Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How Health Care is Our Moral Issue

Here's the sermon I gave on health care last Sunday (September 27, 2009). Please keep in mind if you weren't there that much of the passion is in the delivery. If you were there, the same thing goes.

In eight years I’ve been in ministry, there have been a handful of national issues that have seemed to me to demand a loud, clear, moral voice from the faith community. I felt the need to speak up about the violence and discrimination I saw against the Muslim community following September 11th, 2001. I felt the need to talk about and organize forums in opposition to our going to war in Iraq. I mourned the victims of and the seemingly overwhelming racism revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are all sorts of moral outrages, threats to the environment, racism, heterosexism, classism, and all sorts of other evils to confront in our society, but these national-level issues took a demanding center stage in their time, commanded my attention, and absorbed my thought for months. Now, the issue before us is health care reform.

And while I feel passionately also about the other issues I’ve talked about—war and peace, racism, and religious equality, the moral issues around health care reform are personal to me in a way the others are not. So it is difficult to preach about, because I not only care about it deeply and am angry on a sort of societal outrage level, I have personal anger about it that it hard to set aside. And I’m not entirely sure I want to. Striking the balance, though, is hard. It is by far harder to preach about the things that I am passionate and emotional and deeply tied to, than it is about issues I can stand back from and know that my moral clarity is unbiased by my personal desires.

My own feelings stem from two incidents. Many of you have heard these in more detail before, and some of you may have read them on my blog recently, so I’ll keep it somewhat brief. In 1993 I feel and broke my back, literally—my first lumbar vertebra. Right here. I feel it today. I feel it every day when I stand up here and preach in front of you. And I was uninsured, and I was working full-time for a healthcare company—Blue Care Network, an affiliated HMO of Blue Cross, Blue Shield. And I lost my job, I lost my apartment, and I spent years paying off my medical debt, even after government assistance. I saw exactly what still remains after the government steps in and pays hospital bills, and you still have doctor’s bills, ambulance bills, medications, and other things left to pay for.

The second incident is as I was moving here, and trying to find insurance that would cover me with a major pre-existing condition: a pregnancy. Only one insurance agency had to take me, Blue Cross, Blue Shield (my old nemesis). And they didn’t have to take my pre-existing condition of being pregnant, under most situations. It took several people working constantly on this situation for months to find me the loophole under which they had to cover my pregnancy. And thank goodness for them.

So that, in a nutshell, has made me pretty seriously personally frustrated with the insurance system in America. I believe it needs major reform. I believe that the system is terribly broken.
But the case I want to make to you isn’t about my personal experience. I have opinions about all these things, but this is not about a public option. This is not about socialism. This is not an argument for abortion services to be covered. This is not about whether or not there are death panels. This is not about economics and what our country can afford. This is not about rationing. This is not an argument about a single-payer system. This is not an argument about problems in the insurance industry. And I do have strong opinions about all these things, I say again. This is not about Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh. This is not a sermon about Republicans versus Democrats. This is not a sermon about House bills and Senate bills. This is not a sermon about racism against our president.

This is about a universal moral code. This is about the bottom line of what it means to be religious. This is about morality. What I want you to see is what is moral here. We’re talking about this because it’s a question of what is morally right. We’re talking about moral imperatives.

Now, there are a lot of differences people hold on what is a moral imperative. For example, I found one quote from Michael Hlinka, a CBC business columnist, wherein he says, “I’m not about to knock anyone for getting as much as they can. That’s something close to a moral imperative in my book.” (1) Perhaps most of us would disagree, and say that the drive to get what you want is not a moral imperative. On the other hand, there’s President Obama, who said, “We also need to provide Americans who can't afford health insurance more affordable options. That's an economic imperative, but it's also a moral imperative.” (2) Here, I happen to agree. I see affordable health insurance as a moral imperative for our country. Now, Obama actually goes on to explain the reasons it’s an economic imperative, but he doesn’t really explain why it’s a moral imperative. So that’s what I’d like to do today.

