We can’t come up with real solutions for the diminishing resources we face as a society until we all agree to a few basic premises. The first premise, which at least rhetorically is shared by both parties in the current debate is that the most accurate measure of any civilization is seen by how it cares for its least fortunate, most vulnerable members. The Republicans family values are at their very core calling for a society that embraces the idea that we care for one another in the way that their Christian ideology dictates. The second premise that must be acknowledged is that in this humane society that both parties claim to create there must be a safety net, which provides a minimum of support for health care, food and lodging for those unable to provide for themselves.
Looking at other countries who have navigated this terrain successfully and even looking into our own history, when as recently as the 1970s our tax rate was considerably higher than its current levels, we have followed the biblical passage dictating: “ To those who much is given, much is expected.” Speaking with my cousin recently about all this, I could hear her frustration in the question: “Why do I have to pay for other people’s bad health choices, addictions, and laziness?” She is a family practice doctor in an inner city and she works hard helping people with these issues, but she doesn’t feel like she should be taxed more to cover the expenses of people who can’t pay for the consequences of their own lives. I grapple with those feelings myself struggling with our own tax liability which is above 30%.
I don’t know if I really fully understood the scope and size of the population of people in this country that depend on government aid to survive. A recent Daily Show episode used a little humor to demonstrate the tragic reality that over half the states in our union are overdrawn by billions to the federal government year after year. At least half our states take in way more federal aid than they pay out in taxes. Ironically, these are the same states that want the government to run like a business, that want to end government subsidies. Do they not realize what that means for the communities and families that make up this losing business proposition?
The discussion hit home for me in a deeply meaningful way this summer when I drove into the 115-degree heat of the California desert valley to see one of my oldest friends who is dying of cancer. I was struck not just at the frailty of her body but also at the fragility of the economics that supports her. She has, as long as I have known her, struggled to make a living as an artist. Since she has fallen ill , she has not been able to keep her teaching contracts. Her teaching job was contractual so she never earned any benefits. Consequently now, her medical care and livelihood relies on government assistance. Just a few weeks later, I heard from another old friend who had broken a vertebrae in his neck and would have to undergo surgery. He also worked hard his entire life in the non-lucrative field of ministry. His care and livelihood is also dependent on Social Security and Medicare.
Recently, I have been making new friends through a church group that shares the space at my kid’s high school. They have been helping us to re- landscape an inner courtyard in memory of some students that were tragically lost a couple of years ago. The courtyard theme is about positive change and I have been so inspired by the generosity and willingness of this church community to open their hearts and their precious time to our project. We don’t talk politics when we do this work of heavy lifting. We are there as a community trying to do something that serves the greater good, but none of us individually. I see their bumper sticker that put them on the other side of the political dialogue from where I live, but I also see their actions.
It brings the confusing rhetoric about what needs to happen to the only place we can reconcile our differences: our heart. I know that the devil lives in the details, especially when it comes to money, but it would be a giant leap forward if we could all look beyond our crumbling party lines and recognize how much more similar our vision of our future is. If we want to build a nation that can outlast the massive changes that our environment will continue to demand from us, the only path that can hold us securely is a compassionate one. At its heart, in every detailed choice must be the recognition that we really are our brother’s keeper. Our lives could easily and swiftly be transformed to look like those who barely survive.
This ancient idea that we are all in this together, that none of us succeeds where others fail is foundational to all spiritual thought and the hallmark of a great and lasting civilization. The heart of our disagreement in this politically polarized landscape we call America comes down to our hearts.