The Common Good

Health Care: Where Do We Go from Here?

Sixteen Christian leaders talk faith, policy, justice, and reform. Featuring Jim Wallis, Harry R. Jackson Jr., Alveda King, Brian McLaren, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Noel Castellanos, Diana Butler Bass, and more.

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote those words in the conclusion to his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? It was 1967, and he was writing in reference to the epic battle for social justice that raged throughout the '60s. It was a battle between integrationist and separatist, rich and poor, conservative and progressive, Black Power and nonviolent resistance. Most significantly, it was a battle between American and American.

Today in the U.S., we find ourselves at another defining crossroads. The health-care debate is tearing at our nation's soul, exposing and widening our cultural divisions. Issues -- both real and perceived -- such as class, race, euthanasia, sanctity of life, immigration law, size of government, and fiscal responsibility have been infused into our conversations and arguments, making a rational and bipartisan resolution seem increasingly unlikely. But whatever the political outcome, a choice remains for us as a nation -- and as followers of Jesus. Which will we choose: chaos or community?

In this special forum, UrbanFaith joins forces with Sojourners to present a collection of diverse perspectives on health-care reform. In the days following President Barack Obama's address before Congress, we asked a cross section of Christian leaders for their opinions about the health-care controversy. Below are their statements of support, opposition, and philosophical reflection. Some are brief, others more expansive. But in each, we hope you'll find a fresh idea, challenge, or encouragement that helps advance your view of this complex topic. -- Ed Gilbreath, editor of UrbanFaith.com

Jim Wallis

Reform Is a Moral Issue by Jim Wallis

In his speech this evening, President Barack Obama made the commitments that a broad coalition in the faith community had asked for -- reform as a moral issue, affordable coverage for all, and no federal funding of abortion.

First, the faith community has asked the President to make "the moral case" for health-care reform; not just the policy arguments -- and tonight he couldn't have been clearer about the moral imperative for fixing a broken system. Quoting a letter from Ted Kennedy stating that health care "is above all a moral issue," the President made the case that our response to this challenge involves "fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

Second, we have told the White House that the faith community will accept nothing less than accessible, affordable and secure coverage for everyone. Tonight, he said that he "will not back down" until that goal is achieved -- and neither will we. He rejected the incremental approaches that will again postpone bringing in everyone to America's health-care system and making sure it is working for all of us -- and so will we.

Third, we have told the President that we needed to hear a clear commitment that "no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions" and that "federal conscience laws will remain in place." He gave that public commitment tonight. As the President said, "While there remain some significant details to be ironed out," his commitment to these principles means we can now work together to make sure that they are consistently and diligently applied to any final health-care legislation.

Now it is the job of the faith community and every concerned American to make sure the final bill reflects all these moral principles. And the faith community will continue to be vigilant to ensure that each one is bravely followed throughout the process of achieving health-care legislation. The President has now set the stage for finally achieving real solutions to health-care reform by defining the deeper moral issues at stake and clarifying the policy debate. We will now be calling on our members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, many of them members of our congregations, to support these moral commitments and to make sure, as they "iron out the details," that each one is firmly upheld.

Rev. Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners and the author of The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.

Harry R. Jackson Jr.

Whose Morality? by Harry R. Jackson Jr.
Church leaders have been asked by the president to call universal health care a "moral imperative." Projecting universal health care as the "only" moral imperative is as sensible as calling a person born in the U.S. a native Australian because he visited Sydney once. It is certain that every judicious person in the nation wants medical care for the least, the last, and the left out. The goal is admirable, yet sometimes evil is done by those with good motives who lack long-term vision.

The crux of the health-care question is not whether we want to help everyone; the question is how do we deliver the help. Personally, I do not want a socialistic system fraught with inefficiencies. Others are wary of crippling a system that is currently saving millions of lives every day. This argument is not theoretical -- delay or denial of essential services will spell death for thousands. Aren't the lives of every American important? "First do no Harm!" are the familiar words to the Hippocratic Oath.

Where does that leave us? Unfortunately, the plan as it is being fashioned is patently evil. It has several major blemishes. These blemishes are threefold -- the moral impact of denied service, funding of abortion, and making employers (including churches) pay for a system that administrates death.

Despite the president's declarations, his henchmen have refused to add amendments to the bill that would specifically rule out state-paid abortion. The Capps amendment, which passed the House Energy and Commerce committee, clearly states that abortion can be "covered" under the public option and must be covered under at least one private plan in each region that is in the Exchange. While it's a precise point, the other side keeps pointing to the Capps amendment and saying, "Look, it says no 'funds' can go for abortions".... but it violates the Hyde Amendment by providing government subsidies for health plans that "cover abortion" whether the tax dollars actually pay for it or the private premiums pay for the abortion.

