Which Side Are You On?

This post has been updated.

Things are falling apart in my home state of Wisconsin. Newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker’s approach to governing seems to be slash everything, to the point of cutting off the state’s nose to spite its face. That includes state worker’s wages and pensions. Remarkably, they seem okay with that, but Walker’s threat to call out the National Guard to bust the unions has sparked a backlash unlike anything seen here in years. Hundreds packed a legislative hearing on the bill, keeping it rolling at least thirteen hours after it was scheduled to conclude. Meanwhile, thousands more demonstrated outside the Capitol, including Madison schoolteachers, whose absence forced the closure of the school system. Even some members of the Green Bay Packers got in on the act, siding with the unions opposing the governor’s plan.

When you’ve pissed off the Packers, nobody’s happy. Nobody.

To my knowledge, Wisconsin churches have stayed out of this mess so far. I haven’t seen any press releases from the Wisconsin Council of Churches, nor from its member communions. That seems reasonable. The story is playing out like a consummate partisan dispute, in which tax-exempt bodies are understandably reluctant to intervene. Instead, they prefer to work across party lines on things like “Creation Care” or hunger or homelessness.

Again, nothing wrong with that. As it happens, the district my congregation is located in went for Walker something like 85-15, so I can certainly understand churches not wanting to stick their necks out too far on an issue like this.

I do have to wonder how long churches, or religious voices at least, are going to be able to avoid choosing sides, though. The messaging on the national level seems to involve some variation on trying to convince elected leaders to be nicer, or calling on them to do the right thing, as in a Sojourners fund-raising letter that landed in my inbox this morning:

School lunch assistance for the hungry classmate of your child or grandchild. Tax credits for your neighbor struggling to make ends meet. Investment in your city’s low-income school districts. Mosquito nets and vaccines for children in impoverished nations.

These essential poverty-reduction programs are all at stake in the fast-approaching federal budget vote. Congressional leaders just announced a plan to slash these programs (and more) immediately. We can’t let them place the burden of deficit reduction on the poor and vulnerable.  

That’s why Sojourners is challenging our elected officials and the administration to remember their moral priorities when they vote on the budget.

Moral suasion is about all we get on the state and local level, too.

It’s not going to work. We are in the midst of a full-on, honest-to-gosh, class war. Gov. Walker and governors like him all across the nation are trying to take a slice out of the ass of the poor, the working and middle classes, so that they can defend the privilege of the rich not to pay high taxes and corporations to, well, pretty much to do whatever the hell they want. Walker and his colleagues have no vision of community, no understanding of collective enterprise to a shared and better future. Their model of governance, to return to where we started, seems to be: screw somebody else before they screw you.

How long is it going to take for it to sink in with religious leaders that it will soon be time to choose sides? What will it take for them to realize that there’s no middle ground to find here? The God of Exodus didn’t ask Pharaoh to remember his moral priorities. He said, “Let my people go.” The scandal of the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Moses and the prophets and Jesus, is that he takes the side of the poor over and against the rich time after time. Someday all of us sorta-kinda-maybe-if-it’s-not-too-difficult-or-upsetting religious liberals will stand up and call the people of God out into the street to oppose the latest iteration of Pharaoh.* In the meantime, the people are doing a pretty good job of getting ready to leave Egypt all on their own, and we’re stuck wondering why it is nobody thinks we’re relevant anymore.

*Harold Meyerson calls Scott Walker “the cheddarhead pharaoh.”

Update: No sooner have I spoken than a religious voice weighs in – on the side of the unions. Jerome Listecki, Archbishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee, says: “this much needed call for cooperation and communication between workers and management comes as opposition to Gov. Walker’s union busting budget continues to grow.” Apparently, “this” is a reference to the protests spreading around the state.

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