Grace and the Healthcare Debate
Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
“There But for the Grace of God Go I.” So said President Barack Obama during a recent “town hall meeting” on Saturday August 14, 2009. It was his response to the wrenching story told by Mr. Nathan Wilkes, who introduced him to the Coloradans that filled the auditorium to hear him hear and to have him answer questions about the healthcare bills that are winding their way through the Congress.
Mr. Wilkes’s story about his son, Thomas, who was diagnosed with severe hemophilia, put a human face on the healthcare debate. His story took the debate out of the realm of figures and stats and put it in the realm of real lives of pain and tragedy.
In introducing the President, Mr. Wilkes told of how one of the questions he and his spouse had to deal with after their son’s birth was the one put to them by their doctor: “Do you have good insurance?” The care their son required caused them to max out quickly on their insurance policy. Fighting back tears, Mr. Wilkes told the audience that he and his spouse were at one point counseled to consider divorcing so that their son could qualify for Medicaid.
It was after hearing this story that President Obama uttered the, in my opinion, fitting words, though they are words that unfortunately have become culturally clichéd: “There But for the Grace of God Go I . . .”
By invoking God’s grace in relationship to our country’s national debate on healthcare, Obama, whether it was his intention or not, has opened another window onto the healthcare issue. He’s suggesting a connection — and as a theologian, I’d say a good one — between the question of our moral obligations to one another in the question of healthcare and what it means to be recipients of God’s grace. “There but for the grace of God go I . . .” is connected, to use the language of ole’ King Jimmy, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The healthcare question in our country is not merely about running the numbers, though it certainly involves this. It is the question of grace, which is tied to the question of morality, the question of our moral duty and obligation to those we consider in the family of humanity.
What are our moral obligations to one another on the matter of healthcare? And how, as Christians, should we be thinking about such matters given our claim to be witnesses to the triumph of life, healing, and health over death and debilitation, a triumph that comes — and this is grace — from of Jesus’ wounded and scarred flesh?
What is needed at this time is a clearer Christian witness to our moral duties to be one another’s keepers, and thus a clearer Christian witness to grace.