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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Talkin' 'bout A Revolution: Health Care Reform and Marriage Equality

I know. I know what you're asking: What has Health Care Reform got to do with Marriage Equality?

And, what has any of that got to do with Tracy Chapman singing that "so-1988 song" about Revolution?

The two issues are closer than you think. As Tracy would sing: "Don't you know, talkin' 'bout a revolution." It's taken 20 years, but the whispers are growing louder and louder.

Let me tell you this story as an example.

I love it when former students call to ask mentoring advice. Mostly because in addition to the delight of reconnecting and the honor of being asked, I love the challenge of trying to mentor and not give advice.

A young woman I had in theology class a few years back called me just the other day. She is a brand new pastor with a brand new church - she's not Episcopalian - who has, she said, been preaching "bold sermons about how the church has to change."

Funny how the words you preach to others are often the very ones you need to hear.

The wedding is coming up this weekend. Well, turns out, it's not a 'wedding', actually. The actual wedding was scheduled a year ago, but the bride got into a car accident a few weeks before the ceremony and sustained serious, life-threatening injuries.

She's made a good recovery this past year, but has been left with serious, permanent disabilities and serious chronic health issues. She's on 'permanent disability status' and has a whole host of medical problems that still need constant care and monitoring.

But, her spirit is strong and she is hopeful to live this life and love this love and this family God has given her with as much joy and determination, and commitment and positive outlook and fullness as she possibly can.

She's a real inspiration, I'm told. Indeed, it sounds like she is.

Problem: If she gets married, she looses all of her medical benefits.

It's not even so much about "pre-existing conditions" (although, even in the best of circumstances, there is that), but her fiance doesn't have health insurance. Even when he had a job, which he lost a few months ago, he didn't have health insurance. Now, he's just unemployed without health insurance.

"Just." (Don't you love it?)

Because of that, her doctors and social workers and the paraprofessionals she works with at the hospital and rehabilitation center have strongly advised her not to get married - legally.

She and her fiance have two small children. It's all about "pragmatics" - which our President seems to be all about. The pragmatic reality is that three out of four family members with some kind of health coverage is better than no family members with health insurance.

Problem - well, not the problem, but the 'situation': She still wants to get married.

Well, she understands that she 'can't' or 'shouldn't', but she wants the ceremony. The wedding with the white dress in the family church. The organ music. The walk (albeit with a bit of a limp) down the aisle - a beautiful (if not slightly broken) bride with her proud father. Her handsome husband in his suit. Her children by her side. Her family and friends around her.

If you haven't understood, let me be very clear: This is a heterosexual couple. This is not the Episcopal Church, but it is one known to be "progressive" with a long, history of being deeply committed to social justice.

So, my young friend / new pastor had a talk with the immediate supervisor - just mentioned it in passing at their last telephone session together. Asked her if she had any suggestions about liturgical resources for Blessing Covenants of Relationships.

The supervisor paused and said, "Hmmmm . . . I don't know if you should do that. Not in the church. If I were you, I'd think about having a blessing at her house."

My young friend / new pastor, astonished and, in her rising anxiety, making a bad attempt at some humor said, "Hmmm . . . well, that's really not a possibility. They got an eviction notice a few days ago."

"Well," said the supervisor, "I would think about having it anywhere but in the church." Then, delivering the final blow said, "It's a small community, you know. Word about this will get out."

My young friend / new pastor was so stunned she quickly moved on to another topic and then ended the conversation on her usual, sunny, upbeat, youthful manner.

"What do I do?" s/he asked me, clearly distressed.

"She really, really wants this wedding and I can't blame her. Can I really deny her this? Aren't there blessings I can do - that you do for LGBT couples? Not a wedding, per se, but a blessing I can give them? In the church? With the white dress and the music and every thing else?"

Before I gave her any "advice," I tried to put the situation into some context. The supervisor had not given her any "directive" but "suggestions" - not strong ones, perhaps, but ones that were devised to sound strongly persuasive. Right? Right, she agreed.

So, the issue for the supervisor, as I heard it, was that this might cause a PR problem for the institutional church, right? Yes, she agreed.

If "word got out," what would would it be, I asked. Well, she said, I guess it would be that the church was pronouncing a blessing on sex outside of marriage.

Hmmm, I mused, is that what you think you will be doing?

No, she said, firmly. I would be pronouncing a blessing on the vows and promises they make to each other - to be for each other "in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, 'till death do us part."

Do you have any doubt - any doubt in your mind - that this couple is not able to make and keep those vows to each other, I asked. No, she said. I think the past year has been a real test of that and they have passed with flying colors.

