By Tricia Gates Brown
“In the new humanity which is begotten today, the Word prolongs the unending act of [his/her] own birth.” ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
As Christians, we uphold a fully en-fleshed theological worldview. This is not just because incarnation of the Divine is a key part of our spiritual imagination (and by “incarnation,” I mean divinity made visible not only in Jesus, but in all creation, from its explosive inception to the present). Aside from incarnation, Christianity is an en-fleshed theological worldview because Jesus described his work on this Earth as addressing real physical and emotional/psychological needs (Luke 4:18). The Christian life does not stop at an inner, individual experience of faith and peace; even less at cognitive beliefs or individual hopes for the afterlife.
At each celebration of Eucharist at my church, we allude to Jesus’ characterization of his work by repeating the phrase: “he broke break with outcasts, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). If we are true to the Jesus tradition, this en-fleshed gospel is what we live and proclaim. Today our lectionary gospel includes similar language. Here the disciples receive the instructions: “As you go, proclaim the good news: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:5-23). When I transcribe this injunction into language resonating with my own social context, I think of those emotionally/psychologically “dead” in addiction; those beset with mental anguish, poverty, disease, and rampant incarceration; or those in bondage to the blight of materialism, including myself. If certain twenty-first century expressions of Christianity have nothing healing and transformative, hopeful and good to say to those so ensnared, they have nothing to say. Any such un-enfleshed expressions of Christianity have lost their connection to Jesus and to the saints and mystics of the faith, and thus have lost their vitality, relevance, and license to speak for the broader tradition. Anyone who proclaims such a Christianity does not speak of the faith I find rich with real-world voice and meaning going back to the earliest prophets.
On that note, any political platform that includes a refusal of humane care for people who are sick and dying runs counter to values rightly called Christian. It is inhumane if a person can only afford care for their illness by choosing between medications/procedures and provision of housing, food, or other necessities for themselves and their family. Each day, this is a choice some individuals with non-existent or inadequate insurance are forced to make.
I recently heard the two GOP health care bills described as referendums on wealth distribution, which seems accurate though not in the way the commentator implied. For decades, neoconservative economic policies like trickle-down economics, low minimum wage, tax breaks for the super-rich, and corporate welfare have been redistributing wealth by design. These policies redistribute wealth to the wealthiest while shrinking the middle class and adding to the ranks of those on the edge. This is exactly what the GOP health care bills would likewise do.
I understand some believe the wealthy shouldn’t have to pay to support those of lesser means. This is certainly a valid political opinion. But it is not reflective of Christian values going back to Jesus. It is not a Christian position; in fact, it is anti-Christian. Others believe people should be generous and share wealth, but of their own accord rather than by government compulsion. They believe wealth-sharing should not be mandated by a tax structure (though tax structures shunting more wealth to the rich while disadvantaging the marginalized are overlooked). Yet politics are expressions of the collective values of a “polity,” or a people. And if the majority of a people does not value caring for the poor, sick and otherwise marginalized, their politics will reflect this. It stands to reason that this same polity is unlikely to marshal their private efforts toward widely lifting the poor and disenfranchised of their own accord. They may attend to the needs of their in-group, but not significantly to those beyond it. This is why shunting responsibility for care of the poor, sick, and marginalized to personal efforts fails, especially when these efforts are holding back a tide of rising inequality brought on by political policies promoting individualism. Policies enacted in a vital democratic political context most often reveal the values of the population. If the members of a society truly value reaching out the outcasts, healing the sick, and proclaiming good news to the poor, then the laws and policies of the society should resemble these values. On the other hand, if the law and policies of a society favor business, military might, and personal liberty above all else, that’s a good indication of what the society actually values.
Currently an agenda favoring personal wealth, military might, and individualism/nationalism above all has gained currency. However much we as a society are in a raging debate about our values, one must admit that this prevailing agenda reveals the majority collective values of our polity. If our fundamental collective values were incongruent with these emphases, wouldn’t more people have gone out to vote against Trump, who unabashedly promotes these values? Certainly Trump’s base is not the majority of the country, and there is an increasingly vocal and sizable contingent of people advocating for values of generosity and humaneness. Yet Trump was elected because, along with his base, there is a block of Americans who are either ambivalent about their values, or disengaged from the political process. Some of the latter have disengaged for valid reasons, such as a long history of the country oppressing them and silencing their voices; they may uphold excellent, humane values. It is the ambivalent group that concerns me. Coupled with the President’s base, they are shaping the policies of our country at this time.
En-fleshed Christian values are important. Values of reaching out to the marginalized, healing the sick, and bringing good news to the poor, are needed—meaning Christians who are part of the American polity need to vocally, enthusiastically, and unapologetically uphold these values in addition to modeling them. We need to embody these values in every aspect of our lives, including in our political lives thus helping to shape the collective values of our polity.
It is abundantly clear that making healthcare accessible to the greatest number of people is not the aim of the GOP House and Senate healthcare bills. The bills reveal either a profound ignorance of the way insurance works, or a lack of real concern about the number of people likely losing health insurance under their plans. If these plans are not an attempt to fix the accessibility of healthcare, what are the values dictating the policy? This question is part of a larger debate about our common life. What do Christians in the tradition of Jesus have to contribute to the debate?
Tricia Gates Brown works as a writer, garden designer, and emotional wellness coach in Nehalem, Oregon. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015 she completed her first novel and the essay collection Season of Wonder, and is currently at work on her second novel. For more, see: triciagatesbrown.net
Image: from Wikimedia: jesus-healing-the-sick-by-gustave-dore-1832-1883 public domain