Experts tell me that the Capps Amendment has an accounting gimmick that makes it look like only private funds would pay for the abortion, but it clearly says that the government public plan and private plans may, and some must, "cover abortion."

Most people believe that health-care reform is an important moral issue. However, big government alone cannot reform health care. In fact, it is not the proper mechanism for such a reform.

The community, including the church, has to play a role in health-care reform. Historically, churches and other faith-based charitable organizations have taken an active role in the development of hospitals and organizations that supply care for the sick.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina dramatically altered the lives of many people, and blacks in particular, it was the church and other non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross, the Southern Baptist Convention, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities, to name a few, who were very instrumental in the efforts to respond to this emergency.

Health-care reform is an emergency, no question; however, government intervention alone cannot adequately address it. The American community -- and the faith community, in particular -- must play an active role in the reform efforts.

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church and founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition He is the coauthor (with Tony Perkins) of Personal Faith, Public Policy.

Kathy Khang

Reclaiming Civility by Kathy Khang
I've grown weary of the health-care debate, because there's less and less actual debating going on. There's a lot of noise -- loud voices coming from people accusing one another of fear-mongering, politicizing, hypocrisy, racism, and ignorance. I must admit that some of the ranting is actually kind of funny, if I don't take myself or anyone else too seriously.

But in the past couple weeks I've had to stop reading, listening, and watching. The news is too disheartening.

I think we're losing our way to reforming anything because some of us are too busy drawing lines in the sand. (And not the kind Jesus was drawing.) I know I'm lost.

What difference does it all make if, in the name of reform, neighbors can't be neighbors?

Well, it matters to me because on most days I want to live out what I say I believe. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to love my neighbor when I think they are stupid and wrong. Justice and reform will have to start with my heart, before I open my mouth to help shift the noise back to reasonable and civil debate. Anyone want to join me?

Kathy Khang is a mother of three and wife of one who's trying to love and follow Jesus. She also serves with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a multiethnic ministry director. She is a coauthor of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership And Faith, and she attempts to blog at MoreThanServingTea.wordpress.com.

Barbara Williams-Skinner

Affirming That America Cares by Barbara Williams-Skinner
As chairman of the board of the Christian Community Development Association and a member of the National African American Clergy Network, I wholeheartedly welcome President Barack Obama's clear and bold pronouncement of the moral foundation for comprehensive and affordable health care for all Americans. His affirmation that America must become a nation that cares about the health and wellbeing of all of her citizens is encouraging.

In his speech to Congress, beyond the issue of universal, affordable coverage and health care as a basic moral issue, was another critical issue. As a pro-life Democrat, I was especially gratified to hear President Obama state unequivocally that abortions would not be included as part of health-care reform legislation.

I pray that congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle would come together behind the President's vision for comprehensive health-care reform legislation that is worthy of our great nation.

Rev. Dr. Barabara Williams-Skinner is a member of the National African American Clergy Network and president, Skinner Leadership Institute.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

'Not a Political Contest' by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson
Our health-care crisis is, above all, a moral failure. Reform should be neither a partisan cause nor a political contest, but a necessity of service to the common good of our society. I trust that our politicians now can act as the leaders they were elected to be.

Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

Arnold M. Culbreath

Remember It's Health Care by Arnold M. Culbreath
Everyone in the U.S. should have, and deserves to have, health-care coverage. I think we all agree that our current health care needs an overhaul. However, to have a proposed health bill that either directly or indirectly mandates a universal tax funding for all abortions for any reason is not health care -- especially when abortion remains the leading cause of death in the Black community, higher than AIDS/HIV, accidents, heart disease, cancer, and violent crimes combined.

Rev. Arnold M. Culbreath is the urban outreach director for the Life Issues Institute, where he leads the Protecting Black Life outreach ministry.

Diana Bulter Bass

Neighborliness and Generosity by Diana Butler Bass
President Obama has made the moral case for health-care reform by appealing to the best aspects of American character, reminding us of our history, and by making people accountable for their actions. He has called us to neighborliness and generosity. He has drawn a life-affirming picture of a caring community, asking everyone to do his or her part, outlining the responsibilities of deep democracy. And if that's not progress -- and progressive -- I don't know what is.

Diana Butler Bass is a commentator and scholar in American religion and the author of several books, including the bestselling Christianity for the Rest of Us. Read her full statement here.