There are many sources of authority we could choose from, as Unitarian Universalists, to appeal to our moral consciousness. The Golden Rule exists in every religion—that which tells us to treat others with the type of care that we wish to be treated with ourselves. Turning to the Bible, one of the first stories we get is the story of Cain and Abel, wherein Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the reason why this piece of dialogue is such a famous line, the reason why it is repeated so many times is because of course, we are meant to understand that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. That is to say, we are told we should respect all people, and care for them like our brothers. Then, in the gospels, with Jesus, we get his teachings. I believe that the meaning of being Christian isn’t really about whether or not you believe Jesus was God, or whether or not he died on the cross, but whether you strive to live by his teachings, whether or not you choose to use Jesus and his message as a rubric for life. And Jesus said, of course, telling about the kingdom of God in Matthew 25 (KJV):
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
If you think, well, Jesus just talks about visiting sick people, think about the medical knowledge of the time. Visiting a sick person then was pretty risky—you didn’t know that you wouldn’t be contaminated and die. Jesus asks people to risk their lives to take care of the sick. That’s a whole lot more risky than anything we’re being asked today to do to care for the sick. And, of course, many of Jesus’ miracles have to do with healing, most famously raising Lazarus up from the dead, but in over twenty other accounts in the New Testament he heals the sick. If you look at all the miracles credited to Jesus, about 70 percent of them are healing, if you count groups of people being healed as one miracle. Now, I’m also counting raising the dead and exorcisms as healing. But this is basically all he does, other than turning water into wine one time and cursing a fig tree. Basically, this is what Jesus does during his life: he wanders around, gives lectures, and performs miracles. And the miracles he performs are almost always healing the sick. And the lectures he gives often talk about how we treat other people.

To be a Christian, you must follow Jesus’ teachings. And Jesus taught by his words and his actions, too. We can’t perform miracles, but we can do everything we can to heal the sick. And that includes giving them the access to medical care.

But, as I said, in every other religion, there is the Golden Rule. And every religion has stories which tell of the importance of healing the sick. We see in Buddhism, for example, that the entire religion is a response to suffering. Let me say that again: the entire religion is a response to suffering. The Buddha became the Buddha in response to the suffering he saw in the world. He was a prince, a man who himself had been protected. He had the Cadillac of health insurance of his day: his father kept anyone sick or dying from coming near his son. And then one day he goes out into the world and sees that not everybody has access to the life he leads, and he is overcome from this experience. And he looks for answers to this, and he comes up with what we know as Buddhism.

I think you can look at the story of these two great teachers, Jesus and Buddha, as a story of two men who understood at the deepest level their moral obligations to others, and that those moral obligations were to alleviate suffering however possible. Jesus does it with miracles. Buddha does it with giving us the wheel of the law. But we have equal moral obligation to the weight these two incredible men felt on their shoulders. We have a moral obligation to alleviate suffering. As religious people, we must look out into the world like Jesus and Buddha, and look for how we can alleviate suffering. And we can do it and must do it in this country. We don’t need miracles, we don’t have access to miraculous powers to heal the sick. But we can do a lot more than we’re doing now. We have amazing scientific knowledge that Jesus and Buddha didn’t have access to. We have amazing medical practitioners. We can and must, as religious people, choose to heal the sick.

If we are moral, religious people, we must live up to this greatest moral imperative, this greatest moral obligation. Jesus saw suffering, and he went out and did something about it. Buddha saw suffering and he went out and did something about it. And now we have people in this country who dare to say that they are Christian, and they believe that the problem with health care reform is that we might possibility provide health care to immigrants? What would Jesus say about that? Oh, sorry, you’re a Samaritan, not a Jew, and so I don’t think you should have access to my miracles? No health care for illegal immigrants, they say, and then turn around and say this is a Christian nation? As long as anyone is turned away from medical treatment, there is no way that this is a Christian nation. If you believe that being Christian means being good, we are failing miserably.

