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Karl Kuhn, an associate professor of religion, is entering his 11th year as a Lakeland faculty member. His second book, "The Heart of Biblical Narrative: Rediscovering Biblical Appeal to the Emotions," was published this spring by Fortress Press. In 2008, he authored "Having Words with God: The Bible as Sacred Dialogue."
The recent debate over health care has revealed at least two particularly troubling things about us as Americans. First, as a nation, we can only manage timid, faltering and begrudging steps when it comes to caring for the least among us. Second, we often fail to achieve even a basic level of civility and respect towards one another when we engage in contentious conversation.
To put it in simplest terms, our reluctance to assist the millions of our fellow Americans who lack sufficient access to health care is symptomatic, it seems to me, of insufficient compassion. When such reluctance to care is held and promoted by American Christians, it is also indicative of our tendency to separate the demands of our faith from economics and public life. The Old Testament prophets would have found both of these dispositions exceedingly problematic.
When many of us think about the biblical prophets, what likely comes to mind are a bunch of fire and brimstone kind of guys who announced God's imminent judgment condemning God's people for their idolatry and immorality. Indeed, idolatry is a concern of the prophets. But equally troubling to them, and a form of immorality on which they often focused, was the abuse of and disregard for the poor and disadvantaged. In their view, a lack of compassion for one another signaled a people whose hearts were far from God. Yet what the prophets targeted with their inspired invective was not simply callous negligence towards the needy by individuals, but a whole system of economy that perpetuated the exploitation of the underclass and consigned many to a desperate existence (see, e.g., Amos 2:6-7;5:10-12; 8:4-6; Micah 2:1-3; 7:3; Isa 5:8-23). The prophets claimed that those who nurtured these exploitative, uncompassionate, economic policies would find themselves on the wrong side of history. Their time and way of life would come crashing down into a heap of ruin, giving way to a new, more abundant future for the oppressed and all those who stood on the side of truth. Or, to put it in the words of Mary, speaking centuries later as she rejoiced in the new age arriving with the birth of her son,
"He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
Mary's son would go on to bear witness to a way of life filled with compassion, one that would lead those who lived it more deeply into God's own kingdom. At the heart of this way of life, at the heart of God's saving reign, was a ministry of love and care often manifested in acts of healing and prophetic speech against oppression. It thus comes as no surprise that among Jesus' final words to his disciples in Matthew's Gospel is his parable of the sheep and goats (25:31-46). Here, he instructs his followers "what you do for the least of these, you do also to me." You have a choice, Jesus tells them. You can live as most do—too timid and afraid and self-focused and greedy to reach out to those in need. Such as these belong to a world too diseased to survive much longer. Or you can live and serve as I did, and become part of a kingdom of life and blessing for all, and one that has no end.
To be sure, compassion for the disadvantaged does not automatically lead to a specific plan of action on how to address the health care crisis. Even the most caring among us will disagree over the best way forward, and faithful discernment may and sometimes should involve vigorous debate. However, it is a sign of our lack of maturity and respect for one another when our disagreement regarding health care descends into the kind of angry and hurtful (hateful?) rhetoric that has characterized much of our recent discussion. It was not without some irony that as the debate over healthcare reached a fevered pitch in early August, and scenes of tumultuous town hall meetings infected with spit-flying castigation were replayed by our media, that the following passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians was featured in the Revised Common Lectionary.
"So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph 4:25-5:2)
"Be imitators of God," Paul says, "as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us." Of all of the sources inspiring our perspectives on healthcare and our dialogue with one another, we might do well to turn to the witness of the prophets, the instruction of Paul, and, above all else, the example of Jesus. For him, the "least of these" matter. And our compassion for them and one another is a direct measure of the health of our collective, and individual, hearts.