Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Health Care, Government, and the Kingdom

It is a common argument that because the Kingdom of God is concerned with elevating oppression and healing the sick and alleviating the poor that the Christian must out of moral obligation support the current policies of the administration. Perusing Jim Wallis' Sojourners and one will find such arguments. While it is neigh impossible to be committed to the kingdom of God and neglect showing love and compassion for the poor, widow and orphan as true religion must we all agree on the means of reaching such an end?

Christians can have legitimate debate over Republican versus Democratic policies on issues such as alleviating economic injustice and providing stable health care. There is legitimate division over means. Where Scripture is silent we must exercise wisdom and short of glory we will legitimately disagree and I would argue we can do so without violating key Christian principles (despite what Liberty University might say about the democratic party). Where we cannot disagree is over Biblical mandates as part of citizen's of God's kingdom that we must care for the poor and reach those who are truly helpless. The early church has a strong history of reaching the poor. Would that our government complained about the church the way the Emperor Julian did: "when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, the impious Galileans [aka Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence...the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us."

Yet, I am not convinced that partnering with the government is equally helpful in order to reach this end. I recently had opportunity to respond in an online chat to a friend. He made several arguments namely that (1) the kingdom of God mandates we take care of the poor [agree]--we certainly have the task of caring out the eschatological victory won. (2) That when the church doesn't have the resources it should (must?) be taken up by the government and (3) health care for profit is horrendous because profit motive will alway overtake priority for care [as a Reformed type I do want to be skeptical of the human heart--but always?].

Here were my thoughts. My personal context comes from one committed to Reformed Theology and a Biblical theology worked out by Vos, Ridderbos and Klein, although I have gleaned insights from many outside that stream including N.T. Wright among others. I tend to favor conservative policies of government but I also want to be concerned with the higher calling of Christ for the poor and injustice perpetrate upon both the poor and the rich (often missed today is the the Bible warns against injustice against the rich too). I sight the work of Brown, Gilder and Richards but fully confess I am still absorbing their work so I don't really elaborate. Here it is:

I appreciate the emphasis on the kingdom of God and as well as the imago dei. Caution should be advised when we think about linking the state with KoG issues. First, consider Luke 4:18-19 and the mandate that the KoG "proclaim liberty to captives" and "set at liberty those who are oppressed". I believe this of course includes both physical and spiritual realities--but most of us would decry associating this with Bush's invasion of Iraq. It would be crass to argue that since the state has better resources to liberate captives, the church can defer to it when liberty from oppression is at stake. Second relying on the state to usher in eschatological realities would seemingly be critiqued heavily by the apocalyptic theology of Revelation (despite how that's slaughtered a la Left Behind). Indeed rival kingdoms set up a false hope that pursues a false trinity (Satan and Beasts) that rivals the true eschatological in breaking. Note well Revelation critiques bald greed and earthly authority structures that oppress. Now matter what claimed motives are we should be wary. Third, I would note the early church met the needs of the poor but was actually hindered by the rise of Constantine and his partnering with the church to meet the needs of the poor. As Peter Brown argues in Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, the state was able to keep the church in check seemingly as they worked together for the poor, essentially the state funneling money through the church. The point being: partnership does not have a good history.

The notion that profit motive inherently evil is not necessarily true either. Yes, Adam Smith argued capitalism is motivated by self-interest and yes that can run amok to Christian morals turning into a pure Darwinian or Nietzschean approach. But if I understand Gilder (Poverty and Wealth) a bit, and I confess I must read him more thoroughly, he argues that capitalism is [can be?] altruistic. The choose of profit over care is a false dichotomy. Yes it can become that but it is not necessarily inherent. Part of the argument seems based on the myth of capitalism is a 'zero-sum game'--e.g. someone is always exploited (see Richards' Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution Not The Problem). Second from a Christian perspective those who serve are allowed to earn for their service, 1 Cor 9:8-11. It does not make gospel ministry/service exploitive because one collects any more than it makes public service in the government exploitive because not only does one get a paycheck but one gets lucrative book deals, speaking engagements and banquets.

This is difficult issue and no matter what party you support you can agree that it must be dealt with. Christian convictions should drive us. But imago dei covers issues of liberty over oppressive government as well. The eschatological benefits of the kingdom are concerned with both individual salvation and systemic issue (social justice AND oppression by power). I struggle personally with if and how we should legislate such items. Martin Luther King Jr. was right to argue that while the law cannot make a man love it can keep him from lynching.

If however profit can take priority over care what about systems and bureaucracy taking priority over care?

So how do we care for the poor and avoid systemic oppression both from big corporation (note Revelation 18) and empowered socialized government? The first rule of medical triage is to do no harm--we have to be equal wary unintended consequence such as oppressing people in further poverty. Sometimes we have to say "if you do not work, you shall not eat" --and not because we are Neitzschean capitalists sloth is equally degrading to the imago dei. Indeed the imago dei dignifies work, and wealth can be pursued for mutual benefits. Note I am not arguing that all poverty results from sloth, that would be foolhardy--but does a system designed to do good produce more disaster? Sometimes we have to eat our lumps other times we can pursue a greater excellence.

When I speak of eating our lumps I am reminded of Jonathan Edwards in a sermon entitled "Christian Charity" remarking that sometimes we have to give money to a wasteful parent for the sake of the children. In what I believe is a must read essay, Tim Keller interacts with it helpful in his "The Gospel and the Poor". Keller helpful raps up:

In summary, many "conservatives" are motivated to help the poor mainly by compassion. This may come from a belief that poverty is mainly a matter of individual irresponsibility. It misses the fact that the "haves" have what they have to a great degree because of unjust distribution of opportunities and resources at birth. If we have the world's goods, they are ultimately a gift. If we were born in other circumstances, we could easily be very poor through no fault of our own. To fail to share what you have is not just uncompassionate but unfair, unjust. On the other hand, many "liberals" are motivated to help the poor mainly out of a sense of indignation and aborted justice. This misses the fact that individual responsibility and transformation has a great deal to do with escape from poverty. Poverty is seen strictly in terms of structural inequities. While the conservative "compassion only" motivation leads to paternalism and patronizing, the liberal "justice only" motivation leads to great anger and rancor.

Both views, ironically, become self-righteous. One tends to blame the poor for everything, the other to blame the rich for everything. One over-emphasizes individual responsibility, the other under-emphasizes it. A balanced motivation arises from a heart touched by grace, which has lost its superiority-feelings toward any particular class of people. Let's keep something very clear: it is the gospel that motivates us to act both in mercy and in justice.

Recently, I heard a quote second hand that was attributed to one of my mentors: "The Republican party does not set the agenda for the church." I think this is accurate. Indeed no political mechanism should set the agenda for the church. We should think carefully about these issues as Christians which means a return to the Scriptures. Equally all parties could learn a lot from history of the church, particular the Early Church on how to handle issues of kingdom, poverty, and state.

One blog post will not resolve the current state of affairs or add deeply to our theology/philosophy for solutions to the complex problems but hopefully it adds some things to think about.

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