The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



April 2012

Blind Guides v. Obamacare

by Michael Shirzadian, on April 2012, Health Care

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away - Matthew 22:22

Part I: Christ/ian

Anymore there’s only one reason I call myself a Christian—and it’s a characteristic of Christ, not his church.

Because really, let’s face it, his church has dropped the ball (Nietzsche: there was only one Christian and you crucified him). Society perceives the church as intolerant; the academy perceives the church as ignorant. Like banks and bailouts, ignorance and intolerance go together. Four years of education at Cedarville University confirms the stereotype. When I was president of CU College Democrats, one participant at one of our sponsored coffee-talks argued at length that the US shouldn’t legalize gay marriage because the move would result in the inevitable destruction of capitalism (his name was David). Admittedly I’m a Marxist (and would welcome eagerly the destruction of capitalism), but through CU’s debate team I had a number of smart, conservative friends: hearing David’s analysis, they frowned; I literally saw their faces contort; David was undoing their efforts, proving true the stereotype.

Jesus might not be a liberal, but he’s definitely not a conservative. That’s why I call myself a Christian. What I like is Jesus’ radical deconstructive impulse. Of course I mean deconstructive in the Derridian sense; a bearded, English grad student studying in Boulder, CO inevitably would. Those instances in which Jesus confronts and outwits the establishment are those that keep me coming back. John 8, for instance. Or Matthew 22-23.

Matthew 23 is especially compelling because Jesus foreshadows and warns against what will become the church’s biggest obstacle: not an external sin to be reckoned with (like hunger, or demons running around manically with pitchforks and bifurcated tails), but an internal vainglory, a belief not in Christ but in the self, in those human(ist) impulses for power, money, prestige, etc. Woe to you! Jesus says to these people, to these teachers of the law who use their guile and wit to preserve their interests, to maintain their power, at the expense of those they are tasked to lead, the broader masses of people yearning to know God. These sophistic Pharisees mask truth, suppress mercy. Their wit and cleverness in doing so earns Christ’s condemnation. You snakes! Christ says in verse 33. Brood of vipers! How can any of you escape damnation?

This (radical, angry) condemnation in Matthew 23 is as political as it is theological; indeed, one key hermeneutical challenge for contemporary biblical scholars is to navigate the strange nexus between Hebraic politics and theology extant in Israel during the long period of the canon’s composition. What is clear is that politics and theology were indistinguishably intertwined both before and after the Exile. The Rabbis led the soul and the state. Against this context, passages like Luke 19:45-48 (the house of prayer made a den of thieves) or Matthew 22:15-22 (give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s) make sense. Political and legal leaders are morally accountable for the particulars of their leadership.

The crucial lesson one might extract from these hermeneutically difficult passages is that Christ reserves his harshest condemnation for immoral leaders, blind guides, those who use their (political, moral, legal) authority and cleverness to mislead the people.

Part II: Obamacare

Besse Berry Cooper, 115, is a U.S. citizen and the oldest person on earth, so surely she has seen her fair share of immoral Supreme Court decisions.

Born mere months after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 (which upheld the constitutionality of state laws practicing segregation if such laws accommodated the hollow maxim separate but equal), Cooper has witnessed equally immoral decisions throughout our highest court's history. One example is the oft-cited Korematsu v. United States (1944), which held that the federal government could lock thousands of U.S. citizens in concentration camps because of military necessity. A lesser know example (amid Legion, for they are many) is Buck v. Bell (1927), where Justice Holmes upheld forced sterilization of the mentally ill, writing with a chilling eloquence—he was more remembered for his guile and sophistry on the page than his critical mind—that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Cooper has also seen her fair share of judicial activism. A criticism often levied by conservative political and legal thinkers against liberal justices, examples might include oft-cited Roe v. Wade (1973), which found in the constitution a vaguely enumerated right to privacy, or Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which Chief Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court maintained in a 9-0 decision that establishing separate public schools for blacks and whites is unconstitutional, thereby reversing the abysmal decision in Plessy. Conservative political and legal thinkers often cite the Warren Court as one of the most activist courts in our nation's history (expanding 4th amendment rights, curtailing capital punishment, Legion others).

What Cooper has not seen until now, however, despite her 115 years of life, is such an egregious marriage of immorality and judicial activism than that which would occur should the Roberts Court overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, in the convoluted jamboree which our posterity, if they make it, will remember as National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012).

In oral arguments taking place at the end of March, the Supreme Court considered argumentation concerning multiple facets of the admittedly long bill, focusing most specifically on the "individual mandate", which requires most Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 or to face a financial penalty.

The move to remove this clause stems from an awkward series of slippery slope arguments. If the government can require citizens to buy health insurance, can't it also require citizens to buy and eat broccoli? Can the government require citizens to enter a state of action from inaction?

