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 many Christians look at their shortcomings and resolve to do better.
Last Sunday, my pastor recited what she described as Jesus’ birthday “wish list.” The words, recorded by Matthew, were those of Jesus to his disciples at the Mount of Olives.
“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 group of followers, of course, not to an organized state. For many Alabamians, though, the words are troublesome.
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 intimate in America. 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, we actively use the power of the state to further what we believe to be Christian causes. We pass laws limiting abortion, gambling and alcohol. We elected a judge whose claim to fame was placing a religious monument in a courthouse.
In these categories, we 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?
The state has little discretion over food stamps, but the politicians we elect attack the program relentlessly.
Descriptions of 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. Our elected federal officials are leaders in the effort to limit availability of food stamps.
Yet 48 percent of Alabama’s 914,000 food-stamp recipients are children. Another 17 percent are either elderly or disabled.
Of those Alabamians receiving food stamps, 88 percent are below the poverty line and 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.
Alabama is an international icon in its aggressive rejection of strangers.
We elected a Decatur representative, Micky Hammon, 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, Mo Brooks, 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.
Alabama argued those who helped strangers should be punished.
Alabama sought to block strangers from access to water, lodging and education.
When it comes to health care, Alabama again finds itself at war with a secular federal government.
Alabama is arguing against looking after the sick. The Affordable Care Act would provide coverage to 350,000 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 health care to the poor.
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 promoting policies that conflict with the words of Jesus.
We talk a lot about Jesus, but our self-governance shows little regard for his wish list.
Will 2013 be different?
Contact Eric Fleischauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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