So, what are the risks - on either side of this question - and the costs of those risks to you, personally? Is there anything in your church canons or laws or whatever that prohibit such an action? No, she said. She had looked it up.

So, if she did this "blessing" there would be no disciplinary action. No, she said, probably not. I can't imagine there would be, she said. You can't be disciplined for breaking a law that doesn't exist, she added. But you know, I've only been here a few months and well, I don't want to get a "reputation."

Right. Got it. So, she might get a raised eyebrow. Perhaps even a frown. Might even get her hand slapped. Taken off the 'fast track' to the 'better' (read: better paying) positions - at least for a while.

And, horror of horrors, she might even get labeled with the worst thing the hierarchy of any bureaucracy can bestow: "not a team player."

So, to put it one way: the risk here is the 'scandal' the church would cause in the community by pronouncing a blessing upon that which the culture will not "allow" - not because of any "law" but because our Health Care System is in such bad need of Reform.

As they say on "Law and Order": May counsel approach the bench for a sidebar?

Getting the connection yet? The one between Health Care Reform and Marriage Equality?

Both of them are a scandal. Both institutions - marriage and health care - are in desperate need of serious reform.

Health Care costs are out of control and beyond the access of the majority of the citizens of this country. The insurance industry and 'BigPharama' are, in essence, practicing medicine without a license and making money, as my grandmother would say, "hand over fist".

The divorce rate is skyrocketing, with one out of two marriages ending in divorce after five years. Domestic violence is soaring. We hear a great deal about "family values" but no one seems to be valuing families. We seem more concerned about the makeup of those families as opposed to the quality of life of those families.

Does the church have any role or responsibility in the reform of either institution?

You bet it does.

We are commanded by the prophets to "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God." Building on that, Jesus, Our Great High Priest and Prophet, gave us a new commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you."

Health Care Reform is but the latest arena in which Christians are called to obey these commandments "not only with our lips but in our lives."

The virtual silence from the mainline, progressive churches on Health Care Reform - especially in contrast to the 'shouting matches' from the Radical Religious Right - is, in my estimation, a scandal that makes Jesus himself blush.

We love to focus on politics of other peoples genitals, but don't seem to give a tinker's damn about the rest of their bodies - much less their hearts and souls and the politics at play to manipulate them by raising their anxieties and fears.

In the words of Bill Moyers, we ought not "split things down the middle and call it a victory for the masses." We need decisive, clear, bold leadership and the church ought to be calling that forth from our President.

My biggest fear - the thing that keeps me awake at night - is that this Administration will do to Health Care Reform what it has done to the movement for Marriage Equality - find "pragmatic solutions" that won't make everyone happy but, as they say in the South, won't "scare the horses."

Something tantamount to placing a bandaid on an open, gaping, festering wound when major surgery is the prescribed course of treatment.

Marriage Equality is Marriage Reform. That's partly why it is so scary to so many people - just every bit as scary as Health Care Reform.

Why? Because both reform movements call us to take a look at the roots and origins of the reason we do either and to achieve those goals which we say we're trying to accomplish.

Getting married is - has always been - a spiritual fact, no matter what the law says. At least, that's what the church has always taught.

The biggest objection to marriage equality is religious in nature. People who oppose legalization of marriage for LGBT people often do so on the grounds that it is against the will of God as revealed in the divine word of scripture.

Religion is most of the problem, so, in my mind, religion has to be at least part of the solution.

If churches - and temples - encourage people who are spiritually married to celebrate these 'facts of the soul' in wedding ceremonies, without distinction regarding their legal status, this makes a very powerful statement to the wider public about the nature of God and the Body of Christ we profess to be.

Indeed, I would boldly assert that this is the church at its best - doing what the church says She is all about.

Church ceremonies visibly demonstrate that there is something of the divine in the bonds of committed, spiritually-centered couples, whether gay or straight, no matter the color of their skin, or the condition of their bodies, or the infringement (or impingement) of the prevailing institutional systems of the culture.

Isn't that the role of the church? To celebrate the divine nature of the relationship and to pronounce God's blessing on the vows that we make to each other?

If the couple were, prior to the public ceremony, to exchange vows to each other in the presence of the minister/priest, and then later, in the midst of the gathered community, receive the church's blessing on those vows, isn't that exactly the scandal that Jesus himself would rejoice to behold?

I mean, what if word of this got out?

The higher risk, as I pointed out to my young friend / new pastor, is that "if word got out" that she had not participated in this service of blessing, that she denied this couple the opportunity to celebrate the commitments they have made to each other in the face of challenges most people won't face in their married lifetimes, she would have to stop preaching those "bold sermons about how the church has to change".