Now, I know not everyone here wants to consider this a Christian nation. Perhaps you don’t want to consider us a religious nation, either, because of separation of church and state. But I do want to consider us moral people. And if you are a Christian person, or a religious person, or a moral person, our obligation is to care for others, not just ourselves. That’s the essence of faith—this connection to something other than the selfish “I”, the individual ego, that our greedy society would otherwise hold as primary. And if we are a Christian country or a religious country or a moral country, we must show it in our actions of how we treat the poorest among us. And by saying it’s about how we treat them, yes I mean it’s how we treat them medically, as well. That is the essence of religion. If you have a connection to the divine, you have a connection to other people. And yet in this country we have people dying because they can’t afford treatments. We have people becoming homeless because they can’t pay their medical bills. We have people suffering because we horde health like it is a scarce resource. And we say we respect every person on the web of life in Unitarian Universalism, and we say in America everyone is created equal. And it is meaningless. This is an outrage. It is shameful. It is a failure of epic proportions.
If we are religious people, if we are American people, we have two choices: we can change this system, or we can live in shame, knowing that we saw the shining possibility of a truly great nation on a hill and we ran the other way out of selfishness, greed and fear.

I’m sorry if you want a nuanced approach today, full of openness and seeing all sides. I don’t see it that way. There is love, and then there is this, the system that we have. There is living our religion, and then there is this, the system that we have. There is God’s vision, and then there is the system that we have. And we have a choice. We choose the path of love, of living our religion, of God’s vision, or we choose the system that we have. There is no gray area to me. There is no time for a nuanced moderate approach. There are people dying out there. And we need to stop being the country that is killing them.

(1) Hlinka, Michael. “There must be a direct connection between CEO pay, performance.” CBC News. February 5, 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/money/moneytalks/2009/02/michael_hlinka_there_must_be_a.html

(2) Obama, Barack. “Should Security Guards Wear Bullet-Proof Vests?; President Obama Urges Health Care Changes.” CNN.June 11, 2009http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0906/11/cnr.05.html.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back to Health Care Reform: What is Insurance Anyway?

I've taken a couple weeks off from posting about health care reform, but this week I'm preaching on it, so it's very much on my mind. Of course, sermon writing and blog writing are two very different things, so I'm writing this in hopes that it will get some of the stuff I'm feeling out of the way and I can get down to writing a real sermon tomorrow. That will be focusing on the moral issues of health care reform--our moral obligation as a society in how we deal with suffering, for example.

So today, you get how I really feel about insurance. I got in an argument with a friend recently about what the purpose of insurance is/should be. I think maybe she was arguing what it is, and I was arguing what it should be.

Essentially, what I believe insurance should be is it should be a capitalist system wherein we essentially socialize a system--we spread costs that would be unbearable for any individual person across a whole group. We collect insurance premiums in order to pay for those costs. Then, when the unbearable cost strikes you, you use your insurance.

What insurance is, in our country, is a company that works as best as it can to collect your money and give you nothing in return. This is true for every type of insurance, but particularly true for health care, and particularly egregious, since this impacts not just wealth but life itself.

The first problem with all insurance is that if you use it, your rates go up.

So, take for example automobile insurance. Anyone reading this ever decide not to report a legitimate claim for a small item because it might affect your rate? The idea that actually needing your insurance then moves your costs upwards, for any kind of insurance, is a negation of what insurance should really be about, in my definition of insurance.

The second problem with all insurance is that if you've needed it in the past, they will either deny you insurance or charge really high rates.

The third problem with insurance is that if you look like you're likely to need it, your rates will go up.

Back to automobile insurance, this means that if you have a long commute, a car that's too old or too new or too pricey, or if you are under a certain age or over a certain age, or if your car is red, or if you have any number of variables that make you more risky, you will pay more.

