Guest post: Why Repealing the ACA lacks moral leadership

The following post is adapted from the Rev. Dr. Micki Pulleyking’s reflections shared at Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri’s “Standing with Our Neighbors” event. 

​It is an honor to be here with others who care about moral leadership; those who desire to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God”, as the prophet Micah implores. Jesus proclaimed “good news to the poor” and “liberty” to the oppressed; Jesus gave “healing”–free health care. Think about it, almost all of Jesus’ miracles are related to medical needs–the blind man, the hemorrhaging woman, the sick girl, the man who could not walk: Jesus treats each one with dignity (no matter how poor), and he heals them, without a word about money; without a word about political agendas. May we do all we can to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
​There are many compassionate humans in our state who respond to suffering; many good people traveled to Texas and to Florida after the recent hurricanes. We grieve suffering caused by that which we cannot control: floods and other acts of nature. But how much more suffering is caused by human choices? This is suffering we can control.
​The book of Amos was written around 750 BCE. Yet, could not this have been written last night? Listen to the words of Amos 6: “Alas for those who lounge on their couches, and eat beef; sing idle songs; drink wine and anoint themselves with fine perfumes…BUT are NOT grieved over the suffering of others…”
​Affordable health care is not about being a Democrat or a Republican–it’s about grieving over the suffering of others and desiring to be good humans. Humans need affordable health care.
Let us urge lawmakers to reject the Graham-Cassidy bill which will take away health care from millions of Americans. Oppose any budget that guts life-saving Medicaid for 74 million working families, privatizes Medicaid for seniors, or strips state budgets of critical funding–in order to pay for billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations!
Medicaid provides coverage to 30 million children. It pays for half the births in the United States, 75% of all family planning services, 64% of nursing home care, and 30% of all care for people with disabilities. Nearly 2 million veterans get health care through Medicaid. And…Medicaid also costs far less per beneficiary than private health insurance. And…the cost for Medicaid have been rising more slowly than private insurance.
The Republican budget cuts nearly $2 trillion from health care, especially Medicaid. I think that’s immoral–not moral leadership.
Let us stand for leadership committed to a politics of compassion. Call, email and text your senators and representatives and those whose votes can keep this disaster from happening. Ask them to choose dignity, to choose to diminish suffering, in those places where the moral choice is ours.

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On the eve of President Trump’s visit to my hometown of Springfield 

Here are my remarks at the “Standing With Our Neighbors” Faith Voices/NAACP event on the day before President Trump came to Springfield. 

We gather on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Springfield in order to hold President Trump and his administration in prayer, as well as to hold them accountable to the ethical demands at the heart of the world’s enduring religious traditions. Within religious practice, prayer opens us up to the heart of the sacred, and is intended to help lead us to act as God would desire. This is what we hope for President Trump, as we have hoped for all presidents. 

We are not here in order to be politically correct, but to be biblically correct. The heart of our faith traditions includes the call to be in solidarity with our neighbors, standing together for love, dignity, justice, and compassion. 

The Golden Rule is expressed in all of the enduring religious traditions of the world. This doesn’t mean more gold for those who already have a whole lot of it (and more than they will ever need); rather, the Golden Rule simply commands us to treat others as we wish to be treated. This applies to our whole lives: in our families and our friendships, as well as in our society and our politics. And it includes how the rich should treat the poor, and vice versa. We believe it applies to all people, Republican or Democrat, religious or not. 

We don’t know much about the tax policies that President Trump will unveil tomorrow, but we do know a lot about what our faith traditions say about economic dignity. The Bible has over 2,000 verses about economic dignity and fairness, and it consistently tells leaders of nations that they have a mandate to care for the poor and the forgotten (“the orphan and the widow,” as it’s often described). This is a pillar of faith. Within my tradition, according to Jesus in Matthew 25, leaders and nations will be judged based on how they treat the poor and the vulnerable. This is therefore not just about standing on the right side of history; it’s about standing on the right side of God. We are here to pray for President Trump so he will have the wisdom to make policy decisions that are consistent with the love, compassion and justice at the heart of God, and to reflect on what policies close to the heart of God should look like. 

We also pray for — and stand with — our neighbors near and far. Our hearts are especially close to those in Texas; we commit to sending them not just our thoughts and prayers but also our resources and money, and we ask President Trump to respond with the leadership and resources the people of Texas need. We are hopeful his visit to Texas today helps inform his decisions. 

