Does Obamacare match with Biblical ethics? The Government shutdown may be a fitting time to reflect.

obama-ObamaCare-TimeDuring this U.S. Government shutdown, it may be an fitting for American Christians to consider how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, at the centre of the dispute, matches up with Biblical ethics. It seems that Biblical ethics may bring some clarity to the discussion. I write as an Australian, a resident of Canada and a reformed pastor/scholar.

At first sight there is much about the Act that is appealing: 20% of Americans currently uninsured (or who get insurance on the individual market) will be eligible for government subsidised health insurance-about 30million people. Yet the high cost of subsidising medical insurance has been sharply critiqued. Also it has been argued that placing rules and restrictions on the health insurance system leads to inefficiency—the free market lowers costs.

Tithe laws demonstrate some biblical principles concerning economics and the protection of the poor. Among Israel’s neighbours in the ancient Near East, a tithe of all agricultural produce was customarily paid as a tax for the benefit of the temple and its elite clergy and also the king. The tithe accumulated wealth for the privileged. The biblical book of Deuteronomy turns this custom on its head in two ways. First, instead of being taxed, the Israelite family consumed the tithe through feasting at the sanctuary—the stranger, orphan, widow and Levite joined in! Here is a wonderful image of generosity and inclusion: the Israelite family includes the underprivileged in their feasts—this would have been at great cost (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; 16:1-17; 26:1-11).  Indeed Old Testament Israel was to invite these people into the daily life of the extended family, sharing in farming and relationship—they became kin.

Second, every third year a tithe of agricultural produce was stored locally, for the benefit of the stranger, orphan widow and Levite (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This was a costly provision for the benefit of the disadvantaged.

Some biblical principles may be extrapolated here. First, all people, including the vulnerable, have the opportunity to benefit from the productivity of the land that God has given. Second, vulnerable people must be protected, even at a cost. Third, vulnerable people are included in society. Fourth, the potential for the elite to accumulate resources is seriously limited (see too the ‘law of the King, Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

These principles would seem to address the criticism that that medical insurance is too costly: Biblical ethics would seem to suggest that protection for the most vulnerable must be a budget priority. If the deficit is to be reduced it must be reduced by other means (I wonder if the tithe laws suggest that it is the wealthy who ought to bear this burden?).

Regarding the argument that restrictions create inefficiency, these biblical laws urge us not to lose sight of compassion for vulnerable people. Pursuing economic efficiency is an important aspect of Biblical stewardship. Yet no matter how efficient the insurance system, it remains that people without means rely on subsidy if they are to be insured. And it remains that poorer people are the most vulnerable to recalcitrant insurance companies—and are protected by a measure of restriction. The tithe laws call us to pursue a life of flourishing for vulnerable people in our midst.

I have found it useful to take time to consider how these issues affect real people. Here are two examples: Angela Graham, of Aurora Colorado, told the New York Times that she is ‘very interested in taking out a policy’. Angela’s job conducting telephone surveys does not provide her with health insurance. Angela says, ‘I don’t go to the doctor these days. I just pray.’

Mr Messinger is off work on disability payments and currently pays $500 each month for insurance. He says: “I’ve been waiting for this to kick in. Things have been incredibly tight.” Providing affordable health care for vulnerable people is clearly a pressing issue.

In conclusion I think it may be stated emphatically that Christians must think biblically rather than ideologically about this issue. Scripture, rather than political tradition, must be our guide. It seems clear that access to medical care is a key issue implicated in the suffering of those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder in America. Biblical ethics calls for a response of compassion and generosity and the Affordable Health Care Act is such a response. Biblical law has as its goal (at least in part) the flourishing of all, especially the most vulnerable. Christ has secured this flourishing in his resurrection, where new creation has begun. And when ‘shalom’ is embodied in the church and in society, Christ is honoured.

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About Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers in a missional urban community, Grandview Church, Vancouver. Mark is Professor of Old Testament and congregational studies at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (missionaltraining.org), and he teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored a book on Exodus (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles (including in the Journal of Biblical Literature, forthcoming) and chapters on the Pentateuch, mission, and refugee related issues, as well as numerous popular articles. Mark is presently co-authoring a book, "Providing Refuge: A Missional and Political Theology." Mark is regularly called upon to speak on in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. His previous career was as a jazz pianist in Sydney, Australia (Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly are his musical heroes).
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9 Responses to Does Obamacare match with Biblical ethics? The Government shutdown may be a fitting time to reflect.

  1. Byron Smith says:

    Thanks for this post. Helpful and brief.

    I also came across this post from a friend who just received his PhD for a thesis on Richard Hooker that you may enjoy.
    http://swordandploughshare.com/main-blog/2013/10/3/an-open-letter-from-richard-hooker-to-the-republican-party-of-the-united-states

    • It is an important point: the law has been passed. Bryon, I am convinced the idol of individualism that so characterises the American spirit that is at the heart of all this: It is an incursion upon individual freedom to tax one and give to the other. Since when? This ethos of individualism is a late invention of modernism and radically counter to the biblical vision of reconciled humanity in Christ.

