On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.

 

 

United Healthcare Pulls Out of Georgia – Thoughts on Health Care

United Healthcare is pulling out of the federal exchange in Georgia for 2017. You’ll see headlines about how this means Obamacare is on its last legs, or showing how overbearing progressive policies are bad for consumers. Healthinsurance.org has an article about the Georgia exchanges that has a bit more perspective. I would like to point out a few things about what this actually means in my opinion.

First, Georgia doesn’t have an exchange of its own. It opted to use the federal exchange provided for the states that refused to accept them. What’s more, Georgia actively created laws to prevent the creation of state-run marketplaces and make it harder for navigators to help people get coverage. In Georgia, a navigator must pass the same exam as insurance agents in order to be able to give advice to potential subscribers.

Second, according to this article, United Healthcare had less than 1K individual subscribers in Georgia, with most of their subscribers being in group plans. As such, it strikes me as disingenuous of United to paint their problem as being a gross profitability issue caused by ACA policy when in fact it probably was simply inconvenient for them to operate on such a small scale in the state. It is worth noting that their subsidiary Harken Health has signed up over 30,000 members in Atlanta and Chicago and will continue to remain on the exchanges. (Disclosure: I am subscribed to Harken and so far have been moderately satisfied with the insurance part and ecstatic about the primary and preventative care part).

Georgia has also opted out of Medicaid expansion, passing on billions in federal funding that would have created lucrative medical jobs and leaving nearly 300,000 Georgians earning too much to qualify for federal Medicaid, but too little to afford unsubsidized premiums. The principled stand is supposed to be that the program will ultimately cost Georgia too much money, but the data so far has not pointed to that. Instead, Georgia has opted to send federal tax dollars from their residents to provide health care to people in other states that did accept Medicaid expansion.

I find it interesting that the same politicians that favor deregulation and competition turn a blind eye to the mergers of the largest health care companies and pass red tape legislation to make it harder for an existing federal program to be successful. I have also not yet seen a credible alternative to ACA presented that would address the pre-ACA issues insurance companies had with refusing to pay for care and rapidly escalating premiums. What, then, is really motivating such staunch resistance to the simple question of how to get more people health insurance?

There’s an increasingly libertarian bent to arguments I hear from my conservative friends about the way things should be. The government is always bad at everything, and wants to take away your freedom at the point of a gun. Private companies have your best interests at heart because they’ll be motivated by a desire for profit and good reputation, and efficient markets will sweep away those that cannot provide the quality of service required for both. It is the responsibility of individuals to make optimal choices and protect themselves at all times, and the market can hold companies responsible for business done in bad faith.

This vision of how the world should work is attractive, especially if you believe that you are extraordinary. As much as I find libertarian ideals attractive, I find that when they hit the ground, there are some issues. Markets are great at what they do, but markets require open information. The American health care system is profoundly lacking in that, with dozens of prices for every item and procedure used, depending on who is ordering it and how it will be paid for. Try asking a provider how much anything costs. They couldn’t tell you if they wanted to, but most will answer, “I have no idea”.

Beyond the fact that the health care market is currently opaque, the myth of halcyon days of quality care before ACA took effect is false. Insurers were free to deny coverage to people due to diagnoses, culling the expensive cases and keeping the cheap ones, and there was no provider of last resort in most places. I was personally affected by this and had loved ones go without coverage for years until ACA took effect. I also paid for my own insurance out of pocket as an individual from 2003 to today, and I watched prices climb even faster than people complain about today. When the first ACA provisions took effect, my premium was cut by more than 50%.

At a deeper level, non-aggression and altruism are not natural human states, though it can be cultivated and encouraged in culture. I don’t think that removal of regulations automatically leads to Mad Max. However, given how companies try to take advantage of individuals as much as they can now even in the face of regulation and protection, I don’t see how removing regulations and protections would lead to less fraud. I also don’t believe that I’m so good at discernment and so popular or good at marketing that I could determine fraud, stop patronizing a business, and get enough others to do the same to shut a bad business down. Even if I dodge the bullet, someone else gets hit.

A more libertarian framework could work if people got serious about introducing competition enhancing measures along with the measures to unfetter corporations from regulations and limitations. We could use modern technology and new data aggregation and processing techniques to distribute more information in real time, keep everything visible and above board, keep private businesses a bit more honest. Frankly though, I’m busy enough trying to manage everything else in my life, and I don’t want to have to become an expert in health care administration and analysis just to go have my cough seen about.