As people of faith, we also gather to acknowledge the continued sin of racism and discrimination in our society. Our faith calls us to stand together: those with black skin or brown skin or white skin or any color of skin, we stand together. Men and women, we stand together. Gay and straight, we stand together. Cisgender and transgender, we stand together. Rich and poor, we stand together. We stand together because we believe all human beings are created in the image of God and should be treated with the dignity that affords. We unequivocally renounce the evil sins of white supremacy and gender inequality, and call on all leaders — including President Trump — to refuse to support white supremacy and discrimination at every level, in both word and deed, whether within his administration or outside of it. 

We are concerned about the crumbling moral infrastructure that manifests itself in the dangerous game of scapegoating, wherein others are unfairly blamed — whether it be immigrants, gay or transgender persons, Muslims, Jews, or whomever — for problems that run much, much deeper, and for which they are not responsible. Scapegoating others may score easy political points in today’s day and age, but it appeals to our worst instincts rather than our best, and it fails to move our country forward on both moral and economic grounds. Scapegoating does nothing but sell an empty bill of goods to people who are desperate for hope and on the verge of despair — yet we need courageous leadership that truly helps them, not leadership that just riles people up in order to exploit people for the sake of political gain, selling an empty promise that in the end does nothing for them and for everyday hardworking Americans, but just continues a system where the poor and vulnerable are exploited time and again, no matter their political affiliation, as pawns in a devastating political game. 

That is why we are praying for President Trump, and all of our elected leaders.

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Standing with Our Neighbor: Charlottesville 

Here’s the text from the Call to Action I was asked to give at today’s “Standing with Our Neighbor: Charlottesville” event sponsored by Faith Voices of SW MO.

As people of faith we are called to put our beliefs into action, to practice what we preach. And in the face of the violence perpetrated by white supremacists, white nationalists, white nativists and neo-nazis, we must act. 
And our actions must extend beyond mere condemnations. We must work toward building communities that value fairness, dignity, equality and justice.
We are not simply asking for all Americans to come together and listen to one another. No, we are asking Americans — particularly those that adhere to (or benefit from) white supremacy to do the hard work of repentance. There is no right and left on this issue, there is only right and wrong. Until white supremacists — and those who benefit from white supremacy — acknowledge this and confess this will true healing and reconciliation be possible.
Secondly, we are calling on all who believe in the values of fairness, dignity, equality and justice — whether you identify as religious or not — to recognize that in times like this, silence is nothing less than betrayal. We must not allow racism to go unchecked. Demeaning rhetoric — whether at work or at church or wherever — has no good value in our society, especially when it’s casually used to reinforce a problematic status quo that manifests itself not just in words but in death-dealing societal structures. When it comes to the violence of racism, it’s not solely located in white nationalist terrorism. It is far too easy for white Americans, who are not impacted by the daily realities of racism — of what it means to live daily life as a black or brown person in a country not only birthed in slavery but long supported by structures of white supremacy through Jim Crow and beyond — it is far too easy not to recognize the urgency of working toward race equity and justice here and now. But we must stand together and raise our voices so these principles are not just ideas, but lived realities. The violence and hate in Charlottesville was horrific, but so are the daily injustices of discrimination in the structures of society, whether it be through the prison industrial complex that disproportionately affects black and brown persons, or public school systems across the country that may not technically be segregated but are segregated in terms of funding and resourcing. This list goes on, and we must demand that our societal structures reflect the fairness, dignity, equality and justice which we say we value, even if it comes at a cost. Otherwise we will fail to move forward and will be weighed down by the sins of our past, and all of our best rhetoric will mean nothing. 
We are also called to hold our officials accountable, and this extends to every level, from Springfield to Washington. 
We applaud the city’s condemnation of the violence and racism in Charlottesville and ask that city officials do everything possible to build a fair and just Springfield. 
We also applaud the unequivocal condemnation of white supremacy by politicians like Marco Rubio, John McCain and Paul Ryan, who have called it out for the evil that it is, and we further demand that they — along with all of our elected leaders including Sen. McCaskill, Sen. Blunt, and Representative Long — ensure that white supremacy and the alt-right have no place in the administration of a country that aspires for liberty and justice for all. 
With this in mind, we demand that extremist presidential advisors like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka be fired immediately because of their ties to an alt-right white neo-Nazi nationalism that is not representative of the wishes and desires of a country known as the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Lastly, we hold the president of the United States accountable for his reckless rhetoric that has only served to embolden and strengthen white supremacists since he first announced his run for office. Obviously it would be absurd to say that the problem of white supremacy and nationalism began with President Trump — of course not, for America’s original sin of racism has been around ever since this nation was built on the backs of slaves. But it is naive to think that a posture of perpetual bullying — in which the president consistently demeans and dehumanizes the dignity of others — serves to reduce, rather than embolden, white nationalists whose violence is predicated on demeaning and dehumanizing the dignity of others.

