Where Are the Poor in This Debt Ceiling Debate?

by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor

Public Mood Sours, Continued Criticism of Congressional LeadersIt’s by turns infuriating and farcical.

It has become increasingly clear that the debt ceiling and deficit reduction dramas are manufactured emergencies driven by electoral politics, though the consequences of inaction are very real. The desire to stay in office, to hold on to this or that position of leadership, to stick it to one’s despised political foe with a kind of suit-and-tie snarly glee. These pathological needs now trump everything else. And it’s dispiriting to watch.

Words have lost their meaning — their basic correspondence to things and ideas by which we judge the validity and persuasiveness of human speech. Half-truths and blatant falsehoods are spun into implausible narratives uttered in grave tones and with straight faces. And almost always by middle-aged and older white men. Where are the women in this debate? (Women could knock this thing out.)

Partisan politics in the digital age depends on a distracted, uninformed electorate. It’s not helpful to the cause of conservative intransigence for voters to know that, without fuss or fanfare, Republicans voted numerous times during the Bush presidency to raise the debt limit.

And neither side in this made-up crisis has given appropriate attention to the poor. For years now, both Democrats and Republicans have made the middle class their primary legislative concern, their targeted demographic for election and re-election propaganda. The poor, let’s face it, are a drag on our collective hope in the American dream. Deficit Worries Still High, but Job Situation Remains the Bigger ConcernIn fact, we’re not even sure that the poor are really all that poor. I mean, 97 percent of them have refrigerators! How bad could their lives really be?

Having written a reflection on the appointed gospel reading for this coming Sunday, I’m thinking about these matters in light of Jesus’ encounters with the poor in the towns and villages, hillsides and seashores, of the Galilee. In the deserted places of Empire, Jesus met the hungry masses in all of their tiresome, needy, inconvenient humanity. It would have been easier to stay in seclusion, to pass the problem off to the disciples, which he actually did at first: you give them something to eat,” he says to them.

But he takes a meager sack lunch of bread and fish, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to the disciples to give to the crowds. It’s a familiar story and one that strains logic, leaving us skeptical and incredulous, especially the part about collecting 12 baskets of leftovers when everyone had eaten their fill.

At least, though, we can acknowledge that the early Christians preserved and passed on a story like this because their imaginations had been shaped by a story of abundance, not of scarcity. The fear-mongering ways of Empire were rejected and a new way of being — life and health and wholeness for all, even women and children in the gospel of Matthew’s telling of the story — was the good news.

Fear and scarcity are the watchwords of Empire politics today. They divide and diminish us — reducing our elected officials to buffoons one day, calculating schemers the next — and making us, regardless of party affiliation, co-conspirators in the misery they plot.

But we can resist. Without resorting to the hard-edged parochialism of the religious right, we can embrace the politics of Jesus. We can refuse the politics of fear and scarcity and choose instead another way of being: life and health and wholeness for all — even for women and children and the poor in our midst.

Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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