Church leaders have been conspicuously inaudible during the current debate, but we are delighted to raise at least a couple such voices here. In Huntsville last weekend, we had the chance to bring together two influential Christians from differing sides of the theological spectrum to address the vexing issue of health care reform.
Rev. William Willimon is a top kick among clergy. As Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, he is the spiritual leader of more than 150,000 church members and almost 800 pastors. Now in his 60s, the prolific Willimon is closing in on having written one book for every year of his life — he has two new titles coming out this fall — and recently offered his take on health care reform in one of his weekly “editorials,” within which he praised the American Medical Association and tweaked Glenn Beck.
Shane Claiborne might join in the Beck tweaking if he were the TV watching sort, but his lifestyle likely doesn’t include cable. Claiborne, a former Methodist, co-founded a radical faith community in North Philadelphia called The Simple Way (also known as the Potter Street Community), an outgrowth of a variegated ministerial career that’s taken him from serving in a mega-church to an apprenticeship with Mother Teresa. In his 30s, Claiborne has found time between contemplation and seeking social justice to write a few books himself, including the provocatively entitled Jesus for President.
Sitting in a small room together, one looked ready for a round of golf and the other for a round of Red Stripes, but in their colloquy, Willimon and Claiborne often found themselves on surprisingly common ground at the intersection of the sacred and the secular:
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Was Jesus interested in public policy issues?
WILLIAM WILLIMON: I have no Biblical evidence to suggest He would be. I just remember how He was crucified and by whom, but that may not mean that I shouldn’t have interest in public policy. I guess one thing that interests me is, as I love those instances I observe in Alabama where health care becomes a kind of congregational church issue — we’ve got churches that are trying to pick up the pieces after people have fallen badly through the health care hole, so I’m kind of interested in that public policy. Then again, I don’t have a brain that’s good on thinking through policy, and I must say, maybe as a preacher, I ought to say to people of my congregation, “There are some of you out there that are called by God to worry about this kind of thing and have got minds that can think about it — well, Jesus expects you to do that.” Shane, is that a cop-out?
SHANE CLAIBORNE: No, I think that Jesus was interested in this world becoming what God’s dream and intention for it was and is, and that means everything that’s out of synch moving closer in synch with the things that are — Jesus says, blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful. That, to me, is something that affects every aspect of society. Even the prophets are calling pagan kings and everyone, I think, to orient toward those things that are at the heart of God. When I look at Jesus, one of His most powerful images of the final judgment is, everyone’s brought before God, all the nations of the world, it says, and the question that we’re asked is not actually a doctrinal test — ‘Virgin birth: agree or disagree? Creation or evolution?’— but, ‘When I was sick, did you care for me? When I was in prison, did you visit me?’ I think that that call to care for the sick is a call that every one of us has to answer, whether we’re president or a next-door neighbor. My thought on the health care thing is that all of us can move closer to everyone having the adequate care that they need without saying, “You’ve got to do it exactly this way.” I think of the education system as a good example of that. Some folks are disenchanted with it and they set up home schooling. Other folks create charter schools that do it well. Other folks are working for reform within the existing public education system. I think it’s the same way with health care. Folks are going to do different things to try to move closer to the 47 million [citizens currently uninsured] getting adequate health care. As one guy in Philly said, there’s not a silver bullet, but there’s a silver buckshot, like, all of us have got to be doing something. What we can agree on is that adequate health care or adequate education, they shouldn’t be privileges of the few that can afford it, but available to everyone.
WW: One thing that bothers me about the current debate is that it just frames some of this as a federal government problem... and one other thing — and I wouldn’t say this in my editorial — I’m troubled that health care — health — has become our only salvation left. When I go into churches, and the pastor says, ‘Now we’re ready to pray. In Jesus’ name, are there any prayer requests?’ I never hear any, one single, prayer request for anything except the physical deterioration of older people. My young adult son says, “Show me where in scripture Jesus appears to give a rip about the fact that you’re old and have urological problems.” I’m struck by how few people Jesus appears to have healed, even though he healed a number of people. I love that thing there in [the Gospel of] John where Mary and Martha come and say, “Help! Lazarus is sick! Drop everything! Get over here!” Then John says, “He stayed there three more days.” And I think, Jesus, what in the heck could you have that’s more important than getting over there and getting him over that illness? Then I realize — I’m in a world where nothing important ever happens to me except illness, where the only time people ever see their pastor is when they’re sick... so I’m just saying I’m ambivalent — which is a Methodist theological virtue. I think it was Hauerwas [Dr. Stanley M. Hauerwas, distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Duke University] who said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the practice of medicine in North America today, except we need a better class of patients who don’t believe that health care is going to bring them immortality. One of the reasons we can’t have vaccinations is we’re paying for 70 year-olds to have kidneys.’ I thought the Obama administration made a fledgling move toward that and boy, we popped him. We said, ‘Wait a minute, people over 70 vote, and we’ve got the resources, so don’t you ask us to make any accommodation for anybody. We want a health care system that will provide us the maximum possible delusion that we may be God and will live forever.’