 
It was appropriate for the justice department to label Saturday’s murder of Heather Heyer, a counterprotestor killed when the car of a white nationalist was turned into a murderous weapon, an act of domestic terrorism. The administration now needs to condemn the white nationalism in the president’s inner circle and work to build trust with the American people so President Trump is not simply viewed as a puppet of the alt-right. His personal and unequivocal denouncements of white nationalistic terrorism would be a step in the right direction, and we are still waiting for him to personally address this.
As faith voices, we further ask that religious leaders refuse to lend their support to policies and leaders that perpetuate racism, rather than stand against racism. The church has a very checkered past in this regard, and we must do better. We will be judged by our actions, by history, and by God. 
Thank you.

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On Christian tolerance 


One last post on the topic of the Religious Right, just to set the record straight. When I post something that calls out the Religious Right for championing racism, patriarchy, and anti-LGBTQ equality (as I did on Facebook earlier today), it’s not uncommon for someone to come along and say that I’m being intolerant of others (and thus hypocritical since I’m supposed to represent a religion that “accepts all views”). It’s their “gotcha” move. But I just want to go on the record to clarify how erroneous this is, in every way. As an example, I received a message earlier today from someone who essentially said that posting such things flies in the face of being part of (as my denomination describes) “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” I’m not sure why this accusation is so frequently made, but to set the record straight, here’s a paraphrased version of my response to him:

 
The genealogy of the Religious Right is in the preservation of segregation and patriarchy, just as a matter of historical fact. These are very sinful things. Christian teaching tells us that sin separates us from God and from one another, the wages of which are death. From a theological and ecclesial standpoint, “a movement for wholeness” begins not with acceptance but with confession of sin. Wholeness is about reconciliation and redemption, and as Bonhoeffer said it’s no cheap grace. So if we seek to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” we acknowledge that wholeness begins not via acceptance of all views as equally valid, but in the confession of sin (such as racism and patriarchy) that steals, kills, and destroys. “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” is only possible via justice and righteousness, as St. Paul describes. So that’s what I’m after as a pastor and preacher. Transformed lives in the way of Christ, in which justice is never sacrificed on the altar of unity, because true unity (and wholeness) demands justice and righteousness, not the other way around.
P.S. The Religious Right is not synonymous with evangelicalism. To be sure, many evangelicals identify with the Religious Right, but many do not. Again, for the record.

 

P.S.S. I don’t always use religious language to express my ideas, but in this particular post I’m drawing on religious language that is familiar to those associated with the Religious Right (kind of like meeting them on their own rhetorical turf). Whether this is wise or not is another question entirely.

 
P.S.S.S. If the climate in the U.S. wasn’t charged with so many politicians using racism, patriarchy, and anti-LGBTQ equality to rally their base, I wouldn’t feel the need to speak out against the Religious Right so much (I don’t like doing so; but it goes with the territory of being a pastor and being a Christian).

 
P.S.S.S.S. I’m tired of prominent leaders in the Religious Right (Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, etc.) championing terribly sinful, problematic, and pro-death positions. They try to make us think they’re ethically sound Christian positions when they’re anything but what is found in the actual life and teachings of Christ. I refuse to cede the ethical Christian high ground to them.

 

P.S.S.S.S.S. After posting this to Facebook, Susan Russell offered a great comment that I don’t want to lose track of: “My stock response: ‘There is an ontological difference between being discriminated against because of who you are and feeling discriminated against because you’re disagreed with.'”

 

P.S.S.S.S.S.S. Going for the record of post-scripting with this one.

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Don’t use your religion to justify your discrimination

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How ideology covers a multitude of sins

If you’re still wondering how to make sense of why lots of people (including most GOP politicians) still support Trump even in the midst of all of the blatant lies and cheap fabrications, not to mention his sheer ethical nihilism and possible (likely) connections with Russia, the moral of the story has become pretty clear: people will put up with all manner of things if it means (1) preserving the power structure of traditional white male supremacy in the U.S. (this is why his supporters hate PC culture and love that he “tells it like it is,” it’s why there’s been a huge resurgence of Confederate flags and the scapegoating of black and brown immigrants, etc. etc. etc.); and/or (2) the possibility of getting richer and richer off the backs of the poor (e.g., the AHCA, tax reform proposals, etc.), including deregulating everything in order to make windfall profits at the expense of others, not to mention the planet (e.g., DAPL). 

