Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recommended Reading on Health Care Reform

As I've tried to keep up with the ebb and flow of the debate over Health Care Reform (see my last post), here are some articles/posts I found interesting/helpful/thought-provoking:

Who Would Jesus Insure?--a liberal blogger and a conservative Christian actually have healthy dialogue at a Tea Party event--who knew it was possible?

In Defense of Britain's Health Care System--the authors of this Washington Post Op-Ed make a fair point: "Americans fear that countries such as Britain and Canada ration care -- and that such rationing could and should never be tolerated in the United States. Yet 47 million uninsured is quite an extreme form of rationing."

The Swiss Menace--Paul Krugman offers that Obamacare doesn't look like the heath care systems in Britain, Canada or France--it's Switzerland that we could end up looking like

Lining Up for Help--A group that usually provides medical care to isolated indian tribes in the Amazon sets up shop in Los Angeles and offers free medical care--in a matter of minutes the ignored third world living here in our country appear!

There have been several good posts to the God's Politics Blog:

There have also been a few programs on NPR that have actually offered calm, moderated and informative discussions about Health Care Reform--sometimes even with people coming from different perspectives:

  • End Of Life Decisions And The Health Care Bill--Last Monday's Talk of the Nation had some really educational discussion--although I've gotta say that the guy from Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice sounded more than lame: "I don't like health care reform, because I'm conservative, so nyah!"--yet even he agrees that so-called "death panels" aren't real

  • A Radio Town-Hall Forum on the Health Care Debate--very helpful--I think I actually understand what a "health insurance co-op" is now--maybe, sort of. . .

Any suggestions for further reading on Health Care Reform? Leave your suggestions as a comment--if I like it, I'll put it up here.

Is There a Christian Position on Health Care Reform?

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

During a town hall meeting in Lebanon, PA last week, Senator Arlen Specter took some theological criticism. The Philadelphia Inquirer described it this way: “Specter stood inches from a screaming man who accused him of subverting the Constitution. The man thundered, ‘One day, God's going to stand before you and judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill - and then you will get your just deserts.’" No doubt, like all of us, Washington politicians will one day stand before God and answer for their sins—and no doubt, many of them will have some doozies!—but I think it’s fair to ask whether or not this type of religious criticism really gets us anywhere?

I think it is also a fair question to ask whether any or all the multiple plans for health care reform circulating through Congress really subvert the Constitution, just as I also think it is fair to ask if so, would that necessarily mean God would condemn anyone for doing so? But, let’s set these questions aside for the purposes of this column and ask a more fundamental question—is there any position on health care reform that can appropriately be called Christian? I’ll show my cards and say, “Yes.” Although, I’d qualify my answer by adding, “I think there is a Christian position on health care reform in a general sense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any particular reform plan is a Christian plan or should be supported by all Christians.”

I’ll begin explaining what I mean by this qualified statement by quoting Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of our denomination, the Disciples of Christ. In a recent letter to the denomination, Watkins wrote:

Jesus’ ministry was one of healing, bringing life to the dying, sight to the blind, wellness to the sick, and peace of mind to the troubled. Jesus’ witness was that abundant life includes physical, mental and spiritual wellness. The call upon us is to make this vision a reality for all.

Disciples have been involved in the work of healing at home and abroad for generations. The General Assembly has twice spoken out on the need of health care for all (1999, Cincinnati Resolution, 9995; 2007, Fort Worth, Resolution 0724). Congregations know what it is like to help families when they have fallen through the holes in our health care safety net.

I am writing because I believe this is the moment of a generation – when the United States can finally make decent, affordable health care accessible for all.

Watkins states well Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God where all people are made spiritually, mentally and physically whole. Ultimately only God can accomplish that goal, but where Christ’s followers can move their society closer to it—however imperfectly—they must do so. I believe it is not only an issue of human rights from a secular perspective but also an issue of Christian ethics that every person should have available to them quality health care. If I take seriously Jesus’ command to love my neighbor as myself and the theological conviction that each person is made in God’s image, then I can accept nothing less.

