Why Healthcare Is a Christian Issue

The author of Luke tells us in chapter six that Jesus went up to a mountain to pray—that he prayed all night to God. That’s a pretty long time to spend in prayer. Must have been important. The very first thing he does as soon as he finishes praying is call all his disciples together and choose twelve from among them to be apostles, that is, those who will be sent out on his behalf. Those twelve are going to be the foundation upon which the church is built once Jesus is gone, which makes it understandable why Jesus would have struggled all night over whom to call. So, when Jesus finally addresses the twelve who’ve been chosen, we expect that he will say something important. His first address to them after he calls them will be the vision speech, the one where he lays out what’s at the heart of the ministry he has in mind, the ministry for which twelve of them have just been called. Luke tells us that while all the disciples are still gathered around him, Jesus begins to clarify the principles of this new endeavor, which are only highlighted by this latest major personnel move. What’s at the center? What does Jesus indicate will animate his ministry, and therefore, the ministry of his followers? What’s the first thing out of his mouth when laying out the grand plan?

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep”(Luke 6:20b-21, 24-25).

Now, I want to say right off that I’m not happy about this. By just about any accounting done on a macro level, I’m pretty sure to be lumped in with the latter rather than the former. When the truth is told, though I sometimes struggle to make ends meet, the ends I have to make meet are quite a bit nicer than most of the rest of the world, and the means with which I have at my disposal to meet those ends would surely evoke envy among all but those in the highest percentiles when it comes to the world’s wealth. So, my ox is being gored too as Jesus trots out the core values for the new business model. Unlike most successful ventures, Jesus has the powerful in his sights as the problem and not the solution. Taking that into consideration, a story I heard last week about someone I know has sparked my thinking about the relationship between those with power and those without. A young woman I know who had a baby not long ago, in the midst of all the adjustments the family has to make to accommodate a new arrival, received a bill from the insurance company enumerating costs and covered benefits. One of the things that the bill said, much to her surprise (and chagrin), was that the insurance company considered an epidural an elective procedure for a vaginal birth. When I told my wife about the position the insurance company had taken, she said, “Some damn man made that decision!” Over the next few days, almost everyone to whom I told that story said exactly the same thing. One African-American minister from a church on the West Side to whom I relayed the story said, “This talk about the Public Option taking away choice is funny to people in my congregation.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because the only people who’ve ever had any choice about healthcare is rich people. The only healthcare choice poor people have is which emergency room to take your kid to.”

All of which got me to thinking . . .

Although the healthcare system we have now is excellent in many ways, one of its fatal flaws is that powerful people make decisions for others based not on the best interests of the patient, but on the interests of keeping costs low and profits high. That’s just part of it. The rich making decisions about what the poor ought to do because they’ve committed the unpardonable sin of poverty, white folks making decisions for everyone about nearly everything down to which drinking fountain black folks could use, men making decisions for women about everything down to what women should be able to endure in childbirth,  straight folks telling gay and lesbians what marriage is and who qualifies are only symptomatic of power arrangements that have been in place for as long as anyone can remember. And the church, of course, has often been a major player in underwriting those power arrangements. What struck me was that from the outset Jesus identified inequitable power arrangements (of which, admittedly, many of us have been the beneficiaries) as the problem. He could have started with any number of things at the beginning of his ministry, but he started out with the poor and the powerless.

Those disciples who are called two thousand years later to share in that same ministry probably ought to take note.