And because those of us who benefit from this don’t want to acknowledge our depravity (you look selfish and cold-hearted and ungodly if you wish to preserve white supremacy or pursue idolatrous greed at face value), we invent all kinds of narratives and ideologies to mask these truths, so that we can convince ourselves we aren’t bad but are actually operating under the guise of the good: “the free market” (AHCA), “the rule of law” (ICE), religious beliefs that provide cover for your discrimination against LGBTQ persons (80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump; notice how the right wants to preserve freedom of religion as enshrined in the Constitution not in order to, say, support local mosques, but to have a legal means to discriminate against gay and transgender persons), etc. etc. It’s not surprising that the Religious Right began as an effort to preserve racial segregation. And its roots remain deep in today’s GOP — it is literally its lifeblood (it’s no wonder that Jerry Falwell Jr. recently said that Trump is the evangelical’s dream president). As my friend Tad Delay once said in a sermon that got him in hot water a few years ago:

“Let me begin with a word about ideologies, paradigms, and communal beliefs. These are terms I’m using for whatever authorizes views and behaviors that legitimate our prejudices as being okay even when they’re unhelpful and unhealthy for everybody involved.

I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. We still talk about the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School in 1957. The Supreme Court had struck down ‘separate but equal’ in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. By the time the city submitted a plan to
integrate, segregationists stood ready to protest. On the first day of the school year in September 1957, nine African American students approached the school to learn Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized the National Guard—men with assault weapons—to block the entrance to the school. The mayor petitioned the White House to intervene, and President Eisenhower commandeered the troops, ordering them to stay at the school to ensure the African American students could enter the school safely.  

The problem only escalated. There are unbelievably vicious pictures and horrific stories from those days, pure hatred doubtlessly disguised in the esoteric language of religious people angry at a government contravening God’s moral order of segregation. One African American girl was locked into a restroom stall while her white classmates set the stall on fire. Acid was thrown in a student’s eyes. And instead of continuing with the integration, the governor shut down the entire Little Rock school district for the 1958 year. 

Listen: Do you think anybody experienced themselves as racist? [No.] Bigotry is not typically something we consciously experience in ourselves. Our ideologies, paradigms, and communal beliefs justify it
for us. We see bigotry in others, in actions, and in the systemic operations of society. But nobody
thinks of themselves as a horrible person with an irrational hatred of others.”

That’s what ideologies do. They hide the traumatic truth of our existence, so we don’t have to face our real (cold and selfish) motives (the desire to preserve current power structures so that wealth and power in the U.S. remain concentrated where they’ve always been). It’s why the Confederate flag is about “heritage, not hate,” or why the Civil War was waged because of states’ rights, and not the states’ rights to own slaves, or why not helping the poor and vulnerable is about preserving the free market, believing that if everyone worked hard enough the free market ensures that everyone can access the American Dream, when in fact there are millions of people working 60-80 hours a week at low wage jobs but somehow the American Dream still alludes them, and instead they’re living the American Nightmare…

And, of course, those who benefit from the current system don’t recognize the ideology that masks their true motives. That’s why the self-professed Christian GOP can rescind the AHA with a straight-face, even as their replacement (the AHCA) would destroy the lives of the poor and the sick. Listen: Do you think those who voted for the AHCA think they don’t care about the poor and the sick? No. But they’ve bought into a narrative that justifies what cannot be justified at face value.

In other words, ideology covers all multitude of sins. So perhaps the most important move — as the Hebrew prophets and Jesus knew all too well — is to expose ideology for what it is. 

If there’s any solace to be found — and at risk of buying into the narrative that reinforces the idea that individual efforts are solely responsible for fixing systemic sins — I turn to stories about people like John Newton. He was a slave ship captain, making money off of one of the most horrific practices known to humanity. It was just business for him. And he bought into the narrative that it was for the greater good — after all, the European white Christians could civilize the primitives and give them a chance to convert. Well, he at least told himself that until he couldn’t tell himself that anymore. One day he was confronted with the traumatic truth of what he was actually doing, and he realized that all of the reasons he was given to justify his occupation was actually a bunch of hogwash. So he quit, and worked to abolish slavery. He looked back on what he did, describing himself in the famous hymn he wrote as a “wretch.” Only when he confronted the traumatic truth of his existence was he able to change. He “once was lost, but now is found; was blind but now can see.” What I wouldn’t give for more leaders to do the same, including politicians and leaders connected to the religious right who must surely be familiar with John Newton and Amazing Grace. Because it begs the question: Is benefitting from ideology truly better for you — not to mention others — in the end? Is it truly better to be lost than to be found? After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

