Rector's Ramblings March 22, 2017
Budgets are moral documents…or are they? Politicians will throw around such ideas when they want to add strength to and justify their fiscal decision-making. It is a bipartisan practice depending on whose budget it is and what that budget seeks to do. We’re hearing it again from those who oppose the President’s “skinny budget,” the recent disclosure of his fiscal priorities and suggested first cuts to the national budget. But to what extent is it fair to refer to the morality of a budget, or conversely, to deny viewing a budget through the lens of morality?
The question is not new. Christ Church has heard sermons in the past, particularly during the last interim, in which we were reminded that we could tell a lot about a person’s faith and what they hold dear by looking at their checkbook. What we spend our precious money on says a lot about what and who is precious to us. If we analyze an individual’s spending habits and see that they never give money away to help people less fortunate than themselves, for example, we would make a moral judgment (based on Jesus’ teaching) about that person’s character and faith. We might call them greedy, self-centered, or even cold-hearted. Certainly we would draw a distinction between Jesus’ teaching and such a person’s unresponsiveness to that teaching.
Jesus warned that the love of money and possessions was a serious spiritual problem; his concern was that it made us self-centered and would prevent us from living the way God would have us live. We hear it in the story of Lazarus and the beggar at his gate; we hear it when he warns that we cannot serve God and wealth; we hear it consistently throughout his ministry and teaching. St. Paul said it bluntly in his letter to Timothy: "For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." Paul said quite a bit about money to Timothy, which makes me suspect that someone in Timothy’s circle, perhaps Timothy himself, was struggling with this.
For the Christian, what we do with our resources is an extension and manifestation of our faith as followers of Jesus. Such decisions are not made in a vacuum, and are absolutely based on our morals, or more accurately, our faith. But how does that relate to what goes on in Washington? To what extent does a secular government, and one that represents us and acts on our behalf, make such decisions faithfully? How do we use the lens of faith and our calling as disciples to evaluate something as mundane as a budget?
The outcry over this particular budget is really a response to the priorities it establishes. At the surface level we see a shift away from programs that benefit the poor and the vulnerable parts of our society and the vulnerable parts of our physical world, largely to the benefit of defensive (war making) capabilities and protectionism, largely out of fear of terrorism. Clearly it is more complex than that, however, a first glance at this budget highlights this shift and represents a decision about what things are more precious than others. For example, this most recent budget suggestion is not an indication of a budget-wide cost cutting initiative, nor does it seek to streamline all areas that involve waste and bloat. Instead it targets some programs and areas of spending and in turn gives most of those “savings” to the defense department. Some would debate the amount of waste and bloat in the latter category, which already makes up half of our national discretionary spending.
Now, there has been all kinds of hyperbolic response to the implications of the skinny budget and also strong reactions to the response. There are some hot button examples, like Meals on Wheels (MoW) and school programs that feed hungry children. I did some research to get beyond the hyperbole in an attempt to understand these particular examples and here’s what I found out. The elimination of block grants could reduce overall MoW funding by 3% nationally, although those grants are spread out across the entire country. Some states and communities allocate greater amounts to programs like MoW, which means some communities won’t see a 3% drop in funding but as much as a 35% drop in their funding. Also unresolved is how cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, a suggested cut of 18%, will affect support for MoW. The Older Americans Nutrition Program falls under that department and experts suggest it would be unlikely that the program’s budget would not be reduced as a result of the overall department cuts. The Older Americans Nutrition Program funds a full 35% of MoW nationally. The potential impact is quite large. We can’t necessarily say that MoW is automatically in grave danger, nor can we downplay that it is in jeopardy without more detail. All we can evaluate, as of now, is what such decisions mean about what is most important to us.
At this point, it is fair to point out that this budget, skinny or not, is highly unlikely to pass. It’s more political theatre than anything. Congress will make its own budget, and various constituencies will no doubt find successes and failures along the way in reshaping whatever is proposed. But, even political theatre has meaning and consequences. The moral vision projected by this budget is challenging to some, regardless of whether it passes or not. It’s always possible that such cuts will be picked up by Congress and included in a final budget. That’s a concern. Programs like Meals on Wheels ensure that our vulnerable senior population eats better, which reduces the health effects of poor nutrition, and enables people to stay in their homes longer, avoiding a strain on elder care provided in expensive facilities and billed to Medicare and Medicaid. It’s a lot more complex than most pundits, friendly or critical of such plans, let on.
The same is true with regard to school programs that also feed children. The specific justification given for reducing expense on such programs that feed hungry kids is that they don’t work. But, when we do the research, we learn that studies do show a positive correlation between nutritional programs, before and after school programs, and learning. We can also talk to teachers in poor schools about the difference it makes. We also might consider why it is that this particular parish goes to great lengths to get food to hungry children through Backpack Buddies and supporting programs like the Boys and Girls Club and the Burroughs-Molette afterschool programs. We know firsthand how important such programs are.
MoW and school programs are just two small examples of what drives questions of morality in processes like budgeting. It is because of examples like these that some have said this budget proposal beats ploughshares into swords. The image of swords being beaten into ploughshares, weapons of war being turned into weapons of community building, comes from the Prophets Isaiah and Micah. It stemmed from a vision of God’s Kingdom, in which the people are fed and prosper and turn away from war. The Prophet Joel later suggested the opposite was called for, calling for farming implements to be made into weapons as the nations were preparing for active war. When we see a proposal that literally trades resources allocated for food for the hungry (and other measures to support the poor and vulnerable) with more resources for weapons and war, it is of grave concern.
When we want to evaluate the morality of a particular view of our common life, we must see that there are moral questions to be answered. What is the higher good for the country as a whole? What is the best, most moral way to spend our precious resources? How can and should we be good stewards of what we have, in this case, tax dollars? How do we spend our precious resources on what and who we hold to be precious?
I can’t and won’t say if a particular budget is moral or not. Budgets like the one in question are far too large and complex to look at on the whole. Cuts and increased funding are hard to evaluate with black and white categories, as we’re often talking about degrees rather than extremes. It’s equally difficult to talk about morality of an entire nation state or to seriously suggest that a nation state can or should be Christian. That way of thinking breaks down when we realize that Jesus’ teaching makes it pretty clear where the higher good falls out between weapons and food.
We should not, however, turn away from evaluating the moral implications of decisions made in public life. The role of the individual Christian is to always evaluate what the Christian moral calling is. It is up to us to decide what we will champion with our elected leaders by contacting them or through our silence. We must wrestle with the choice before us for swords or ploughshares in our own life and worldview. We can step aside from national budgets and simply look at our own lives; perhaps evaluate our own budget. What do we do with our precious resources? Who and what are precious to us? Our own budgets are moral documents…or are they?
O Lord, your Son has taught us that from those to whom much is given, much will be required: Guide us to obtain our money honestly, neither injuring our neighbors nor ravaging your creation. And help us to use wisely what we have, for the well-being of our families and all people, and for the strengthening of your kingdom in justice, beauty, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.