Disordered Love: What St. Augustine Would Say About the American Health Care Debate

St. Augustine IconThe recent health care debate has a lot of people up in arms…why not talk about that…

OK, so I don’t really want to talk about that. I want to talk about sin. But the health care debate is what has gotten me thinking about sin.

St. Augustine said that the problem with people isn’t that we want the wrong things. We want the right things in the wrong amount. Actually, he said we want the right things in the wrong order. More on that below.

I generally don’t have a problem with capitalism as an economic system. I love it that the drug makers and doctors who provide health care in this country get rich. I want the smartest and best people in the world to want to go into health care so that they can get rich too. Because if the smartest people go into health care, then we will have the best health care. And, if drug companies make lots of money when they invent a new drug, then they will have lots of motivation to research and design new drugs. These are both good things.

The problem is that capitalist economies have some limitations. Some things in the system require such a large commitment that the companies have no economic motivation to contribute. Roads are nice for companies, but not every company can build their own road where they need to go. The government takes care of that in our country. (Private tollways is a privately-controlled option.) If neither government nor private tollways did it, then companies would probably just figure out ways to transport goods across private property, preferably someone with fewer guns or fewer lawyers than you have.

Health care is similar. The economic motivation for providing for those who can pay is high. The economic motivation for providing for everyone is else is quite low. But, unlike roads, those of us who believe that people are made in the image of God claim that health care is a necessity.

Of course, if you ask someone they will rarely say that think people should just die of curable illness or suffer needlessly. But, if you threaten to add to their tax load to make sure that others can get health care, then their capitalist values come screaming forward. We have been more conditioned by our capitalist “get what you deserve” ethos than we have our Christian imperative to protect the dignity of those made in God’s image.

Never mind that many who can’t afford health care could never have earned the education or experience to get health care no matter how hard they worked. I am thirty years old and I have had health insurance no more than 6-8 years of my life. Both my parents worked when I was a child and I have worked two jobs most of my adulthood. I have insurance now, thank God. I never really got sick, thank God, or I wouldn’t have health insurance now either because I wouldn’t have been able to continue school to get the job that provided health insurance because I would have had to file bankruptcy.

What was I saying again? Oh yea, our capitalist “get what you deserve” ethos. I personally am not very excited about any of the possible proposals and I am not qualified to speak authoritatively on the matter. I have read enough to know that current proposals are nothing like socialism. I also know we can’t let it stay as it is.
(I wrote this post back in 2009, before the healthcare debate had resulted in a law being passed. I decided not to revise it because I would not say anything differently today. The law that was passed is only marginally better for the poor than our old system. It has created many problems for health care professionals. I suppose it is still better than our previous policies.)

But I am a theologian and ethicist and not primarily a politician or political analyst.

As a theologian, I simply want to ask: Why?

Why are so many people willing to defend their privilege to exorbitant wealth when others don’t have enough to eat or go to the doctor? (Let me be clear, I think exorbitant wealth is anything over about 50-60K/year in this country, unless you live in a major city where prices are through the roof. Before you comment here about how you really need to make more than that to live I need you to visit a developing country for just a few weeks.)

I really only want to deal with Christians. I know others can embrace selfishness and pride. But, I am generous enough to think that my Christian brothers and sisters really don’t want to embrace selfishness or ego-centrism, yet my Christian friends are certainly among those lambasting the current proposals on Facebook and elsewhere. But why?

I think it is sometimes because they believe the Republican party on other issues that really matter to them and then get caught up in the rest of the right-wing agenda without sufficient theological resources to think through the issues in a Christian way. That is the generous read….and I think it happens, a lot.

But my understanding of the doctrine of sin gives me another read. We just love our stuff too much. We love our comfy, 2500-sq-ft house. We like having a car that’s less than 4 years old. We like going on vacations where we can do high-excitement adventures rather than talk with our spouse. We just like our stuff.

And, I think Augustine would say, we should. We should enjoy those kinds of things. We should like being comfortable. But we shouldn’t love it more than people. We shouldn’t love a shiny car more than a hungry stomach.

Our love is out of order. Augustine summed up his whole definition of sin with the phrase disordered love.

We should love America, it is a good country as countries go. But we shouldn’t love it more than the Kingdom of God.

We should love our reliable transportation, it allows us many opportunities. But we shouldn’t love it more than the earth which we continue to plunder to keep our cars moving.

We should love good food, it is one of the greatest pleasures of life. But we shouldn’t love it more than basic food for our neighbors, both near and far.

We should love our 401K’s, they will keep us from suffering in our old age. But we shouldn’t love that security more than our neighbor who suffers today…

What would rightly-ordered love look like if just the Christian’s could get it right. Well, I think it would look like heaven. I’m not sure what that means for our national health care debate. But I think it looks like Revelation 21-22 in our eternal future:

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!

“He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

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