When It Comes to Universal Health Care, What Would Jesus Do?

I was having lunch with a friend last week and the conversation turned to one of my favorite topics: politics and religion.  The core message of the New Testament I said was that Jesus was a social justice warrior.  No, my friend, a good Catholic, corrected me, the core message is salvation through Jesus as savior.  I had to stop and think for a minute and realized I had framed my words inaccurately.  Yes, the core message is belief in Jesus as savior; “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John, 14:6).  This is the essence of Christianity and why it differs from all other religions; acceptance and belief in Jesus as savior in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

However, I was referring to one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry, which was social justice, such as an end to hunger, poverty, and intolerance.  He warned that wealth corrupts, and he condemned income inequality and repeatedly told the rich there was no place in heaven for them.  These were radical ideas in the year 33 BCE as much as they are in the year 2019.

Sickness and health are also among the reoccurring themes of Jesus’ ministry and in that regard, Jesus is presented as both a healer of the body and spirit.  The Gospel of Matthew notes that “Jesus went to every town and village. He taught in their meeting places and preached the good news about God’s kingdom.  Jesus also healed every kind of disease and sickness.” (9:35)  In that same book Jesus cures a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years.[1] (9:20-22)  And in the Gospel of John, Jesus smears mud over the eyes of a blind man and when the man washes the mud off, he can see (9:6-7)  In fact, Jesus’ ability to heal the sick preceded him, such that when he entered a town the people would gather not only to hear him preach but also to be healed of their infirmities.  

According to the Gospel of John, (11:38-44) Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, died and Lazarus’ sisters sent a message to Jesus making him aware of his friend’s death and rebuking him for not being there to heal Lazarus.  Jesus reassures Martha, Lazarus’s sister, that even though his friend has been dead and buried for four days, he will raise Lazarus from his death.  In doing so, Jesus declares one of the most fundamental principles of the Christian faith: “”I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  To which Martha replies: “Yes, Lord.  I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who has to come into the world.”  In this short sequence, Jesus affirms that he is the Son of God and has the power of life over death; life in the physical world and eternal life in the hereafter.

Life and death were no small matter two thousand years ago.  It’s estimated that between 250 and 300 million people were alive in Jesus’ time,[2] with 40 to 45 million living in areas controlled by the Roman Empire; that’s about the current population of the state of California.  More children died than survived into adulthood and many woman died in pregnancy and childbirth.  Diseases of all kinds proliferated, including those due to poor sanitation (cholera and dysentery), those transmitted by insects and rodents (malaria and plague), those caused by a lack of immunity, such as measles, and those related to aging, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.  And of course there was interpersonal violence, such as murder and warfare.  During the time of Jesus, Israel was in active rebellion against the Roman Empire.  In response, the Romans leveled entire villages and enslaved their populations and when revolutionaries were captured, they were crucified.

What we refer to as modern medicine only came into fruition about 150 years ago.  The first great improvement was immunization against smallpox.  In the 1860s and 1870s, Dr. Joseph Lister was among the first to incorporate antiseptic procedures into his medical practice greatly reducing infection.  About the same time Louis Pasteur was demonstrating that microscopic organisms were responsible for causing many infectious diseases and in the 1930s and 1940s antibiotics were development to treat and cure those diseases.  As a result, more people lived than died from disease and illness and live span increased significantly.

Of course, none of this information was available to physicians of Jesus’ period.  The prevailing belief was that illness was often a punishment from God.  “Treatment” came in the form of prayer, presenting a sacrifice in the temple, asking for forgiveness, and seeking the assistance of a faith healer.  This worked for many, but more often than not, did not cure lethal illnesses and diseases.  The Greeks and later the Romans believed that illness was caused when the four humors of the body – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – were out of balance.  This led to treatments such as the use of herbs and bloodletting and use of laxatives and emetics to cause someone to expel the bad bile.  Like religious interventions, these were sometimes successful, but often not.  Consequently, world population grew at a very, very slow pace, as survival rates were not much higher than mortality rates.

There’s no doubt about Jesus’ concern for the sick and the poor as exemplified by the many passages in the New Testament describing his acts of healing.  It’s important to use these two words together, because then as now, level of income influences an individual’s ability to access treatment.  In modern times, the poor are less likely to have health insurance and if they do have insurance, they’re less likely to be able to afford the copays and deductibles.  They are also more likely to experience poor nutrition, be the victim of crimes, live in unhealthy environments, have mental health problems, use drugs, and smoke.  In Jesus’ time, the poor would have experienced similar problems and if sick could not afford to pay the temple priests to pray for their recovery.  Thus almost all of the references of Jesus’ healing occur among the poor.  And, as I pointed out to my students, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he did not then hand Lazarus’ family a bill for his services.  Jesus healed because he could and because it was most needed by the “least of these.”

Would Jesus support universal health care?  Given what we know of his ministry it’s evident that he would for the poor and middle-class, but probably not for the rich as they can take care of themselves.  In fact, when describing who will benefit the most from his teachings, Jesus uses physicians as a metaphor: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:11-13) Thus, Jesus would be a strong supporter of Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP as well as government funding of local public health and mental health clinics.  And, given his concern about income inequality, Jesus would expect the rich to pay for the health care of the poor and middle-class, something that senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren advocate. 

This brings me back to my interest in religion and politics.  The Republican Party has taken the high ground in regard to religion, particularly Christianity.  Conservative Christians are much more likely to vote Republican believing that the policies of this political party reflect their personal values.  However, it is obvious, when it comes to health care, the Republican Party rejects Jesus’ ministry.  For example, in every state with a Republican majority legislature, they have refused to expand access to Medicaid to the working poor.  My state of Virginia finally passed Medicaid expansion only after Democrats won a majority in the house of delegates and with the help of a few Republicans got the legislation through the Senate.  Because he voted for Medicaid expansion, the Republican state senator representing my district was challenged by an alt-right Republican.  Although the challenger did not win the primary, it demonstrates how antagonistic Republicans are to government involvement in health care. 

At the federal level, Republicans have repeatedly tried to privatize Medicare, which would make health care unaffordable for millions of seniors, particularly those with low incomes who would be hard pressed to pay private insurance premiums, copays, and deductibles.  Republicans have attempted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, along with its provision for Medicaid expansion and assuring individuals with pre-existing conditions are guaranteed access to affordable insurance premiums.  We don’t know why the woman in the Gospel of Matthew bled for twelve years, but if Republicans had their way, it would be considered a pre-existing condition making it difficult to obtain health insurance.  As I write this article, a bipartisan bill to rein in drug costs for Medicare and Medicaid recipients is stalled due to Republican opposition.  And last year, the Republicans even held up funding for SCHIP.  These are hardly the actions of a political party claiming to be guided by the values and principles of Jesus’ ministry.  

I began by noting that a central theme of Jesus’ ministry is social justice.  However, in today’s political climate, I think the pundits on Fox News would call him a socialist or even communist and if not physically crucifying him, would verbally castigate him and call him an enemy of state.  Given the essence of his ministry, I think Jesus would be comfortable with that criticism.

[1] Many scholars believe the reference is to a woman who had some type of menstrual disorder.  This is significant because when women were experiencing their menstrual cycle, they were considered unclean.  Jesus allowed the woman to touch him, reflecting his compassion for the sick over religious taboos.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates

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