Jennifer is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister.
One of the central struggles in American politics right now is between a pro-family justice movement rooted in faith and a right-wing campaign to punish the poor and consolidate as much power in as few hands as possible.
Last year, this conflict manifested most clearly in North Carolina, where the Moral Mondays Forward Together movement brought thousands of people of faith to the state capitol to resist a vast array of unpopular, immoral policies rammed through the Republican-controlled legislature. Week after week, clergy and lay leaders marched, spoke out and were arrested in acts of civil disobedience. Meanwhile, lawmakers’ approval ratings plummeted.
What happens in these state capitols matters for all of us. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Atlanta isn’t just the capital of the South, it’s my hometown and the cradle of the civil rights movement. Seeing a diverse, clergy-led movement spring up there now is inspiring beyond words – not only because of its symbolic significance, but also because it portends a future when justice once again rolls down like a mighty stream.
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In an opening salvo of the coming values debate over inequality, Sen. Marco Rubio made waves this week by with a much-anticipated speech inaccurately declaring the War on Poverty a failure and blaming “big government” for the growth of poverty and inequality.
His remarks painted a compassionate veneer on the failed conservative agenda of undermining the federal government’s support for struggling Americans, and inaccurately denied that anti-poverty policies lift millions of Americans out of poverty every year.
And just two days ago, Rubio voted against extending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans — at a time when there are three job-seekers for every one job opening. He’s also spoken out against minimum wage increases, which will come up for a Senate vote soon. Compassionate rhetoric doesn’t mean a thing if you turn your back on your neighbor when she’s been laid off or can’t feed her children.
Faith leaders can shape the coming debate over poverty and inequality. When Paul Ryan said in 2012 that his plan to slash basic safety net protections for the poorest Americans was consistent with his Catholic faith, it was nuns and theologians who called him on it. In 2014, we won’t let politicians get away with talking the talk about compassion while voting for cruel and immoral policies.
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Many faith leaders of my generation were inspired to dedicate ourselves to seeking social justice because of Nelson Mandela. The struggle he led for equality in South Africa not only ended a brutally oppressive and racist regime, but also empowered people around the globe to spark movements for justice and reconciliation in their own nations. We owe Mandela a great debt.
Mandela wasn’t just a global icon, he was a community organizer. The anti-apartheid movement succeeded not only because of his personal leadership, but also because he was part of a mass movement for equality.
This lesson holds true today. A day after President Obama quoted Pope Francis in a landmark speech declaring our nation’s staggering economic inequality the central challenge of our time, fast-food workers in more than 100 U.S. cities mounted a strike for living wages.
I’m humbled by the courage of these workers – modern-day Davids — risking their jobs by standing up to wealthy corporations that dole out millions to CEOs but pay their employees so poorly that many must turn to public assistance to feed their families. This is a sinful system that not only forces millions of families into hardship, but also cost taxpayers $3.8 billion every year.
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Many tears were shed on the National Mall on Tuesday morning when leaders of the Fast for Families who had gone without food for 22 days broke their fast before an audience of faith leaders, Members of Congress, and leaders of the immigration reform movement. Witnessing the commitment and sacrifice of these physically weakened but spiritually powerful leaders was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’m especially proud that my colleagues at FPL have played a key role in planning and carrying out the Fast For Families from the beginning.
And the movement continues. After the outgoing fasters received a blessing from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, seven more people — including five faith leaders — began their own long-term fasts in the same tent where it all started on November 12th. It’s a sign that our resolve for immigration reform that protects families and builds a path to citizenship is stronger than ever. As my friend Rev. Gabriel Salguero told the crowd, we’re going to win because our cause is just.
At the same time, thousands took part in solidarity fasts across the country, including students on 15 Catholic college campuses organized by Faith in Public Life. If Speaker Boehner had hoped the faith community’s groundswell for citizenship was a last gasp, he was sorely mistaken.
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Yesterday Pope Francis issued a devastating moral critique of our economic system, saying in part:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
This inequality is alive and well in our own backyard. For example, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — pays their American workers an average wage low enough to qualify for SNAP benefits for a family of three. Employees at a Walmart in Ohio even collected holiday food donations for the store’s own poverty-wage employees this month. Meanwhile their shelves are stocked with products manufactured in life-threatening conditions by workers trapped in abject poverty, and the company founder’s family is the richest in the world.
Walmart is by no means alone. Squeezing the vast multitude of workers while racking up huge profits and doling out staggering salaries to a tiny corporate elite is a feature, not a bug, of the entire economic order. Human beings are treated as if they exist to serve the system, rather than vice versa. It’s a crisis of values.
There are hopeful signs that alleviating the suffering is becoming a higher priority in Washington. For example, the Senate will vote next month on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Don’t get me wrong – this is just one step towards a pro-familiy economy that truly values the dignity of work.
And in a sorely needed break from the bipartisan obsession with fiscal austerity that has gripped Washington in recent years, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently took to the Senate floor to call for expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them like leaders of both parties proposed earlier this year. At a time when one-third of Americans near retirement age have no retirement savings to fall back on, Warren is 100% right about the need to change the debate instead of succumbing to false choices. As Francis argued yesterday, it’s a matter of life and death that demands our concern and action.
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