The issue biblically isn’t, this time, only or even primarily about keeping one’s word, although that feature of integrity is indeed part of the whole picture – as it is so often.
But no, in this case, the New Testament standard has to do principally with what “abides” and what doesn’t “abide” within a person’s, organization’s or nation’s character.
It concerns what people and organizations and nations do with the assets – the funds, the resources, the wealth – they have.
Last August, members of Congress, in order to avoid a shutdown of the government that was provoked by a deadlock on raising the national debt-ceiling, agreed to cut some $600 billion over a 10-year period on both domestic and military spending.
A large factor in achieving the bipartisan agreement at that time was that both parties had to give up something they cherished.
For the Democrats that meant deep spending cuts in domestic programs. For the Republicans it involved significant reductions in military budgets.
But since that time, many Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have signaled that they want to back out of the bipartisan agreement of late last summer.
It isn’t that they’ve addressed their second thoughts by agreeing to revenue increases in order to avoid the alarm they have about cuts in the defense budget.
That would mean breaking their pledge to Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform never to increase taxes. Evidently, that vow is so sacred that it must be honored whatever the costs in dollars, human well-being, even human lives.
No such firm commitment applies evidently to the pledge they made to each other and the American people last August.
Last week, the House Republicans revealed how they plan to keep military spending untouched. They agreed that all of the cuts needed to come from domestic programs.
Here’s how The New York Times on April 24 saw the impact of the $33 billion to be cut from the food stamp program: “That would immediately end benefits for two million people, and reduce benefits for the remaining 44 million people who use the programs. A family of four would find their benefits lowered by $57 a month beginning in September, according to an analysis of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The committee trimmed job training for food-stamp recipients by 72 percent; 280,000 students would no longer be eligible for free meals.”
The Times noted that some of the reductions could have been achieved by lowering farm subsidies, but instead the decision was to take it all from food stamps.
As Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Wis.) remarked: “We’d rather pay farmers millions of dollars not to grow crops than to feed children.”
Other areas of the domestic budget that would suffer include funds designated for health care reform and oversight of the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Senators from both parties in the Senate aren’t likely to go along with these exclusively domestic cuts.
In fact, the Republican leadership in the Senate has indicated that it will abide by the compromise reached last August. Democrats in the Senate, along with the administration, have promised to reject the House proposals.
So what’s the big deal? And why does this have anything to do with New Testament teachings?
It’s a big deal because, more than revealing that some members of Congress are perfectly willing to go back on their word to each other and the people they serve, it shows exactly where they are willing to mar their character, honor, integrity.
And that’s where the New Testament comes in – where the New Testament provides a specific test about character, honor and integrity. It is the “abiding test.”
In 1 John 3:17 the question is put this way: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
Sure, some Christians could stipulate that something other than “love” is what characterizes God’s own nature – maybe something like judgment and condemnation, something like exclusion and hate, something like the strength and power not just to defend oneself but to impose oneself on others.
Yes, the Bible attributes some of those characteristics to God, and there are certainly some Christians who believe that the divine will is realized insofar as these very characteristics are incorporated into the Christian life.
We Christians will have to continue arguing with each other about that, although I think those who side with the writer of 1 John have a distinct advantage on that front.
Others, Christians and non-Christians alike, might suggest that this text from 1 John applies only to Christians personally, or only to Christians intramurally – that is, that it doesn’t apply to non-Christians or to nonreligious spheres of human life.
I grant that the text can be read that way.
My claim, on the other hand, is that the writer of this text, as well as the community that the writer represents, is making not an exclusivistic proposal about God’s character but a universal one.
It follows, then, (since, after all, we are talking about God) that to “abide” in who God essentially is, and for God to “abide” in anyone and anything, requires meeting the “abiding test” of love-in-action – an “abiding test” that “abides” in still another sense: a love-in-action that continues unceasingly, that doesn’t go back on its vow, that is sustained willfully as a matter of integrity, character and identity.
The “abiding test” in both of these meanings is strikingly simple, as it turns out: whether, out of the resources one has, to help those in need.
The testimony of Scripture is that God is always putting us – personally, organizationally, nationally – to that “abiding test.”
We could only hope that our political leaders would be at least willing to take the test – and that we will be willing repeatedly to take that test ourselves.
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.