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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Former Vatican Ambassador Thomas P. Melady died yesterday at the age of 86. His passing is a significant loss for the Catholic community in Washington and anyone who cares about public service. Tom was a true gentleman who believed in civility, building bridges across ideological divides and finding common ground with Catholic progressives like myself. A moderate Republican from Connecticut, he served his country and the Catholic Church by carrying himself with a gentle dignity that is all too rare in a city of strutting partisan peacocks.
While almost 50 years separated us, Tom became a friend because of our love for the Catholic Church and the conviction that serving the common good means a lot more than whether you voted for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. At times the politics of the Catholic Church can feel even more polarized and nasty than the battles waged on cable news and Capitol Hill, but Tom never let labels or blind partisanship stop him from reaching out to progressives. He even joked with me a few times that he was willing to take heat from his friends on the right for his eagerness to make common cause with more liberal Catholics.
Tom was a man of integrity and clear moral vision. He spoke up as a pro-life Catholic who opposed abortion but also called the scourge of gun violence a sanctity-of-life issue. While some conservatives and a vocal minority of bishops argue pro-choice Catholic elected officials should be denied Holy Communion, Tom rejected turning a sacrament into a political bludgeon. He joined other Christian leaders to denounce Uganda’s shameful efforts to dehumanize gays and lesbians. He spoke out for comprehensive immigration reform. He challenged the powerful and all of us not to forget the growing ranks of the poor and hungry. Tom knew that politics could be a noble calling, not simply a blood sport for the self-serving and ambitious.
I will miss his stories over lunch at The Army-Navy Club and his impromptu phone calls to talk about politics or the Church. Our country will miss his spirit of service.
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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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