It's bad enough when it's your car insurance, or your housing insurance, or your life insurance, but when it's your health insurance, it takes a major toll.

The fourth problem with insurance is that the insurance company will try and limit what they could possibly have to cover as much as possible.

So, if it's housing insurance, this means if you're in an area that floods, they will not cover floods. If you are in an area that is high crime, it will not cover break-ins. As much as possible, they want to avoid covering anything that could be considered "an act of God," or anything that could be considered your own fault. What does that leave? As far as the insurance companies are concerned, hopefully nothing.

The fifth problem with insurance is that there's often not enough competition.

So for health insurance, for example, only one company in Michigan was required to provide me with health insurance--Blue Cross Blue Shield. And therefore they had no competition for my money, and I had to take whatever terms and costs they offered.

Calling this a health care crisis in our country isn't really accurate--it's a health insurance crisis. Our health insurance system no longer does what we need it to do. It's broken. It always was broken, because it was the wrong answer to the problem, but the cracks in it have gotten wider.

The reason why it is so broken? Greed. I firmly believe that the bottom line in health care insurance is a financial bottom line--how can we make the most money? What we need is a moral and ethical and compassionate bottom line--how can we help people the most?

Even calling this a health insurance crisis isn't accurate enough, perhaps. It's a compassion crisis.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More on Atheism, Agnosticism, and Humanism, and the Nature of God

First, some general definitions.
Atheist: Someone who does not believe in God. There are many distinctions you can make among atheist--strong, weak, implicit, explicit, practical, theological--but the two major ones are strong atheism vs. weak atheism. A strong Atheist believes that it is certain and clear that there is no God. A weak Atheist does not believe in God, but doesn't assert the lack of God--it could be said to include all forms of non-theists.

Non-theist: Someone who does not assert a belief in God. I would include Agnostics, Atheists, most Buddhists, and many others in this group. Some would argue any non-theist is an atheist. I generally reserve the term "Atheist" for the group that is really strong Atheists, and use "non-theists" as the catch-all term.

Agnostic: Someone who does not know whether or not God exists. Again, can be divided into many categories, the main ones being strong or weak. A weak Agnostic does not know if there is a God, but may feel that they are still weighing evidence or will receive more evidence. A strong Agnostic believes that ultimately it's unknowable whether or not God exists.

Humanist: Humanism has meant many things, but right now I'll borrow a definition from the Continuum of Humanist Education: "Humanism is a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion." A major distinction I would make among Humanists is religious Humanists and secular Humanists. Secular Humanists would assert that Humanism is a philosophy and has nothing to do with religion. Religious Humanists can see Humanism as a religion, albeit one that does not require a belief in God. It is also possible to believe in God and be a Humanist, I would assert. If you follow a "godless philosophy based on reason and compassion" that does not mean you cannot believe in God. Theistic Humanists may be rare, but they exist.

And a Note on Capitalization: Many Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists would not capitalize these words, and many do not capitalize God. I choose to capitalize God except when I am specifically pointing out that there are a number of different gods that have been believed in by different cultures. It is important to recognize that Atheists don't believe in any god, however, not just the Judeo-Christian God. I choose to capitalize here, although I'm often inconsistent, the terms Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist out of a measure of respect for them as religious or areligious systems. That is certainly arguable, and I imagine it will be argued. I support you who do not capitalize in your lack of capitals. I choose to differ.
I put myself in the category of Agnostic and would call it a meta-strong Agnosticism: I believe it's currently unknowable whether or not it is unknowable whether or not God exists. And I'm a Religious Humanist. I once preached a controversial sermon in my internship congregation called "A Humanist's Search for God," and was told by some Humanists that a Humanist can't search for God. (I would call them church-going Secular Humanists, which seems like an oxymoron, yet I've encountered many in Unitarian Universalist churches.)

