What Would Jesus Cut?

No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily. ~ Speaker of the House John Boehner

If Jesus were in Washington, D.C. just now—or in any of our state legislatures—I imagine that the needs of children, the poor, and the outsider would engage his interest. And despite the quotation I've ripped from context and pasted above, I have to assume that given the budget cuts proposed by Republicans, Speaker Boehner, and others in his train would vehemently disagree with me.

While we both speak of a budget having a moral dimension, we seem to be thinking of different Jesuses.

Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and the other religious leaders who signed the What Would Jesus Cut? open letter make a strong theological argument that cuts to certain social programs, continued high levels of expenditure on our military, and the maintenance of tax cuts for the wealthiest in our society are unbiblical and immoral. When, for example, Mr. Wallis asks, "Are we saying that every piece of military equipment is more important than bed nets, children's health, and nutrition for low-income families?" it certainly sounds like a Jesus-y question to me.

The Jesus I've encountered in scripture, the tradition, and experience hates violence and willingly suffered torture and execution at the hands of the world's greatest military power to show that violence and death do not get the last word. The Jesus I've discovered in the Beatitudes, in the healing miracles, and in the Gospel of John brought food, healing, and wholeness to those who lacked it.

So what would Jesus cut?

Now, we have to acknowledge that even asking this question comes with its complications. Over a century ago, Albert Schweitzer mused that people always seem to find exactly the Jesus they're looking for. Biblical scholar Scot McKnight said this in a slightly different way last year in Christianity Today: "To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image."

When I argue that Jesus would do this or wouldn't do that, there is always the danger I am doing the same thing that, say, people quoting snippets from the Founding Fathers are doing to justify their particular points—i.e., picking bits and pieces of the tradition, ignoring others, and putting forward iron-clad arguments that we're sure are correct . . . because we already believed our arguments were right before we started constructing them.

That danger is why we spent the last month doing spiritual homework. We compared the "freedom" language of secular American culture with the "virtue" language of the Founders and the "justice" language of the Christian tradition, and concluded that our desire to keep more of our money and hang on to more of our freedoms is perfectly human. But we also concluded that this desire does not conform to the divine law of love, nor to the life and teachings of Jesus, nor to later understandings from the Christian tradition, from Augustine to Calvin to the present.

So even without citing most of the thousands of verses in the Bible dealing with the poor and with justice, I can't imagine that our Senator Jesus on Capitol Hill, or State Senator Jesus H. Christ in the Texas Lege, is going to cut social programs while the U.S. continues to spend more on defense than all our allies and enemies combined. And I can't imagine that Senator Jesus would feel that wealthy people have an absolute right to hold onto more of their record gains while the poor flounder and middle-class families struggle.

Here's the single challenge I would present to anyone who believes there's a Christian rationale for cutting social programs while maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans: Can you tell me what in scripture or the tradition makes you think that Jesus would dig them? Because so far, I got nothing.

In addition to the theological spadework I've been doing, I've sampled hundreds of online comments to stories on the What Would Jesus Cut initiative. Most of the attempts to do theology indicting the initiative are pretty feeble: Since taxation is actually theft and stealing violates one of the Ten Commandments, Jesus would never steal from the American people in the first place.

Or, Jesus said the poor will always be with us. So nothing we do will ever fix poverty. Why pour money into these programs?