The drama of this past week was the intense budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over how much and what to cut from the proposed fiscal year 2011 federal budget. (Yes, the budget that the formerly Democratic-controlled Congress should have passed last year.) Just before midnight on Friday, on the verge of a government shutdown, both houses of Congress, along with the president, settled on $38 billion in spending reductions.
In the midst of all this, Jim Wallis, CEO at Sojourners and leader of the evangelical left, has tried to insert himself into this drama, doing it to further what he understands to be the Kingdom of God. Wallis has been on the media circuit arguing that "a budget is always a moral document." This is true. Government spending means government action, and whatever government does or doesn't do is either right or wrong. In response to what he considers to be a Republican attempt to cut the budget at the expense of the poor both here and abroad, Wallis has initiated a "What Would Jesus Cut" campaign. He is supporting it with a call for "people of faith and conscience" to join him in praying and fasting so as to "to form a circle of protection around vital poverty-fighting programs."
It is perfectly legitimate to criticize how government spending is allocated. As Wallis says, budget choices are always moral choices. So the budget writing process is a legitimate reason to call for fasting and prayer. If Wallis wants to intercede with God on behalf of the poor against what he thinks will be unwise or even malicious government action, he has a right to do so and to call others to join him.
But calling people to fast and pray can easily lead to making a show of oneself. For this reason, Jesus cautions believers:
". . . when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:16-18).
Wallis does not look gloomy, and Jesus is not enjoining us to strict secrecy. Otherwise, church leaders, even informal ones like Wallis, couldn't organize seasons of public intercession, as is right on occasion. Nonetheless, Wallis has arguably crossed over into public grandstanding. We all know that he started on water but now also takes orange juice (see video clip below). We know that he is fasting for four weeks ending on Easter Sunday. It's a very public fast.
The overtly political nature of the fasting has led Wallis into this morally and spiritually ambiguous situation. To his credit, in his Huffington Post article, Wallis reminded his readers that "ultimately, this is a fast before God, to whom we turn in prayer and hope to change hearts-our hearts, the heart of our lawmakers, the heart of the nation." He calls his fast a "response to Congress' proposed budget cuts."
This is good. But this particular fasting is not just a discipline of body and spirit as Wallis lifts up his heart to God in supplication. It is also a political effort. His website describes this call for fasting "a campaign." For this reason, secular news outlets like CNN and NPR can surely be forgiven for calling Wallis' fast a "protest." In the end, it's is not clear whether Wallis is fasting or on a hunger strike, whether he is lobbying God spiritually (as he put it to CNN) or pressuring Congress politically. Is Wallis the Isaiah of the evangelical conscience or the Bobby Sands of the budget process?
Religion has to be in politics because Christ claims dominion over all of life. Nonetheless, when religion wades into politics, religion is in greater danger from politics than politics is from religion.