Although the final form of Health Care Reform legislation is not yet clear—if it ever will be—and the solutions to our nation’s health problems are multifaceted and complex, one thing should be clear to people of faith: the status quo is not acceptable. Most news reports agree that approximately 47 million Americans are without health insurance and lack affordable health care. Millions more with health insurance are one serious illness away from bankruptcy—health costs were the leading cause of bankruptcylast year. Approximately, 14,000 people lose health insurance each day! Even those with good health insurance now have no guarantee that their employer will continue to provide it tomorrow, next month or next year. Of course, that last point assumes that people with employer-provided health coverage will still have jobs tomorrow, next month or next year.

It is fair and necessary to debate particular solutions to the millions of people without affordable health care and the millions more on the verge of being without it, but what is unethical and I would argue un-Christian is to argue against reform for partisan political gain or ideological allegiance. I believe people of faith should take as their starting position that reform needs to happen and then move on to debate how it should happen in a way that is humble, truthful and Christ-like. If God is going to judge any of us, God will judge all of us for refusing to love others enough to make sure all have quality health care.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why I Spoke Out at the Disciples General Assembly

(One of my seminary friends saw this picture and thought I had entered a spelling bee!)

In my last post (also printed in my church newsletter), I shared impressions about attending my first General Assembly--the national meeting of The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in the United States and Canada. I mentioned that I spoke during a business session in opposition to a resolution that would change how controversial issues were dealt with at the assembly. I didn't share many details in that post/column, because I realize that not that many people care about the inner workings of a shrinking mainline Protestant denomination, but I share it here on my blog for those few church members who are interested and for any who saw me speak at the assembly and wondered who the heck was that guy?

Before I offer my take on things, I would refer readers to two articles at DisciplesWorld's web site about this issue. The first (in which I'm quoted and the lovely picture above is included) describes the first day's discussion of the matter where there was an attempt to refer the resolution back to the General Board of the denomination for more work. The second article tells about the second day's discussion after the motion to refer failed and the eventual vote concerning the change in policy which did not get the required 2/3 majority--meaning it failed. This article also contains a quote from former FCC St. Joseph minister Charles Bayer.

Here's my take on things. . .

The Disciples of Christ is a denomination without a hierarchy--which means there is no pope, bishop, presbytery or synod which holds authority over the local congregation. The power in the Disciples flows from the bottom up rather than the top down. Each individual believer in the denomination can believe essentially as he/she wills with the understanding that they exist within a covenant (a sacred agreement or relationship) with their fellow believers not only in their local church but with their fellow Disciples around the world. This is a great idea in theory--and I'd have it no other way--but it poses some real difficulties in terms of cohesion and identity. How does a denomination of individual churches made up of individual believers speak to its culture and world? Is such speech even possible?

Since the Disciples reorganized in 1968 into a form that more closely resembles other denominations, the body has tried to speak on important issues of a particular time through resolutions at the General Assembly or national meeting. The resolutions on an issue--e.g. war/peace, civil rights, apartheid, the priorities of the church, etc.-pass or fail according to a simple majority vote of those eligible voters at the assembly. The resolutions can be proposed by churches or any of the various groups or agencies that are a part of the denomination. The resolutions which pass are non-binding upon churches or their members; in reality they represent only the majority will of those present at one of the General Assemblies. However, they do provide a way for the Disciples of Christ to actually hold a position on issues that matter and to work with like-minded denominations and faith groups on those particular issues.

There are a number of serious problems with this way of doing things:

1. handling difficult issues by a simple majority vote is a messy way of handling things and can be divisive;
2. if a resolution passes by 51%, can you really say that it represents the thought and practices of the denomination?
3. those outside the denomination take a resolution as the position of all Disciples which is rarely if ever the case;
4. there have been some real battles over particular resolutions and there are some longstanding wounds by both winners and losers;
5. the limited time for debate on the floor of the General Assembly does not allow for real dialogue and education between people on different sides of an issue.

Given these problems, you may wonder why I would propose changing this system? I'm all for changing it if someone will take the time to come up with a better alternative. What came before the General Assembly this year offered a solution to many of these weaknesses in the current system but it also created worse problems. I really believe the committee that drew up the proposed new way of doing things--Calls for Action--acted with the best of intentions and had some really good ideas, but they failed to see the weaknesses in their own proposal.