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On biblical interpretation

Lately I’ve been asked how I can so adamantly draw on the Bible to support my views that the poor and sick should be treated with dignity and respect, yet at the same time seemingly ignore the Bible’s teachings when it comes to my affirmation of LGBT+ persons. Isn’t that conflictual? Isn’t that inconsistent? After all, doesn’t the Bible condemn LGBT+ persons?
Well, I’ve written at length about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, it’s important to point out that the Bible says a lot of different things about a lot of different issues. And people have to choose what criteria to use when interpreting the text. And for me and many others — because God is revealed in Christ as love — the most responsible way to proceed is by interpreting the text through the lens of love. To proceed otherwise is to begin with a God that is not revealed in love, which is (literally in this case) an absolute non-starter for me, representative of a faith not worth having. Which leads to a few observations:
(1) This is actually a pretty conventional (and hardly radical) approach. To paraphrase the fairly orthodox theologian Karl Barth, “The Bible is the word of God insofar as it conforms to the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.” 
(2) Contrary to popular accusations, this isn’t just some modern “liberal” propaganda. It has an ancient pedigree. As Gianni Vattimo reminds us, if you read “the gospels or the fathers of the church carefully, at the end, the only virtue left is always that of charity. From Saint Paul we learn that the three greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love, ‘but the greatest of these is love.’ Even faith and hope will end at one point or another. As Saint Augustine instructs, ‘Love and do what you want.’” And it was Saint Augustine who said that “If when reading scripture you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, you have not yet understood scripture…. [For] if love is the only measure, the only measure of love is love without measure.” (paraphrased)
(3) We mustn’t confuse that which tries to point to God (the Bible) for God, anymore than we mustn’t confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself (from an orthodox Christian perspective, the living Word of God is Christ, not a book). As a product of many different authors writing over hundreds of years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Bible contains lots of different perspectives. Not all of them are great. I highly doubt anyone today would want to say that slaves should obey their masters, as both Paul and Peter instructed. Or that women should be treated as property, etc. etc. Instead, we understand that at times the Bible reflects the prejudices of its day. In the same way that at times it got it wrong about slavery and women as property, it also got it wrong at times in terms of human sexuality. What we take for granted today (slavery should be abolished, women shouldn’t be treated as property, etc.) was once viewed as heretical. But reinterpreting through the lens of love helped get it right, even though it took a while and even though there’s still a long way to go. 
(4) Interpreting through the lens of love helps distinguish which passages from the Bible are helpful and healthy, and which are problematic. So, to turn to the original questions in this post, it’s pretty clear that standing with the sick and the poor, as Jesus did, is an act of love, conforming with the law of love. And so is standing in affirmation and solidarity with LGBT+ friends and family. This too conforms to the law of love. So in the end, such a stance is intrinsically consistent, not conflictual. The actual conflictual stance would be to say that God as a God of love punishes and condemns people for being LGBT. This is inconsistent and conflictual, not the other way around. And for those who say that condemning LGBT+ persons is actually a loving thing to do, because it helps them in the long run flee from the sin that hurts their lives, all I have to say is that there is zero evidence that backs this up, and it’s a terribly myopic point of view, and the precise opposite of this is actually the case. A lot of times I hear people say something like “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,” followed by equating a person who is LGBT as being on par with an addict or adulterer (or some other pronounced vice). Yet the difference here is crucial. Think about it. If sin is that which hurts lives, you can easily see that being an addict can hurt your life and the lives of those you love, just as being an adulterer can hurt your life and the lives of those you love. In contrast, however, what hurts the lives of LGBT+ persons is the condemnation that our society and religious groups have heaped onto them, conditioning them to believe they are less than, or not equal to others in the eyes of God and society. And the most liberating thing that can lead to their well-being is by being able to embrace who they are, as they were created to be. If sin is that which hurts lives, then, in this case, the sin lies with the societies and religious groups that condemn rather than affirm — and *not* with LGBT+ persons. Again, the law of love. 
(5) Lastly, when I say I interpret through the lens of love, I’m not simply understanding love in some warm fuzzy sentimentalist kind of way. There are lots of different ways to understand love, but the kind of love I’m getting at here is better defined as unconditional courage and risk forged in solidarity with others for the sake of justice.

* I originally wrote this on Facebook but copied it here so I can more easily locate it down the road. 

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