A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Some Reflections on Health Care, Judicial Philosophy, and the Witness of the Church (Part 2)

I have struggled with exactly what to do with this second part of my series. Originally, I was simply going to discuss what I like about the AHA and what concerns me, but frankly, I am not sure that will be very helpful. The arguments for and against have been made and continue to be be made. Rather, what I think I am going to do in this post is to highlight once again, what I continue to suggest, are the disquieting uses of Scripture in commending or opposing one government program or another. Such concerns also reach into the private sector as well, but since the focus of attention here is the AHA, I will limit my comments to that specific subject.

In this post I am not interested in the constitutional questions either. Those questions are important and in my first post I dealt generally with the mistaken separation of judicial philosophy from political philosophy. A lawyer, who is a Christian, wrote a very helpful post attempting to maneuver through the entanglements of such matters. I encourage you to read David Opderbeck's arguments and the comment thread, which furthers the discussion.

I want to be clear-- what I am about to write is not an argument for or against the policy of universal health care; rather once again I am highlighting the very problematic hermeneutical moves in the religious right and left's use of Scripture as justification for or against any governmental policy. I want to use two example from both sides of this debate and then draw some conclusions.

Example #1: There are Christians on the right who oppose the individual mandate on the basis of freedom. It is wrong to impinge on an individual's personal freedom forcing her or him to pay for someone else's health insurance. Here freedom is loosely defined as freedom from our obligation to others. This is a strange argument to make, especially since St. Paul in Galatians defines the freedom Christ has secured for believers as the freedom for obedience. Paul clearly states that such freedom does not free us from our obligations to others, but it lays the foundation for those obligations. Of course, it needs to be said that Paul instructs the Galatians to do good to all, especially those of the household of faith (6:10). Paul is clear that we should not ignore those outside the church, but he clearly puts the emphasis on burden bearing within the church. I do not think that Paul is commending an isolationism, rather I think he is proffering a missional posture of the church as witness to those around the community of faith. I mention this here only because I want to highlight that matter in my next post in this series. But the point here is that Christians who oppose universal health care on the basis of freedom must resort to an unbiblical definition of freedom to make their case.

Example #2: On the other side of the aisle, Christians on the left have commended the universal mandate on the basis of Jesus' healing ministry. In one sense, this is understandable. Jesus was obviously concerned for the physical well-being of others. Salvation in the Bible is not only about the personal salvation of one's soul with no concern for physical redemption. Indeed, as I and others much smarter than I have argued, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is necessary if the salvation he brings is to be a holistic redemption that includes not only the "spiritual" but the "physical" as well. We Christians must be concerned about the well being of the entire person because God is concerned.

But it is certainly not a straight line from Jesus' healings to universal health care and I have been surprised by those who so casually make this connection without any kind of nuance. Indeed, if the connection is drawn too directly the significance of Jesus' miracles gets lost amidst a debate on health insurance.

Jesus' healing miracles involve more than Jesus' compassion on the sick; Jesus' miracles are signs that God's kingdom has now come in him. Indeed, Jesus' miracles are kingdom work. And as important as caring for the sick is, when it is divorced from Christology and ecclesiology, it is not kingdom work. Doing good in a general way, as important as that is, is not equal to furthering the work of the kingdom in this world. So, Jesus' miracles are about something more than simply providing health care. They point to the redemption that is coming in and only through Jesus; and kingdom work is centrally located in the church and in its mission to the world. I quote Scot McKnight:

...too many today have abstracted the ethical ideals from Jesus’ kingdom vision, all but cut Jesus out of the picture, and then called anything that is just, peace, good and loving the "kingdom." The result is this equation: kingdom means goodness, goodness means kingdom. Regardless of who does it. My contention would be that kingdom goodness is done by kingdom people who live under King Jesus. I applaud goodness at large. This is not a question of either or but whether or not all goodness is kingdom goodness. Some say Yes, I say No.

The problem here continues to be that when it comes to politics both the religious right and the left, see the state as the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, not the people of God, the Church. Moreover, in what I have read from Christians on both sides of this issue in the past few days one wonders if they realize that there are a whole host of people in the United States who are not Christians. Both sides have appealed to the Bible as justification for their views, but there are lots of folks in the good ole U. S. of A. who do not share the Christian view of biblical authority in any fashion.

The thorny issue is ecclesiological. Christians on the left and the right continue to lack a robust political ecclesiology. Thus, all they are left with is the state and legislation to further their kingdom agendas in this world. Churchcraft is replaced by statecraft. Indeed, for both the right and the left statecraft is churchcraft. Many have argued that Christendom is dead. Actually, I think Christendom is unfortunately alive and well, at least in the church. The religious right and the left continue to work to resurrect their own versions of it; and that is the all-encompassing problem in the debate over health care and so many other discussions we have. As I continue to say, the ghost of the Emperor Constantine still haunts us and the religious right and left keep holding seances to communicate with him.

More on that in my final post.


PamBG said...

I see *society taking responsibility for healthcare* (I highlight those words in to indicate that I have deliberately chosen them in preference to "universal health care") as fulfilling the obligation to care for one another, not "because Jesus healed".

