The Health Care Challenge and God’s Action

For some time our Sunday School class has been exploring beliefs about how God’s action intersects with human actions.  Readers of the Bible know that it’s pretty easy to see God’s action there, because on every page God acts.  But moving beyond the Bible to what I might call “mere history” makes this question more ambiguous.  What is God doing today, in our time?  What is God doing through the church?  Is it just “religious stuff” that God is doing in/through us?  How could we tell?

Perhaps foolishly, I’ll try something I normally avoid.  I’m going to write a post about the current turmoil over proposed legislation to repeal (or modify) the Affordable Care Act in favor of the American Health Care Act.  I want to try to “think Christianly” in search of a responsible conclusion.  Maybe, just maybe, we Christians could discern a little bit more clearly what God is calling us to do.  My effort will be no doubt a hesitant and fumbling one. I’m simply trying to be a responsible Christian citizen.

First, some points of reference that I think crucial:

  1.  Health care costs are on an unsustainable trajectory.  According to a report by the Rand Corporation, health care costs have exceeded our country’s gross domestic product by more than 2% per year since 1950.  We cannot continue at this rate, especially while we get sicker as a nation.
  2. The United States far outspends other developed nations on health care and we are far less healthy than other developed nations.  As a University of Michigan study states, “The U.S. has worse health outcomes than most other developed nations, despite spending almost twice as much on health care.”  Whatever you think about “Obamacare” or “Trumpcare,” we together must face this problem.  How do Christians address it?  What is God calling us and enabling us to do?
  3. Here is the hardest, yet probably most relevant point: poor lifestyle choices (what the industry calls “modifiable risks”) account for 25% of health care costs in the United States. (See the U. of Michigan study.)  Obesity and smoking top the lists of lifestyle-related concerns.  According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a healthy Body Mass Index (ratio of height and weight) is between 18% and 25%.  One is overweight if one’s BMI is 25%-30% and one is obese if one’s BMI is more than 30%.  The US Health and Human Services agency states that more than 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese and more than 1/3 of our children are, too.  Heart disease and diabetes are two major problems related to weight and obesity.
  4. The Congressional Budget Office evaluation of the currently-prosed legislation offers a tentative and nuanced projection of the economic effect of implementing the bill. It took me about fifteen or twenty minutes to read and try to digest it.  It is worth the effort, even if it did not provide me a set of easy conclusions.  It did me remind me to avoid cherry-picking facts to buttress bias and political loyalties.

Please note, I did not use one popular “news” source or opinion piece.  I am a reasonably intelligent Christian citizen trying to figure out what he thinks about how best to address healthcare challenges.  While the government sorts out its policies, Christians (and people of faith more generally) can and should do something.  Of course, many Christian churches and organizations across the country already are doing what I will suggest below.  If the numbers stated above are any indication, however, we need more concentrated effort, especially in view of government gridlock.

What should we do?

  1. We have to act responsibly as citizens.  Learn what you can, make your decision about the AHCA, advocate for the best policy with your legislative representatives and pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
  2. Congregations must hold ourselves accountable to good health practices.  United Methodist clergy, I’m calling us out on this one.  As a lot, we are unhealthy because we are too busy, we have poor diets and we don’t exercise. This is a spiritual and moral problem.  (If you are UM clergy and you do exercise and eat healthy, God bless you.  You don’t fit my generalization, so don’t take it personally.  If your doctor has told you that you need to lose weight and exercise, i.e. take better care of yourself, don’t make excuses.)
  3. Local congregations, many of whom have medical professionals as active members, can do some very significant work to mitigate the “modifiable risks” part of the health care cost picture.  What if we started here within our congregations and communities?  I know this is a complex topic.  If a person is working two jobs to make ends meet, how does s/he find time to exercise?  Just because the problem is complex does not mean we should abdicate responsibility to someone else to figure out solutions.  If modifiable risks are a huge and costly problem, they are nonetheless to a significant degree under our control.  Let’s think creatively and try something.  Congregations can work with local medical clinics and health and fitness agencies to think creatively about how to offer wellness practices to community members, including and especially those who are falling through our system’s cracks.  We need collaborative teams on the ground to make a difference.
  4. To make progress on #3, not only should we be honest with ourselves (see #2) about our own unhealthy lifestyles, we’ll have to risk “intruding” in other people’s lives.  A congregation has a sphere of influence and a responsibility to know the situations of people within theirs.  We have to have the courage to offer help and support in an area of a person’s “private” life.  (Can we see how “private” and “public” overlap?)

Is God concerned about health?  Is God acting to make good health attainable for a larger number of Americans?  The scriptures make clear that God has chosen people as instruments, as means of divine action.  I do not believe God “needs” any of us, but the Bible makes clear that we have a vocation, called by God, to serve the present age.  And in the present age, we have serious health problems that need a different kind of attention.

Christians make up (still) roughly 70% of the American population.  To our great shame, we are badly polarized along political lines.  In this post, I have tried to “think Christianly” about a deeply important subject.  I have tried to understand the big picture, which is why I included the “lifestyle” issues related to health care.

If we Christians rely only on the usual popular “news” sources and allow political polarization to control our perspectives, then we could very well miss how God is active in the world and what God calls us to do.  If we miss God’s call, then we deserve God’s judgment.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thinking on this issue. Along with echoing some of your questions & ideas, some of mine are:
    – I’ve read recently that it’s not only US health care expenditures that outstrip other nations; we do that in most other areas as well.
    – Our preoccupation with health apparently leads us to acquire or invest in tests, procedures, and treatments that give us the feeling of “doing something” but without producing any positive outcome.
    – What is the correlation between “health care,” taken as a system that provides health-related services and actual health? Is there data we can look at or must we settle for working from assumptions?
    – If we take it as a given that it is the role of government to insure that all have health insurance (whatever that means), there’s no way we can do so while at the same time we cut money coming into the system, whether that be by cutting taxes or curtailing “mandates” (which the Supreme Court justified by considering them as a form of taxation).
    – We will never get beyond the point of needing a populace as educated as possible about how to contribute to their own health and how to wisely access and make use of the health care system.

  2. Steve Schuller says:

    Outstanding post, as a “call to action.” Christ’s teachings, in my view, emphasized the “community” of believers and how we must not only look out for one another, but also for all people, of course, since everyone can eventually be brought into the “community.” Christians can contribute to the well-being of the members of their community, and others, by encouraging healthy life-styles, without necessarily proselytizing. Only as healthy “temples” (in the sense of one’s “body is a temple”) can we be strong against the negative influences — physical, mental, spiritual — we all face daily. But the further “call to action” to educate oneself about the health care laws and system and, once educated and informed, to inform others and express opinions to the legislators is our duty as members of the “community” we live in.

    Steve Schuller

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