Now I would refer you to the proposal itself (business item 0925) and a supplementary document of Frequently Asked Questions.

At first read, the new proposal seemed like a good one to me. At second read, I felt like it could easily be misused. Instead of opening up more dialogue and debate on critical issues, these changes could be used to ensure that certain issues never make it to the General Assembly for dialogue and education in the first place. Some would call that a cynical perspective, but I call it a realistic one--however I might wish it otherwise. As pointed out by Charles Bayer (former FCC ST. Joe minister) on the comments section of the resolution page, we only need to look at how the denomination has handled issues of inclusion of GLBT persons. When that debate got too heavy, study committees and commissions were formed and no action was ever taken. The issue stalled and a group was effectively excluded. The really pressing issues of our times will always be controversial and there will always be some who would rather avoid them for the sake of preserving harmony and unity.

I've listed the problems with the current system of resolutions, but I should also mention its strengths. Thanks to resolutions the Disciples of Christ have spoken out in support of Civil Rights, in opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid and capital punishment, in favor of a civil debate over abortion and a rejection of any imposition of theological beliefs regarding the beginning of life upon others, and so on and so on. The votes were some times close and rarely more than 2/3 majorities--sometimes barely simple majorities--but in general Disciples have been on what I consider to be the right side of history when it comes to issues of peace and justice.

On the first night of the General Assembly, I attended an open meeting called "Justice Advocacy After Session: The Future of Prophetic Witness in Our Church." After hearing the concerns of people at that meeting and representatives from the Disciples Justice Action Network and the Disciples Peace Fellowship, I had made up my mind to oppose the changes. I spoke with several from that meeting who suggested that I speak in the business session and helped me clarify the points I would make. Here are the points I made in less than three minutes while standing at the microphone in Friday's business session:

1. I acknowledged that the current system of dealing with critical issues could stand some improvement and I acknowledged that there were good ideas in the proposed Calls for Action.
2. I stated that despite the need for change, the proposal had some serious flaws.
3. The first flaw is that the proposal centralizes too much power and authority in too few hands in an "un-Disciples-like" manner. The General Board decides what issues will be dealt with at a General Assembly and it becomes their product alone with no need to confer with the original authors of a resolution or proposal. Also, it is the Office of the General Minister and President alone that decides how issues will be dealt with and in what format, also the GMP is the first speaker on a subject and decides who will be the other speakers on it. There is time for Questions and Answers but no time for debate or presentation of alternative points of view--at least not explicitly mentioned in the proposal.
4. The language regarding what happens after a General Assembly if a Call for Action is affirmed speaks only to Disciples congregations and bodies. There is no mention of speaking to our culture, nation and world. At least with the current system of resolutions--however inadequate--there was a way for us to speak prophetically our understanding of the Gospel.
5. I reminded the group that we are the denomination that chose to take no stand on slavery because doing so might infringe upon congregational autonomy and individual belief, but we are also the denomination that spoke out in support of Civil Rights and against apartheid. I declared that our voice to the wider world is too important to risk over a flawed process.

Now, I should mention here what I did not have time to mention at the microphone. I like and respect Sharon Watkins, our current General Minister and President. I like a lot some of the stands she has taken--speaking out on health care reform is the most recent one. I believe she would act with integrity and I also think that the General Board as far as I know acts with integrity as well.

However. . . I think the temptation to choose unity over prophecy is great. I also think that it would be natural for even the best people to avoid a controversial subject--especially if large churches make threats to leave the denomination. I believe an issue that should be faced head-on because it is consistent with God's justice could easily be set aside for other less difficult issues.

Also. . . just because I like our denomination's current leadership does not mean I will respect or trust future leaders.

I really wish that a better proposal had come forward, one that allowed for more voices to be a part of the process and didn't provide such easy ways to duck, avoid or silence debate on important yet controversial issues. I long for a process whereby my denomination could ensure that anyone can bring forward a resolution on an issue that matters to them AND where there were opportunities for dialogue, education and debate at the national level. I think any process that does not allow the Disciples of Christ a way to speak to our culture, nation and world risks making us even more irrelevant than we already are.

