Health Care for All: Not Perfect, but Right (and Christian)

Warning: If you sided with Glen Beck with regards to social justice and Christianity, you might not want to proceed. If you actually care about the poor and marginalized in America, and believe that the Kingdom of God is not simply about individuality and personal freedoms, you might want to keep reading.

If Christians are to have any good conversation about the historicity of today’s House vote on Health Care Reform in America, we must, in the most authentic way possible be honest about what Jesus thought about the marginalized in society and those who would seek to keep them marginalized. As such, we might be reminded of how Jesus started his sermon on the plain in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 6:

“20Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

23“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”

Now, while Jesus doesn’t say that one should put themselves (or nation) in debt to pay for the provisions for everyone who is poor around them, or even how this might work itself out, the consistency with which he spoke about the poor in all of the recounted gospels was powerful enough that it transformed the way that many in the early church lived.

I am reminded of what Rodney Stark pointed out in his book The Rise of Christianity about the generosity of the Christians and their influence in early Roman society. He notes that which was written by Dionysius about Christian nursing efforts during the the second great epidemic:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves…Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner…winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great peity and faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom” (pg82).

Stark would go on to note that the influence of the Christian charity was such that the emperor Julian started pagan charities in an effort to “equal the virtues of Christians,” “for recent Christian growth was the result of ‘moral character, even if pretended’ and ‘their benevolence towards strangers and care for the graves of the dead.'” Stark would finally note, that Julian “noted that his charities paled in comparison to Christians who had created a ‘minature welfare state in an empire for which the most part lacked social services'” (pg83).

I share all of this background for one reason: to demonstrate the vast horizon between that which was most influential about the message of Christianity then versus now. Make no mistake, I’m not trying to even propose that we could or should recreate that world today. It’s impossible! Yet, I am asking us, on this day, to consider the history of the Christian faith in light of America’s democratic and individualistic evolution.

I mean let’s face it, American Christians are not 2-3c Christians. Americans have long fought the battle over religious freedom, governmental control, and private citizenry. It’s part of our historic DNA and it is what inspires us to do such amazingly good (and bad) things in the service of others around the world. But what seems most apparent to me about today’s vote on Health Care Reform for the 32,000,000 Americans without it, is the way in which this single decision has brought to a head all three of these strands of the American (protestant) DNA such that we are at once both in deep conflict and confusion about what it is that we might really do with ourselves. From an existential point of view, this vote may very well be our passage as a country (at least for Christians and conservatives) from adolescence to adulthood.

As adolescents, we really only care about ourselves, as individuals. We’re glad that the system works such that we can enjoy our person freedom and liberty and we actually like to push against the structures of the system itself to test our boundaries and abilities (especially when we have the agency to do so). But as adults, we begin to see things differently. We don’t necessarily become conformists (nor should we) but we do begin to recognize that world does not actually revolve around ‘me,’ or my person freedoms. In a sense, we come to see understand how ‘I’ am part of a larger collective. And, participating in this system, this collective, is good not only for others it is good for me as well.

As adolescents, (and I would note privileged adolescents) we are often immune to the inability of others to move as freely in the systems of the world as we do. Growing up in the South, as an adolescent, I didn’t realize how structural racism effected my ability as a white male to move about the world. But you know what, it did. And as a result, I benefited from that system. Most Americans who are resisting the change which would give health care to all, already have health care. They already possess something which gives them the privilege to sleep comfortably or, to know that they have a system to fall back on if they get sick. Sadly, this comfort or feeling of safety, whether one is conscious of it or not, is not only not shared by many in America, it is flat out denied to them. As adults, we ought to see this, acknowledge it, and deal with it. As adults, when having seen the effects of racism, oppression, or structural marginalization of any kind, we ought to respond in mass, and in compassion!

And so, here we are: A nation (many of whom are of the Christian religion) at odds over the composite DNA of our closest relatives and the greatest ideals and practices of our Teacher, and ‘Savior.’ Is it any wonder that this vote is so controversial? Is it any shock that we are so divided?

We are at once in those last moments fighting for everything that is ours as individuals and resisting the kind of change that would make us adults. Yes, we can continue to resist, or we can do as Christ, and give up the power of our individuality for the sake of the greater and beloved community. But make no mistake, a decision against this now, will only the delay our venture to a more mature way of being in the world a little longer.

Finally, I’ll suggest this: if today’s vote succeeds, then we who cheered for its approval, must rise up and challenge it when it fails. If today’s vote fails, all who prayed for its downfall must offer new ways of sorting out how to care for the other in our country (especially if you are Christian). Either way, this bill and/or law and its implementation will not be perfect; however, as adults, my hope is that responsibly, reasonably, and carefully we can all acknowledge that it goes against our entire DNA (as Americans and as Christians) to watch any person, or group of people suffer, and not to act in kind.

Joshua Case

Atlanta, Georgia

March 21, 2010

PS.

