“What Would Jesus Cut?” The Budget as a Moral Document

Essays

Yesterday morning I got an email from Sojourners, one of my favorite progressive Christian organizations, asking for a donation to help deliver “What Would Jesus Cut?” bracelets to every member of Congress. The message? “To challenge elected officials and the administration to remember their moral priorities when they vote on the budget.” […]

"What Would Jesus Cut?" BraceletYesterday morning I got an email from Sojourners, one of my favorite progressive Christian organizations, asking for a donation to help deliver “What Would Jesus Cut?” bracelets to every member of Congress. The message? “To challenge elected officials and the administration to remember their moral priorities when they vote on the budget.”

From a communications standpoint, I really like how Sojourners has taken advantage of the well-known WWJD campaign to remind our elected officials that budgets have an impact on more than just the nation’s fiscal health—they also reflect our national values.

But personally, I always felt uncomfortable with the WWJD movement. It seems to me that one thing Jesus wouldn’t do is slap on a bracelet asking, “What would I do?” The slogan seems to imply a sense of certitude about Jesus’ teachings that, frankly, I simply don’t share. If those closest to Jesus, his disciples, frequently did not understand him, how can we possibly think that 2,000 years later we can know exactly which programs he would support, and which he would cut?

Take, for example, a line I have frequently heard quoted in political settings as a critique of misguided spending priorities: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21, Luke 12:34). Sounds pretty clear, right? But when put into context, it actually implores Christians to entirely forgo all earthly treasures—which I assume would include state and federal budgets. In fact, in direct response to a question about taxes, all three synoptic Gospels quote Jesus as saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25). For millennia Christians have disagreed over the exact interpretation of this instruction, with Catholic Workers Movement founder Dorothy Day saying, “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” So do Jesus’ words here give us a clear spending mandate? Hardly.

Today we face a very different situation from the one Jesus faced. In an era where the federal government has become our nation’s largest alms-giver (and alms-collector!), I applaud all efforts that encourage lawmakers to think critically about how our spending reflects our morals. Insofar as the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign challenges us to open a conversation about where our treasure lies, it is heir to Jesus’ legacy of challenging us to re-think our priorities. As for providing us with clear and easy answers? That’s just not what Jesus would do.

(For those of you who would like to see where President Obama keeps his heart, the New York Times has two wonderful info-graphics for your viewing pleasure: Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal, and Highlights of the Obama Budget.)

3 thoughts on ““What Would Jesus Cut?” The Budget as a Moral Document

  1. Thanks, Jeff… I agree with you. I guess I’m just always left wondering how we can begin to discuss spending priorities when almost anything can be justified with a turn to the Christian tradition. Something the late Peter Gomes was always saying. I have recently read books arguing against immigration and environmental concern, from the Christian Right in the US… how can we find a way of engaging in conversation – drawing on the ethical insights of faith – which doesn’t simply entail everyone using God to bolster their stance?

    1. Susie, I think you’re right that it’s difficult to determine spending priorities based on biblical justifications, but that alone should not deter us from the endeavor. To also quote my (now former) advisor at Harvard:

      “The question should not be ‘What would Jesus do?’ but rather, more dangerously, ‘What would Jesus have me do?’ The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semidivine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.” —Rev. Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 69.

      So asking, “What Would Jesus Cut?” does not, in fact, adequately prepare us for the serious moral searching that must go into any consideration of the budget. I actually think John Davison Hunter’s “faithful presence” idea from To Change the World would work better—maybe I’ll write up a book review and post it here?

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