From town hall shouting matches to million-dollar ads on the airwaves, the health care debate now finds itself in the public square, literally and technologically.
Every day another news release is sent out. Interest groups marshal the troops to blanket in-boxes with e-mail forwards. In the last speech of his time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have a prophetic application for today: “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
Recently, a collective of progressive religious leaders boldly went where no left-of-right Christians had gone before. They launched a national campaign, complete with a network of local ministers and leaders pleading the case before their own masses.
I have found myself personally embroiled in conversations on Facebook and elsewhere about the role of the government in health care reform. Four years of college, three years of seminary and seven years in parish ministry have yielded a panoply of opinions that run the spectrum of political positions and ideologies. The only unifying strand among those conversations has been the perpetual telling and retelling of the plight of people within our congregations who are without health care or who have somehow slipped through the coverage cracks of private insurers.
These tales epitomize the tragic: Patients have lingering mortgage-sized hospital bills. Individuals must pick and choose which prescriptions to buy. Families are torn apart by chronic illness and as-yet-undiagnosed diseases. While they differ greatly in person, age and situation, they represent a common need. Across any given congregation of 50 or more people, someone is struggling – perhaps even dying – and there is nothing to help them.
Tending to the sick, the widow and the orphan has always been first the task of the church, not the government. Yet democracy has advanced and denominations have divested themselves of hospitals and clinics. Partisan positions aside, the narrative of a people – lives affected on every level, across denomination, geography and socioeconomic standing – bear witness to a common cry within the church.
There are all sorts of questions to be raised regarding the voice of the church. For many, the pulpit has become a place to declare admiration for or ridicule of political positions and “agendas.” Just as James Dobson conceded defeat (sort of) in the culture wars, the IRS continued to investigate red and blue pulpits, policing for rhetoric that would threaten the as-yet-tax-exempt church. For others, there is a sense in which the voice of the church must always be prophetic, speaking not to individual politicians and policies, but to the structures that cripple human beings and institutionalize oppression.
For the average minister I know (including myself), both of these polarities cause some unease. We are captive first to the gospel and secondly to the congregation for whom we are parsing that gospel. The breadth of human experience–notwithstanding the political and social trappings–is enough to, with one word, incite some to ecstasy and allow others to smolder with contempt. It is a precarious pulpit.
And yet there must be a church voice.
It is in the church that human beings across race, socioeconomic standing, ballot boxes and school districts, the corner office and the welfare line gather to orient ourselves around a common purpose, learning to live and to love as Jesus, whom we call Christ.
It is in the church that stories are told and food is collected. Hats are passed and visitation schedules are set. Yards are mowed and children are watched.
It is in the church that we move beyond love of self and toward love for neighbor.
It is in the church that we realize our salvation is inextricably bound up in the salvation of those in our midst.
It is in the church that our conscience is pricked and our hearts are stirred.
It is in the church that we quit asking “What will happen to me?” and start asking “What will happen to them?”
The church of Jesus Christ is uniquely poised to tell its story, bearing witness to that which it has seen and heard about the way of Jesus and what that way has to say about how we live our lives here and now.
Where corporations speak only to those under their employ, the church must speak to and for those who find refuge within. The invitation is “for all who would, come.”
The voice of the church is to speak to the whole host of issues that plague the congregation whether they’re poor, marginalized and oppressed or affluent, successful and miserable.
We cannot maintain silence in the face of gross negligence. We have a responsibility to take on the hard work of caring for the least of these and to work diligently to repair that which is broken.
It is time for the voice of the church to be heard – lest the rocks and rock stars be the only ones crying out.