Conservative politicians talk a libertarian game but are only interested in freeing corporations’ hands, assuming that in their benevolent interest in profit, they’ll do what’s best for consumers, and let the benefits trickle or rain down from the top. Until we can couple that with digestible, accessible information, and a media more interested in corruption than sensation, the net effect of deregulation will be continued massive profits for an oligopoly of companies and worse outcomes for consumers.

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.

Awakening to Gender Privilege

A few things have been happening lately, from Hillary being called out for her shouting while Bernie screams continuously, to people scheduling a multi-city rape advocacy parade in freaking 2016, to an ongoing cavalcade of foolishness regarding women and every damn thing that they do. I watch all this go on, and I just start to feel like:
8tllwmw
Race has been an issue for about 400-500 years. Gender has been an issue for at least a few thousand in most parts of the world. It’s so much more deeply rooted that it feels natural in a way race never quite does. To be honest, there is a biological component. Men and women are built differently, and process the world differently. Men and women also need each other in a way that two random people from different parts of the Earth don’t. I’m not an advocate for an equality that doesn’t recognize our differences, any more than I am an advocate for a racial equality that doesn’t recognize and allow for cultural diversity. But I am not an advocate for a system that has women as lesser either, or doesn’t allow for individual women to break a pattern that doesn’t make sense for them.
Historically, I would have described myself as pro-women, and that was mostly true. I didn’t believe in restricting women’s freedoms. I thought their underrepresentation in positions of power was wrong. I also would say I was aware that being a male conferred me certain advantages in our society. I wasn’t blind to the notion of privilege; on the contrary, I used it to better help me understand what it might be like to be on the upside of racial privilege.
But was I anti-sexism? When I saw weirdly sexy ads for hamburgers, did I roll my eyes or give a Beavis and Butthead chuckle? When an attractive woman walked by at work, did I remind myself that she was a colleague, client, or hell, supervisor, or did I just check her out? And in the latter case, how did that affect how I dealt with her in business?
I think about this more now that I’m older and differentially wiser. If I’m mentoring or leading a woman that I’m attracted to, even though I’m happily married and have no intentions of making anything of it, how can I do my job effectively? I have to take extra precautions to ensure fairness. I have to watch my mouth around my peers, and call my peers out in a way that feels unnatural and weak. And how far do I have to go, exactly, to ensure I’m creating a climate that neither feeds nor tolerates sexist behavior? The end result can be a kind of secular asceticism which is both frustrating and difficult to maintain.
It’s not about my desires and challenges, ultimately. As a man, the entire framework is built to accommodate my desires. Nothing is more difficult than speaking truth to power and demanding fair treatment with no protection from those same systems of power. That said, it’s time for me to engage in the second most difficult kind of work: dismantling the platform of advantage I am standing on.

My Social Media Filter Guidelines

I spend far too much time on Facebook, like at least 100 million other people I don’t know. Processing that much information is a challenge. Fortunately, Facebook puts the site name in all caps in gray below any post. I’d like to share some of the techniques I use to determine what is newsworthy:

economist.com, nytimes.com – Unbiased or biases will be obvious. Read it.

theguardian.com – This is really important and will never, ever be reported in the US. Read it.

cracked.com – It will be funny and ridiculously stated but true. Read it.

foxnews.com – It’s Obama’s fault. Skip it.

tiny.iavian.net, theblaze.net – It’s liberals’ fault. Skip it. (I guess you could skim The Blaze if you’re conservative or want some balance)

breitbart.net – Obama is the Manchurian Candidate. He’ll invite Yemeni religious zealots in to impose Sharia and steal your daughters. Skip it.

salon.com – It’s the conservatives’ fault. Skip it unless you are a liberal that is feeling super partisan and want to co-sign that day.

thinkprogress.org, dailykos.com – It’s the conservatives’ fault, but here’s why. . . Skim it.

forbes.com – Rich liberals argue with rich conservatives. Read it to see how rich people think.

mostlocalorregionalpapers.com – If you live there or the event you’re reading about happened there, read it. Otherwise, it’s probably a bad opinion piece. Skip it.

theonion.com – It’ll be funny, but the headline is usually the joke. Read the headline, read the article if you’re trying to burn some time.

openyourmind.net, countercurrentnews.com, anythingthatsoundslikethat.com – It sounds awesome, but there’s absolutely no science behind it. Skip it, or at least check Snopes.

huffingtonpost.com – Could be celebrity dish, could be politics, could be defining issues of our time. Who knows? Probably skip it.

