Monday, July 2, 2012

Mike Bird on Evangelicals and Health Care

When I opened Facebook this morning I noted an e-mail from my brother.  It simply read as follows:
And he went through all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people." - Matt. 4:23. The first example of universal health care.
As always, the comment was to the point and perceptive.  Jesus wasn't simply performing random "miracles" to "demonstrate he was God."  As a Christian, I believe whole-heartedly that he was indeed "God incarnate."  But the point of these "mighty acts" was more subtle, tied more closely to salvation-history than it was to Christology, let alone "divine" Christology.  Jesus was in the business of inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of God.  This anticipated royal rule of God was to be the occasion of the reversal of the covenant curse of exile and the concomitant reversal of the curse of Eden itself.  As Isaiah the prophet proclaimed (Isa 35:5-6):
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
Care for the sick should be, as it was for the early Christians, part and parcel of what it means for Christians to implement the kingdom victory won by Jesus on the cross.  If indeed Christians ought to manifest the priorities of the kingdom of God in their political activity and posturing, then one would think care for the health of the poor and marginalized would apply every bit as much as defense of the unborn.  But alas, it does not, if the angry reactionary rhetoric in response to last week's Supreme Court decision on "Obamacare" comes anywhere close to reflecting the mood of American evangelicalism.  Some things manifestly sit higher on the priority scale for such Christians than the plight of the poor.

Providentially (or so it would seem), the first article I read today in my daily surfing of internet blogdom was a post by the Aussie New Testament Scholar Mike Bird, entitled "Evangelicals and Health Care."  He introduces his post thus:
I have to confess to always being perplexed not only by American opposition to universal healthcare, but to opposition to universal healthcare by evangelicals on purportedly theological grounds. I was simultaneously amused and confused by the image on TV of two pastors prostrating themselves before the Supreme Court and praying that Obamacare would be thrown out. Did they really think that God would be opposed to everyone in America having access to healthcare (even if legally required to purchase it)? I thought Jesus went around healing the sick, the blind, and the lame … for free? Didn’t Christians set up the first hospitals in the world? Has anyone heard of the Leprosy Mission and the work they do around the world without asking for a person’s insurance number? So the question is why the opposition to universal healthcare and why is the conservative evangelical constituency among the most vocal in opposition to it?
As I am sure comes as no surprise to most who will read this post, I share both Bird's perplexity and dismay at the overwhelming attitude of American evangelicals thankfully, world-wide evangelicalism takes a very different stance on the matter toward the matter of universal health coverage.  In particular, I am grieved by comments such as this one, written by a former student of mine:


Supreme court what a joke! I can't wait to pay for health insurance for all the lazy americans that don't have insurance because they are lazy and won't find a job and get off the dole!
Notwithstanding the sheer obnoxious ignorance and self-righteousness of this statement is it really the case that most people without insurance are in their predicament because they are "lazy" and "won't find a job"? Is it not a scandal to this writer that the USA is the only "advanced" nation in the world where people must often decide between the options of financial ruin or recovery of health? it illustrates as clearly as one might wish the root cause of the seemingly predominant American evangelical attitude.  At times I ask myself how a "Christian" (St. Paul would say adelphos onomazomenos, "one named a brother," i.e., a "so-called brother" [1 Cor 5:11]) could think, let alone act this way.  Like Paul, however, I end up assuming the best and admonishing them to live in a manner commensurate with the name they profess.

Simply put, the regnant evangelical attitude is caused almost entirely by the assumed American metanarrative in which these people have, wittingly or not, chosen to live.  Americans, more than any other people in the world, have an individualistic worldview.  The myth of the "rugged individual" lives on and thrives in a pride-based political climate that decries a "culture of dependence."  This idea, of course, has a long and distinguished pedigree.  It was Ben Franklin, after all, who coined the proverb, "God helps those who help themselves."  Individualism's progeny are likewise problematic.  For instance, individualism breeds an attitude in which "freedom" becomes the summum bonum of life (this applies, by the way, to people on both ends of the political spectrum; both sides value absolute freedom in clearly circumscribed spheres, yet seek to limit others' freedom in different respects).  Taxes are hated because they represent "giving away my hard-earned money" to "others" who, for one reason or another, don't "deserve" my largesse.  Indeed, government monies devoted to the common good, such as public transportation, the arts, and even public education, are often vilified as "socialist" experiments that ought rather to be eliminated (notwithstanding the sheer ignorance as to what "socialism" involves and the sloppy, slippery-slope logic entailed).  "Community" and "the public good" are categories that hardly receive a second thought from many such ideologues.  And this is not a good thing.

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere (here and here), such libertarian attitudes betray an unbiblical social Darwinism that cuts against the grain of the biblical demand to love one's neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31 et par.).  It is here that I simply can't get past the stingy meanness of much conservative rhetoric which, if people actually mean it, goes far beyond anything that could claim to conform to Christian standards.

To be clear: "Obamacare" is far from perfect (though, to my mind, clearly constitutional; the "conservative" justices' rejection of its applicability based on the commerce clause is, to my mind, a blatant example of political posturing).  It is certainly unwieldy, and will undoubtedly be a pain in the backside for the lower-middle class because of the lack of a public option.  Worst of all, it still works with insurance companies whose primary concern is not the delivery of health care but the maximizing of corporate profits.  This, I maintain, is an unworkable situation that will never benefit those people who most need help.

But it is past time for critics of "Obamacare" to desist in laying all the blame for the act's unwieldy nature on the President himself.  It is past time for such critics to acknowledge that its major elements, including the loathed "individual mandate," are in fact almost identical to what Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts.  It is past time for them to acknowledge that the act's lack of elegance is primarily the fault of the Republicans in Congress who disallowed any plan more amenable to the President's actual legislative preferences.  And it is past time for Christian critics of "Obamacare's" individual mandate to search their souls and admit that the system it is replacing was irretrievably broken and discriminatory against people without either the means to pay or the good luck to stay healthy.  And I don't want to hear about "replacing" Obamacare with a more "market-oriented" solution.  Frankly, "conservatives" have had plenty of time to come up with such a solution.  Until Barack Obama came along, it has not been one of their priorities to do so, because any plausible solution will hit their primary constituencies in the wallet.  And Christians who decry universal healthcare had better come to the realization that their allegiance to Christ by definition puts them on the side of the poor rather than the corporate rich.

In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote Professor Bird, with whom I am in absolute agreement:


The opposition to universal healthcare can only be given religious currency by either repeating the words of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or by quoting the apocryphal saying, “God helps those who help them themselves!” It has no traction in the Judeao-Christian ethic, nor in the teaching of Jesus, the instruction of Paul, and has no place in the testimony of the Christian tradition.

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