BW: Are Christians obligated to take part in the political solution to a moral problem?
WW: I think yes. However, one thing Christians sometimes discover is, they’ve got some weird ideas about moral problems. So when you get into the discussion — like my little tiny point in my editorial was that I’m really troubled that most Americans now say, “I’m happy with my health care.” Well, as Christians, that’s a stupid statement. How is my neighbor’s health care? Jesus has made that my problem. And one other thing: I think we live in a climate which thinks, if there’s any good worth doing, there’s nowhere to get it done, except through the government, because the government is the source of all of our security and well-being and future. Well, Christians say, no, that’s wrong. One reason Christians ought to be in these discussions is I think we’ve got some really creative solutions to them. Some of our churches are participating in an initiative in Alabama about venereal diseases among ethnic minority people, particularly African-Americans. In one sense, you think, ‘Whoa, we’re uncomfortable talking about that kind of thing, we’re Christians.’ But the health department has said if you’re going to impact African-American health care in Alabama, start with the church. The church is the only place where that stuff gets on the table, so we ought to be in this discussion. But just to warn the world, you’re going to eventually run into Shane Claiborne, who’s going to say such odd things about it.
SC: Yeah, I do think we have a duty and a responsibility to be involved in the conversations and even in the changes, but I think we’re to be very particular in how we’re involved with it, and the fact that we don’t put our ultimate faith or trust in a politician or vote. I think that happened before in the issue around Sept. 11 and Iraq as someone, as a Christian, stood up with messianic language of “I’ve got a call to answer” and “I’m put in place for such a time as this.” There’s some of that same language being used now. I mean, we’ve got posters in our neighborhood of Obama with the word “Hope” under it. I think for Christians that raises some red flags. I think that we hope differently. We don’t expect change just to happen every four years in a voting booth, but we see voting as something we’re doing every day of our life, like we’re putting ourselves toward this, I think, very political message of Jesus — casting the mighty from their thrones and raising the lowly, sending the hungry away filled with good things and the rich away empty. And it’s very different from even, I think, what can win an election. It’s not even “Blessed are the middle class,” it’s “Blessed are the poor.”
BW: The debate over health care has raised awareness of class disparity in America among people who may not have thought about such things before. One is struck by the level of hostility at the town hall meetings brought in by people, who are nominally Christians, having to face economic disparity in their own neighborhoods. Are the teachings of Jesus supposed to help people who have not had to deal with class issues like these before?
WW: Maybe I ought to be ashamed as a pastor that it takes a debate on health care to reveal that we accommodate ourselves to these vast economic disparities. But, yes, we’ve made health care a commodity, we sell it to the highest bidder, et cetera. I guess we hear from Jesus a good deal more than we do from the average pulpit about economic disparities, pointing to those wonderful moments when Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?” and the response is, no, we have a vast mechanism to ensure we never will see her. Church maybe ought to be that place where we worry about things the world thinks are not problems and we are made to stare at stuff that we have means of avoiding. I had a woman that got upset about health care, she wrote in a few comments, and I said, “You know, this is awfully interesting, your observations, but I know your zip code, and what you have to say on this issue is suspect. You’re in Mountain Brook and I’m afraid you’re going to have to let the rest of the world debate this.” And she was a doctor’s wife, too! I did want to say, though, that if my doctor were married to someone with these opinions, I would sure want to change doctors if I could. Sadly, the biggest trouble I got into was criticizing Glenn Beck. Why did I even get into that? It isn’t worth it!
SC: Mother Teresa said so powerfully that it’s very fashionable to talk about the poor, but not as fashionable to talk to the poor. I love that line and I think in a lot of ways it can be very stimulating and provocative to talk about the health care crisis, and speculate on all these answers. Meanwhile, there’s people that are suffering really, really deeply, so hopefully it causes us to build those relationships.
WW: I had e-mail from a woman, and she said, “As a pharmacist, you won’t believe what I see. I see people who sit there and say, Maybe if we go without tonight’s supper, I can buy this medicine for my child, and I say, Your child has got to have this medicine”... I thought, This is so moving, what a good pharmacist you are. Then at the bottom, she said, “The sad thing is, I should have met these people at church. I shouldn’t have had to meet them at my job.” And I thought, that is beautiful. Help me to be the kind of pastor that can produce that kind of church, where it becomes something you hear at church and not something you’ve got to get dressed and go hear down at Wal-Mart.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.