Led by evangelical activist Jim Wallis, 114 religious leaders were arrested Wednesday in Washington for civil disobedience protesting federal budget proposals that slash spending for the poor while extending tax breaks for the rich.
According to SoJo.net, the religious leaders held a press conference before kneeling in prayer to block the entrance to the Cannon House Office Building. They were led away after Capitol police warned three times to move away from the building.
“There is a Christmas scandal in this nation,” Wallis said quoted in Religion News Service, “but it has nothing to do with shopping malls saying ‘Happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas. The Christmas scandal is the immoral budget coming out of this Congress.”
The “National Prayer Vigil,” announced earlier in a press release, culminates a yearlong campaign by religious leaders to urge legislators to lead with compassion toward the poor and marginalized.
Organized by Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners and Call to Renewal, a church-based anti-poverty group, the campaign featured community prayer vigils across the country in conjunction with the national rally.
“Budgets are moral documents that reflect what we care about,” Wallis said last week. “Budget and tax bills that increase the deficit put our children’s futures in jeopardy–and they hurt the vulnerable right now.”
The protest came as Congress worked to finalize budget-cutting measures. The House has adopted a plan that would save $50 billion over five years by trimming food-stamp rolls, impose new fees on people on Medicaid and cut funds for enforcing payment of child support. Negotiations are underway with senators, who cut a more modest $35 billion in their proposal.
Also on Wednesday, National Council of Churches General Secretary Bob Edgar sent a letter to Congress reporting that millions of people of faith are “appalled at the callous indifference to children, the elderly, veterans and low-income families that this budget reflects.”
The budget, Edgar said, “is immoral, unjust and it hurts the very people it should be helping.” He called on members of Congress to vote it down.
Notably absent from the debate are high-profile members of the religious right, which have been vocal on a number of social issues from gay marriage and abortion to sex-trafficking and genocide in Sudan.
“There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in Tuesday’s Washington Post. “But it does not say government should do it. That’s a shifting of responsibility.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics called that “an artificial division and false assertion about the Bible,”
“A moral budget prioritizes care for the poor over the enriching of the rich,” said Parham, who did not take part in the demonstration.
Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based ethics agency, said the Bible’s command to care for the poor was to the entire society, including individuals, business and governing system. “The entire society was expected to work out the details and the delivery system to care for the poor,” he said.
According to RNS, Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, which has been pressuring retailers to make more explicit references to Christmas, said his 3 million members aren’t galvanized by issues like federal spending policy.
“The budget bores people, and this [Christmas] is an issue everyone can understand,” Wildmon said, adding that Wallis’ message “sounds like to me the liberal social gospel.”
“Shamefully, the religious right ignores God’s clear commandment about the poor and society’s responsibility for the poor,” Parham said. “The religious right evades responsibility to the poor through a division between the public and private, a division that the Bible does not make.”
Parham’s full statement says:
“The Bible says what it says and means what it means. God told the people of Israel, ‘For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land’ (Deut 15:11). That commandment was rooted in the realism about intractable poverty and the moral imperative to care generously and completely for the weakest members of society.
“The commandment repeated an earlier instruction: ‘If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your hand which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be’ (Deut. 15:7-8).
“Make no mistake. God’s commandment was to the entire society. The command was not assigned only to individuals or businesses. It was also assigned to the governing system. The entire society was expected to work out the details and the delivery system to care for the poor.
“Shamefully, the religious right ignores God’s clear commandment about the poor and society’s responsibility for the poor. The religious right evades responsibility for the poor through a division between the public and private, a division that the Bible does not make. When Tony Perkins claims, as he did in today’s Washington Post, that the biblical mandate to care for the poor does not apply to the government, he makes an artificial division and a false assertion about the Bible. He would do well to read the Bible before he misstates the Bible in support of a political budget that cuts anti-poverty programs and rewards the rich.
“A moral budget prioritizes care for the poor over the enriching of the rich.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.