Back in 2009 I wrote an op-ed on my blog at the time about the role of Christians and healthcare. I think it turned out pretty well, so I felt like this would be a good time to bring it out again. This past week the Republican plan for fixing the ACA died, and very quickly our president pointed fingers at the Democrats, saying that it was now all in their hands as the ACA imploded. I would like to posit that perhaps there is another group of people who really should be at the forefront of healthcare, Christians.
I’ve re-printed my original article below, with some minor edits and tweaks for 2017. I hope that it provokes some critical thinking, and gives you come context about how we ended up where we’re at.
Today on a walk, I was listening to a podcast from a Franciscan friar about the history of Catholic hospitals. This started prodding some thoughts in my head, that have been ruminating there for a while, regarding the topic of a Christian response to the healthcare debate in the United States. History shows us that when it came to bringing healthcare to the people, it was the Christian churches (and all religions in general) that led the cause, and in fact, were the only source of health and healing for most people. As early as 325 AD, the Council of Nicea ordered that every town that had a cathedral, also must provide a hospital to care for the sick. Even the earliest forms of mental heath treatments were links to monks helping people work through psychological issues.
Healthcare activity in the church continued into medieval Europe when Pope Innocent III expanded the role of the hospital in the life of the church as a public institution. He instructed the creation of a place where people could go to receive care, no matter if they could pay. There, the monks and nuns of the church would carry out Jesus’ work to the poor and ill. Even today one can still see the mark of the church on many hospitals here in America with names such as St. John’s and St. Joesph’s.
This wasn’t just a Catholic idea. In 18th century England, John Wesley, evangelist and founder of the Methodist societies, wrote a book called, Primitive Physick: Or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. Wesley understood that, in his day, many people would see their priest more often than their doctor, and Wesley believed that priests should be taking care of people in a complete and holistic way. This meant caring for the body as well as soul. He wrote this small book as something that his ministers could carry with them as they traveled, and he compiled the best health knowledge he could find at the time and put it together in a quick and easy to read format.
How does this little history lesson tie into the healthcare debate of the United States today? In a few different ways… When we look at the landscape of health care in our country we can see a few things. We can be proud that we have very advanced medical techniques available to help save lives. We can do amazing things in our modern hospitals. However, those hospitals are often locked to those who can’t pay (beyond emergency services). My mother died years ago from cancer, and she was on public assistance for her healthcare. Even though one could make the argument that she might have gotten better care with a private insurance plan, the fact that she was able to get care at all was a blessing. Having access to healthcare helped to extend her life much further than without. However, in my mother’s case, she was able to get coverage because of the nature of her disability. I wonder how someone in her shoes who didn’t have that ‘luxury’ would have coped?
It’s quite obvious that there’s a problem. Costs are skyrocketing, people can’t afford coverage, the current public options don’t cover everyone who needs coverage and our system doesn’t deal with societies underlying unhealthy lifestyle choices. We have a system that from all vantage points seems broken and on a continuing downhill slide. This is where my personal viewpoint enters into the equation and I need to ask a very simple question.
Where are the Christians in this debate?
For the most part, most Christians (particularly Evangelicals) have bought into the propaganda machines that tell them that Universal Health Coverage is a terrible idea; that its been tried in Canada and it’s failed, that we’re asking for long lines for care, and even the completely absurd notion that we will be allowing other people to tell us when we have to die. Yet, isn’t ‘health care for all’ what the Church has been promoting for over a thousand years? As followers of Christ we should be be going to ‘the least of these’ and bringing the love of Jesus and the healing of our hands into their world? Yet time and time again in this debate, followers of Christ lose sight of the mission. Why shouldn’t they… it’s the reason we’re in this mess to begin with.
You see, the reason why people are opposed to Universal Healthcare is because it means the government would be running it. Why does the government need to run it? Because as modern Christians, we failed. We dropped the ball, looked away, and walked off from a life of service as followers of Christ in order to fulfill some fashion of an American Dream. We’ve decided that our freedom of individual choice is more important than Christ’s words to help and heal the lost and hurting. We’ve elected to focus our time and energies inwards, developing our personal spirituality, without realizing that our spirituality is nothing if it doesn’t show itself in the world. Therefore, since the Church has decided that it is not in the business of healthcare, then someone else needs to step up to the plate. Right now, the only place that is in a position to have enough money and capability to provide Universal Healthcare is the government.
I’ve been a State government worker for 18 years. I know how bloated, and slow, and bureaucratic government institutions can be. However, things still get done, even if they’re not the way we always want to see them done. Government does not have a profit based motivation, but a societal one. Government is about doing what it can for the most people, no matter how inefficient. It’s not perfect, and it often frustrates many people, but without government much of our society wouldn’t exist.
As Christians, we’ve decided that healthcare (and education for many Protestants as well) no longer belong in the day to day activities of our religious life. Despite the fact that we’ve decided, willingly chosen even, to abrogate our responsibilities to some one else, that doesn’t change the imperative. Our faith is still a faith grounded on the teachings of Christ, that we need to help those who are sick and poor. If we can’t do it ourselves than we need to look to supporting someone, or something, else that will accomplish this. Just because we don’t want to do the dirty work ourselves, doesn’t change what Christ said. Just because we don’t like government, doesn’t change what Christ said. Just because we don’t want to ‘give up control’, doesn’t change what Christ said.
Christ said “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. (Matt 25:40)” As Christians… what are we doing… or not doing… to Christ? Today’s New Testament reading was from James 2, and I want to close with this passage for thought. As followers of Christ, let’s take a moment to truly consider where we’re standing in this whole healthcare debate. Think hard about what Christ teaches us about how we should treat those around us. I’m not a ‘pro-government-nut-job’, so I’m not trying to say that the government is the only answer. But until the Church stands up to its responsibility as an institution of Christ on Earth, we need to seek out the best way to still carry out our mission in Christ.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)