I think the US's prevailing value is that "freedom" means - as you say - my freedom to opt out of helping you.

That's an indictment on our society. In Europe - which is mainly non-Christian - most people cite "love your neighbor as yourself" as the most important ethical concept.

That's an indictment on American Christianity which seems to manage to read all the Scriptural texts that rant about not helping others as "God loves a cheerful giver and doesn't want me to give if my heart isn't in it."

As to health care, I don't know what the definitive solution is. But I do believe that making profit the goal of our health care system isn't biblical.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I do believe that making profit the goal of our health care system isn't biblical.

If the goal of health care is profit, I agree. If profit serve the purpose of making health care better and more efficient, then I don't have a problem with it.

PamBG said...

If a provider is shareholder-held, the goal has to be profits, by law.

And isn't a profit-based system exactly what the political right is trying to preserve? That's the center of the philosophical battle, In my opinion.

Allan R. Bevere said...

For me it's one of overall intent. It can be profit-based by law, but does not have to be by intent. In other words, a profit can be made while pouring a certain % of that back into the system. It seem to me that whether health care is profit-based and private, or a single-payer system as in the U.K., you still have to make sure money is not lost. No system can survive forever, nor can a system be efficient, if is always running in the red.

I do not understand why any Christian would oppose finding a way to ensure everyone has access to health care. How that is done can certainly be debated, but I don't get why any Christian would not support such an endeavor.

At the same time I am also baffled as to why other Christians are not concerned about the long-term effects of deficit spending. If such debt is not reigned in future generations will suffer for it. The needs of the present generation are not the only concerns; the needs of those who are footing the bill right now and may have nothing for themselves when they need it must also be of concern. The debt problems in so many first-world nations are just as much a lack of stewardship and concern for others (children and grandchildren) as those who seem unconcerned for the needs of the present generation.

PamBG said...

a profit can be made while pouring a certain % of that back into the system

OK, good idea. I wonder how that would work? Philanthropically-minded individuals buy shares in companies where they know that the goal is not to maximize their profits but to reinvest in clients' health care and/or capital?

I do not understand why any Christian would oppose finding a way to ensure everyone has access to health care.

I don't either! But we keep hearing from the Super-Christians about how this is some kind of ungodly idea!

At the same time I am also baffled as to why other Christians are not concerned about the long-term effects of deficit spending.

I *am* concerned about the long-term effects of deficit-spending. Only I don't think I know enough about our economy to propose to you a budget. And I wonder why the long-term effects of the budget is more important than folk getting healthcare.

I *do* know that, for example, if we could contain health-care inflation, it would pay for what is currently being proposed. I do know that if we stopped killing people overseas, we would more than pay for our long-term health care.

My main concern - as a "leftie", I guess - that our values are all screwed up. We think it's more important for the wealthy to earn a return on their investments and for executives to get multi hundreds of million in salary annually than it is for poor people to get health care. And we think that this is more Christian than caring for others. I know that Jesus would weep.

Dennis Sanders said...

I think the US's prevailing value is that "freedom" means - as you say - my freedom to opt out of helping you.

That's an indictment on our society. In Europe - which is mainly non-Christian - most people cite "love your neighbor as yourself" as the most important ethical concept.

I think that's a rather sweeping assumption of American society. If Americans were truly so calloused, we would not have programs like Social Security and Medicare. This is not to argue that we have the best health care system in the world or what have you. I think the lack of universal health care is a grave concern and while the Obama plan has its faults, I will admit it is a step forward and I think Christians should be concerned to about health care reform.

That said, I don't think the US is as dark as you describe it, though I will say it is "fallen." The US will never be heaven on earth, but we can work on helping to usher in God's kingdom and maybe (imperfect as it is) this reform can be a sign.

PamBG said...

Dennis, it's sometimes hard to communicate what I mean.

I lived in the UK for 20 years, which is just becoming more "American" in it's values.

As the two generations die - the one that fought in WWII and the one that grew up in WWII - the UK is moving from a culture of "We are all in this together" to the "American" culture where profits are valued over people (bear with what might sound like my overstatement), the change is noticeable to me as someone who was living the change over 20 years in England and then moved back to the US.

My "overstatement" is based on my belief that what we genuinely believe is what we do rather than what we say. What we do, in everything, is emphasize profits. If there is enough to trickle down, that's great.

I accept that Americans have warm, fuzzy feelings about other Americans.

But I also hear Americans screaming how this act is "communist".

Hence, I conclude that we care more about money than people when push comes to shove. Even as we have warm fuzzy feelings about wanting folk to have healthcare when there is enough to go around. However, I admire your optimism!

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hey Pam and Dennis,

I wonder what your thoughts are on this editorial from The New York Times, and how it might relate to our discussion. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/04/opinion/the-downside-of-liberty.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1341410442-3DCQ8CVt40XfMjVA0HdAZg

From the editorial: "People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish."

PamBG said...

Interesting. I need to let that stew. When you quoted the bit about the sixties, my gut reaction was that it was too simplistic, but I think that the rest of the article has something to say.

I think this whole thing is extremely complex.

