalog of our social sin when it comes to our budgetary priorities.
The numbers being discussed in foreign aid and domestic social programs are not abstractions. For millions of men, women, and children, they are their next meal, a mosquito net that prevents malaria, heat for their homes, and their HIV retroviral medication. At home and abroad, we are literally taking food from the mouths of starving children for no other reason than to spare the uber rich higher taxes and make symbolic reductions to our deficit.
Not only are these actions sin (pure and simple), they’re ineffective. These proposed cuts actively harm our nation’s self-interest. We’ve bought in to a false dichotomy that we must choose between pursuing our moral interests or our self-interests. But the fact is, more often than we think, the two are aligned. Combating poverty through social programs at home and humanitarian and development aid internationally builds stronger communities, promotes stability and peace in war torn regions, decreases crime, and increases the rates at which our children become productive members of society. The cost of providing food to the hungry is far lower than the cost of peace keeping missions or building more prisons. As a nation, we cannot afford protracted military action in another poverty stricken war zone; we can afford a bag of rice and a mosquito net.
It seems almost providential that these debates are being carried out during the season of Lent, a time in which Christians are called to reflect, fast, and repent. As we seek to follow Jesus on his way to the cross, we are compelled to see who he chose to walk alongside. Only twice in the Gospels does Jesus speak of hell as we popularly conceive it (with flames and souls in agony) and it’s interesting to note the context for each of these. The first is in Matthew 25, where Jesus tells us that we will be judged by what we do – and fail to do – for the least of these among us. The second is Luke 16 and the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Out of his anguish in the afterlife, the rich man cries out to Abraham for mercy. But Abraham’s response is, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted, and you are in agony.” In Luke, Jesus is doing everything he can to hammer home the message, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk 16: 21-24). We proclaim a Christ who took his place among the poor and afflicted. They will find comfort in him, in this life or the next. And we will be judged by where we choose to stand, either alongside Jesus offering aid to the poor, or at the banquet of the rich.
As Christians, we should be entering the budget debate with one prayer on our lips, “Christ have mercy.” In response to the proposed cuts targeting the most vulnerable among us, Ambassador Tony Hall began a fast this week and is calling on others to join him. You can learn more about the fast here. As we continue through Lent, and seek to be a faithful witness to our leaders as they make difficult decisions about the spending priorities and values of our nation, may we remember these words from the prophet Isaiah, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (58: 6-7).