On Justice and the Healthcare Bill

Today’s post is a special treat, I’ve asked a friend to guest post with His thoughts on the healthcare bill. This is what he sent me, and allowed me to publish in his name. Chris is a very good friend of mine and here are some more things to think about in light of healthcare legislation. His voice is one I’ve appreciated over the years, and hopefully he’ll co author some posts with me in the future, but here’s today, and here’s his post.

This note comes in response to a discussion on [Jimmy’s] wall regarding Obama’s Healthcare Bill passed on the 22nd (thus the references to justice, communism/capitalism, and other odd things). Sorry I can’t provide more context, but this is mostly for the participants in that discussion anyway. So here goes….

I think it’s important that we think and speak about these issues firstly as Christians, then secondly, and subserviently, as Americans (which can be hard to do, because unfortunately, they are often tragically tangled together). That said, I would like to gently challenge a few americanisms that I think have been mistaken for Christian values.

Justice – what is justice in regard to this issue? There are two discussions to be had here: Liberty, and Economics. It is fully an American value to claim that to uphold liberty, one must be given “rights” which allow one to live autonomously, away from any compulsion to give to anyone except to the extent that one’s resources are required to protect said rights. The American idea of Justice is FOR the individual over and AGAINST his/her neighbor. In other words, it is completely individualistic.

However, this is surely bears no resemblance whatsoever to Christian liberty. If you read the New Testament, it is quite evident that Christian liberty is precisely the opposite – it is freedom to be FOR one another; in other words… the freedom to love, to be Christ-like, to be free from sinful selfishness and establish right relationships with our neighbors. To be human in the way God means us to be human – to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, is, in part, to be connected to one another and to God in love (which is more than just fuzzy feelings – sometimes it requires action and sacrifice).

Economics… also known as the “science of scarcity” – how appropriate for this discussion. It simply is the case that there can never be enough resources to meet everyone’s wants. It is also the case that when some, having the ability and opportunity to gain all they want and more, eat up disproportionately large chunks of the available resources, it leaves many who are not blessed with such opportunities unable to meet simple needs, let alone wants.

And now I must challenge a more deeply-ingrained americanism – that devious myth which says that if one just works hard, one can always pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. It’s not true. A great many people will never get the opportunity to succeed – they’ll never even have the chance. Many people living in poverty work harder than the richest of us. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen whole families suffer and struggle to obtain relief for basic survival needs, and the greater part of my life this past year has been to try and give these people a hand up (I work for a Christian organization that helps refugees).

If it weren’t for the social aid that they already receive, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be for them. Granted, once in a while, we have these great success stories where some immigrant shows up with just a buck-fifteen and the clothes on his back, and twenty years later he’s a millionaire, but does everyone have that same opportunity? Of course not. Most people are concerned with living life, taking care of their families, living in solidarity with their beloved communities. Your average Joe doesn’t have the know-how, the education, the guidance or, again, the opportunity to make it big. Those of us who are born into privileged homes and communities should not forget those who are less fortunate. Please, don’t believe the lie that people in poverty are lazy or deserve to exist in such a deplorable state “because they could escape it if they only put the work it and tried hard enough.” It’s a lie. I can tell you because I live with them, I know their stories and their struggles, and I do what I can to help.

If the ideal in the economic realm is the needs of all citizens being met, we all know that Communism doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that Capitalism does any better at addressing the needs of the poor. The economic success of a nation is dependent on what we call “the market,” and generally speaking, this market is incentive-driven. If there is no reward for working hard, people won’t produce. But if you swing all the way to the other side of the spectrum with Capitalism, you make the mistake of commoditizing people. Human beings become the means to an end, and those that will to power will suck up all the resources. With pure Communism, everyone is poor because no one works. With pure Capitalism, everyone works, but only a few benefit, while the rest go hungry. There is a polarization of resources.

Believe it or not, there can be a balance, and I think as Christians we need to strive to find that balance where human beings are regarded as God’s children – as the end itself and not the means, while still fostering a productive market.

America still leans toward the Capitalist end, but government involvement – what some call “socialism” – has increasingly served to close that gap more and more between rich and poor. And if you take a look at other countries that are further along that road, access to and provision for basic needs is much more favorable (that is, even). Of course, there will always come along with policies like this problems with enabling poverty for those who become dependent on the aid they are given, but the old adage of teaching the man to fish for himself doesn’t quite work if there’s no body of water in which to fish…

Sometimes we simply need to give him what he needs.

