By Aana Marie Vigen
Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Loyola University Chicago
Does expanding public health care equal “socialism?” Some say “yes,” but I say it is simply the Christian thing to do. Of course, it is not exclusively Christian–people of every (and no) faith tradition also see caring for the sick as essential to their religion/philosophy. I applaud secular ethical arguments in favor of public health care: it will benefit (not sink) the U.S. economically, socially, and politically, and it is part of our civic obligation.
But it is also a Christian obligation. I am a “cradle-to-grave” Lutheran. I teach bioethics at a Jesuit University, which provides excellent health care coverage. My spiritual and moral values are shaped by vibrant Christian worship, bible camps, and seminary. But I must have missed something because I can’t understand why Protestants and Catholics alike aren’t marching in the streets demanding comprehensive health care reform. Thousands denounced President Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame. Yet, I don’t perceive as many publicly supporting his efforts to extend care to every child, adult, and family.
I understand why Christians of good faith find themselves on both sides of abortion debates, but health care reform? That should be a no-brainer! If we are a people shaped by our respect for life and the dignity of the human person, how can we not be at the front lines of health care reform? Even more, why do many of us oppose a public option for health care?
The Gospels overflow with stories of Jesus caring for people in need–not only the fortunate few, but whole gatherings of people–hungry masses, gaggles of children, and scores of the infirm. In one instance, Jesus healed too many to count (Luke 4:40). If we take Jesus seriously, then our obligations to the naked, hungry, beaten, suffering, and vulnerable are hard to deny. This is not new or revolutionary–Christians have understood this duty for centuries; it’s why the first hospitals in the West were founded by religious communities and why so many doctors and nurses were also priests, monks, nuns, ministers, or lay members.
How should we understand Jesus’ command to the disciples to “cure the sick” (Matt. 10-7)? How do these words make a claim on us? If we are the body of Christ–disciples–then are we doing enough to make sure that the “blind, lame, paralyzed, leprous” of our day receive care; that people plagued with mental illness find peace; that the hemorrhaging stops?
Consider the next verse: “You received without payment; give without payment.” (Matt. 10: 8). This passage has both important theological and financial meaning. Theologically, it reminds us that all people live by the grace of God–given freely.
Consequently, Christians are called to embody this grace for others–friends, family, neighbors, and strangers alike. Jesus did not favor V.I.P.’s, societal insiders, the affluent, or people with the best paying jobs. But that is exactly what our currently-fragmented health care system does. Significant numbers of people go bankrupt every year because of medical costs. Thousands of others are being cut off of charity care because hospitals and doctors can no longer afford to be generous. Others delay seeking care or are refused care because they don’t carry the right or adequate insurance. Jesus cared for whoever needed attention the most–regardless of status, wealth, or employment. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) shines a spotlight on the responsibility to care for the stranger (and to pay the bills!).
Are we willing to put our money where our scriptures are? Health care is not free. I ask only that we shoulder one another’s burdens. That is what a public option will do. Medicare and public schools are federally-funded. They use taxpayer money to care for and educate others and no one calls them “socialism.”
A solo network of private insurers is necessarily focused on profit and rewarding consumption, not on offering high quality and affordable care to everyone. Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Japan, and England provide excellent care to everyone–some combining public and private plans. Compared to them, U.S. health care is embarrassing–incredibly expensive, uneven, wasteful, bureaucratic, and unfair. A public option will provide competition, accountability, and a refuge for the multitudes of the uninsured (nearly 50 million) and for the throngs who struggle daily due to inadequate insurance coverage (20 million or more). At root, public health care is a moral and civic responsibility–not a “left/right” issue or a political game.
If we don’t act–quickly, publicly, prophetically, unapologetically–millions of hard-working adults and precious children will be left on the side of the road. (And we might very well find ourselves among them one day if we lose our jobs, get seriously ill, retire, divorce, or change careers). So Christians, let’s get off our redeemed and justified behinds and ACT!
Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.D., is assistant professor and director of majors for the Department of Theology at Loyola University Chicago.