If you've read this far, you have my thanks.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reflections on My First General Assembly

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

On Saturday, I returned from attending my first national meeting of our denomination, The General Assembly of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in the United States and Canada. As a relative newcomer to the denomination, I wondered going into the meeting if I would feel excited or cynical about its condition in 2009. Now that I’m back, I can safely say that I feel both excited and cynical about my new denomination.

First, here are my good impressions. On the program dais, speakers and musicians represented a broad variety of genders, ethnicities, ages and nationalities. It was a rainbow of skin colors and accents. I appreciated the effort made to be mostly inclusive of the diversity in our denomination (for an explanation of the “mostly” see below).

I heard some inspiring messages during the assembly. Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President (whom you may have seen preaching at the Presidential Prayer Service following President Obama’s inauguration) gave a moving sermon about our interconnectedness with fellow Christians around the world. She told of being present at a baby dedication in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and asked us, since that baby is not only a part of the Congolese church but also our church, what is our responsibility in regards to the poverty and oppression he and his family live in? Also, each day, Dr. Newell Williams, church history professor at Brite Divinity School, offered deep yet accessible insights on Disciples spirituality. He was so good that I bought the DVD’s of his presentations and will be showing them the next three Sundays in my 9:30 Sunday School class.

Another exciting aspect of my experience at the assembly was my interaction with other Disciples committed to the causes of peace and justice. It was a joy to meet with members of the Disciples Justice Action Network, Disciples Peace Fellowship and the Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples Alliance (G.L.A.D. Alliance). It was reassuring to me that there are committed groups of Disciples out there who are working to ensure that our denomination will be much more than a bunch of middle-class, wishy-washy Christians whose only distinction is they take communion each week.

A great step in the right direction in terms of social justice occurred on Saturday night when the Disciples Justice Action Network held a vigil for health care reform. (Read the local newspaper account.) I headed home on Saturday and hated to miss this exciting event. For me, this is exactly the kind of work the denomination should be doing.

Now, here are some reasons I feel a little cynical or perhaps better said: concerned, about our denomination. Although the program was obviously purposefully inclusive in terns of gender, race, age and ethnicity, when I looked around the convention hall, the crowd was mainly Caucasian people over retirement age. This is not a novel observation; Disciples have been making it for years. What concerns me is the question of what will we do to incorporate younger and more diverse members? (This should be a familiar concern to our own situation at First Christian.) I sense a strong temptation in some quarters to pull towards the center or even the right in terms of cultural politics and theology, and I believe such a move is absolutely the wrong one for our denomination. The young people I saw present at the assembly were greatly concerned about issues like war and peace, the environment, inclusion of GLBT Christians and a theology that is proactive rather than reactive. It remains to be seen if the diversity within our denomination will result in honest dialogue about issues that matter in our day or in a choice for mediocrity that speeds our decline.

I sensed an aversion to conflict at the Assembly which on the surface doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Conflict can be a good thing, however, when it generates new passion for the church’s mission and faces openly the tensions within a body of believers. As I mentioned, the program speakers were diverse in every way except in terms of sexuality. To my knowledge, there were no persons on the program who were openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered—at least none that chose to identify themselves as such, and only rarely were these Christians in our midst mentioned. Several General Assemblies ago, issues around sexuality led to a tumultuous meeting and subsequent study groups meant to address that conflict seem more like a way to avoid the subject rather than to face it with integrity. For me, the inclusion or GLBT Christians or lack thereof was symptomatic of a greater fear of facing the differences in our denomination.
I should also mention that even though it was my first General Assembly, I did speak during a business session in opposition to a change in how Disciples will deal with difficult issues. I won’t bore you with the details here, but I will share about it on my blog for any who care to find out more.

Overall, after attending the General Assembly, I feel more excited than cynical/concerned, but it will be interesting to see if the Disciples of Christ will choose to claim a prophetic role in our culture and world or choose a gradual slide into irrelevance.

Grace and Peace,