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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Look Who’s Getting Pushed Off the Cliff

Paul Ryan’s embarrassment at not being able to deliver Wisconsin for his party’s standard bearer lasted only a week.  He’s now strutting back into the news announcing that last week’s sweeping electoral college rejection of Romney/Ryan was not a mandate for higher taxes for the wealthy.  Arguably more powerful than ever in the Republican controlled House, Ryan’s budget remains the fiscal document of record for the Republicans as we march toward the “fiscal cliff.” And that budget, steeped in the confidence of Ayn Rand’s quasi-religious free market vision, is devastating to the poor.

Robert Greenstein of the highly respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls the Ryan budget

a remarkable document – one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature.  In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse – on steroids.  It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times.

For headlines, read 62% of the proposed $5.3 trillion dollar cuts over ten years coming from low income programs, and cuts to state and local aid far below historic levels (from 2% of GNP in 1976 to .06% of GNP in 2021), money that supports education, Medicaid, etc.  If, at best, this is the starting point for negotiations in the face of the “fiscal cliff,” and at worst the end game for many in Washington, then it is clear that for people of faith, worrying about falling off the cliff should not a first concern.  Rather it is who is being pushed off the cliff that should occupy our moral attention.

My colleague Susan Thistlethwaite published a new book this week titled, #OccupytheBible – What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.  In it she provides a “street level” reading of the Bible (as opposed to that of the 8th floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange where traders posted a “We are the 1%” message to the OccupyChicago crowds gathered last year in the streets below).  Taking up the legacy of the Social Gospel in the early 20th century and liberation and womanist theologies several decades later, Thistlethwaite peels away convenient readings of Scripture that support unregulated, voracious markets to expose the Bible’s prophetic critique of economic programs, either in the ancient world or today, that concentrate wealth among the 1% while exploiting the poor.  “What the free-marketers need to understand,” she argues, “is that unregulated capitalism, interpreted as God’s invisible hand, is completely unbiblical.  It’s lousy Christianity.”

Progressives may think a new chapter in fiscal and social policy was opened up after last week’s election.  But for many, last week’s losses were only an inconvenient set back in the war on the poor that all too often marches under the flag of right wing evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics.  Meanwhile, religious progressives are often ill-equipped to resist because the radical, street level reading of the Bible with its disruptive economic critique has never fully occupied our churches and pulpits.  “We need to hear,” writes Thistlethwaite, “the word of release and proclaim the word of release for those crushed by austerity economics, made captive to debt, held subject to wage inequality, and caught up in private prisons to provide cheap labor.”

Lulled by a surprising electoral victory and distracted by a lurid scandal at the CIA,  we’re in real danger of failing those who huddle at the edge of the cliff.  They, not the 1% and not most of us, are the ones already falling into the economic abyss, with many more about to follow.  The poor and the near-poor were ignored by both parties during the campaigns.  Will they be ignored now as wounded Republicans fight back to regain their footing and as more and more Democrats succumb to austerity fever?  Will the Bible read at street level occupy enough of us to alert us to the dangers ahead?

Robert Greenstein may not be occupied by the Bible.  But amid his detailed policy analysis one finds an ally to those who believe the poor shouldn’t be pushed off the cliff:

It need not be this way. In 1990, 1993, and 1997, policymakers enacted major deficit reduction packages that reduced deficits in a more balanced way, without increasing poverty. Deficit reduction does not require the Scrooge-like, Gilded-Age policies that the Ryan plan embodies. Our nation and our people are better, and they deserve better.

The deals made in Washington over the coming weeks will be far more important for the moral character of our nation than any election.  The Republican ideologues in the House and the Wall Street bankers who circulate through the Obama administration’s Treasury Department and regulatory agencies will do their best to keep the Bible out of the equation, or at least the Bible read at street level.  It’s time to occupy!

John H. Thomas
November 15, 2012

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