Galen Carey

In Good Faith by Galen Carey
The National Association of Evangelicals welcomes President Obama's renewed call for bipartisan cooperation on health-care reform. We support the goals of extending coverage, controlling costs, and preventing federal funding of abortion. As the debate moves forward we call on all members of Congress to negotiate in good faith and with the civility, humility, and respect which this important issue demands.

Dr. Galen Carey is director of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

Alveda C. King

'Pray and Act Accordingly' by Alveda C. King
The church can turn the tide in the current political debates. God is neither Democrat nor Republican; God is sovereign. The first and final acts of people of faith should be to pray and act accordingly. As to the current health-care debate, we must encourage the President and leaders of our nation to remember the dignity of all Americans.

In a recent open letter to President Obama, I joined several African American leaders to declare:

"Mr. President, in the Beloved Community envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., equal justice means that young people in the womb are not terminated and the elderly in ill health are not denied care because of their age.

We are concerned that your current health-care plan will not serve the needs of those who are most at risk....

If health-care reform passes, we have no doubt the number of African American women having abortions will sky rocket. The health-care bill text needs to clearly exclude abortion from any taxpayer-subsidized or government-mandated benefits. Abortion is not health-care.

People with disabilities, terminal illnesses, and the elderly, all who need special and expensive care, are also at risk of losing accessibly to doctors and having care denied or delayed.... We are concerned that patient care would be made based primarily on cost and that people with disabilities or special health needs will be put on waiting lists, or worse yet, denied potentially life-saving procedures outright....

We, the undersigned, urge you and your colleagues to seriously consider the concerns we have outlined above. Now is the time for Democrats and Republicans to come together to stand for compassionate care for all Americans, joining the chorus of "Free At Last" as proclaimed in Dr. King's " I Have A Dream" speech." [Read the complete letter here.]

Considering these words, I invite people of prayer to hold steadfast to the dream as we pray that God will heal our land.

Dr. Alveda King is a pastoral associate and the director of African American Outreach for Priests for Life.

Brian McLaren

A Matter of Character by Brian McLaren
Three things struck me about President Obama's speech to Congress on health-care reform. First, I was struck by his emphasis on morality. Caring for our poor neighbors -- and even more so when they are sick -- is indeed a moral concern.

Second, I was impressed by the way the speech addressed economic concerns. Like a lot of people, I'm concerned about costs and deficits -- and I thought the president wisely pointed out that the rising costs of doing nothing are unacceptably high. The fact that we pay significantly more for health care than other wealthy nations -- and are not more healthy, but less -- tells me we have a lot to learn from other countries, both in treating disease efficiently and in pre-empting it with healthier living.

Finally, I was impressed by the mature and responsible character reflected in both the speech's content and delivery. Even when he was called a liar by a member of Congress from whom we would expect more adult, civil, and professional behavior, the President modeled the grace and restraint that signal maturity of character. And similarly, the speech rightly emphasized that health care is a matter of national character. It takes maturity to integrate diverse concerns that are both long-term and short-term, personal and corporate, economic and moral. It takes maturity to integrate our traditional values of individual self-reliance and of commitment to our neighbors.

Our nation hasn't displayed a lot of that maturity of character in my lifetime, and now, both in what we do and how we do it, is our opportunity to learn and grow.

Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

Noel Castellanos

Looking Beyond Our Own Interests by Noel Castellanos
President Obama's appeal to Congress and to the American people to stay the course and reform our current health-care system is a clear call for us to look beyond our own personal interests and to assure that 50 million of our brothers and sisters in this country without basic health coverage receive this basic human right in the richest nation in the world.

Rev. Noel Castellanos is CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of over 500 non-profits ranging from grassroots, community based groups to large relief and development organizations serving under-resourced communities.

Chandra White-Cummings

Contend for the Faith by Chandra White-Cummings
Health care, as is the case with most policy issues, is complex and does not readily lend itself to sound-bite solutions or cue-card commentary. Making headway will require serious and rigorous thinking, an expanded collective capacity to think beyond the confines of one's own borders of concern, innovative perspectives, and finally, decisive action. A scenario that can greatly benefit from the involvement of dedicated, biblically-literate Christians who are prepared to bring the gospel to bear in this arena.

In the health-care arena, our primary responsibility is the same as in other spheres of life -- to make disciples of Jesus Christ by teaching obedience to what He has commanded. How can this apply to health-care reform efforts?

