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Senior Correspondent

Karl Barth never heard of cable news, but he’d be reeling this week if he read the Bible with CNN blaring in his ear.

As the government remained closed and the national debt ceiling impasse left civilization hanging in the balance, Republicans and Democrats in Congress grappled for 16 days. 

Like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31), politicians of both parties, including the supposedly flexible Barack Obama, stubbornly refused to yield. 

Lost in thick mists of sweat were millions of Americans living on the edge of poverty whose badly needed government benefits had already been curtailed by the so-called sequester. Even before the sequester, billions of dollars had been cut from programs that support poor people.

As politicians of both parties vied for the support of the beleaguered middle class, few appeared worried that their budget wrangling was hurting the poor. It’s as if, when Jesus told his disciples to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000, the disciples told the kid with the fish and chips to get lost (Matthew 14:13-21).

The partisan stalemate in Washington is infuriating. A half century ago, when I was about 15, the faculty of Morrisville-Eaton Central School presented a whimsical drama for the entertainment of our tiny central New York community. I don’t remember the name of the play but I remember Mrs. Drake, the school librarian, portrayed a character who recited the memorable line:

“Thirty needles and thirty pins and thirty dirty Republicans.”

As one of the town’s rare Kennedy supporters, I liked the line. But Mrs. Drake, a pillar in our mostly Republican village, suggested the line be changed to:

“Thirty dogs and thirty cats and thirty dirty Democrats.” 

Copyright issues and the fact that Mrs. Drake was playing a left-leaning dowager convinced her she had to say the line as it was written. But 50 years on, I’m beginning to agree with her on both counts. The wresting match between dirty Republicans and dirty Democrats is not pretty.

The United States Congress has always raised the federal borrowing limit, so no one knows what would have happened if House Republicans had continued to balk. Most analysts think the repercussions would have been bad — very bad. Fictional White House staffer Toby Ziegler said on an episode of the NBC television drama “The West Wing,” failure to act could cause “the immediate collapse of the U.S. economy, followed by Japan sinking into the sea, followed by a worldwide depression the likes of which no mortal can imagine. Followed by week two.”

Yet Republicans and Democrats continued to tumble on the brink. Clearly some 307 million of us innocent bystanders have the right to ask: What the hell is wrong with you?

What is wrong is that party leaders danced to the edge of disaster because they think their posturing will help them consolidate power. They are seeking to maneuver their way into majorities in both houses of Congress and take over the White House in 2016. Never mind that increasing numbers of American voters are disgusted by their inability to compromise on a plan to avert economic disaster. 

If all this wrangling is about winning control of Congress and the White House, one wonders how valuable these acquisitions would be in a post-default America. I envision passing the tattered figures of House and Senate leaders as they stumble in the steaming rubble of post-apocalypse Washington. “How’s that takeover plan working out for you, guys?”

Republicans and Democrats have made their positions clear. The GOP calls for lowering the national debt by cutting taxes on the rich and reducing services to the poor. 

Democrats say the debt must be reduced by spending cuts and by implementing new revenue streams, mostly in the form of increased taxes on the very rich. 

Both parties say their approach will require huge sacrifices in order reduce the debt, and both say they are acting in the interest of the American middle class. But who is making the sacrifices? Obviously not the rich. And really not the middle class. I haven’t been asked to sacrifice anything to save my country. Have you?

This has been a scary week, and poor people had the most to lose. We found ourselves inside a Roman tragedy in which human greed and folly have created a situation so twisted and bound with knots so complex that human hands will never untie them. When classical plays got to this stage, there was only one solution: the deus ex machina, the god in the machine, which is to say, Mighty Mouse — “here I come to save the day” — or some godlike figure who will be lowered onto the stage to offer godlike solutions to human dilemmas.

Actually, if you’re the type who reads the back pages of the paper, you may have noticed that the god in the machine has actually landed on stage. The question now is whether the god will win enough audience applause to attract the attention of the wrestling wretches on stage.

The situation in Washington has become so divisive that it has actually brought together divergent Christian groups that usually don’t play well together: Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals.

The groups formed the Circle of Protection composed of more than 65 heads of denominations, relief and development agencies, and other Christian organizations.The group is committed to protecting vital programs for people in or near poverty in the United States and around the world. 

“We are committed to resisting budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people,” the group declares. "We call on our nation's leaders to help us reduce hunger and poverty by expanding opportunity and justice, promoting economic growth and good paying jobs, stabilizing family life, and protecting the well-being of children.”

This week, while Congress and the White House wrestled, clergy and religious leaders from Circle of Protection gathered on the Capitol steps to pray and remind Congress of the moral imperative to end the gridlock on the national budget. They quoted holy writ and invoked ancient reminders of God’s love for the poor. 

The Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, associate general secretary for joint action and advocacy of the National Council of Churches, participated in the daily continuous readings by reminding listeners of the over 2,000 Bible verses that speak of “God’s concern for justice and protecting the poor and vulnerable people.”

Directing her admonition to members of Congress who are refusing to vote on actions to re-open the government and raise the national debt ceiling, Tiemeyer said, “These verses point the way toward a brighter future for our nation and for all people.”

The actions, dubbed the “Faithful Filibuster,” were organized by the Circle of Protection to remind Congress that its dysfunction hurts the most vulnerable Americans — and that all of us are charged to care for the least among us.

Even so, the partisan wrestling continued, not on behalf of the American people but in pursuit of political advantage and power.

Karl Barth, watching the spectacle on CNN, might have been inspired to re-read the account of the most famous wrestling bout in the Bible. 

Genesis 32:24-32: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Jacob, who stole his birthright from his twin, Esau, has been a dirty, rotten scoundrel until this night at Peniel. All his life he has sought power and advantage at the expense of everyone else. And then an angel came, and wrestled with him, and Jacob realized for the first time in his life that God was calling him to a higher service. 

This is one of the great conversion stories of Genesis, as Jacob the liar and fraud realizes this may be his last chance to get right with God. He holds desperately to the angel and will not let him go until the angel blesses him. And when the blessing comes, Jacob realizes: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

This week the members of the Congress claimed they wrestled with each other over issues of public import. But that’s hard to believe. It looked more like a struggle for power.

Before we have to go through this again in early 2014, let’s pray they will realize who they are really wrestling with: the God who loves the poor and blesses those who create circles of protection around them.

Political deals to protect the rich from higher taxes, or win the support of the middle class, may win votes, although that remains to be seen. 

But one thing is clear: supporting the rich while ignoring the poor is no way to win the blessing of God’s wrestling angels.

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