We are at the zenith of the 2012 presidential race, the height of the national political season. At this time every four years, we are given an opportunity to re-examine who we are as a country, what we value, and how well we fulfill the moral ideals and demands of our democracy.
Both contenders for the highest office in the land agree that these are times of serious economic challenges. This election is taking place as we are slowly emerging from a “great recession.” Yet during the presidential and vice-presidential debates and throughout the campaign, there has been a striking omission of discussion of those most in need — the 15 percent of Americans living below the poverty line. The reality of poverty on Long Island is even worse, because the standards are national, with no regional cost of living adjustment. The national poverty threshold for a family of four in 2012 is $23,050.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney has articulated indifference to the poor and dismissive disdain for the dependency of the 47 percent of the population who do not pay federal income taxes. President Obama has expressed a commitment to economic justice, but with a primary emphasis on an undefined “middle class.” Their silence on the subject of poverty and the poor is particularly puzzling in view of both candidates’ resounding declarations of adherence to faiths that clearly profess concern for the vulnerable. Perhaps a reminder of this will reignite political commitment to the hungry and homeless among us.
So what are the teachings that form the basis for Judaism’s, Christianity’s and Islam’s perspectives on caring for and about the poor? What do these religions profess about our obligation to care for one another and about the consequences of societal indifference to those in need?
Each of these faiths offers clear guidelines about this obligation, and prescribes mandatory mechanisms for ensuring that an individual’s basic needs are met. Whether it is Judaism’s tzedekah (about 10 percent of an individual’s income), Christianity’s tithing of 10 percent to support the church and its good works, or Islam’s pillar of zakat (a fixed percentage of wealth) and sadacuo (voluntary gifts beyond the zakat obligation), each provides for an individual and communal response to those in need.
The Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 15:7-10) provides the foundation for the empathic response reflected in each of the faiths: “… [Y]ou shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy kin …, give readily and have no regrets.” Deuteronomy suggests that the obligation to assist the poor, this demand for economic justice, is a bedrock societal element.
The Hebrew Bible also suggests that God modeled empathy and compassion for those in need when God provided manna for the people of Israel who were wandering in the Sinai desert. Manna was given without time limits, work requirements, sanctions or means tests. Manna was given with love, not disdain.
Individuals as well as the community prosper when this obligation is fulfilled; both suffer when it is ignored. “Give to the needy readily … in return … the Eternal your God will bless you …” (Deuteronomy 15:10). According to Ezekiel (16:49-50), the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah were punished collectively (Genesis 18:20-29) for their injustice and poor treatment of vulnerable persons.
So how does the 2012 campaign measure up to the biblical edict to “open your hand wide to your kin, to poor persons, and to your needy persons, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11), and the three religions’ manifestation of this mandate? How do we reconcile these directives with the absence of focus on poor people in this campaign? How do we reconcile them with trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the rich; the bemoaning of cuts to Medicare, but little concern for cuts to Medicaid; the vilification of food stamps and unemployment insurance; the sweeping dismissal of recipients of government benefits as lazy and dependent?
Whatever happened to a bipartisan war on poverty and concern for the “other America”? How do we think God might judge our nation and society based on our attitude toward and response to the vulnerable among us?