Why Christians Cannot Support the Government Shutdown

Author: Rob Schenck

The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the author of the book, "Costly Grace".

“ . . . in humility value others above yourselves . . .” (Philippians 2:3)

There are a lot of dimensions to a government shutdown: political conflict and maneuvering for advantage, dramatic attention-getting for a cause, a point, a policy outcome—an exercise of will by one branch of government over the other.

The one dimension that too often gets lost in the high drama is the suffering of the folks that go without paychecks. They’re furloughed and are home, bored and anxious, or uncertain whether they will have their job in a week, a month, next year. Others are forced to work, sometimes long, additional hours to make up for the furloughed ones, and are demoralized by a “0” on the paystub they still get, even without the paycheck. Still others, working notoriously underpaid jobs, go week-to-week wondering how they will make rent or mortgage payments, buy groceries or gas, obtain prescriptions or other medical products, pay for childcare.

Being in non-profit work all my adult life, I’ve gone for long periods without pay, and it is highly stressful and enormously consequential—on one’s sense of personal security and self-esteem, on one’s marriage and family life, even one’s mental and physical health.

My ministry over 25 years took me many times into federal buildings, mostly in the executive and legislative branches, but later on in the judicial branch as well, not to mention the Pentagon and other military installations. In all these places there were vast armies of invisible support personnel—janitors, mechanics, electricians, elevator operators and engineers, plumbers, handymen, trash handlers, truck drivers, loading dock workers, copy and file clerks, cooks and cafeteria workers, dishwashers, mail sorters and delivery personnel, and on and on it goes. These people are often literally the “downstairs” personnel. Normally you wouldn’t even see them unless you accidentally rode an elevator to the “B” (basement) or “SB” (sub-basement) levels.

While I don’t visit those buildings much anymore, I do live in a sector of the city where many of those “downstairs people” live, Northeast Washington, DC. These are the folks that wait for long periods of time at bus stops with lunch buckets in their hands, no matter the weather, to get to work and who come back late, their hair rumpled, brows sweaty, and slumped with exhaustion. These are also the people who can least afford to miss a paycheck that is sometimes 1/10th of what a White House junior staffer or congressional office worker might make. And these are the people bearing the brunt of the current government shutdown.

Now, I’m not naïve. I’ve been around politics and politicians for over 30 years; I have worked very close to them, heard them speak in public and in private; and, as a chaplain, have even heard their anxious confessions of sin and shame. I can tell you that many politicians do not really care about the people “at the bottom.” Conservatives feel there are already too many people working for the federal government, that they are lazy and pampered, and that we’d be better off if the shutdown caused those unwanted “leeches” to quit. In other words, in their minds, the shutdown is a shortcut to downsizing a bloated bureaucracy. Besides, for too many conservatives I know, government employees are far more likely to be democrats, so they matter even less. Angry or desperate democrats don’t matter in elections. In the minds of some liberals I know, the pain inflicted on furloughed, overworked or unpaid personnel will drive those people out of their complacency and to the polls in favor of democratic candidates, so, the shutdown can actual rebound to the good. These, of course, are the most craven and immoral players on both the right and left, but most aren’t that. Most players in the shutdown are simply self-serving ideologues, out for their own benefit—oblivious to the pain and suffering a shutdown inflicts on others. Here is where the crisis becomes acute for the Christian.

Everything in scripture, in the model and teaching of Christ, and in Christian moral instruction points to being concerned first about others before ourselves. The critical questions that both Christian politicians and citizens must ask is, “How does this government shutdown affect others, especially the most vulnerable? Who is being hurt by this and how do we ameliorate that pain immediately, regardless of its political consequences? How can we make our point, win our argument, or succeed in our policy initiatives without inflicting pain and suffering on others?”

For my conservative friends, if your answers include trimming government payroll for what you perceive as the benefit for the larger American family, then you must do it least painfully and most honorably. You publically announce your intention, give government employees plenty of advance warning and time to change jobs, offer buy-outs and severance packages. You don’t dishonorably shove them out the door and place them and their families at risk.

For my liberal friends, you stop short of using people as pawns to score wins. Instead, you take care of people—at any cost, including slowing policy advances and even compromising your pride—while demonstrating that it is the other party that disrespects and devalues common people who work hard for the American people.

The government shutdown is not simply American political business as usual. It is anti-neighbor, anti-family, anti-life. For my fellow Christians who believe in the two Great Commandments of Christ, to “Love God,” and to “Love Neighbor,” the current state affairs is a violation of both. Blame-shifting will not do. Remember Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden: “She did it; It did it; YOU did it!” God didn’t let any of them get away with blaming someone else—and He won’t let anyone get away with it this time either.

The shutdown is wrong, it is immoral, unethical, and inhuman. Democrats and Republicans: Stop the infliction of suffering and pain, restore employment, payroll, and honor. Repent and beg the pardon of God and of those you’ve injured, then pick another way to make your point and score your win.