If you’re a Facebook friend, you’ve probably seen me tangle quite frequently over the need for health care reform and my support of government involvement in this area if the Church is not going to step forward and do its job.
As this debate has gone on, one of the things which has truly surprised me has been this debate over whether or not health care is a right. I think it is. I know it is. And I am absolutely gobsmacked by the inability of well-intentioned people, most of them God-fearing Christians to see this. But the disagreement pushed me toward a deeper reflection of why I feel this way, particularly why I feel so strongly. It also made me reflect on my faith and its role in forming my worldview.
Because of the disagreements, I feel like I must offer some kind of explanation as to how and why I believe this. Here goes.
As an Orthodox Christian, I believe, with my whole heart, that we are made in the image of God. The story of creation and the fall is a story of the creation of man by a Holy and Righteous God who for some reason created us in His image, who put His fingerprints all over our souls and our minds. The fall is the destruction and defacing of this image. The story of redemption is about the restoration of that likeness, of making us back into that which we once were and are intended to be.
One of the ways in which that image of God reveals itself, one of the ways in which we are different from all other created beings is HUMAN DIGNITY. And it’s hard to define, hard to explain, but we know what it is and we know when it has been violated. One of the reasons torture is so wrong is that it debases the dignity of both the tortured and the torturer. All violent crimes violate that dignity. And abortion is the ultimate violation of the dignity–denying personhood before it is even realized.
Being able to take care of one’s self is an important part of that dignity. Being able to provide for one’s own needs and the needs of those we love is also an important part of that dignity. Nothing violates it more than helplessness. And being helpless in the face of medical needs, and I’m talking basic medical needs like stuff that needs antibiotics and having a tooth pulled, also violates that dignity.
When the uninsured are standing in line in the cold and dark outside of a fair ground so they can get antibiotics for their bronchitis or having to file bankruptcy because they had the temerity to contract cancer, this violates human dignity. It has been said to me “well, they can go on Medicare/Medicaid.” That requires that they not work, that they not be able to provide for their families and loved ones. And that too is a violation of human dignity. (An aside…I love it when this comment is made by those who criticize those who use our welfare system. The irony is often lost on them.)
The single mother working as a clerk at the Wal-Mart and then waiting tables at the Bob Evans so she can feed her children probably forgoes health care/health insurance for herself. She probably doesn’t get treatment for basic ailments that then become serious and violate the financial and physical setting of her family. The laid-off factory worker with a wife and three kids at home, unable to afford to continue his COBRA coverage, is forced to figure out what he’s going to do because the cap fell off his tooth and he’s in excruciating pain.
These things are an affront to human dignity. Therefore, these things are an affront to the image of God in us. Therefore, these things are an affront to God Himself. Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time healing the sick. There was a reason for that. One of the most moving stories in all of Holy Scripture is the woman with the “issue of blood” receiving grace and healing from our Lord. Her illness placed her outside the community, her dignity damaged by the pervasive loneliness and shame she no doubt felt, so ashamed she sneaked up to Christ and touched the hem of His garment while He wasn’t looking.
All these, the working poor, the mentally challenged who are kept healthy by Medicaid, and the underinsured who can’t afford their deductibles, established by a system counting on them never using the care they already paid for, all these are made in the image of God. All these are important to Him and all of these must be important to us. We have to do something. Health care, because it directly goes to the dignity of each person made in the image of God, is a right. And that right is our responsibility.
In the Holy Orthodox Church, there is a tradition of saints called “unmercinaries”–men and women who were either healers or physicians who contrary to the practices of their time DID NOT ACCEPT PAYMENT for their services.