As Lent began, the U.S. was in a major struggle over the federal budget. The House majority, under the guise of deficit reduction, proposed a budget that aggressively singled out programs for hungry and poor people, radically scaling them back and capping them to prevent their expansion. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the lead budget-cutter, claimed that the safety net has become a "hammock." We were moving from neglecting the poor to targeting the poor -- an assault against the very people that God specifically instructs us to protect and whose well-being is the biblical test of a nation’s righteousness.
I was feeling a nudge to fast and pray about this, to turn to God for wisdom and direction. As I talked to other leaders, I found I was not the only one. Former Ambassador Tony Hall, of the Alliance to End Hunger, called to say that fasting and prayer was also on his heart. In 1993, as a member of Congress, he fasted for 22 days in response to similar cuts. David Beckmann at Bread for the World, with his deep concern for hungry people, was feeling the same thing. We decided to follow the model, found in the book of Esther, of public fasting, praying, and petitioning political powers to change unjust actions.
On March 28, the three of us were joined by Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive Worldwide at a news conference to announce that the budget debate was a moral crisis, and that prayer, fasting, and radical action were required. We began a Hunger Fast for a Moral Budget.
Nearly 40 denominations and faith-based organizations joined, followed by secular social-change groups and labor unions. Twenty-eight members of Congress announced their support, along with more than 36,000 individuals. We all agreed to form a "circle of protection" around the most critical programs for the poorest people in our communities. Many other Christian leaders joined the circle, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.
A church youth group in Memphis did a 30-hour fast. Low-income workers from my hometown of Detroit came to an event to thank us for fasting and to say they were joining us. And we were given a generous gift by the church community affiliated with Christ House, a 24-hour residential medical facility for homeless men and women in Washington, D.C.
We kept the pressure on Congress through emails, phone calls, and print and online media. Strong television and radio attention included excellent stories on CNN and NPR. Every story was an opportunity to raise awareness of how proposed budget cuts would affect the poor across our country and the world.
The message of the fast became clearer (fasting tends to focus you): A budget is always about the choices we make and the values that determine our priorities and decisions. In the budget proposals before Congress, these choices are stark.
Should we cut billions for low-income housing, or in mortgage tax deductions for second vacation homes? In early childhood programs for poor kids, or in tax cuts for millionaires’ estates? Should we cut heating assistance for low-income people in winter months, or tax breaks for oil companies and offshore drilling? Malaria bed nets for kids in Africa, or one line item of military spending? The debate isn’t about scarcity; it's about choices.
Instead of focusing on the real money, budget-cutters are targeting vital, effective programs that assist low-income families and save the lives of the most vulnerable around the globe. Spending on poor people did not create the deficit, and drastic cuts in programs that help them will do little to get us out of it. To really reduce the deficit, everything should be on the table, especially the biggest public outlays in military spending, corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, and long-term health-care costs -- all of which could actually reduce the deficit, while cuts in much smaller poverty programs will not.
Ultimately, ours was a fast before God, to whom we turned in prayer and hope for changed hearts -- our own, those of our lawmakers, that of the nation. The fast was a spiritual escalation to bring attention to critical moral choices, and to seek God's help. "Is not this the fast that I choose," God asks in the book of Isaiah, "to loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free?"
Though the fast ended on Easter, it energized the faith community, poverty and hunger organizations, and social-change groups, and helped to spark a broad and united movement for a moral budget. The people of God, with the help of God, provided the moral leadership to fuel a political movement.
We are continuing to build a spiritually empowered community ready to work for a better budget, a better country, and a better world. The battle over a moral budget will be with us for a while, but we now have a broad movement that will fight for the soul of the nation.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.