President Obama and Republicans in Congress appear willing to continue the national pastime of pandering to the wealthy at the expense of the needy.
According to news reports, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate are willing to support legislation to extend workers’ unemployment benefits that are set to expire Dec. 31 – if Obama and Democrats will support extending the “temporary” tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush for all taxpayers, including individuals earning $200,000 or more and couples earning $250,000 or more, that are also scheduled to expire Dec. 31.
Such a deal should offend anyone who cares about justice. People making $200,000 a year don’t need a tax break nearly as badly as people who’ve been out of work for months need unemployment benefits. Obama surely knows this. So why would he agree to such a deal?
And why, to add further insult to injury, would his administration agree to exempt estates valued at $5 million from taxation? Why agree to add $900 billion – almost a trillion dollars – more to the federal deficit by giving tax breaks to the rich?
The political answer is that some lawmakers won’t agree to extend benefits for unemployed workers unless people with jobs and high incomes get tax breaks. Tax breaks for the wealthy is the price Republican and some Democratic lawmakers are demanding, and Obama seems willing to pay so unemployed workers can buy food, provide shelter and otherwise care for their families.
This situation is happening during Advent season, when Christian congregations are joyfully singing and preaching about a time when the Messiah will rule the world “in truth and grace.”
We are warned in Psalm 146:3 not to place ultimate trust in rulers – no matter what their political party or philosophy may be – but in God. The drama being played out in Washington over extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers shows that politicians are dealmakers.
Their primary concern is not justice for the poor, weak and vulnerable, but the campaign contributions and support they can garner from the wealthy and powerful.
So why aren’t religious leaders talking about this issue? Could it be that we, like the politicians, are more concerned about money, church pledges to capital campaigns, and budgets than to how our vulnerable neighbors are treated?
Are religious leaders and congregations becoming like the politicians the psalmist warned against trusting? Are we so much “at ease in Zion” that we’re more interested in charity than justice?
I don’t expect politicians to think and act like prophets. But it isn’t asking too much of preachers and congregations who claim to be God’s servants to demand that politicians use public money so unemployed people can have food and shelter.
It isn’t asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge and criticize politicians who would rather create more public debt to give tax breaks to wealthy people than protect people oppressed by unemployment.
And it isn’t asking too much of preachers and congregations to challenge ourselves about how much we cater to wealthy people.
The biblical prophets had a sensitivity about and compassion for suffering people that inspired them to hold rulers accountable for the plight of poor people, immigrants, children and others who were vulnerable. They called on rulers to relieve suffering, not exempt the powerful and affluent from the duty to help care for the less fortunate.
When rulers ignored the divine mandate of justice for the poor, weak, immigrant and outcast in their societies, prophets challenged them, criticized them and condemned them. And when priests sided with insensitive and oppressive rulers, prophets condemned the priests along with the rulers.
Have the preachers and members of congregations supposedly devoted to God and divine justice forgotten this biblical history and forsaken our calling?
Sadly, we seem so addicted to materialism and popularity that we can’t and won’t condemn policies and politicians that violate the biblical imperative to care for vulnerable people.
Shame on us for thinking we glorify God while ignoring how rulers treat people Jesus called “the least of these”! Shame on us for honoring the wealthy and disregarding the needy! Shame on us!
Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas.