In the whirlwind of moving into a new house and getting everything organized for my family, I took a little break (again) from my blog. Other than perpetuating inconsistency with my posts, I don’t regret it. The funny thing is that during the week of my last post, the country was up-in-arms about North Carolina’s reinforced ban on gay marriage. In turn, I was compelled to write about the need for compassionate dialogue between the two sides, even though I really wanted to continue my reflections on the “inner workings” of salvation with a follow-up to The Gandhi Problem. Now, a month later, I set aside some time to blog again only to be faced with another issue that’s burning hotter – and dominating more front pages – than the actual wildfires raging in Colorado right now.
I’m going to skip any kind of overview of the issue; I think we’ve all seen enough Facebook statuses, Twitter feeds and Daily Show-esque commentaries to get the gist. Some of us may have even reached out to Google to help us understand the issue better. Besides, anyone who reads my blog often enough knows that the issue raging in the country or, more often, in Christendom, is never the actual issue I end up tackling on Wonderstuff. I started this blog six years ago to ask deeper questions and delve to greater depths of personal reflection. That doesn’t make me smarter – just more pretentious, only with an intentional commitment to humble examination. Take it or leave it.
So, here goes. I submit that the deeper issue that underlies the current debate over the constitutionality of the Supreme Court upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) – i.e. “Obamacare” – is the issue of personal freedom. That’s not a very profound statement, of course. Half the debates blazing in the comment threads of Facebook status updates have drilled deep enough to include the question of personal freedom. After all, laypersons can only quote and argue political jargon for so long, but all of us have some capacity for philosophy whether we know it or not.
For most people, personal freedom or freedom in general boils down to one main power: the ability to do what one wants when one wants to do it. Omitting punishment for murderers, rapists and other criminals, one of the great fears of our time is any person, group, government, or organization that infringes on our ability to choose for ourselves how our lives will unfold.
The current debate on “Obamacare” is mainly focused on two things. The first is the Supreme Court’s ruling that allows our government to force its citizens to “buy stuff,” something many feel is a dangerous precedent. The second specifically concerns the tax imposed on those who wish to forego health insurance, and the spending of such monies on disadvantaged people.
Health insurance is now being called a “product.” Something to be purchased, not wholly unlike a car, a toaster or a basket of mini muffins. Granted, I rarely treat it as such when I get sick or injured (usually at that time I treat it as more of an entitlement than a mere product), but the fact of the matter is that many people feel their personal freedom has been attacked. If the government is compelling (a better word than “forcing”) its citizens to purchase health insurance, it is therefore taking away our freedom to NOT purchase health insurance. Also, it’s taking some of our earned income and helping people who can’t afford health insurance be able to afford health insurance, thereby infringing on my right to not use personal resources to help other people.
All arguments about unfair taxation and unjust interpretation of the Constitution aside, many people have chosen to be mad about the precedent that this legislation allegedly sets. I’ve read some people’s comments that “never before has our government” asserted so much power over its citizens. Maybe that’s true, but I find such statements silly. When all is going well, most of us don’t care that a portion of our income goes to pay for the resources and salaries of law enforcement and firefighters. However, when we get stopped by a state trooper for doing “a mere six miles over the speed limit,” we become righteously indignant pretty fast.
Likewise, we celebrate stories of people helping out the disadvantaged - we’ll even give Sandra Bullock an Oscar for dying her hair and doing a ridiculous Southern accent – but suddenly the government wants to take some of our money to specifically help others obtain quality health care and we throw a tantrum like a pudgy four-year-old forced to share his Snickers bar with his little brother.
We don’t want our personal freedom tailored, edited, redacted or poked at. But we rarely think twice about complaining over someone else’s freely chosen act if it inconveniences us. If I don’t want health insurance, I shouldn’t have to buy it, and I also shouldn’t have to pay a tax if I don’t. Then I get hot and bothered at my own insurance company’s refusal to pay for something based on a “pre-existing condition.” I gripe about the need for justice that will put those greedy insurance fat cats in their place. Now, along comes a law that prevents my insurance company from refusing coverage based on a preexisting condition. Victory for me! But the same law has the gall to prevent me from sticking it to those companies by holding off on buying a policy until I get sick. What?!
It’s fair. Just not the kind of “fair” we like.
Christians are especially guilty of such double-speak. We cry foul at the audacious liberal agenda to take away our personal liberties, but we have no problem supporting legislation that will take away a woman’s right to abort her unborn child or a gay couple’s right to get married. Whether we agree with the act or the lifestyle or not, we are guilty of picking and choosing the kinds of personal liberties that should be acceptable.
The final point to make concerns what I believe is the most operative word of this debate, which I’ve already mentioned. The word compel. There are plenty of people who insist the government is ”forcing” us to do something – namely, buy a “product” – and that such legislation is a slippery slope that may very well end in a political landscape akin to something out of a Orwellian novel. That is simply not true. We are not being forced to do anything – only compelled, and for good reason. You don’t want health insurance, you need not buy any. Yes, you will be taxed, but that doesn’t take away your freedom not to buy health insurance. It’s just a consequence, and a lot of things have consequences.
Despite what every lead character in a war movie preaches to his troops since the iconic battlefield speech in Braveheart, freedom is not the perfect opposite of tyranny and oppression. It is not simply about getting to do what we want when and how we want. That’s not freedom at all. It’s anarchy. Chaos. In contrast, there are constraints to personal freedom. Despite so many self-professing Christians’ ignorance of it, Christianity’s concept of freedom is something much different. Specifically, our freedom to act compassionately is a choice made through compulsion – by the inspired command of Christ himself (John 13:34-35). It goes against our nature, but we do it because we have been called to live out of a different paradigm.
“But Bo,” you may say (or write in the comments section), “the government shouldn’t ‘compel’ people to be compassionate. That is the Church’s job.” You’re absolutely right. However, considering that we, the Church, are less restrained in the United States than in any other country in the world, let me ask one simple question: “How are we doing at the whole compassion thing?” The Book of Acts reminds us that, at least within its own community, the early Church had “no need among them” at all. And a large portion of Jesus’ ministry was spent meeting the physical needs of the poor and oppressed and rejected. The example is pretty clear, but as the world has grown, our ability to meet similar needs has not.
Now our government is providing a way for us to meet people’s needs in a particular way. Yes, it will cost us some money. Yes, it will seem like coercion. Yes, some of the people who will be helped have not made much effort to help themselves and may indeed leech off the system. Should that concern us? I don’t think so. Do you withhold the few bucks you planned to give the homeless man on the street because you have reason to believe he won’t actually buy food with it, but instead will head for the nearest liquor store? Doing so would be considered the “wise” thing to do, but it is a worldly wisdom that elevates money and choice above charity and compassion.
The government is compelling us to action. We can either see it as a dangerous injustice, or as an opportunity to provide for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) in ways the Church is not currently doing on a wide scale. It seems to me that the Church and the State just got a little bit closer…