One might find it strange that a guy who spends his time writing and speaking about reconciliation is sticking his neck out on the volatile issue of health-care reform. The attitude of a reconciler, a peacemaker, would seem to be at odds with that of someone who is outspoken about political issues. But the more I understand reconciliation, especially the biblical principles behind the idea, the more I find myself unable to keep my opinions to myself.
In the end, I am not as concerned about whether health-care reform passes or fails as I am with how people who represent Christ to the world are thinking through and communicating what they believe.
It is because I care about the church and its ability to bring the Good News of reconciliation to this world that I feel compelled to offer, humbly I hope, a different perspective to today’s issues.
In the first installment of this three-part series, I wrote about the danger of the seemingly growing fear and hatred of government and how this viewpoint was pushing many to extremes. Again, I didn’t intend to imply that all those who believe in small and limited government are wrong or unspiritual.
What I was warning against is the hysterical fear of government that is based in a particular American worship of individualism that, at best, has nothing to do with the Bible and is perhaps even unbiblical at its core.
Lessons from Burundi
Sometimes we see ourselves better when we look at someone else.
I just got back from two weeks in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world. I was there to learn about reconciliation from this people trying to emerge from a civil war that ripped the nation apart between 1993 and 2005.
Essentially the same people as in neighboring Rwanda, the conflicts turned around longstanding tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi people groups.
I was halfway across the world from where I grew up in America, but as I listened to people talk about the problems and solutions of Burundi, I started to see some familiar themes.
I saw the power and amazing resilience of people when they decide to work together for the common good. Like in the States just after September 11, I witnessed many people who had realized that they were in their mess together and that they had to work together to make it better.
But I also saw the utter darkness and destructiveness of selfishness allowed to run its course.
There was very little grey. In this context you could see the end results of two opposing life philosophies. One built people and society up and valued human lives, the other made stepping stones of people, sometimes of their corpses.
I saw poor Burundians working harder than I’ve ever seen people work for pay that wouldn’t buy a bottle of pop in Paris or New York. But I saw these same people willing to share whatever they had with their extended family and other neighbors, and anyone else who might show up with a need.
I saw Burundians taking the little time they had away from work, organizing to help orphans of the war or of parents that had died of AIDS. I saw others working to create new businesses, not to get rich for themselves, but to create more job opportunities for people in the city.
But then I saw the palatial new homes of corrupt power brokers who, without shame, profit from and manipulate their position (in government, military, business or crime) to build their own personal kingdoms. Their new trophy homes are popping up everywhere in Burundi, sometimes just upwind of the simple and often dilapidated homes of some of the city’s poorest residents.
I heard from many sources that people are regularly killed for even mild criticism of certain powerful people or speaking out against this system of greed.
The Politics of Manipulation
These are the acts of the same power seekers who had earlier manipulated long-standing tensions between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu people groups in order to secure their political power base.
In order to deflect attention from their own misdeeds and profiteering, they told the people that there was an enemy to fear and to blame, that they needed to fight for their freedom from oppression on one side, or fight to protect their culture from destruction on the other.
For these self-centered leaders, no cost was too great. The end of having power justified the means: the loss of innocent life, the destruction of a nation, the worsening of already bleak social conditions of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen.
And the church — which should have been armed with the teaching of Jesus about loving one’s enemy, about turning the other cheek, about the evil of selfishness, and about judging others in the same way as you want to be judged — instead fell right into the system of manipulation.
Burundi churches failed to lead people to forgive the years of discrimination practiced there from the time of their German and Belgian colonial domination and then continued afterward by their own leaders.
The church also failed to lead those who had benefitted from the discriminatory system to repent of its basic principles, to reject the very idea that they were better than the others, or that they somehow deserved their position.
Rather than being an answer to the problem with this formula for reconciliation, churches were enticed by the power brokers’ promises to deliver for them. Unwittingly, perhaps, they served to pass along the demonic messages of hatred, fear, revenge and violence that led to the atrocities that have left a nation wounded.
I walked through the ruins that these messages left in their wake. I talked to the sons and daughters of the slaughtered. I saw them wipe their tears, some with a resolve to love and grow, others with a determination to avenge their loss.
Back To Us
And as I came back to the West and listened to our current political discourse, I couldn’t help but see it again. I saw powerful people who profit from the system as it is pushing all the right buttons.
“They are going to take your hard-earned money and give it to people who don’t deserve it; to illegal aliens.”
“They’re going to indoctrinate your children with socialist propaganda.”
“They’re going to kill your grandmother.”
“They are going to turn this nation to communism.”
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, a key motor behindon Washington, said earlier that health-care reform was “all about reparations.” Obama was using health care as a means to pay black people back for slavery and to right other social injustices.
If you saw images from the March you could see the messages have been driven home for many Americans. They are not talking about the specifics of how much money individual Americans are paying now for their health care compared to what reform could bring. They are talking about vague terms like “the loss of freedom.”
