State has moral obligation to get budget in line

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

One of the interesting questions about the Illinois budget disaster is how we will know when we are bankrupt. One fiscal guru told me that this won't happen as long as we can borrow and are willing to pay interest rates that would shame even the most profligate.

Another said that we are already there. Isn't it bankruptcy when agencies -- especially those serving the desperately needy -- are forced to shut down because they have not been paid for services rendered?

We are certainly bankrupt by any reasonable moral, if not technical, standard. John Buchanan, senior minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, has written, "Nations are judged on how they deal with their own weakest, most vulnerable citizens -- the least of these." States, too.
We are failing to realize that behind every grim budget number is a real, live person, a neighbor whom we should care about. Consider one such person, who spoke to a gathering of my organization last week.

Dante grew up in Chicago public housing. His mother had 14 children. Only four are now alive. All the others died from drug overdose or violence. His mother was functionally illiterate. A lot of men moved in and out of her life. He carries a scar on his head from her violence.

Dante managed to do well through high school and entered the military after two years in college. He returned home to care for his mother. When she died, and his brother suffered an AIDS-related death, suddenly everything seemed too much for him. He turned to drugs. Eventually he found treatment and is now a counselor himself in a halfway house setting.
I will long remember his opening comments.

"I have always had this thought that no soul really has a choice about where it's born or how God chooses to bring that soul to Earth," he said. "You know, I could have been a Cambodian rice farmer, a Russian midget in the circus, so many other things, but God chose me for a purpose. I was born into an African-American family on the South Side of Chicago, in poverty, in Robert Taylor homes."

At the very least, these words call us to empathy. If we take seriously his observation that none of us has a choice about the circumstances to which we are born, doesn't it follow that each of us could be facing his struggles?
Circumstances separate us, perhaps more now than ever before. But if much of this separation is due to chance -- or at least things over which we have no choice -- isn't it also true that what we have in common with each other is far more significant that what separates us?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us of the ways we are connected to each other. This is tangibly true: "We are everlasting donors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning . . . we reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are already beholden to more than half the world."

But our connectedness is also spiritually true. Social activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin was paraphrasing Dr. King when he asked: " 'Am I my brother's keeper? No, I am my brother's brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.'"
If we were to take more seriously the Dantes of this world, perhaps we would begin to pay a little more attention to the state budget crisis as well.