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.”
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.)