  2. Steve says:

    However, ACA also funds abortions and forces Christian colleges and other church-related institutions, as well as individual Christians to fund abortion. ACA has medical rationing, waged against the elderly and the chronically-ill. ACA practices one-size fits-all medicine, contrary to the latest advances in precision medicine. ACA has an astronomical marriage penalty. ACA is fascist in nature, being a State-corporate bundling.

    Those are not Christian things.

  3. Chris Roe says:

    Amen! I’m just staggered by the callous selfishness of the opposition to healthcare. (Something Australia and Britain have enjoyed for decades without turning into communists or “fascists”) They seem more concerned with propping up an insurance industry that has been exploiting Americans for decades than they are with caring for “the least of these” which, according to Jesus in Matt 25:40 , is the basis for how we Christians will be judged.
    A global embarrassment.

  4. kjmoser says:

    I think the Parable of the Good Samaritan also fits in here. The religious who passed by the injured man probably could come up with some good arguments for why they should not help their fellow countryman. The Good Samaritan however, helped the stranger and payed out of his own pocket – Jesus finishes by telling us to “go and do likewise”.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to write this Mark. I’ll be sending it around to my American family and friends. However, I know they are going to respond with “but it funds Abortions!” the same as Steve above. I know it opens a huge can of worms, but how would you respond to this from a biblical ethics point of view?

    • Thank you all for these interesting and valuable comments. In reply to both Steven and Jen I would offer the following:

      First, America’s ideology of individual ‘freedom’ must be considered in light of scripture. The idea that each individual is to be free to work, succeed and accumulate resources must be examined carefully for the ways in which it reflects scripture and the ways in which it distorts scripture. On one hand we affirm both the importance of a person’s hard work and the right of each person to thrive and enjoy the goodness of the ‘land that God has given’. On the other hand we must question the incipient individualism lurking here. For the principle of an individual’s freedom to spend what he/she earns as he/she wishes may not be as moral as is often assumed. This idea is novel to western modernism, and indeed to *American* western modernism – it is far weaker in Britain, Australia and Canada and totally absent in many cultures today. Most importantly, it clashes with Biblical ethics. Biblical ethics may be summarized with these words of Craig Blomberg: ‘God owns it all and he wants everybody to be able to enjoy some of it’. This comment reflects the biblical theme that God has given the land and its abundance to all people, and all people must have the opportunity to benefit from it and to thrive (eg Deut 15:4,’There shall be no poor among you for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess’; Matt 5:42; Acts 4:34). This calls into questions the assumption of an individual’s right to ‘freedom’ to do what they wish with ‘their’ money. For it is not truly ‘theirs’ – it is God’s.

      Second Jen and Steve, this is good question about abortion. Let me make a few points:
      1. We affirm that abortion is a taking of human life and must be publicly and sternly resisted by the church (notwithstanding certain life-threatening circumstances etc).
      2. I feel deeply for and with any Christian who is obliged to finance abortion in any way. I add that this unfortunate state of affairs is present in the health care system in most western countries including Canada where I reside.
      3. The medical system as it stands includes a number of immoral agendas, including, but not exclusively, abortion. This does not mean that Christians must advocate for the wholesale end of medical care (in order to fix the immorality). We do not recommend the closure of hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, Government funding of medical services through our taxes etc. For we all rely upon such services. Rather, we advocate for just medical practices even as we continue to support and rely upon the medical system.
      4. In the same way I suggest that Christians ought to advocate for medical care for all people, especially the most vulnerable. As we do we realise that the system we participate in is compromised, and we continue to advocate for just medical systems – including on the issue of abortion.
      5. So we must pursue two goals at once: just health care practices that protect the unborn and just availability of health care.
      6. To throw out Obamacare on the issue of abortion is not in the end a fair or compassionate way to address the issue of abortion, for health care IS available for the rich – even with its moral compromises. There is a double standard here.
      7. Let me now sharpen the logic: Will Christians who *can* afford health care abandon the medical system and refuse to participate – because of its complicity in abortion? Will Christians who *can* afford health care nonetheless refuse hospital visits, medication, doctors, etc, in an all out attempt to stop abortion (which the medical system supports)? Or will Christians continue to participate in the system, while advocating for change? Or course Christians tend to choose the second option. Now then on what grounds does a Christian, who can afford health care for themselves, resist Obamacare? How can you justify caring for your own family, supporting abortion in the process, yet express indignation at society’s poorest receiving medical care on the basis that it supports abortion? It seems to me that this inconsistency discloses a dark and sinister selfishness at the heart of Western society – and dare I say it, at the heart of the church.
      8. If in the final analysis Christians cannot support Obamacare on the basis of abortion, then Christians must ferociously advocate for a robust alternative that offers excellent health care for vulnerable people. Sadly I do not see this happening.

      Finally I cannot express how deeply I long for American Christians to feel Christ’s compassion for the poorest among them. The mission of Christ hangs in the balance – Christ’s honour is at stake.

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