The current debate around the country (America) over the issue of health care is a debate which many of us will watch unfold for the next decade. As many people watch President Obama’s speech tonight on why it is important for Americans to consider changing the way health care is implemented, the sad reality is that there will be children all over America who will be sleeping cold, wet, and sick on the streets of her major urban centers. For these children, and many of their parents, this debate is far from a debate about who pays for what, or if and when the day will come when those who simply cannot afford health care will get it. For these children, help has not come soon enough, nor in many cases will it ever come.
In 2009 the highest percentage of homeless in America are children. While this ought to be the thorn in the proverbial flesh of the American religious identity with regards to health care and poverty, it turns out that far more than wanting to care for those most in need, far more than trying to work constructively to figure out how to make sure that the most vulnerable in society have the capacity to live and die with dignity, the political debates and finger pointing about health care are more about the preservation of wealth in the less than 1% of our society than what it really ought to be about.
As Christian, this debate has become quite taxing on me. In fact, it has forced me to ask some real questions: Should I be for this? Should I be against it? Why is this debate still about what “they” (that is those who don’t have health care) need to do? What is the role of any one person or community of faith in this debate?
Recently, I’ve found some comfort knowing that Christians like myself have faced this kind of challenge before as citizens of a powerful nation. According Rodney Stark, and I am paraphrasing here, it was the Christians who returned the dignity to those who were sick and in the streets during the reign of the Caesars (first two centuries after Christ). It was the Christians who when the reign was crumbling, and there seemed to be no resources from the state support the sick who “showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another” (Stark). As Dionysius went on to write in around 260, “heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…for they were infected by others with disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains” (Stark). It was the Christians who took a stand for those who society was banishing from homes because of their ‘black flu.’ It was the early church who modeled and seemed to understand that Christians cannot please God unless they first love the other in their midst; especially those who were weak!
History also shows that it was not just the Christians who have taken up or taught about the care of the sick and the oppressed. The histories of Islam and Judaism also tell the tales of communities of people coming together to think creatively about how to strive for justice, and love kindness, while walking humbly with God.
And what of Hippocrates, that ancient Greek physician and the founder of medicine? He seemed to understand far too well what many in the debates about health care do not; namely, that health care is more about caring for the whole person than the treating of disease. And while many of people in this debate are thinking completely about the statistical values of how much it might cost to treat and cure and diagnose the sick of America, it seems as though this cost is directly related to the assumption that those in the medical field are the ones who possess and own all the data for keeping America healthy. Yet for Hippocrates and his contemporaries, the field of medicine was not “a storage bin of ultimately knowable facts and figures,” rather, “they knew their patients” (Newman).
This leads me to my final thought: ultimately, the debate about Health Care reform must enter the realm of those who claim practice faiths of compassion and care. If it does not, the sad reality is that this debate will always have an air of “it’s the state’s problem” about it. Yet, this isn’t true it all! It’s not just the nation or state’s problem, it’s every citizen’s problem.
Anyone who claims to have any kind of belief in a God who wants to set the oppressed free, or to heal the sick, or that creates all equal, this debate is a critical part of being a person of faith in 2009. No longer can people of faith glibly stand by and wait for some quasi-non-religious-religious entity to make decisions which impact the most helpless in society. Things have gone far enough!
Sadly, one must recognize that the age-old American myth of the separation of church and state will prevent many from really asking the kinds of questions which will could make health care possible for everyone, much less for the young children still living in our streets. Yet, these are still the early days of the new debate on these matters and that is subject for another blog to come soon! What is important now, is that health care, no, people care, is before us and challenging us to think critically about it!
People of faith, be not mistaken, Health Care in America is a religious issue!
Hoping, Praying, and Acting for Change!
Stark, Rodney. 1997. The Rise of Christianity. San Fransico: HarperCollins.
Newman, David. 2008. Hippocrates Shadow. New York: Scribner.