The other day I read this article over at the NY Times.
In it, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, along with his college roommate, Scott, tells the story of how Scott was diagnosed with prostate cancer. To give a quick and unfair summary (you should go read the piece yourself, if you haven’t), Scott quit his job, and to save money, he quit health insurance. He did not get annual physicals. He ignored early signs of a potentially serious problem. He finally got treatment when he spiked a fever and his health was obviously deteriorating. Scott had Stave IV prostate cancer, a diagnosis that likely could have been avoided if he had sought regular preventative care. (Prostate cancer, if caught early, is often something that men live with. It can be slowed and contained in many cases.)
So today, Scott is still uninsured, but is being treated for his cancer. His medical bills are in excess of half a million dollars right now, and he has qualified for charity care. The hospital is covering his expenses. Some doctors are intentionally not billing him. He is being taken care of.
Now, let’s be clear here. Scott made a stupid and irresponsible series of decisions. He could have afforded health insurance, but chose not to get it, due to the cost. Ditto for regular physicals. Ditto for getting early symptoms checked out. At ever step of the way, he made the decision that most benefited his short-term financial desires, without taking into consideration the very real financial (as well as physical) risks. He knows he made the wrong choices. He admits it. And he very well may pay with his life.
In the piece, Kristof asks whether we want to live in a country where a person’s mistake or irresponsible behavior lands him with a death sentence. He writes, “We all make mistakes, and a humane government tries to compensate for our misjudgments. That’s why highways have guardrails, why drivers must wear seat belts, why police officers pull over speeders, why we have fire codes. In other modern countries, Scott would have been insured, and his cancer would have been much more likely to be detected in time for effective treatment.”
The response to this article has been, not surprisingly, mixed. Some (lefties like me) say that this is the reason that we need affordable health care to be available to all people in the United States.
(Side note, Scott could have afforded insurance, and chose not to buy it. There are many Americans who are not so fortunate as to be able to afford insurance.)
Others (who are more right-leaning) claim that Scott is essentially getting what he deserves. He was irresponsible. He screwed up. Why should anyone else take responsibility for his irresponsibility? Particularly, why should government take responsibility for a person’s irresponsibility?
You reap what you sow, in other words.
Now, here’s the thing. Some of the people responding with the hard-line responsibility jargon are also those who are deeply committed Christians. I do not mean this in an ironic sense. They are compassionate in their private lives. They love God. They care for their neighbors. The believe and depend on the grace of Jesus Christ.
And they are undeserving of that grace.
“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:21-24
Most Christians believe, in one way or another, that they are ultimately dependent upon the grace of God. It is a grace that is given freely. We acknowledge that we are sinners, and that we are ultimately undeserving of the grace that is given.
Why, then, do we insist on personal responsibility when we are all recipients of grace of which we are fundamentally undeserving?
When I was in high school, the phrase WWJD became popular. “What would Jesus do?” became the popular question to ask. The answer was often some variation of “be nicer.” It was important to show compassion and love.
“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”” Matthew 19:21
Jesus sets up a prerequisite for those who would follow him. FIRST, you care for the poor. You sell ALL YOU HAVE and you give the money to the poor. You do not, presumably, ask why the poor are poor, or accuse them of laziness. You give them your money. THEN you follow Jesus.
I will say this. I have fallen short of this prerequisite. I have a lot of stuff. I make sure that I am taken care of before I give a buck to the homeless guy in the Kroger parking lot. Then, if I do give a buck, I usually assume that he is undeserving of that dollar, because he’ll probably spend it on booze.
I fall short all the time. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. And I am thankful for the grace of God. I know that forgiveness is a possibility for me, though I have done nothing in my own life that actually merits that forgiveness.
Why are we content to live in a country in which grace cannot be extended to those who live in it? The Lord’s prayer asks, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
We all have debts; whether they are spiritual, financial, or personal, they are there. And many of us count on pure grace for forgiveness. Because we know that we cannot possibly earn that grace. We are too far in debt.
The difference seems to be, in the case of much of the Christian Right, that grace and salvation can be extended to those in the great hereafter, but so long as we have flesh on our bones and blood in our veins, each of us is on his or her own.
When it comes to health insurance, or food stamps, or housing, or childcare, the Christian (and Corporate Capitalist) Right seems to forget the grace that is freely given and insist that everyone must take responsibility. No really. Live with the consequences of your choices, even if those consequences are death. The ideology that Mitt Romney is putting forth in his presidential campaign is the super individual. We are all responsible only for our own, individual actions and decisions. If someone makes a poor choice, so be it. Let him rot.
You know, treasure in heaven.
And if you don’t have health insurance, I guess you’ll cash in on that treasure a lot sooner than those of us who have made all of the right decisions.