As an Agnostic, however, I have some very clear ideas of what kind of god is possible, and what kind is not. And I have an absolute faith in this, and it's definitely a faith, because it's based on my passion, not on reason, if you want to make a distinction between faith and reason, although I reject such distinctions. We are a reasonable faith, in Unitarian Universalism. Our faith is grounded in reason.

But my faith in what kinds of god is impossible is not based in reason, although I'm sure that a reasonable argument for my atheism towards certain gods could be based in reason.

Here goes:

If there is a God...
  • God does not choose the victor in football games.
  • God does not choose sides in human wars.
  • God does not save some people from disease while letting others die.
  • God does not "bless America" or any other country.
  • God does not send floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters to punish people.
  • God does not create diseases to punish people.
  • God does not appear to some people and not others.
  • God does not damn people for their sexual orientation or gender.
  • God does not damn anyone.
  • God does not demand belief in God.
I would say I am atheistic towards those gods. And like all atheism, in my opinion (here's the fighting words), this is based on a passionate belief that goes beyond reason. My heart and soul reject the idea that there could be a God who answers some people's prayers for life and health and not others, because I want to believe that if there is a God, God is good, and this would not match my definition of good.

No, I do not believe in the healing power of prayer. I have heard people say that I do not pray or will not pray with people. This is not true. I do it all the time. I just don't do the "God, please heal so-and-so" type of prayer. And when I am asked to pray for people, which I will do, I do not pray for God to heal them. I pray for them. I pray (which is to say voice my hope, directed to a possible God) that they find the love or the strength or the compassion they need, in themselves and in their support networks. I voice what we are grateful for, or what needs are. To me that is prayer. And that is about as far as prayer can go, in my opinion. It can give voice to things, name things. That's about it. If you hear me give the prayer at a dinner at church, you'll hear something like, "Spirit of Life, we remember... (insert negative things that are relevant--poverty, hunger, etc.), and we are grateful for... (insert food, company, program, other noteworthy positive things). Blessed be and Amen." Pastoral prayers in situations like the hospital often take a similar structure.

Okay, you say, but aren't you doing a blessing of the animals this week? Why yes. One definition of "bless" means to "hallow or consecrate." I believe all creatures are holy (inherently good and worthy of love), and so blessing something is simply a naming of its holiness. And it is possible that there is a God of love who loves all creatures, and so blessing them is a naming of that possible fact in ritual.

Which brings me to the type of God I believe possible. The God I believe could be possible would be a God that, if God is a sentient being, cares for and loves all people equally, and with a perfect love that, ultimately, saves everyone. More likely God is something more like love, or positive energy, or the greater sum of all the parts of the universe, or something we create together in the work of love and justice. It's quite possible that humans do create God, and that God isn't fully created yet. Those kinds of God are possible, to me. I find it impossible to rule out the possibility of any sort of God. Yes, the world can be explained without it, but that doesn't prove the negation of it, or the lack of possibility that there is something more.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Evangelical Atheism

I had an experience I've never had before this weekend. I was walking with friends in downtown Royal Oak, MI, and we passed a group of people on the street corner handing out literature. It was a group coordinated by Grassroots Atheism consisting of members of Detroit Atheists and Mid-Michigan Atheists & Humanists. Apparently they're also creating a documentary, because they were also filming. I have to say, they were polite and non-obtrusive. I didn't see them starting arguments or bothering people, just handing brochures as people passed. However, it reminded me of the end of this video (warning: strong language & intent to offend. The part I'm referring to comes about 2:52 in).

I'm not condoning the guy's rant against Mormonism, but I think the idea of Atheists going door-to-door, or even standing on the corner in Royal Oak passing out literature is pretty funny. But, at the same time as I see the humor in it, and I see where people get really irritated, as the author of that video did, at people coming to their homes to talk about their faith, sometimes I think as Unitarian Universalists we should be willing to go a little bit further than we do in sharing our own faith. Maybe not door-to-door, but let's not continue to be the best kept secret in town, eh?

