Can an Orange Bracelet Turn Hearts in Washington?

In a credit to both Republicans and Democrats, Congress just passed a measure that will avoid a government shutdown for at least the next two weeks. This means that there is still time to protect the poor and most vulnerable during the budget debate.

Sojourners' supporters and partners placed a full-page ad in Monday's Politico entitled, "What Would Jesus Cut?" which was signed by 28 leaders of churches and faith-based organizations across the theological and political spectrum. It created quite a stir. The ad's purpose was to ask our legislators to defend critical and effective programs that save the lives of thousands of children every day and help low-income people survive -- the same programs that were created with bipartisan support in the past. Tough choices are upon us, but faith leaders are saying that abandoning the most vulnerable should not be among our choices. The ad reminds us that a budget is a moral document, revealing our priorities and choices. And it reminds us that Jesus says in Matthew 25 that we will be judged by how we treat "the least of these." As a result of this ad, a discussion about what budget priorities might please or sadden Jesus has now been raised on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, The Washington Post, USA Today, and many national and local radio shows. It has also exploded across Facebook and Twitter.

This week, I have reminded television and radio talk show hosts that our budget didn't get into this mess because we spent too much money on poor people! And cutting programs that help the most vulnerable (which are among the most cost-effective and least costly public spending we have) isn't going to get us out of financial trouble, or reduce the deficit in ways that we now need. Excessive deficits are indeed a moral issue and they place crushing burdens on our children and grandchildren. But how we reduce the deficit is also a moral issue.

But, of course, I have been asked, "Okay then, what would you cut?" This debate has reminded me of the famous statement by bank robber Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied, "Because that's where the money is." If we really want to reduce the deficit, we also have to go where the real money is: our massive military spending, corporate welfare subsides to big businesses, and corporate tax loopholes, as well as the long term costs of health care and Social Security, which will require important future reforms. On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.

Our good partner, Bread for the World, has made a list of the top 10 cuts that would hurt poor and hungry people at home and abroad. The total amount of those cuts is $5.177 billion. Let's do the numbers. For President Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan we sent more than an additional 30,000 troops. The estimated cost of keeping one soldier in Afghanistan for one year is now $1 million. Preserving the funding for the top 10 cuts that would most hurt poor and hungry people would cost about as much as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is the simple math. Bring 5,000 troops home from Afghanistan and save funding for Head Start; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition assistance program; Hunger Free Communities Grants; McGovern-Dole food aid programs; the Development Assistance Account; the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; the Global Health and Child Survival Account; the Millennium Challenge Account; and the Peace Corps.

Most of these programs have enjoyed significant bipartisan support in the past because they are both cost-effective and literally save the lives of children and families. Of course, the Bible doesn't mandate specific programs or prescribe a specific level of funding for any of them. And, we haven't been trying to get Jesus to be the head of any budget committee, or think that he would ever want that job! The ad was made to simply make a point about our faith and our values. Since Jesus is concerned about our action (and our inaction) when it comes to the poor, we should also be concerned. If these programs were being reformed to be more effective or replaced with better strategies to help the poor, that would be another issue; instead, they are just being slashed. Because our biblical values demand that we both serve and defend the poor, we want to make sure that legislators consider how their actions will impact the most vulnerable people. This is part of our vocation as people of faith.

Thanks to all of you, next week, orange WWJC? bracelets will be delivered to every member of Congress, and they will be invited to wear the bracelets when they vote on the budget. This is no longer just an ad; it's a campaign.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.