It gives me the shivers to think that I might be in league with members of the Tea Party. But increasingly, under my breath, I find myself growling: “Throw the bums out.”
The bums to be thrown out, of course, are legislators at various levels of government who have a decisive part in determining the role of those governments in the lives of “we the people” and how to pay for that role with our taxes.
Fortunately, I can quickly distinguish myself from the Tea Partiers because they seem to think government is, by definition, bad, although necessary to some limited degree – which, for them, applies to taxes as well.
My growl, on the other hand, isn’t because I think governments, and the taxes that go with them, are bad. Just the opposite, in fact. With the Apostle Paul, as well as a host of other sages of antiquity, I hold that government and taxes are divinely ordained – absolutely necessary in order to bring comprehensive order and justice along with inclusive innovation and compassion to human beings, human communities and the wider natural world.
My growl has to do with the failure of governments to carry out their divinely ordained tasks – their failure to provide comprehensive order and justice, inclusive innovation and compassion.
In particular, I’m growling because the “bums” don’t have courage to set taxes in such a way that allows governments to function as they should.
My own state, Illinois, is a case in point.
Our rhetoric is good in terms of what government should do on almost all fronts (education, human services, public transportation, public safety and so on). But we have a horrible tax system that has created structural deficits each year and that now, in the midst of the economic downturn, has reached a crisis point – “crisis” in the sense that the state has a $13 billion debt and no provisions for reducing it, can no longer borrow to meet its obligations, and is in deepening arrears to public schools and the agencies that provide essential human services.
The Republican senator who is running for governor insists that taxes cannot be increased and proposes a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the state’s budget, which would simply mean that the government would forsake its assigned role on behalf of the people and cause great suffering to exactly those people who need the state’s help the most.
The incumbent Democratic governor has proposed a 1 percent tax increase that comes nowhere near meeting the revenues required. And yet the Democrat-controlled General Assembly (the state’s legislature) refuses to pass even the inadequate tax increase proposed by the governor – largely because these bums hold to the dictum that no legislator in her or his right mind would raise taxes in an election year and retain any hope of being re-elected.
Oh yes, and there’s also the argument that we can’t raise taxes in Illinois because it would put us at a competitive disadvantage relative to our neighboring states in retaining and attracting businesses that provide employment and tax revenues. The only problem with that argument is that we’ve already got the lowest tax rate – in most cases, by far – in the region.
So, for all practical purposes, the Republicans and Democrats agree, albeit in just slightly different ways: abandon the responsibilities of elective public service and the obligations of government itself, all for the sake of political self interest, and with the clear recognition that those who are in the greatest need – children and young people, the poor, the vulnerable – should bear the cost of this bum-like behavior.
That’s why I’m growling, with ever increasing volume: throw the bums out.
But maybe it’s not just the bums that need to be thrown out. Maybe it’s also the demons abiding and residing in our body politic that need to come out.
One time when Paul and Silas were visiting Philippi in northeastern Macedonia, they kept getting nettled by a slave girl with psychic powers. She could discern, via her psychic revelations, that Paul and Silas were themselves servants, but in their case to a higher reality than the owners she served – owners who exploited her foretelling capacities to gain financial advantage over competitors.
This slave girl proved to be such a nag, day after day, that finally Paul, at wit’s end, commanded that the psychic spirit come out of her, which it did. That, however, meant that the owners had lost their unfair but very competitive advantage. Enraged by what Paul and Silas had caused to happen, the owners grabbed the visiting apostles, took them to city-center, and charged them before the people and the political leaders of Philippi with overturning the customs and accepted practices of the Roman Empire. Found guilty as charged, Paul and Silas were stripped and whipped and then jailed.
In the end, it took a miraculous earthquake, a humbled jail keeper, and apologies from the very authorities who had jailed them to get Paul and Silas back on their ministerial trail.
But what is important for our purposes is not the release from prison but rather the exorcism of the evil spirit that freed the slave girl from exploitation and that, subsequently, overturned the corrupted system of unfair customs and practices.
The “coming out” of that demon in a slave girl caused a revolution in Philippi.
Maybe a few teams of apostles today need to be nettled and nagged into exorcising the demons abiding and residing in those who are exploited for unfair gain by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Maybe that could also trigger a subsequent overturning of unacceptable customs and practices in Illinois politics and a revolution in the way things get done by governments here and elsewhere.
Maybe then – after the coming out of the demons – governments could again fulfill their divinely and civically ordained purposes, and public servants could again establish taxes that provide governments the means to fulfill their proper role.
My guess is that, in the end, this would be a more effective alternative than joining with the Tea Partiers in throwing the bums out.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.