As a new President leads America into the nineties, the importance of justice and mercy must not be forgotten.

In just a little over a week, the formal honeymoon begins. George Bush will take the presidential oath, and his administration—the forty-first in our history—will steer this country’s course for the next four years.

It will not be easy.

Unlike his formidable predecessor, Bush has neither the landslide popularity nor the ideological forcefulness from which to launch a Reaganlike social-political agenda through the houses of Congress. Moreover, both houses are filled with Democrats nursing postelection grudges over a presidential campaign in which the rhetoric contained more invective than edification.

Because Bush lacks Reagan’s popular mandate, he will have to build consensus in order to avert defeat on every point of his agenda. Early in his term, Bush must establish a leadership style that takes into account the concerns of more than the vocal few. (As Paul Weyrich, the architect of the New Right, surmised, “We can’t say with a straight face to this guy, ‘We created you. We sustained you.’ ” The fact is, they didn’t.) The new President must avoid pandering to special interests, with an eye to re-election. He must instead address head-on the concerns of a whole nation.

Just which concerns should Bush address? In trying to evaluate the thousand-and-one issues converging upon the new administration, we liked what we recently read in America on the “flesh and blood” meaning of national issues: “Issues are abstract statements of the concrete problems of real people. Moreover, these are largely the problems of people’s sufferings.” Seeing issues through the lens of human suffering—and working to alleviate that suffering by “loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly” (Micah 6:8)—may help us as Americans and, more important, as Christians to focus better on those issues demanding a governmental response sooner rather than later.

Having looked at the issues through the lens of suffering, we suggest these presidential priorities.

Budget Cutbacks And Justice

Few Americans understand national economics. Even fewer understand the ramifications of a $155 billion national debt. (Economists themselves are uncertain as to what such a debt really means.) For that reason, most Americans refuse to see the budget deficit as presidential challenge number one. Nevertheless, the connection between rising debt and “people’s sufferings” will become increasingly visible as the Bush administration works to whack the deficit down to size. And thus the church needs to express moral concerns about how the budget is trimmed.

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With tax increases anathema (if only for the time being), only significant budget cuts from the areas of defense and social spending can make a real dent in our elephantine debt. Cutbacks in the former seem unlikely. Yet we would encourage the new President to question the wisdom of our current “defense” build-up, especially in light of American rhetoric basing such a build-up on the hope for international peace and justice. A strong defense is necessary. And peace and justice are certainly proper motivations. But what has become the strongest military arsenal in history cannot help calling those motives into question—especially among nations such as Nicaragua and Panama, countries pressed on both sides by the courting superpowers. Perhaps now, more than at any other time, we must grapple with the meaning of a $300 billion-a-year defense machine in the context of our relationship with the rest of the world. When is enough enough?

Still, with defense cutbacks questionable, social spending will continue to be challenged. The problems with such programming—financial waste, poor administration, and little power to motivate personal improvement—are well known and demand change (still another area in which the Bush administration could be a breath of fresh air). However, a history of bureaucratic malfeasance must not overshadow the fact that over 30 million Americans depend upon some kind of government subsidy for economic survival. While the so-called government safety net seems secure to assist those who find themselves in destitute poverty, further entitlement cutbacks could prove disastrous to those above the government cutoff line for destitute poverty, yet below the national poverty level. These “nominally poor” could well find themselves in a tailspin heading for an economic abyss from which there would be no return.

The Reagan response was to call churches and other private sector agencies to meet the needs of the poor. It was a good idea, but it was soon drowned in prosperity rhetoric and asphyxiated by the lack of any real sense of church accountability.

Nevertheless, it was a good idea. And we would encourage George Bush, from whom we heard so often about the “thousand points of light,” to resurrect the servant motif and make it an ongoing theme of his administration. While directed to the church, the servant message might impress the rest of the Americans with their responsibility to men and women other than themselves. Moreover, we would encourage the church to understand the budget deficit in human terms in order to feel its God-ordained obligation to the destitute. The church need not feel accountable on this point to the government, per se, but to the pattern set for it in Scripture: “They gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45b).

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Mercy And Prolife Alternatives

Addressing the mammoth issue of budget deficits from the perspective of human suffering would certainly lend credence to Bush’s stand against another flesh-and-blood issue—abortion. Selecting judges sympathetic to a prolife position would only be a first step—even the eventual reversal of Roe v. Wade would more than likely return the question of legality to the individual states. Thus Bush must articulate a clear understanding of the total tragedy of abortion, from the destroyed fetus to the damaged mother—and then offer the hurting more than words. He must demonstrate that while the destruction of human life is wrong, society has an obligation to any woman whose situation propels her toward such a decision in the first place.

Here again the church can help. Just as it must address human suffering in the area of physical need, it must show mercy and work to bring healing to the emotionally broken. While picket lines can prevent a woman from making that fateful decision, the church must be equally prepared to help that woman deal with the consequences of saying no to abortion. Surveys would indicate that a woman will carry a difficult pregnancy to term if she feels the support of a strong, intimate community: a family. The church can be that family, and in the process, demonstrate that there is a choice that leads not to death but life.

Truly, then, George Bush’s primary challenges for the coming four years are the church’s challenges. At issue are justice and mercy, and the alleviating of human suffering—the sum and substance of Christ’s command that we love one another.

By the editors.

Add one more study to the long list of television-is-bad-for-your-children findings. Recently a Swedish study reported a strong correlation between exposure to television and aggressive behavior.

Other recent studies have suggested that television contributes to children’s acceptance of violence and adultery, fatigue, poor physical condition, and isolation from adults. Officials have noted a correlation between televised reports about suicide and the rise of suicide rates. And studies strongly suggest that television reinforces negative perceptions of other nations and exerts extraordinary influence on the toy-buying habits of children. No wonder we have developed an entire lexicon of derogatory terms for television and its viewers—boob tube, idiot box, couch potato.

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But these findings are balanced by others that suggest television stimulates children’s language development, auditory and visual skills, and curiosity about world geography and science.

Clearly television has both good and bad points. Negative findings demand we treat the medium with care. Yet concerned parents often overreact and lose television’s benefits. There may be an alternative: treating television as a controllable testing ground for teaching our children one of the most needed and ignored virtues of modern living: discernment.

Worldwide communication, secularized society, and affluence conspire to expose our children to unprecedented temptations. Are our children being properly prepared to choose between drugs and no drugs, good movies and bad movies, friends and foes, kingdom values and this world’s values?

For younger children, especially, television is a prime training tool for making wise choices. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has concluded that “children are not always uncritically docile with respect to the so-called power of television programming.” In a comparative study of American and Polish children, he found that both could intelligently critique politicians on television. Yet Polish children were far more astute in criticizing television itself, while American children showed greater devotion to the medium. What is the difference? “Children who are most inclined to go along with television, to lap up its messages uncritically, are those who have received little in the way of guidance at home, hence their susceptibility to whatever the big tube sends their way.”

We must sit with our children and patiently point out good and bad in what we watch together. We must demonstrate how to turn off the set after a good program and talk about our enjoyment and the ideas the program engendered instead of plunging headlong into another, probably mediocre, production. And we must model Christian disgust by tuning out in the middle of a clearly unredeemable production.

Admittedly, this is more difficult and time consuming than allowing unregulated viewing or banning the television altogether. But it is the response that will benefit our children the most in the long run.

By Terry Muck.

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