Why Jim Wallis is wrong on the “Shutdown”

I lost my job recently, and I’m struggling to find another one. I have a wife and five kids and had just gotten settled enough to move into our dream neighborhood into a lease with option to buy. That option seems to have disappeared disappointingly quickly. I stand to lose a lot; I know the potential fear of wondering if I will have enough money come next billing cycle. So, when I say I feel the pain of those like my friend who was furloughed by the recent “shutdown,” it isn’t hot air.

Still, in all truth, they will likely be back at work with a paycheck before I will–I pray it is so. But  the current economy is rough on many of us, and I suspect that the current democratic policies share in the blame for that.

However, my intention here is not to delve deeply into the economic policies or enter the blame war waging between conservative and liberal pundits over this current shut down. Rather, I want to address the theological argument of Sojourner founder Jim Wallis. His video posted on Sojourner’s website and referenced on huffpo is inaccurate from the first statement, “Last night at midnight the government shut down.”

However, I want to move beyond his errors rooted in left-leaning party-line generalizations and straw man arguments and address his statement that the shutdown is unbiblical as such.

To begin, let us suppose for the moment that the entire federal government (rather than the approximately 20% spending shutdown as calculated by the CBO) had shut down at midnight as Mr. Wallis’ statement implies. Even in that hypothetical instance, would the supporters of shutdown be unbiblical?

Obviously, anarchy is unbiblical. However, the supporters of this current shutdown are not anarchists; they (for good or ill) believe themselves to be fighting an unjust law. Right or wrong, their view is that the current exceptions recently added to the healthcare bill actually make life more difficult for average people while giving multimillion dollar corporations a pass. Others among them see elements of the law that attack traditional views of family and sexuality and, worst of all, the sanctity of life, so they refuse to be a part of funding such evils. Still others believe the enactment of the healthcare bill will actually damage the economy and raise unemployment. If any or all of them are correct, would a temporary shut down not be a legitimate use of political power to stop injustice? Is it not actually what representatives in a representative government who are given the purse strings as a means to check injustice and abuse of power ought to do?

If they are wrong, it seems that the better approach would be to correct the errors rather than promote stereotypes and denounce a non-existent anarchist contingent as unbiblical.

As it stands, the basis of Wallis’ “unbiblical” charge seems to have all the theological depth of a sign carrying fundamentalist claiming “God hates gays” on the biblical basis of the destruction of Sodom. Wallis relies on Romans 13 as well as admonitions to care for the poor in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos as the basis of his accusations. (He also claims general reference to other prophets and the book of Kings.)

So, let us begin with Romans 13. Paul tells us laws are to be obeyed and taxes paid because the government is God’s minister of justice and carries a sword to punish the wrongdoer. How exactly this applies to the legal use of constitutional powers granted to government officials to stop the perceived misuse of powers by another branch of government is beyond me. Furthermore, to assume that Paul had any sense of the government having an obligation to employ any specific number of people, especially in light of the current debt load, is a real stretch.

In fact, if we read a little further in Romans 13 we might find a “biblical” argument for the shutdown–especially one that doesn’t affect law enforcement.  Paul says clearly, “Owe no man anything.” Debt is potentially a moral wrong, and Obamacare and the debt ceiling are the specific hot buttons that have brought about this shutdown.

Let us look deeper–particularly at ideas from the prophets and the history of Israel’s kings. Is the shutdown of federal government an unbiblical neglect of the poor? What if those in favor of the federal shutdown are strongly localist? Might we make a biblical argument for localism and against socialistic federalism? And if we can, is not a shutdown a potential healthy first step?

Samuel, a biblical prophet of God, warns the people against asking for a king. In chapter 8 of I Samuel he tells the people that a king will take everything that is best in their lives for himself. Furthermore, it is clear that Israel’s insistence and dependence upon a king is a rejection of God. Isn’t that a warning that every politically progressive Christian should take to heart?

I am not seeking to make the full argument here that localism is correct and biblical and there is no place for federalism. I simply want to show that the conversation should go much deeper. Wallis has slipped into shallow “biblical” arguments to justify his political progressivism, and that is just as dangerous as any conservative infatuation with Ayn Rand that I have argued against in the past.


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