Here is a Litany of Penitence from this morning in Atlanta that I offer:

Most holy and merciful Father: we confess to you and ask forgiveness from one another, and the whole of Creation for we have sinned by our own fault in thought word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We know that in all creation

It is the human family which strays from the Sacred Way.

Father, heal our brokenness.


We alienate ourselves from the mysteries of the cosmos

And estrange ourselves from the movements of the earth

For we have turned our backs on the cycles of life.

Christ, heal our brokenness.


We exploit Creation for our own ends

And our Knowledge becomes distorted

We abuse Your trust to care for creation

Holy Spirit, heal our brokenness.


We look upon the land that is barren

Taste the water that is polluted

Smell the air that is foul.

Father, heal our brokenness.


We weep for the forests of that are dead

Cry for the creatures that have disappeared

Despair for the peoples that are hungry.

Christ, heal our brokenness.


We know that we are divided

And we are the ones who must come back together

To walk in the Sacred Way.

Holy Spirit, heal our brokenness.


Teach us love, compassion, and honor

For we ask forgiveness and remembrance

That we can heal each other and all of Your creation.

Father, accept our repentance.

5 thoughts on “Health Care for All: Not Perfect, but Right (and Christian)

  1. “Now, while Jesus doesn’t say that one should put themselves (or nation) in debt to pay for the provisions for everyone who is poor around them….”

    The problem I have with anyone who makes that objection is why was there not similar moral outrage and people spitting on congressmen and calling them nigger and faggot the last nine years when we were going deep into debt for the purpose of killing brown people who speak funny languages? Am I seriously to believe that suddenly the Christian right rediscovered its sense of moral outrage when it came to a question of spending money to help the poor?

    No, the blunt fact is that we are not a good nation, we are not a moral nation. We value two things above all else: war and money. This last decade and this last year prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.

  2. As you know, I opposed the legislation and will be in favor of its repeal. But I, too, think we can have reasonable discussions about these things. I oppose the bill on what I take to be thoroughly Christian, philosophical, and practical grounds, which I’m happy to make the case for if you wish.

    But the part of your argument I don’t understand is the move from virtue to government action. It doesn’t seem to me that something ought to be accounted a virtue on my part unless it is a moral act I initiate, something towards which I direct my will when I had the option not to do so. We would, therefore, be a virtuous society if we provided health care to everyone as best we can (given that it’s a finite resource trying to meet an infinite demand) through a network of churches, charities, and community clinics supported by donated funds — this is what the early Christians were doing. I like Stark’s work (he’s an excellent scholar), but it wasn’t a welfare state the early Christians had because they weren’t a state.

    Quite the contrary of being a virtuous thing to do, this legislation will narrow the range of possible virtuous actions for people and will likely constrict the actual practice of virtue. This is, in fact, what we see in almost all expansions of the welfare state. The sick and poor become more dehumanized distant transactions, a “problem” to be solved by others in far-off Washington, DC. The attitude is, “I pay taxes so that someone else will take care of that” and no more thought is given to helping others. It is not a coincidence that the U.S. has a smaller welfare state than Europe AND that Americans donate more to charity (both absolutely and per capita).

  3. This is interesting, post. I would submit (as I suspect you already know, but I am new to your blog) that this is not a new thing with God, but has been His purpose for centuries.

    Perhaps one of the problems modern, American Christians have is the way we read Scripture. The Bible doesn’t seem to view us as individuals as much as we may understand ourselves. When God speaks to us via the Apostles and in the Hebrew prophets, it is my understanding that the ‘you’ He speaks to, is most often ‘us’ and not a single person necessarily. He speaks to communities and cultures demanding justice for the poor. We individualize it more than the Scripture warrants, I think.

    In fact, the oldest Hebrew inscription, recently discovered and translated by Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa, speaks of what appears to be to be a call to social justice. I would submit that the text in question is written to a community of believers, not just to specific individuals.

    English translation of the deciphered text:

    1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
    2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
    3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
    4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
    5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

    Psalm 72 echoes some of this text, saying that the King is to care for the poor.

    “Justice” is a word that is part of the vision issue here, I think. It seems to me that we tend to think of it in terms of lawyers, courts, jails and juries, but God’s justice is about coming and setting things to right. It is my belief that God’s way of justice is about caring for people . If that takes a whole community and our government, well why not? He seemed to want Kings (the government of the time) to care for the poor.

    The Church has many faults and we have not always treated the poor as we should, but one of our greatest preachers said this, and I think it is kinda shocking to modern ears, but something to consider.

    St. John Chrysostom, : ‘An equal place at the table’:

    “Week by week you come to the Lord’s table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? Do you regard them merely as some kind of spiritual medicine, which will purge your soul, like a laxative may purge your body? Or do you sometimes wonder what God is saying in these simple elements? Bread and wine represent the fruits of our labor, whereby we turn the things of nature into food and drink for our sustenance. So at the Lord’s table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. This means that God’s material blessings belong equally to everyone, to be enjoyed according to each person’s need. The whole ceremony is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table.”

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