The Parables of Health-Care Reform for Urban FaithShould government be more or less involved in the lives of its citizens? Most of our political clashes stem from our different answers to this question. And when Christians get entangled in the debate, the conflict often gets translated into biblical terms.

I’ll be the first to admit that we had President Obama’s health-care reform bill dead and buried back in January when Republican Scott Brown sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party — and the White House — by winning the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.

But in the intervening weeks, President Obama, with major assists from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid, managed to keep his health-care agenda on life support just long enough to patch together a revised bill that, with Sunday’s 219-212 vote in the House and yesterday’s signing at the White House, are now law.

This was a historic, and absolutely necessary, win for President Obama. At the one-year mark, many were writing the epitaph for his first term and wondering why a presidency that began with such heady optimism seemed destined to take its place beside the one-term disappointment of another Democrat whose presidency blasted off with bright hope and promise only to come crashing to the ground four years later.

Now, for better or worse, health-care reform will go down as a central feature of Barack Obama’s legacy. Only time will tell if it’s for the good or bad.

One thing we do know, however, is that nothing much has changed in terms of the hyper-partisan tone in Washington, D.C. — and in our nation as a whole. Those who were against health-care reform are still against it, except now they’re even more ticked off. And those who were for the idea of reform (if not the actual bill that passed), are still for it.

And, sadly, the polarization and rancor in our society seems to now be at an all-time high, as Americans at both sides of the political spectrum freely label, vilify, and dehumanize the other side. (If you want to study the cruelty of human beings, just read the comments sections at any news or politics website.) In this atmosphere, there’s lots of shouting but very little listening.

In Congress on Sunday, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a key Democratic holdout on the health-care reform legislation, finally agreed to support the health-care bill after receiving assurance from President Obama that he would issue an executive order to further ensure there would be no federal funding for abortion. One Republican congressman yelled “baby killer” as the pro-life Stupak defended his decision to support the bill. Consequently, Stupak is now viewed as Public Enemy No. 1 among many conservatives and pro-life groups.

Then there were those “Tea Party” demonstrators who harassed various Democratic members of Congress outside the Capitol over the weekend. Protesters reportedly spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and shouted racially disparaging words at Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said the racially charged protests and insults represent a “festering sore” that dates back to when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “You lie” at President Obama during his health-care address to the joint session of Congress last September.

Beyond the morass of the abortion debate, which some believe is now settled with Obama’s executive order and others still argue is not resolved, a bigger point of contention remains. At the root of all this political discord is a fundamental disagreement over the role government. It’s an issue that has been explored many times here at UrbanFaith, and it’s really the central theme of politics in American history.

Should government be more or less involved in the lives of the citizens it serves? The traditional answer for conservatives and libertarians has been less involved, while liberals and progressive types believe government has an obligation to be more involved, especially when people are unable to provide for themselves.

The bulk of our political clashes stem from this philosophical difference of opinion.

Now, when Christians get entangled in these debates, as we invariably do, the conflict often gets translated into biblical terms. With health-care reform, in particular, the ideological divide is perhaps best imagined in the grand narratives of two familiar parables of Jesus: the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

In the Parable of the Talents, a wealthy man entrusts his money and care of his property to three servants of varying abilities. Two of the servants invest their money and double the amounts, while the third simply stashes his cash in a hole and earns nothing. Upon his return, the wealthy man rewards his two industrious servants accordingly but rebukes the unproductive servant and strips him of his money and privilege. Many conservative Christians, who believe in the Protestant Ethic and the efficacy of capitalism, see the message of this parable (perhaps with a dash of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders thrown in for good measure) as a guiding principle for how we will prosper if we work hard and invest wisely. For them, the current health-care reform plan is fiscally irresponsible and a violation of our personal freedom. The prospect of the long-term debt that they see as an inevitable consequence of a $940 billion government program is akin to squandering what has been entrusted to us and building our future on sand.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a Jewish man is mugged by violent thieves who beat him, strip him of his belongings, and leave him naked and half dead on the side of the road. Two of the man’s religious countrymen, a priest and a Levite, see him lying in the road dying but pass on the other side. Finally, a Samaritan man (whose people are generally despised by the Jews) stops, tends to the Jewish man’s wounds, and spends his own money to put the Jewish man up in a motel until he can regain his strength. Liberal and progressive Christians, who believe the living out of the gospel must be driven first and foremost by a commitment to social justice, see this parable as a model for how we are to care for the physical needs of those who are unable to care for themselves. These progressives might even quote Martin Luther King Jr., who said about this parable:

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But … the Good Samaritan reversed the question by asking himself: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ “

Once you get past the hyper-partisan worlds of perpetual political campaigns, talk radio, and the blogosphere, most people are able to see that real life is neither all Parable of the Talents nor all Parable of the Good Samaritan. In our everyday lives, a commitment to the values suggested in both of those parables can coexist in one person — or one movement.

It’s our responsibility as Christians to step up and show the world what it means to be both wise stewards who have the foresight to build our future on a firm foundation, as well as compassionate neighbors who choose not to walk on the other side of the street when we see a fellow human being is in need of our help.

Photo: Pete Souza, White House.

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