For Christians, it’s a magical time of the year. We have just left a time of renewed focus on the birth and ministry of Jesus. New Year’s Day — while secular — cannot help but mingle with the echoes of Christmas. It is a time when Christians look at their failings and resolve to do better.
Last Sunday, my pastor described a verse as Jesus’ “wish list.” The words, recorded by Matthew, were those of Jesus to his disciples.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ”
Jesus was speaking to a small group of followers, of course, not to an organized state. It’s nonetheless tough for Alabamians to avoid a sense of shame when hearing his words.
The separation between state and individual was immense when Jesus spoke the words. His followers had no input into the selection of their governmental leaders, nor in the policies dictated by their Roman emperor. The government was an external entity.
The relationship between individual and government is more complex in America. For good reason, we seek to maintain a separation between religion and state, but voting is personal. Eighty-four percent of Alabamians described themselves as Christians in the most recent census, so few state officials are elected or state policies implemented without the approval of Christians. Indeed, we typically elect leaders who are outspoken in their Christianity.
When it comes to some issues — mainly those that cost no money — we actively use the power of the state to further what we believe to be Christian causes. We pass laws limiting abortion, gambling, alcohol and drugs. In these categories, we are content to allow our personal voting decisions to reflect our understanding of the teachings of Jesus. We recognize that government is the most powerful organization of which we are a part, and we direct its power to ends we believe are consistent with our faith.
How are we doing on the “wish list,” though?
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
The state has little discretion over food stamps, but the politicians we elect attack the program relentlessly. Describing Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” — because so many people fell into poverty during the recession and thus became qualified for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — gained considerable traction in the state. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, is a leader in the effort to limit availability of food stamps. Almost all Alabama elected officials voted against a stimulus plan that temporarily increased food-stamp levels by 14 percent.
Yet 75 percent of Alabama’s 914,000 food-stamp recipients are in families with children. Another 17 percent are either elderly or disabled. Of those Alabamians receiving food stamps, 88 percent are below the poverty line; 44 percent are in deep poverty, meaning they make $11,000 or less a year for a family of four.
The benefit we begrudge these people is hardly extravagant. On average, they receive $1.41 per meal.
Alabamians do have discretion over how much they tax the poor on food. Alabama is one of two states that offer no tax breaks on groceries.
“I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
Alabama is an international icon in its aggressive rejection of strangers. We elected a Decatur representative who sponsored legislation he promised would attack “every aspect of an illegal alien’s life,” and it did. We elected a federal representative from Huntsville who promised to “do anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants to get them to leave the state. Alabama’s overwhelmingly Christian population found itself in a battle with a secular federal government, and it was Alabama arguing that strangers should be sent away.
“I was sick and you looked after me.”
Here again, Alabama finds itself at war with a secular federal government. Alabama’s Christian population is arguing against looking after the sick. The Affordable Care Act would provide coverage to more than 300,000 Alabamians who have almost no access to health care. After losing one court battle, Gov. Robert Bentley is preparing for another. Alabamians overwhelmingly applaud his goal of denying preventive care to the poor, perpetuating one of the nation’s highest infant mortality rates by blocking the poor from prenatal care and of preventing effective treatment for the mentally ill.
Unlike the Roman Empire in Jesus’ lifetime, our government is not external. Ours is a government of the people and by the people, and it reflects our beliefs. Brimming with self-described Christians, Alabama finds itself in the uncomfortable position of aggressively pushing policies that conflict with the words of Jesus.
As 2012 comes to a close, Alabamians can look at Jesus’ “wish list” with shame. We talk a lot about Jesus, but out self-governance shows little regard for his requests.