I hope this helps!

Catechism

Rorschach pools gather again.
We look outside, breath condensing at the window
as we fervently seek to find The Stranger, our adversary.
We double-lock our doors
as the slate-gray burn singes our nostrils.
At our feet, casings for rosary beads.
We kneel, and bow, and recite our catechism.

“Hail Pistol, full of protection
I need no one but you with me.
Blessed are you among weapons,
and blessed be the fruit of your womb, Bullet.
Holy Pistol, mother of Safety,
cover our weaknesses and fears now
and ward the hour of our death.”

This god does not hear the thump of flesh on concrete,
cannot smell acrid, sweating fear as the lambs run,
cannot taste the blood you feed it.
We look outside, seeking The Stranger,
while those we keep, coddle, then ignore
creep at our backs, mouthing prayers
to a senseless god, and reloading.

-C. G. Brown

Dedicated to far too many.

Why Bernie Sanders’ Speech at Liberty University Matters

Preface: This does not constitute an endorsement for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. While I like a lot of what he’s saying, I’m as yet undeclared.

On September 14, Bernie Sanders, the unabashedly liberal populist candidate for President, went to Liberty University, a bastion of conservative Christian thinking and teaching, to give a speech. One would think at first blush that there wasn’t much common ground, given his differing views on abortion, gay rights, and the role of government than most of the attendees. However, this speech is significant for a few reasons.

Sanders opens with stating what he believes that is different. He’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and doesn’t try to dissemble or make that palatable. He then follows with:

I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

The Fox News climate (which birthed the less blatantly partisan but still strident MSNBC response) leads to a framework where those who disagree with us are at best, deluded idiots, and at worst, enemies trying to destroy “our” America. For us to move forward, we’re going to have to acknowledge that people who disagree with us have something valuable to say.

As a liberal minded person, I enjoy how Sanders then unpacks the hypocrisy of the self-serving theology that the Republican party has taught. I want the government out of my decisions (unless it’s who I partner with or whether I have a child). I care about the rights of the unborn (but am indifferent their needs when they become children). I should be able to acquire as much wealth as I want without being taxed, and it’s your own fault if you can’t do the same, because you didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough. Your mistakes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law; there is no mercy for the criminal.

In a gentle, non-accusing way, Sanders walks through how injustice permeates our country, largely due to the adoption of conservative ideology. He even asks at one point, encouraging the listeners to check their moral compass rather than their talking points, “You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content?” He then reclaims the language of morality and family values that the Republican party has been so successful at appropriating and redirects it toward wealth inequality, health care costs and challenges, and excessive imprisonment.

So this is all well and good, but why does it matter? First, it’s critical that politicians (and their supporters) not forget that most passionate people believe they’re really pushing for what’s best for the most people. You can be misguided or base your position on an invalid premise, but that’s not the same as being willfully ignorant and hateful. We have to make arguments with people that we don’t agree with and meet each other on common ground. This means that both that I have to engage and consider conservative language and that conservatives arguing with me have to think about and respect my framing.

Second, the conversation Sanders is trying to have outlines the true complexity of the Christian message. Jesus spoke a lot about wealth inequality and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. He also said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. I find that the Christians that are seeking hardest to meet and follow Jesus don’t fall neatly into conservative and liberal buckets. They mourn the loss of unborn life but work to create a world where abortion never needs to be the best available choice, and they care about children after they’re born. They don’t see a provision in the Bible for a spiritual marital covenant between gay people but don’t see being homosexual as inherently wrong either. Since these Christians know rules don’t save people and government marriage is a contract, not a covenant, they see no need to prevent governments from declaring people married. They personally give generously of time and money to help those that are struggling, whether or not they are in favor of higher taxation to help facilitate that.

For me, I think if you find Jesus easy to follow and everything makes perfect sense, you’ve missed something important. The political and theological intertwining that has taken place among Republicans leaves many of them far too certain, unable to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul encouraged Christians to do, but expecting and insisting upon a “good life” by standards of the flesh, which involves pleasure, comfort, and self-serving rather than sacrifice for others and altruism.

If you believe in conservative politics and conservative Christian theology, I encourage you to look at the world, unfiltered. Look at inequality, injustice. For a moment, stop justifying and determining who deserves what for a moment, remembering what Jesus was willing to do for the utterly undeserving. Remember how you said you wanted to be more like Jesus. Then think about it, feel it in your guts. Are you still content?