A deacon from a prominent Baptist church in the Nashville area entered my hospital room one evening in March 2005. Wearing a mask, gloves and a gown, he said he wanted to pray for me.
I had acute leukemia. I had had rounds of chemo, a morphine drip, a cocktail of countless other drugs and a fever.
Having little tolerance for the banality of piety and the freedom of unleashed candor, I popped off: “I won’t let you pray for me.”
Then I told the bug-eyed deacon I would let him pray for me—under one condition. He and his church had to pray and to work for social justice related to the looming health care crisis in Tennessee, where some 300,000 people were at risk of finding themselves without health care coverage.
Uninsured Tennesseans deserved the same quality of care that I was receiving, I said, sharing that I was one of the wealthy Americans with good insurance and a community of support. Then, I asked him why he hadn’t written down what I had said on the pad he was holding. So, I repeated it. He appeared to take notes.
Within the next night or so, two more deacons from the same church entered my room with the same request to pray for me. I told them the same thing. Prayer was conditioned on a commitment to do justice on the health care front.
Two more deacons from the same church entered my room on a third night with the same request to pray for me. I repeated what I had said to the other deacons.
At that point, one of the deacons said he was there to pray for me and that I need not worry about Tennessee’s health care program for the poor. Lacking the energy to argue, I let him prattle piously.
Whether the deacons gave up or the nurses kept them out of my room, I don’t know. I never heard from them again.
These men cared about my health. They were faithful to the biblical admonition to visit the sick and to pray for those in need. But they seemed indifferent to another biblical imperative: seek justice.
American Christians do care deeply about the health of fellow church members and their friends. We pray in Sunday school for those facing health challenges. We pray in worship services for those who are sick. We pray at Wednesday night church suppers for those undergoing medical tests and treatments. We are concerned enough about health to pray.
Many of us are apparently not concerned enough to change a badly flawed health system. Prayer for the ill in American Christianity is cheap discipleship. It costs us nothing, absolutely nothing. When we pray, we turn over problems to God. That’s the right thing to do. That does not, however, free us from our moral responsibility to do justice.
Justice for the weak, the vulnerable and the stranger in the land is never heard at the anti-reform rallies, where the judgment of God is announced against reform-minded legislators.
The Blue-Dog Democrats, many of whom are from the Bible Belt, and Republicans who have claimed for 25 years that GOP stands for God’s Only Party, seldom, if ever, frame health care as a moral imperative. They are more concerned about monetary issues, not moral matters. They are defenders of private gain, not advocates of the public good.
As for people of faith, praying for the sick is an act of faithfulness. I attest to being the beneficiary of that faithfulness.
Nevertheless, faithfulness ought to lead to justice, a reformation of the badly flawed health care system, where insurance companies ration care and rack up huge profits, and where the uninsured suffer. Health care reform is an act of justice, a sign of faithfulness.
The Hebrew prophet Amos said that God wanted justice to flow through the land.
God wants justice to irrigate the land and has left it up to us to build the irrigation system. And we are way behind schedule.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. A shorter version of this editorial appeared on Tuesday on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page, where other faith panelists offered their views.