First, we should teach people the importance of prayer. We are instructed through Paul's first letter to Timothy to pray and intercede for "kings and all who are in authority" by asking God to help them; and to give thanks for them. Society desperately needs to learn dependence on a source outside itself for answers to life's perplexities and issues. Questions about who should be responsible for providing health care to the poor, what is the scope of government's responsibilities to its citizens, and how should systemic inequities that plague our health-care system be remedied cannot be answered by mere human wisdom. We need God's help.

If Christians of all political persuasions, parties, and positions would conspicuously pray for God to help the president exercise prudence and execute justice in a way that will allow all of us to "live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity," we can show the power of true unity to accomplish workable and practical solutions.

Second, we should teach the importance of a comprehensive standard of justice by standing for truth without compromise. One of the most hotly contested portions of the president's proposed health-care reform involves allowing government funding of abortions. In numerous places in the Bible, we are told that it is wrong to murder, and also we are warned of the wrath of God against those who shed innocent blood. We are also reminded that God Himself creates human beings with identity and purpose, and that we are responsible to Him for how we use our bodies. Christians should, according to Jude 3, contend for the faith that God has entrusted to us. So we should oppose any provisions that could violate God's principles of justice.

We can help people understand the unbreakable bond between justice and righteousness, and that if our president would act justly toward his constituents, he must also conform to God's standards of righteousness. Caring for the poor is but one consideration for truly equitable and just health-care reform.

Third, Christians can contribute to the health-care debate by teaching the necessity of examining and addressing root causes of deeply entrenched problems. One of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry was His insistence on compelling people to deal with heart issues and not just outward behavior. In health-care, racism and discrimination, institutional corruption, and abandonment of personal responsibility have all greatly contributed to the mess we find ourselves in. For example, a May 2008 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimates that the annual cost of human papillomavirus (HPV)-related conditions in this country is $2.25 billion to $4.6 billion. This economic toll on an already overburdened health-care system represents but one result of our refusal to submit our sexuality to the principles of God's law.

Whereas many are still trying to keep a wall erected between private behavior and public intervention, Christians should be dispelling that myth and injecting notions of collective accountability and consequence into conversations about how to bring down the cost of health care.

The Bible clearly teaches Christians that we have a life-preserving, purifying, and illuminating role in society. Christian lives, lived boldly and faithful to biblical principles, can turn around even this seemingly impassable health-care dialogue.

Chandra White-Cummings is a columnist for UrbanFaith and director of the Black Life Issues & Action Network, in Dayton, Ohio, a non-profit program that works to educate, empower, and engage the African American community concerning issues that impact Black women, children, and families. She blogs at Life As We Know It.

Eugene Cho

'Beyond Vilifying and Demonizing' by Eugene Cho
In the health-care debate, I think it's time we move beyond vilifying and demonizing one another as people who either monopolize compassion or completely lack it. No one wants anyone to die or to go broke. But we have a system that can be improved, right?

My perspective is simple, even though I acknowledge the situation is complex and the solutions even more so. As a country and government, I don't believe we have to provide universal health care. While I personally acknowledge it is a moral issue from my worldview, I have to understand that people have fundamentally different views about the role and purposes of government.

So, while we don't have to, it is amazing to consider that as a country and as the people of this country ...

We can do this.

We don't have to but we get to. Doesn't this contribute to our collective idea of liberties and the pursuit of happiness?

Rev. Eugene Cho, a second-generation Korean-American, is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe, an innovative nonprofit neighborhood café and music venue. He and his wife are also the co-founders of One Day's Wages -- a movement to fight extreme global poverty. You can stalk him at his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Lisa Sharon Harper

Rights and Wrongs by Lisa Sharon Harper
"Healthcare reform is @ the right to life," read my Twitter tweet. "Interesting ... Many who claim to be 'pro-life' trumpeted choice over the past month."

The tweet posted to my Facebook page and touched off the longest string of commentary I've ever had! One response from an old friend was particularly interesting. She identified herself as "a conservative" and "born again" and said health care should be kept separate from the "right to life."

Should it?

Health care is a basic human right, according to Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for it is directly connected with a human's right to live (Article 3, UDHR). But let's not get all technical.

Let's get biblical.

In the Matthew 25 story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus Himself says an equitable health-care system is a mandate for those who call themselves Jesus followers.

Jesus refers to the righteous whom the Father has invited into the kingdom in verse 37. The word righteous is actually translated the just or equitable in character and action. The word equitable is about fairness and intrinsically refers to systemic justice. In other words, the ones who seek to create fair systems, the ones who level playing fields, will be the ones standing on the right with the sheep.

Now, which playing fields is Jesus most concerned about? In the same passage, He actually lays out a public policy agenda.

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