They are not thinking through the very real problems of health-care insurance companies cutting people’s coverage when they become too costly, even hiring detectives to find loopholes and errors in order to get rid of costly patients.
They are talking about “resisting socialism” and “taking back our country.”
What exactly do these things mean? It’s a little unclear. But many people are terrified. They are angry. And they are convinced that reforming health care is part of the “destruction of the America we know and love.”
Consider the Source
Where does this fear and anger come from?
I would argue that it is not a coincidence that just at the moment we as a nation were being led to look closely at the selfishness and profiteering that exists in the current health-care system — at the expense of people who are powerless and vulnerable — that a counter movement would rise up pushing those same powerless and vulnerable people to instead redirect their attention and fears at the man in the White House.
Some powerful lobby groups, like Freedom Works, Conservatives for Patient’s Rights, and with ties to the multibillion dollar health insurance industry in organizing and focusing the message to the masses.
From the beginning it was clear that the discussion would not be about what is wrong with health care. It would be about “the enemy that must be defeated.”
Some estimates state that the health-care industry is spending $1 million per day in the battle over health care, and that overallto pay for the health coverage of 30,000 Americans per year.
It has to be this way because, in the United States as in Burundi, selfish interests cannot do what they want without the electoral or military (the unstable democracy’s version of votes) force of the masses. And this is tricky to do when you actually do not represent the best interests of those masses.
How does a Burundian military strongman, making millions from his position of power, convince extremely poor people to allow him to justify living like a king and assassinating his opponents while they struggle to survive? He distracts them with talk of the enemy, chatter about their common heritage, and then whips them into action with talk of the eminent danger facing them all.
See how it works? Sound familiar?
Pick Your Poison
The signs of manipulation are fairly easy to detect. Usually, when you stand on the outside, you notice strange logic. When one listens to Hutus and Tutsis describe the basis of their distrust, it is hard to make sense of it.
In the same way, one can understand that there are good reasons not to trust government, but why then is it so easy to trust billion-dollar corporations and the politicians and lobbyists on their payroll? Personally, I would rather take my chances with elected and appointed officials whom we can oversee and remove through the ballot box than with profit-driven power brokers.
But when emotional and cultural buttons are pushed over and over, it is hard for people to reason this way.
In the United States, the buttons that work are:
• Hatred and fear of the government (keywords: Nazi, Constitution, communism)
• Any loss of one’s ability to be independent (keywords: liberty, freedom)
• Racial fears
• Redistribution of wealth (socialism, lazy, hard-earned)
• Takeover by the godless, which will lead to God taking away his special blessing on America
Pushing Christian Buttons
This is where many Christians are particularly vulnerable to manipulation.
Already convinced they are a persecuted minority group, many in the evangelical Christian community are naturally distrustful of anything that exists outside their church walls, and government in particular. Because their end-times beliefs speak of a popular figure misleading the masses, they also tend to distrust popular leaders.
And often, once you get an idea circulating among Christian and political conservatives, it becomes Gospel truth. Contradicting a silly e-mail about Obama’s birth certificate is nearly impossible if that e-mail was forwarded by a trusted conservative brother or sister.
Washington influence groups figured this out long ago. Check the sites of the groups organizing the anti-government movements and you will see a concerted effort to get common folk to start forwarding e-mails.
And when it comes to all things Obama, there is no shortage of material to forward.
Besides all the birth certificate stuff, the socialism stuff and the mails and videos about Obama being a closet Muslim and/or Black Nationalist, Christians have an even deeper reason to fear this man.
I recently receivedsuggesting (while including a disclaimer urging the listener come to his or her own conclusion) that Jesus may have told us all in code that Barack Obama is indeed the anti-Christ.
The style of the “teaching,” breaking down the original language to uncover hidden truths, will seem trustworthy to many Christians.
This and myriad other e-mails and videos about how health care will be used to promote everything that Christians are supposed to be against have flooded my inbox on a weekly basis. And I’m sure they come to me far less often than they do to my conservative brethren.
And so, many Christians who might normally be likely to approach politics in a humble, loving, Christ-like manner … Christians who would normally be led to balance their belief in balanced budgets with their Christian desire for fair play … Christians who would counter their fears of losing their place in society with a repentant desire to see justice for all people … many of these Christians instead line up in the camp crying hysterically against health-care reform, unwilling to even consider anything that comes from this wolf in sheep’s clothing of a president.
Some of them, sadly, hold up signs about Jesus while standing next to those carrying firearms to presidential events and holding signs speaking of bloodshed and rebellion.
Is this really an image that lines up with the teaching of Jesus?
As a reconciler, I can’t help but see something deeply troubling in all of this.
Christians who have a legitimate beef with health-care reform as it is currently being proposed have every right to oppose it. But all Christians — regardless of their political leaning — need to consider carefully the influences shaping their attitudes.
In Burundi, the church and the nation had to learn a bloody lesson from which they have not yet recovered. I pray the American church can lead the nation’s political discourse toward another destiny.
Related Article: Confronting Health-Care Hysteria, Part 1