*A note to readers of the blog on Facebook: Videos from this blog do not, unfortunately, come with the blog post when it feeds into facebook. To view them, you'll need to go to the blog post itself at http://revcyn.blogspot.com or, in this case, YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dW-bt_1LzY.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Freedom From Religion

Lest anyone miss it, the editor of the UU World has responded thoughtfully to the hubbub about the Freedom From Religion Foundation's advertisement in the UU World here. To see some of the other opinions, follow the links from the "Interdependent Web" to various blogs and their comments. I think UU World Business Manager Scott Ulrich's words strike just the right balance. Bravo!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Are We Really About Freedom From Religion?

There's some flap being generated about an advertisement from the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" in the latest issue of the UU World. I know some people have said that they've written letters to the editor, so I imagine you'll be seeing some in your next issue. At first I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I think I get mailings from FFRF at the church, addressed to a previous minister. I've seen their webpage, at least. From what I've seen, it seems like their major purpose is to promote separation of church and state, which is a cause that UUs generally believed in. Yes, the organization is unforunately named, and the name makes me wince. I have that same reaction every time "Imagine" by John Lennon is sung in a UU church, something I've witnessed more times than I care to count ("And shouldn't it be 'there are no countries'?" the English teacher in me asks.):
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Yes, folks, WE ARE A RELIGION. And I am tired of UUs glorifying the notion of no religion at church. Yes, I like the song, too, and you all sing it beautifully, but it's time to own up to the fact that we are a religion. But just as I "let" the song be sung in church, I was not ready to write a protest letter about the ad in the UU World.

Then I opened up the UU World as it arrived today. Oh. Now I get it.

The advertisement appears on the inside of the front cover. It's the first thing that you see when you open the magazine, and it's a full-page ad. It says "Are you looking for a sign? How about a bus sign? Definitely not a sign from above." This is mixed with six images of their bus sign campaign*:

It then has information on how what their agency is, "a 501(c)(3) non-prophet [sic] association of atheists and agnostics working since 1978 to keep state and church separate," and some information about where to get more information, and a membership form.

I am a humanist and an agnostic, but I could choose to talk about this as an example of the "New Atheism" which I have preached against. While this is an example of the sort of atheism which is a fundamentalist atheism intolerant of theism and theists (i.e. comparing a belief in God to nursery tales), and which, as such, I believe has no place in our churches where we embrace our theological diversity, this is not even what I find the most egregious about this advertisement and it's placement in our magazine. (And I do like Katharine Hepburn's statement a lot better among these bus signs--it's an "I statement" with a positive message about what we can do, despite their choosing to emphasize the first part of the statement over the second.)

The problem is that impact of this advertisement is that you open up our denomination's major publication, and what you see first is an advertisement that seems to be saying, "What are you doing being a Unitarian Universalist? We'd like to free you from that." It really does, after all, come down to the name of their organization, the comparing of religion to slavery, and the "non-prophet" quip. This flies in the face of our new UUA President's words, seven pages later, which say:
The message of the election is clear: We Unitarian Universalists want our movement to change. We want to embrace the possibilities inherent in these uncertain times. We are not reconciled to being a declining part of American religious life. We have too much to offer. The world needs our prophetic and compassionate voice.
If we have a prophetic voice to share, if there's a purpose to being Unitarian Universalists, and we want to grow our faith, what are we doing putting an advertisement in the very front of our magazine that mocks exactly what Peter Morales is calling us to? Why do we begin by cutting ourselves down before we can even hear his words of prophecy and power? Advertising money? It's not a good enough reason to cut down our message so effectively.

*A note to readers of the blog on Facebook: Images and videos from this blog do not, Funfortunately, come with the blog post when it feeds into facebook. To view them, you'll need to go to the blog post itself at http://revcyn.blogspot.com. In this case, you can also go to FFRF's images at http://ffrf.org/news/2009/madison_buscampaign.php.