Friday, August 19, 2011

Voices for social justice in a divided state

On Aug. 18, 2011, I was part of a group of religious leaders who unveiled a statement drawing on our faith traditions to address the breach in the social covenant in Wisconsin during the past eight months. Here are my comments at the news conference. Afterwards, a group of us took the statement to Gov. Scott Walker's office as well as to the legislative leaders of both parties in the Assembly and the Senate.

As a pastor at a local congregation, I get several calls a week from folks who need financial help to keep from being evicted or need help paying overdue utility bills or people feeling domestic violence who need a security deposit for a new place to live. As pastors, we experience the issues facing people on the margins of society in a very personal way.

We're gathered here at Grace Episcopal Church, which hosts one of the primary shelters for homeless men in the Madison area. The congregation I serve helps with meals at the Community Meal Program and gathers items for food pantries. All of us here look for ways to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick. And these are important actions.

But we also know that there are conditions in our society that make things harder for people on the margins. So we also look at issues of justice. In the United Church of Christ, when someone is baptized, they promise to follow in the way of Jesus, "to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice." Seeking justice is a core part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

That's why we make our voices heard on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the oppress in public debates. Our statement on the social covenant looks back at how that has frayed in the first half of this year. But we are also looking forward, signaling that our voices will continue to be raised on behalf of those being left out. Our statement focuses on the state level, but we know this has an impact on the county and city as well. Scott McDonell from the Dane County Board is here. He and his colleagues need to keep the needs of the most vulnerable in mind as they approach this year's budget.

We know that in a democracy, elections are the heart of the democratic process. We know in Wisconsin over the last year through a series of elections that the people of this state are closely divided on the direction this take is taking. We also know that a democracy is more than voting. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution spells out the many forms of democracy - freedom of religion, which means our voices have a place in the public square, recognizing that other faiths, even other understandings of Christianity, also have a place in this debate. The First Amendment also talks about freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. We've seen a lot of that around this Square in the last eight months. And it talks about the right to petition our government.

Now we are going to walk over to the Capitol and petition our government as we deliver copies of our statement on the social covenant to the governor and the leaders of the Legislature. We hope you will join us in being voices for those who are most harshly affected by the actions of the last several months.