The Real Christmas Scandal

by Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis is one of 115 religious activists arrested while protesting the House's budget.There is a Christmas scandal this year, but it's not the controversy at shopping malls and retail stores about whether their displays say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." The real Christmas scandal is the budget proposed by the House of Representatives that cuts food stamps, health care, child support, and educational assistance to low-income families - while further lowering taxes for the wealthiest Americans and increasing the deficit for all of our grandchildren.

There is a Christmas scandal this year, but it's not the controversy at shopping malls and retail stores about whether their displays say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." The real Christmas scandal is the budget proposed by the House of Representatives that cuts food stamps, health care, child support, and educational assistance to low-income families - while further lowering taxes for the wealthiest Americans and increasing the deficit for all of our grandchildren.

That was the message we brought to the steps of the House office buildings yesterday. The day was cold but the message was clear, as hundreds of religious leaders and faith-based organizers who daily serve the poor joined for what became a revival and prayer meeting in the United States capital.

This was the culmination of a yearlong effort by people of faith to teach our nation's political leaders that "a budget is a moral document." I was proud to be one of the 115 pastors and leaders out of that group who were arrested for kneeling in prayer. In the final stages of the budget process this week, after praying and making our best arguments from afar, we decided to take our prayers and presence to the steps of the Cannon House Office Building.

After some powerful preaching on the steps and a press conference that was more like a revival, we continued our praying and singing in front of the entrance, symbolizing the denial of access to Congress for low-income people. "Come walk with us!" we said as we invited members of Congress into our neighborhoods to meet the people who will be most impacted by their votes on a budget that virtually assaults low-income families. We sounded like a choir (and a good one at that) as we sang Christmas carols while being arrested, handcuffed, put into buses, and taken to a large holding cell roughly a mile away.

We all noted how full of faith the day was for those involved. Many of those who took part in the prayerful and nonviolent civil disobedience were from groups such as the Christian Community Development Association, whose member organizations around the country live and work alongside poor people every day. Their founder, John Perkins - who at 75 was one of the oldest people arrested - inspired us all as he has for 40 years of faithful ministry among the poor.

The text we kept repeating at the Capitol Christmas vigil was from the book of Luke - the best words ever about the true meaning of the coming of the Christ child. Mary, the mother of Jesus, herself a poor woman from an oppressed race and an occupied country, prophesied in her powerful prayer of thanksgiving - the Magnificat - about the Messiah whom she carried in her womb.

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Though today on Capitol Hill Mary would be accused of class warfare for uttering such words, they still bear the true meaning of Christmas. And the budget and tax cuts being proposed by House leaders directly reverse the priorities of Mary. For instead of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty, this budget would fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty!

So yesterday, on the House office steps, we tried to put Christ back into Christmas. Thursday morning, The Chicago Tribune led with the headline "Christmas Scandal Outcry!" and the story of the faith-inspired action in Washington was in dozens of newspapers around the country.

Yesterday the faith community across the country stood up and spoke up. Our vigil in Washington was followed by more than 70 vigils in more than 30 states. We prayed for a change of heart in our Washington leaders, we prayed for the poor families we serve, and we prayed that those elected to represent us act to protect the common good in ways consistent with the Christmas message of hope.

The bipartisan Senate budget bill, in contrast, protects low-income families, and yesterday senators passed resolutions vowing not to cut food stamps and Medicaid in the final budget negotiations with the House. They should be thanked and urged to stand firm.

So I have already received my Christmas present this year - the chance to participate in a faithful and powerful witness to the real meaning of the child who is born again to us this season. See the pictures and podcast of the event, and read the testimonies of others - and you will also receive the gift. Merry Christmas.

This story was provided by Sojomail, a weekly email-zine produced by Sojourners.