In politics and personal life, we often experience the tension between abundance and scarcity and community and individuality. In his April 13 speech, President Barack Obama clearly aligned himself with an abundant and community-oriented approach to our current national debt crisis. Budgets are moral statements; they reflect our personal and communal priorities and values. President Obama’s speech was guided by moral principles, reminiscent of the Hebraic prophets and first-century Christians. President Obama clearly aligned himself with the vulnerable and elderly in contrast to those who believe reducing taxes is the ultimate moral ought. In times of crisis, there is a tendency to circle the wagons, separate ourselves from others, and focus on “me and mine.” This has been the approach of fiscal conservatives and the Tea Party Movement. While tough decisions and sacrifices need to be made, President Obama signaled that the American values of community and care for the vulnerable will be essential to any debt reduction policy.
President Obama’s vision of America follows the spirit of the Hebraic prophets, who proclaimed that a famine of hearing the word of God is a result of our failure to hear the cries of the poor. While the prophets did not focus explicitly on tax policy, it is clear that the prophetic tradition placed greater burdens on the wealthy then the impoverished. The wealthy must be honest, justice-seeking, and civilly responsible, even if it isn’t always in their immediate financial interest.
The biblical tradition proclaims that we are connected with one another and that character is measured by our care for the vulnerable. Further, biblical ethics embraces individual behavior, but the ultimate emphasis of the prophetic tradition and the economic ethics of the early church is our care for one another. Whether in the prophetic writings, the epistles of Paul and James, and the teachings of Jesus, scripture sees our care for the vulnerable, both young and old, as the heart of congregational, community, and, dare we say, governmental policy.
Nothing could be further from biblical ethics than the rugged individualism of Ayn Rand, the intellectual inspiration of many of today’s fiscal conservatives. The “least of these” don’t deserve our consideration, either personally and politically, Rand and her followers assert.
From this perspective, tax policies should reward the wealthy with lower taxes and punish the poor with continued poverty and meager healthcare, while burdening the middle class with higher tax rates than their wealthier brothers and sisters. Rather than seeing the existence of poverty as a moral blight on society and a reflection of our turning away from God’s vision of Shalom for all creation, such public policies imply a moral inferiority among the working poor, unemployed persons, and financially-strapped senior citizens.
No doubt, President Obama’s plan will be riddled with imperfections. The President needs to stand more forthrightly with the poor and vulnerable, and frankly increase support for the “least of these.” But, his vision is on the right track from both a moral and biblical perspective. Sadly, fiscal conservatives can think of no better moral argument for their position than “it’s my money.” Stewardship surely pertains to governmental tax policy, budget allocations, and debt reduction. We need to spend wisely and effectively. But, biblical stewardship reminds us that our money is ultimately not our own; and that how we use it is a moral issue. Biblical stewardship challenges us to see our well-being as relational, not individualistic, and asks each person to place a high priority on the well-being of her or his community.
We need a vision and a hope; scarcity and individualistic thinking will destroy our communities and nation, increase the gap between the wealthy and the poor and middle class, and stifle the innovation and creativity that has made the United States great. President Obama presented a compelling ethical vision that should guide our attempts to lower the deficit and pay down the national debt. We must be more fiscally responsible, but we cannot sacrifice the soul of the nation to reduce the deficit. Obama rightly balances debt reduction with an ongoing commitment to the least of these, and this should be applauded by people of faith.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books including his most recent, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (May 2011). He blogs at Living A Holy Adventure and writes a regular column at Patheos here.