Sojourners Advocates “the Policies of Our Savior”

on May 22, 2009

Note: This is the second of three articles covering the Sojourners Mobilization to End Poverty conference. For Part One about Obama Administration speakers, please click here. For Part Three about Jim Wallis’ talk on Evangelical shift, please click here.

This year, Sojourners’ annual conference, themed “The Mobilization to End Poverty” drew over 1,100 religious left participants, many from mainline denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church, who attended lectures and lobbied congressional offices for liberal policies regarding poverty. Dr. Frederick Haynes, III, the senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, preached, amid applause, that if Christ were on Earth, “He’d be attending this conference, ‘cause we’re dealing with his agenda. Others are making policies that contradict the policies of our Savior.”

Continuing the conference’s overall tenor of conflating liberal politics with Christianity, Haynes condemned the policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He posited parallels between Jeremiah 38 and the Bush presidency saying of the biblical Ebed-Melech, “My man, he has a government job with the king, and he stood against the policies of the king. There were foreign policies of a preemptive strike. [The king] put Jeremiah in a hole; a hole was their Guantanamo Bay… he [Jeremiah] is a victim of torture but Ebed-Melech went to the king and implored the king to change his policy.”

Speculating about Martin Luther King’s opinion of the Iraq War, which Haynes called “unjust and immoral,” Haynes predicted, “I believe that Dr. King would tell us, if we can spend one trillion dollars in that war to kill people, then we can [allocate] billions of dollars to” pull people out of poverty. He noted that Sojourners had to move beyond mercy to demands for “justice,” observing that “Ebed-Melech does not ask the king can he have food rations; he didn’t get Jeremiah food when he was in the pit but he said, ‘No, I want Jeremiah out of the pit,’ and that’s the difference between justice and charity.”

Haynes faulted the Reagan Administration for poverty. “For 30 years at least,” he declared, “this country has suffered from Reaganomics. Back in the ‘80s there was a president, [the] reverse Robin Hood, Reagan, [who] robbed from the needy to give to the greedy. The poor have been demonized and vilified for the last 30 years.” In response to this fiscally conservative attack, he charged, “Our responsibility is to go to the king and appeal to the king on behalf of those who are incarcerated by impoverishment.”

Similarly, John Perkins, the co-founder and chair of the Christian Community Development Association, protested, “If an old black welfare recipient would have got too many food stamps you would have heard preachers all around the country preach about that. [You] don’t hear a word about the AIG leaders who have brought our whole economy down. This is more than wrong; it’s almost witchcraft. You don’t hear our church say anything about that.”

Commenting on the tendency of many evangelicals to be both socially and fiscally conservative, Perkins remarked, “In the white conservative church they can get very excited about those children before they’re born and I can’t get them excited about children after they’re born. I’m pro-life before they get here, I’m pro-life after they get here, cause life is from God.” Dealing out equal criticism to both parties, he surmised, “And so we got two political systems that are pretty ineffective.”

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), following Stearns, described how she came to her political beliefs based on her church’s teaching, because, “We must never forget that the most vulnerable among us need more than strong economy, they need strong neighbors [and a] nation committed to lifting up each [individual]; that is the moral responsibility of government. That is what my church taught me, and I suspect that is what motivates you as well.”

Consequently, said DeLauro, “This [Obama] budget is a moral document; it reflects our values and our priorities. We must put concrete systems in place to end poverty for good.” To support such measures, DeLauro called on Sojourners to “mobilize to make our presence felt, to make it clear that poverty offends our religious faith and our human spirit… When they talk to you about the deficit: poor people did not create the deficit.” Rather, DeLauro blamed advocates of the Iraq War, saying, “Ask them, where were you when we took on a war of choices, not a war of necessity, why did you turn a blind eye? Yes, I understand fiscal responsibility; let’s not talk fiscal responsibility on the backs of the poor!”

Acknowledging that her position as a liberal Catholic had been difficult, DeLauro said, “Just a few years ago the Catholic Democrats on the Hill came under attack from those on the Right and some in the clergy.” In response, she and 54 other Catholic Democrats drafted and signed a document entitled “Statement of Principles by Fifty-Five Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.” The document argues that Congressional Democrats are, in fact, faithful to Catholic social teaching despite significant rejections of Catholic teaching on issues like abortion.

Adam Taylor, the Senior Political Director for Sojourners, sent the newly mobilized activists out with this advice: “There is a need to name the crisis of poverty.” The day before, he had sent conference attendees to lobby 200 House Representatives and 83 Senators for extended government services to cut domestic poverty in half in 10 years, and for support for the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. He suggested calling attention to poverty may mean opposing, “a doctrine, an orthodoxy in this town that says poverty is not an important issue… [that is] driven by the calculation that the poor don’t vote.” Taylor said, “Today we barely hear the words poor or poverty mentioned in our political dialogue. The majority of politicians here in Washington still have a very hard time talking about poverty and prioritizing it.”

Taylor admitted that Sojourners’ poverty agenda could at times be discouraging, confessing, “Sometimes I wonder whether the goal of ending extreme poverty is really just naiveté; I too am affected by the patterns of Washington that still cast too much blame on those who are poor, the patterns of Washington that say we should focus only on expanding the middle class.”

In the same final session, Sojourners gave its annual Joseph Award to author and commentator Tavis Smiley. While Smiley clarified, “Nobody in this room is declaring a war on the wealthy,” he asserted that “The problem in America is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” What makes America culpable, opined Smiley, is, “We are still, in the richest nation in the world, too indifferent to the suffering of the least among us.”

Sojourners’ 2009 Amos Award recipient and Executive Director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the Bronx, NY, Alexie Torres-Fleming, echoed Smiley’s sentiments. She said: “We live in a country that is abundant despite the evidence to the contrary. What we need to figure out how to do is to move that abundance in just ways to those who are without.” However, she acknowledged that redistribution could only go so far. “Part of poverty you cannot legislate away because it’s about powerlessness, it’s about brokenness and that’s why I’m so blessed to speak here today—not to romanticize the poor,” but to affirm “great beauty in sitting at the feet of the poor and listening to their wisdom.” Torres-Fleming argued that the degradation of need extends beyond poverty’s physical implications to create “another chasm in the soul of the poor, and that is a brokenness and a sense of powerlessness, and an utter destruction of their dignity.”

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