There is still a lot of poverty in our country – more than the average middle-class American may realize, and as Christians, I think we need to reconsider what justice is for those people who live in the midst of it. And we need to think about what Liberty is – is it protecting our so-called “rights,” which elevate the individual? Or is it freedom to pursue wholeness together, being free from violence and corruption, while speaking instead of our duties and responsibilities to one another? I for one will be happy to surrender a little more of my paycheck to help someone get medical attention from which they would otherwise be forced to abstain. If I was in their shoes I think I would want the same. I am for Justice. I am for God’s Kingdom. I am for my neighbors.

If you think there is a better way to accomplish that, or move in that direction, I would be happy to discuss that… This post is not meant to debate the efficacy or efficiency of the program, and I don’t pretend to know that much about how the health care system works. I’m just a humble theologian who knows a little bit about economics and poverty, trying to separate true Christianity from American myths and Enlightenment philosophies.

I also want to make it clear that I do not think the new Health Care Bill is going to solve the problems touched on here – that is part of the Mission of the Church, and I believe we are meant to fight this injustice as Christians from the venue of the Church, and not look to the government as savior. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, right?

Check out this post by my good friend Eli Silva for more on that note:
Legislation and the Christian Community


5 thoughts on “On Justice and the Healthcare Bill

  1. What a beautiful, thoughtful, and true (speaking as someone who has also worked with the poor and homeless and addicted a great deal) way of looking at our priorities–not only for Christians, but for everyone who wants to live life looking above the surface of day-to-day survival for ourselves and see everyone around us as “God’s children.” I know little about the bill itself, but some of the reactions I’ve been hearing have literally been frightening me, because they’re so tied up in this belief that we need to hang on with an iron grip to our “piece of the pie,” and to get more whenever and however possible, and because the issue also seems to be a lightning-rod for intolerance, racism (and I have heard it overtly stated, so I’m not just assuming), jingoism, and just sheer blind hatred. And some of it comes from peoople who consider themselves upstanding and devoutly “religious” people.

    Chris, I’m rapidly coming to believe that debate and politics rarely change anything, and that the best we can do is to pray and to live as good examples and hope to change people’s hearts that way, but I do hope that you will circulate this essay widely, because it deserves attention and thought. Thanks for sharing it with us, Eli!


  2. I think you begin correctly with the premise that we should consider “these issues” as Christians and as Americans – with our identity as Christians coming first. But I would apply that framework differently.

    As Americans: I think your reading of the American situation is a little off. Liberty is not a subsection of justice in American thought but its own category: “with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty for Americans is freedom to do what we want and experience the consequences, and justice is equality. Liberty and justice have lived in tension in our experience, with Republicans representing liberty and democrats representing justice. Notice, for example, how conservatives are very suspicious of courts and liberals are very suspicious of businesses. The tension carries over to health care and the party positions are obvious.

    I think the problem behind the furry of Republicans now is that they’ve lost sight of this framework. They (generally) see America as being entirely about liberty and seeing Democrats as representing un-American ideals. I think you’ve accepted the Republicans’ framing of the issue when you see the tension as being between communism and capitalism – i.e. American ideals and un-American ideals. So while it seems like you’re resisting Republican impulses, you are actually affirming the assumptions that drive their insanity. The solution is to point out that America is also about equality (e.g. Civil Rights Movement). Republicans should recognize that equality won the last election, and wait respectfully for their next chance to push the scales again in liberty’s direction.

    As Christians: I think you’re right in trying to explore how Christian ideals interact with American ones. I also think you’re exactly right in distancing Christian freedom from American liberty. My concern is that you seem quite content to accept the American idea of justice wholesale. Just as the Church does not see liberty as Americans see it, she has shown that she doesn’t see justice as Americans see it (e.g. gay rights, women’s rights, democracy in general). Yet the sense I get from your post is that Republican liberty is not a Christian ideal, but Democrat equality is, so we should push in that direction. I’m very suspicious of this conclusion in a post that purports to separate American myths from Christianity. Yet I will admit that I am not a theologian and don’t feel like a I have a grasp on Christian justice, so I would be open to persuasion with more theological basis.

  3. Thank you both for your thoughts, I hope it was somewhat helpful. Richard, perhaps my reply here is unneccessary after writing part 2 on this topic, but I’m happy to clarify further in light if your concerns.

