Point of View

Lost in the Obamacare debate: People must be the priority

February 15, 2014 


DEAN SUCH — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last month, I signed up for a new health care insurance plan through the federal marketplace. This was not a political statement. Because I am a church planter living on a shoestring budget, the Affordable Care Act simply allowed my family to have a better health care plan at a lower cost.

Though this might seem like cause for celebration, the process actually left me quite disheartened.

I have learned that nearly 5 million Americans and 320,000 North Carolina residents will be living without health coverage this year because of the “coverage gap.” In short, 25 states, including North Carolina, have refused federal money and chosen not to expand Medicaid, one of the pillars of the ACA, leaving many Americans in a health care no man’s land. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to qualify for federal subsidies to lower insurance costs. They cannot get health coverage, period!

Learning this filled me with anger and dejection, and it got me wondering, “What would Jesus think about this?”

Recently at our church, we talked about a story in the Gospels in which Jesus heals a man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3 and parallels). At the heart of the story is a question that was paradigmatic in first-century Judaism: “What is weightier?”

The ancient rabbis identified 613 commandments in the Torah, and as you might expect, observing all the commandments all the time was difficult – impossible, in fact. So they developed the interpretive concept of “weightier” and “lighter” commandments. In essence, some commandments were more significant than others, and when circumstances placed two commandments in tension, the task of the faithful was to determine which was “weightier.”

Jesus’ choice to heal was not a question of the sanctity of the Sabbath. Rather it was a question of prioritization. Most Pharisees of Jesus’ day prioritized Sabbath observance over alleviating suffering – as long as it was not a life-threatening illness – whereas Jesus prioritized human suffering over Sabbath observance.

You could say that Jesus found people “weightier” than ideological issues. Jesus’ critics saw the person through the lens of the ideological issue, and Jesus saw the ideological issue through the lens of the person. The result was not a different ideology but two different practical expressions of a shared ideology.

In other words, Jesus could agree with the Pharisees ideologically on the sanctity of the Sabbath and still be angry and “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5).

I wonder whether he might be feeling similar emotions today.

Health care reform is a complex and nuanced issue, and I honestly don’t know the answers ideologically. What I do know is this:

Practically speaking, whenever suffering people are callously ignored in the name of an ideological conflict, we are all wrong. To be sure, we live in an ideologically polarized age, but the church is the one body in the world that is not afforded the luxury of using ideological commitments as defense mechanisms to absolve itself of the responsibility of loving people.

Our church, like many throughout America, is full of people who stand on each side of this issue, but if we are brave enough to follow Jesus’ example, the issues are never allowed to transcend the people. As a result, regardless of our ideological stance, the coverage gap is something none of us should be willing to accept.

The “Obamacare” debate is sure to continue. In the meantime, should we not, in unison, refuse to accept that 320,000 people are acceptable collateral damage in an ideological war? Expanding Medicaid while the battle wages on in Washington will not concede the debate, but it will provide justice and hope to our neighbors in need.

If we are not willing to stand together with the people our leaders are forgetting, I fear it will be us Jesus looks at and is “deeply distressed at [our] stubborn hearts.”

C.J. Stephens is co-pastor of Ekklesia – Church at Raleigh and co-founder of the Red Light Film & Art Project.

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