I think that we have a history of rugged individualism dating back to the 17th century and it's a narrative that's deeply rooted in our culture: "I can make it on my own and I don't need anyone else."

The article probably has a point about the 1960s: that both Left and Right became even more selfish and manifest that selfishness in different ways.

I'd also blame the 1950s fear of communism. I think that our culture has also conflated "Sovietism" with collectivism. And so we have a deep-rooted opinion on the Right that anything that is communal or socialist is necessarily Soviet and therefore atheist, bureaucratically exploitative and evil.

Dennis Sanders said...


I think the oped is pretty spot on. Being gay, I am not advocating for a return to the closet, but I do think both left and right went to far in their representative freedoms and in many cases, the church tended to support those choices.

The answer isn't to go back to the 50s socially or economically, but I do think the church needs to foster a sense of communal virtue, a sense that we are supposed to care for each other. Conservatives need to be willing to see there is a role for government in a society (especially to care for the poor) and not simply praise wealth or offer an uncritical view of capitalism. Liberals need to be willing to see that sex is not simply for our enjoyment, but a way to honor God and each other.

I don't know if any of this makes sense. It is 11:15pm after a busy day.

PamBG said...

It makes sense to me, Dennis!

And I totally agree with: I do think the church needs to foster a sense of communal virtue, a sense that we are supposed to care for each other

Oh dear, now we have nothing to debate! ;-)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks Pam and Dennis for your helpful insights.

I agree that the church needs to foster a sense of communal virtue, but my complaint is that the church has hardly been a stellar witness of how communal virtue looks. That's my beef.

One can argue that Christians should support universal health care in some form because it is for the common good, and Christians have a stake in the common good. I can get on board with that argument. What I object to are Christians baptizing the common good (and both the left and the right do this) and not demonstrating by its witness what God wants of the world. Since we cannot bear witness to that in our life together all we are left with is telling the powers that be (whether public or private sector), what they must do. We don't lead by example; we lead by legislation.

PamBG said...

I would totally agree with all of that, Allan. Our disagreement, then, seems to be what can be constructively done.

Leave the overall system the way it is - with 20% of the population uninsured and therefore deprived of preventative care and preventative medication - while we as the church try to get our act together and set an example. And vote for a party that ideologically thinks that rugged individualism is just fine and if you can't afford insurance, you don't deserve it.

Or continue, as church, to try to get our act together and set an example and vote for a party that doesn't have any magic solutions and is as procedurally inept as the other party but at least is putting forward the broader value of trying to care for others.

I don't believe that the church is ever going to become institutionally capable of supporting medical care for the United States of America. Nor do I believe that the church is going to ever be institutionally capable of making sure all American residents are fed, clothed, housed and educated. So I think that the public sector has to take up these responsibilities.

The church is not going to become The Kingdom of God until it stops being religious and starts following Christ. And I don't see any reason why it's going to happen now, by human hands, when it hasn't happened by human hands in the last 2000 years.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I never said that it is the task of the church to provide health care for everyone. Not only do I not think it is possible, but I don't see that as the church's task. My point, rather, is that the church is to witness in its life to what God wants for the world.

The example I like to use is from the nineteenth century. The Quakers decided that they only way they could speak with integrity to the state against slavery was if Quakers did not have slaves. So they passed a rule that Quakers could not own slaves, thereby increasing the number of Episcopalians. But the point is clear-- witness is primarily how the church should operate, not because I think the church can solve all the problems, but because the church is to be that city on a hill Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount.

PamBG said...

Allan, I totally agree with you. 101% even.

I think what I find frustrating about this conversation is that I hear something like it's bad to vote for either party because they are both doing what they are doing for selfish reasons.

Other than "bringing in the Kingdom of God", I have no idea what you are calling (the metaphorical) "me" to do?

If there is a call here, it's not clear to me.

It rather reminds me (and I should be careful saying this!) of our interim pastor's numerous sermons on how the older folk need to encourage the younger folk to take over the reigns of the church without ever giving one practical example. I always wanted to yell out "OK, HOW do you want this church to do that?"

Allan R. Bevere said...

I don't think I am asking the "metaphorical you" to do anything (I think there is the basis for some humor here). Let me give an example of what I am trying to say:

In a previous church I served, a man, who was the primary bread-winner in the family, lost his job and was going to lose his health insurance. I went to some of the church leadership suggesting we pay for their insurance until he could secure other employment. I was immediately told that we could not afford it and if we did it for one we would have to do it for everyone (I think that last excuse is always a cop-out).

My response was that we indeed could afford it considering how much money we spend on superfluous things each month and it was the right thing to do. I lost the argument.

My point here is not that the church can fix the problem in toto, but we can witness to the importance of the private sector and the state addressing the need if we set the example by addressing the need as best we can. I am calling for witness on the part of the church-- less talk and arm-twisting and more action.

PamBG said...

That sounds like a good idea.

And if folk in a congregation do well to pitch in and help their neighbor, then I am of the opinion that those of us who reside in America do well to pitch in to help our fellow residents.

And, instead of accepting that it's a good thing for fellow congregants to pitch in to help this guy buy insurance in a system that is functionally unjust, let's at least also try to improve the equity of the system.