    As my audience is primarily conservative evangelical, the normal stance that is taken – to use the liberty-against-justice framework you used – is in support of personal economic liberty no matter what implication it carries for the poor. I would, however, be hesitant to say that Republicans represent Liberty while Democrats defend Justice, becuase once you shift the debate from healthcare to, say, abortion, it is arguably the Republicans that champion Justice on the part of unborn children, while Democrats argue for the liberty to choose what one wishes to do with one’s body (as the rhetoric goes). But in any case, my argument is pointed against this selfish and unchristian attitude, revealing it as an obstacle, and not an encouragement to economic justice.

    I also did not mean to define liberty as a subset of justice. What I meant to say was that: in thinking particularly economic justice, exalting personal economic liberty in free-market capitalist fastion is fundamentally antithetical to its attainment.

    My aim was not to address the issue of Justice in American politics so broadly, because as you rightly pointed out, the American ideals of Justice must also be distanced from Christian Justice. Thank you though, for bringing that out, I’m glad I have the chance to clarify that.

  4. There are, in particular, two points that I would like to suggest. First, however, I would like to say that I think the author has given an articulate and intelligent discussion to some important issues.

    First, with respect to the author’s (of the post, Chris) claim that Capitalism results necessarily in making “the mistake of commoditizing people.” He argues that capitalism results, therefore, in the degradation of the human person, and follows up in the very next paragraph with the suggestion, rightly, that the human person must be seen and respect as a child of God. In this light, the person is found to be “the end itself, and not the means.”

    I would argue against this reading of the situation for two reasons, that correspond roughly to the two positions of the author highlighted briefly above. First, with respect to the nature of capitalism and the human person. Capitalism demands both private ownership of person property and even businesses, and a free market in which goods and services can be fairly traded. In this way, it respects the basic human right, flowing from the dignity of the person, to own the basics necessary for their own survival and flourishing (which seems to include, therefore, the ownership by private citizens of businesses). Furthermore, as you point out, systems do work if people have no incentive to work (this appeared as a critique of communism/socialism). Therefore, with this same logic, it appears that capitalism in this way accounts for the nature of the human person with respect to the value of hard work in the life of the person. Although I would grant that capitalism contains within itself a tendency to allow for greed (not that it demands it, since it is only persons who are actually engaged in capitalism, and they must earnestly strive after virtue), this tendency does not demand the commoditizing of the person to utter debasement as merely a means to an end. If it is the case that people must work (which it is, but I am beginning a syllogism), and it is the case that many people may work together under the umbrella of a single business, and it is the case that there are many different kinds of necessary jobs (agricultural work, construction, education, etc.) which certain persons must fill for a society to flourish, and it is the case that society as a whole will be benefit from the labor performed by one group (for example, farmers) for the other groups (e.g. teachers) due to their specialization, then it is the case that in some respect all persons act as a means to another persons end insofar as they work. This, however, does not destroy the dignity of the human person, since in a way part of the dignity of the person rests precisely in that people work for their living and in this way provide for themselves and those in their community. It seems, therefore, that although capitalism may contain within its logic a tendency toward some attempting to become greedy, and in this way degrade others as merely a means to an end (emphasis on merely, since as I showed above all will in some way be a means to an end, but this need not eradicate but may in some way further the dignity of the person. Perhaps an example might help: A teacher is paid by their students to instruct them in a particular topic. The teacher, therefore, is being paid to serve as a means to the further end of the student, which is to receive the particular educational benefit they are seeking. However, this does not entail that the students consider the teacher simply as an instrument for their use to achieve their own end.), however, capitalism does not necessarily and utterly “commoditize” the person and subject those who are working to the “will to power” of those few in the top 1%. I will again concede that capitalism, like freedom, is risky, and requires constant vigilance with respect to virtue. However, this does not entail the conclusion offered by the author.

    Second, the author argues that the children of God must be seen as the end, and not as the means. However, for the above reason, this statement needs to be more adequately nuanced in order to account for the reality of what it is to work within a community. Second, it should be additionally nuanced to point out that, as a Christian, we do not see man as the end in itself simply speaking, but rather as one who possess a further and eternal end, namely, an eternity with God sharing in the life of the Trinity.