Her credibility would be in the toilet.

Her congregation would smile and listen politely, but they'd know that she was really a fraud and not have to do anything about her "bold, prophetic statements". Because, she wasn't putting into action in her own life the very words she preached.

Somebody cue Tracy Chapman. "You know I think you better run, run, run, run, run."

Here's the thing: Presently, we are living in The United States of Anxiety.

Part of that is the fear-mongering of the Radical Right. But, part of it is, in fact, because we are in the midst of a huge cultural revolution that has come in the midst of one of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

That's not an unknown historical pattern. The last time we experienced this sort of cultural upheaval, we saw enormous changes in every aspect of our cultural life: civil rights, reproductive choice, divorce, women's rights . . . just to name a few.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

If the church is not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

The thing about revolutions is that they start in small circles. Sometimes, those circles are concentric and multiple - like dropping several small pebbles into a pond at the same time. Sometimes, they collide with and give energy to each other. That's how revolutions get started.

There are ever-increasing circles of people who are, in Chapman's words, "crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation."

Will the church listen? More importantly, will the church be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem?

I don't know the answer to that. I don't know what my young friend / new pastor will decide to do. She's promised to let me know.

In the meantime, here's what you can do: Write a letter to President Obama. You can find the link to do that here.

I've sent him several letters before, but I just sent off a letter detailing this situation. I don't know if it will do any good, but I think he needs to hear about it. He needs to hear from all of us. We need to widen the small circles in which we've been talking to ourselves.

We need to throw a few more pebbles into the pond. We need to let the circles collide with each other and give energy to each other.

Mostly, I think the President needs to hear Tracy Chapman sing. As I said in my letter to Mr. Obama: "If you listen deep within the rhetoric of change which brought you to this historic position at this particular moment and place in time, you'll hear the whispers of a revolution.

The whispers will soon be too loud for you - or any one of us, including the church - to ignore - if they aren't already."

If you need a primer in the issues concerning Health Care Reform, I suggest you watch this video. It's the best.

As far as what marriage is about, I think I'll let Grover and his friend tell you all about it.


IT said...

Hear hear! Well said.

other examples of the complete IMMORALITY of this current system in this post at FoJ last week.

Meanwhile the insurance companies grow rich by denying care to the sick on technicalities. Read this about for more on that little gem.

How many of these conservatives call themselves Christian?

VTcrone said...

Here's a link to Bill Moyers commentary to President Obama.

I'll send the White House my letter tonight.
(My son essentially lost his health insurance when he moved from NJ to CA. His insurance company only covers folks in NJ and PA. Because he has a cardiac condition he of course is now having difficulty getting insurance out there. He's been under a cardiologist's care for several years and is doing well but I'm holding my breath. My son is 40 and his fiance, who is 44, doesn't have health insurance either. Too expensive.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - the FoJ post was you at your brilliant self. Both situations - Health Care Reform and Marriage Equality - are now immoral.

Sometimes, I really have to fight not to collapse into despair.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, VT Crone, for sending that letter. Again, I don't know if anyone at the WH is really listening, but it makes me feel better to write.

Fr Craig said...

I may be grasping, but am a former lawyer. In most states, marriage without a license from civil authorities has to be established as 'common law,' and that usually is determined by years and years of holding oneself out as 'married.' Seems to me that she can hear their vows and bless them, probably even pronounce them 'man and wife,' and be safe - if there's no license. This points out the silliness of the whole issue, vis. in law, a marriage is just a contract. Why the state is involved in it at all is a mystery to me. The state doesn't regulate (many) other contracts to be regulated... (but, think utilities, etc). But if they have to be involved, let's do it like France - go get your legal marriage, (or, in this case, not), and let the Church do as it pleases. The rest of our column is, as always, excellent. I'm trying to get up the guts to preach on this health care fiasco.

Joan K said...

I think I remember hearing about secret diocese records that the roman church keeps. As I recall it contains things like secret marriages, like this that would need to be kept secret for serious reasons. Of course if they were to do something like this they couldn't have a public ceremony.

Grace said...

Mother Kaeton,

I cannot believe the ungodly advice this young pastor has received from her immediate supervisor.

She should go ahead, and bless this young couple without delay in the sanctuary. Since when does the secular state dictate the policies of the church of Jesus Christ.

This couple has made a life committment to each other, and they are "married" in the eyes of God, already.

Lord have mercy! Prayers for wisdom, and the level of spiritual discernment in the church.