I recently spoke at a symposium sponsored by Healthcare for All – WNC (a local branch of Physicians for a National Health Program — PNHP.org). Along with four other faith leaders in Asheville, I spoke to the question of whether healthcare for all is a moral obligation. These were my remarks…
As a Christian theologian, I see our healthcare crisis as a crisis of communion. On Sunday mornings when my congregation sets the table for the Lord’s Supper, we set upon it loaves of bread, which we call the Body of Christ, and a cup, which we call the blood of Christ. We place the table in the center of the sanctuary because it signifies the center of our faith. Jesus tells us he gives us this bread, his body, “for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51), so it can be no stretch to say that health, wholeness, and abundant life are crucial aims of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Convinced of its life-giving power, we do not prevent anyone from sharing the meal. In this sense, the Lord’s Supper is healthcare for all.
But Christians, as we have a habit of doing, forgot this crucial meaning almost as soon as we started practicing it. St. Paul upbraids the church in Corinth when he discovers that some are devouring all the bread and chugging all the wine before everyone has a chance to partake. Those who lived in the city, close to the centers of wealth and power, would get to church before everyone else, and they’d gobble everything up. While those who lived on the outskirts and the countryside working long shifts, and who therefore got into town late, would find upon their arrival only crumbs and drunk people. “Do you despise the church of God,” Paul asks, “by humiliating those who have nothing?” (1 Cor. 11:22).
Paul then exposes the morbid results of their gluttony: “This is why many among you are weak and sick,” he says. “And a number of you have died” (1 Cor. 11:30).
I should say the contemporary problem Christians have in taking the Lord’s Supper today is not that we come to church finding only crumbs and drunks, but that we spiritualize this liturgical practice into oblivion. We domesticate it, and turn it into a memorial service for Jesus. “There, I remembered Jesus. Can we go home now?” So many Christians, when we could be part of healthcare solutions, end up perpetuating our problems by seeing no connection between our liturgical practices and our duty to our neighbors.
How should Christians’ participation in the Supper manifest itself in real solutions for healthcare in the United States? I believe there are 3 primary ways:
- The Supper teaches us that what kind of food we eat matters. One of the reasons so many of us are sick is because we eat, and are given to eat, bad food. Both government and private sectors heavily subsidize and advertise foods that contain too much sugar, salt, and fat. We regularly ingest traces of herbicides and pesticides, antibiotics, and other pollutants. When it’s impossible to escape carcinogens, it is no wonder that cancer is at epidemic levels. But the bread at our table is wholesome, full of healthy grains, protein, and carbohydrates. The cup from which we drink is full-bodied, nourishing, sweet without being saccharine. Though Baptists usually fill their cups with grape-juice, most Christians do use wine. (With Asheville’s new brunch bill, we might have some wiggle room). Author Frederick Buechner has even commended wine to the church as an “antiseptic,” essential to fighting infection. A central practice of the Christian life is setting the table with good, healthy, blessed food, grown and prepared by blessed hands. Christians can participate in improving the overall health of our nation by using the Lord’s Supper as our template for what Wendell Berry calls “eating responsibly.” We see a dramatic demonstration of this in the Lord’s Supper.
- The Supper also teaches us to share equal portions of life-giving sustenance with one another. If we’ve been truly shaped by the central practices of our faith, Christians cannot tolerate—we cannot imagine—justifying disparities in healthcare, whether by our own silence, or by the initiatives we support. Someone shaped by communion cannot fathom pursuing boutique healthcare that prolongs their life at the expense of the poor and of children. How many of us have grown weary of hearing the finer points of what the market will bear? Let someone tell us what the “market” can bear. And we will tell them what human beings can bear. The Lord’s Supper rightly administered trains us to see these vulgar chasms and humiliating disparities as offenses against the very Body of Christ.
- Finally, as I have reminded my congregation, when Christians share the Lord’s Supper, we are not only consuming the body and blood of Christ, we are even more consumed by it. Which means through communion we are made part of body of the one who refers to himself as “physician” (Luke 5:31). The body into which Christians are engrafted through the Lord’s Supper is the body of a physician, a most compelling reason for us not only to do no harm, but to pour ourselves into the work of ensuring everyone has the healthcare they need.
Do Christians have a moral obligation to seek healthcare for all? Inasmuch as we follow the Great Physician, the answer, in every physical, radical, practical, and social dimension, is…yes.