These are good questions for political and legal scholars looking to pioneer new territory in political or legal theory, but such hypothetical, almost childish scenarios are rarely entertained by the Supreme Court of the United States, whose very existence affirms the federal government's ability to require citizens to do things (this is called legislation) and/or to enter from a phase of inactivity to activity, inaction to action (taxpaying, auto-insurance, seat-belts, Legion others).

The frustration for the petitioners is an understandable one. Tea-Party conservatives, angry that PPACA honestly (read: per due process) moved through congress and found its way to Mr. Obama's desk, filed a suit which lower courts shot down (obviously) until the suit could be appealed to the Supreme Court, where these Tea-Partiers enjoy a slight political majority. Expecting Roberts and Kennedy to side with the more conservative members Alito, Thomas and Scalia, these Tea-Party activist and their gnarly Georgetown law dogs hope for a 5-4 decision against the individual mandate, which attorneys for the petitioners (law dogs/Pharisees) argue would so significantly butcher PPACA that the entire bill should be thrown out as inoperable.

This is, in essence, the argument of severability. What happens to the rest of PPACA if the individual mandate is struck down? The answer is clear: PPACA is utterly inoperable. I agree with the petitioners that to kill the individual mandate is to kill the bill, and here's why: the original bill was a balancing act: large hospital chains agreed to relieve $155 billion in Medicare payments in exchange for the new opportunities these hospitals would enjoy once an additional 30 million citizens enter the market (via mandate, subsidy, tax and incentive programs offered to businesses, etc).

The hospitals supported this exchange; U.S. citizens, through their elected officials, supported this exchange.

Moody's Investors Service, an influential credit-agency and think tank, outlines the specific dangers of striking down the individual mandate.

“If the law is fully or partially repealed, for-profit hospital operators’ costs of treating patients unable to pay their bills would rise, and would limit operators’ revenue growth and profit margins and constrain cash flow,” Moody's Senior Credit Officer Dean Diaz said in a news release.

If the individual mandate is struck down and severed from the bill, we have an absolutely inoperable health care industry in which hospitals literally flop, go belly-up, because they agreed to relieve billions of dollars of debt in exchange for revenue which five activist judges stripped from them in the eleventh hour (this scenario actualizes if Roberts and/or Kennedy agree/s that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but that this doesn’t kill the entire bill). If the Supreme Court sides with the petitioners entirely and renders all of PPACA unconstitutional, then we've got something far worse: a blatantly immoral court acting against the wishes of the American people via a judicial activism unseen by Besse Cooper and unparalleled even by the Warren Court.

Part III: Blind Guides

But the most perplexing question might be this one: where are the Christian activists? Regarding a radical bill which subsidizes health insurance for millions of Americans who can't otherwise afford it, why do most Christian participants in this monumental debate fall on the conservative side? Even if I were to concede, against logic and precedent, that an individual mandate is unconstitutional, why do most Christians side first with zealous jingoists calling for a return to the essence of our fixed and holy constitution, rather than with the progressives who have finally offered one possible, albeit imperfect, solution to the tragic health-related situations plaguing our hungry brothers and sisters in Springfield, or in Denver, or in Baltimore?

How is it that those who claim to follow the God of Matthew 25:36-40 are more concerned with constitutionality than with offering real solutions to hurting people, to those who Christ called the least of these? How is it that those who follow the God who provisioned the year of Jubilee as respite for the poor can argue, now, that an entire bill designed to ‘heal the sick' should be thrown out because of the slippery slopes which might accompany its individual mandate?

Who are these people? Why do they believe these things? They’re commonplace Christians taking orders from the libertarian leaders at the top of the superstructure. These leaders are influential. They can convince middle-income and low-income people to voice libertarian outrage at Obamacare. They can convince simple-minded Christians that gay marriage will destroy capitalism. But who are they really? What’s their stake?

They’re activist Supreme Court judges and clever Georgetown yuppies flashing iPads and iPhones and premium health insurance policies while they exercise their wit and sophistry to kill a good bill. They are the contemporary Pharisees, who pat themselves on the back and pretend like they’re doing good for their people. They’re rich libertarians whose children aren’t hungry, this being how they can enjoy the luxury of libertarianism. They convince their followers to detach from others, to let go of social responsibility. Their parents sent them to good schools. They are not global citizens. You would be hard pressed to locate their concern for the least of these. Like Justice Holmes, they mask their evil, selfishness and greed in political jargon and long, hypothetical legal briefs. They’re smart and cunning, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They work to undo the will of the American people with their smartness. Obamacare vs. SCOTUS is only the most recent example.

Today they have power. Today they’re first.

One day later though, on that day when the first will be last, when every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, you might hear your angry God thunder in their closed ears, depart from me, you who are cursed ... for I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.