    Finally, I would like to comment on the post by Richard. First, it should be pointed out that the comment that certain “assumptions drive [the Republicans’] insanity” is both radically inadequate with respect to the actual condition of republicans (since conservatives actually donate a larger percentage of their disposable income to charitable organizations than liberals), and to the nature of the Republican/conservative position (I will concede that in some ways these two positions are no longer co-extensive, but rather the Republican party does seem much more willing to abandon certain conservative positions, such as a small federal government, e.g. Bush and his huge spending bills). First, it is not insane to believe that large government programs are not efficacious with respect to trying to help the poor. Although many good-hearted people on both sides of the political divide will agree that much needs to be done to help the poor, this does not entail that the state/government ought to be the one to do this work. It is entirely reasonable, in fact, to think that private enterprise and initiative is the proper route to achieve this end, for at least two reasons: first, that Christian organizations in particular have historically serves as very large and important means of attending to the needs of the poor without state involvement. It is interesting to note that, historically, the apostasy of the Julian, a Roman Emperor, involve the construction of a state religion which included (from the example of the Christians) state funded welfare programs organized through the state-religion (n.b. I am not suggesting that current welfare programs are a form of idolatry.). Second, it is reasonable to think that the government will not actually be effective in the ends it attempts to achieve. Consider, for example, hospital care. It is interesting to note that the only currently federally run and funded hospital system is that run for Veterans, which is notorious for poor care of its patients and the low-quality in general of its doctors.

    Second, with respect to the nature of the Republican position. It seems odd that you claim that Republicans fight for liberty, whereas Democrats fight for justice. First, your definitions of justice and liberty seem flawed. Although you mention that justice is equality, you do not denote what kind of equality you mean. Do you mean socio-economic equality, because then you assume a definition of justice that is not agreed upon by most. Do you mean equality with respect to the dignity of the person, because then your notion of justice may actually be shared by most Republicans and Democrats, since I think most do genuinely think they are doing what is good for people. Do you mean equality with respect to voting rights, because then your notion of justice is again shared. Do you mean equality as every person is equal with respect to their ability to do any task, including running a business or acting in the legislature, because then your notion of justice would not seem to be present in either side of the divide. Also, you define liberty as the freedom “to do what we want and experience the consequences.” However, why should we think that this is how freedom is to be thought of? Although I would agree that there is a pervasive modern tendency to think of liberty in these terms, I think this tendency is irrespective of political persuasion, that is, that is pervades both Republicans and Democrats. Although Republicans tend to value personal responsibility and in this way seem to, with respect to legislation, be more inclined to favor legislation that encourages private ownership, personal enterprise, personal responsibility, and the value of hard work, your claim with respect to Republicans I think generally applies to Democrats as well.

    It seems, rather, that your categories of justice and liberty are simply inadequate and fail to account for the positions actually taken by either party. Each party has its own sense of the nature of justice and liberty and takes those measures they deem appropriate to those ends which they value and think are good for society as a whole, and America as a nation. In this way, both Republicans and Democrats have a notion about the role and nature of justice and liberty and how these each function within the whole of a governmental and social system. While the Republicans tend to think it more just to limit the scope and authority of the federal government, and in this way promote local communities, counties, and states to decide what is best for them in their own communities, Democrats tend to think it more just to reform the nation as a whole from the federal level, ensuring the liberty and rights of the people are protected everywhere and that the welfare of the people is ensured through governmental means.

    I think it is important for all us, myself certainly included, to think through the questions and problems raised by Chris in his post. I hope to offer these thoughts in a charitable spirit, understanding that by searching after the truth together with others, we might better attain to it.


  5. I don’t really want to get into splitting hairs over how exactly to characterize the differences between Republicans and Democrats and the nature of justice and equality and so on. There’s more than one way to create the narrative, and all narratives are too simple, so that doesn’t bother me too much.

    My general point was that the debate shouldn’t be characterized as a tension between communism and capitalism because that makes us choose between the party of America and the party of un-America, when in fact the kinds of ideals that Democrats espouse have been with us since the beginning (you can characterize those views simply as I did as being equality or you can be more complex and say those ideals are a particularized view about what equality and justice and freedom and so on are – I chose the simple characterization). They aren’t imported (you can see my first response to Chris’s second post for a clearer discussion of that and how it plays on in the law of the United States).

    Also, the “insanity” of Republicans that I mentioned was not referring to the way Republicans think about these issues, because I almost always vote Republican. Rather, I was talking about the way Republicans are behaving right now – as if the health care bill is contrary to all American ideals. In my opinion, it is contrary to SOME American ideals (freedom) but not others (equality – which does for many people and the Democratic party in general mean relative equality of outcome; this is not an unusual or even minority view on equality as we saw in the last election).

    The purpose of my response to Chris’s post – which is asking what the Christian view on these issues are and not so much the American view – was to (1) express concern that he may have accepted the Republican narrative (capitalism v. communism) to readily since Democratic ideals have long existed in American law and policy and (2) that he may have been too willing to accept the Democratic notion of equality as being the Christian notion (a concern that you would – I imagine – share). Perhaps those concerns aren’t such an issue, but that was what I saw.

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