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Friday, December 7, 2012

The Other Fiscal Cliff


    “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things,  but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
    “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them,  so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
    “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses  and the Prophets;  let them listen to them.’
-Luke 16:25-29 (NIV)


“Fiscal Cliff.” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? A disaster looming ahead, waiting for a whole country to plunge headlong over like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.
    It’s supposed to sound ominous, of course. Politicians who choose to lead by fear lose their power unless there’s something for the people to be afraid of. Folks on both sides of the aisle use the specter of the fiscal cliff as a way to push for their pet projects and champion their agendas. Special interests, afraid of having their government funding cut, line up to court favor with their chosen leaders. But the cuts have to come from somewhere, and come they will.
    Whose concerns will be heard: Pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies depending on the government to protect their enormous profits, or senior citizens who have to decide which of their prescriptions they can afford to fill?
      Whose voice will be louder: Massive agribusinesses demanding government subsidies, or low-income families who depend on programs like SNAP to provide sufficient food for their families?
    Who will politicians listen to: oil companies, or students applying for financial aid for college? homeowners desperately in need of mortgage refinancing, or homeowners asking the government to retain tax credits for second and third vacation homes? veterans who come home with very real needs, or defense contractors pushing their projects through congress?
    By and large, you know the answers as well as I do.
    There’s a fiscal cliff looming, all right, but it’s not the one we think it is. It’s not even one we should necessarily expect politicians to even recognize. Back when politicians were answerable to prophets for their policies, the prophets’ consistent message was always that they should look after the most vulnerable - the widows, the orphans, the aliens. Justice and righteousness were to be the marks of those who ruled. And when the prophets looked forward to the ruler who would come to save their people, they saw him bringing justice and righteousness.
    It wasn’t that the needy never got overlooked in the day-to-day business of government. But it was always clear that when they were overlooked, God was not pleased. “By justice a king gives a country stability,” says the proverb. “But those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”
     Now, our politicians are more answerable to profits than prophets.
    Those of us who are believers, who have some idea of what God expects from those who govern and some say in the way they govern, should speak with voices that match the voices of the prophets of old. We should say to our leaders, in no uncertain terms, that our votes for or against them will not be determined by party lines. They won’t be bought by tax cuts or tax credits for the wealthy or even the middle class. They will be determined by the important decisions those men and women make about how the marginalized and vulnerable in our society will be treated. We should say to them that we want to see some courage from them: courage to say no to those who have the clout to game the system, courage to say yes to those who have no clout and who have been failed by the system time and time again.
    Make no mistake; many politicians will promise nearly anything if it benefits them in some way. Don’t imagine that our well-being, financial or otherwise, depends on decisions they make in marble halls and back room committee meetings. But if we sell our souls in order to maintain or improve our standard of living by empowering leaders who ignore those who most need compassion and generosity, we are as responsible as they are.
     God forbid that we live more afraid of losing our standards of living than we are of him. God forbid that the widest radius of our concern extend no further than our own portfolios, bank accounts, and 401(k)’s. God forbid that we elect and support only the leaders who promise to give us, and ours, and the people like us, the prosperity that we’ve come to expect. God forbid that we fail to see the Lazaruses at our gates.
     The fiscal cliff followers of Jesus should be concerned about is the one that separates us from comfort and peace, but doesn’t prevent us from seeing those who we should have noticed and  comforted in this life being comforted in our stead in the next. It’s frightening how easy it can be, even for believers, to justify our lack of concern for the poor and marginalized. When our votes and our charitable giving seem more tied to our confidence in the economy than our concern for the biblical mandate for justice and righteousness, then I’m afraid we’re dancing right on the edge.
    But here’s the good news: that fiscal cliff isn’t one that we have to figure out with tax increases or spending cuts. Avoiding it doesn’t depend on politicians or accountants. Whether our leaders successfully avoid the economic mess they’re worried about or not, we know how to avoid the precipice the Lord was most concerned about. It has nothing to do with tax increases or spending cuts, balanced budgets or special interests. It has to do with opening our lives to people in need. It has to do with opening our hands and letting go of some of our stuff. It has to do with speaking up for people who have no voice themselves.
    The prophets say that righteousness is quantified by how a people treat the poorest and most vulnerable. Jesus said how we respond to “the least of these” is indicative of how we respond to him. I guess that’s because our treatment of the most poor and vulnerable among us most genuinely shows who we really are when we aren’t prevented by factors outside ourselves from taking what we want. History shows how quickly and easily human dignity can be compromised by economic and political powers. Protecting the most vulnerable is the only way to safeguard everyone.
    That’s the fiscal cliff that matters, and the one that will continue to matter long after the one in the news these days is just a minor footnote in history.

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