Mennonite Health Journal

Articles on the intersection of faith and health








Book Review: Health, Healing, and the Church’s Mission

Glen E. Miller, MD

from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, January 2013

Willard Swartley authored Health, Healing and the Church’s Mission: Biblical Perspectives and Moral Priorities (InterVarsity Press 2012) from the background of his distinguished career as a New Testament scholar and teacher, as the author of more than twenty books on theology and ethics, and as a patient who suffered a major heart attack.  We get a sense of his approach in Health, Healing and the Church’s Mission by the frequency of attention-capturing words: “community” 241 times, “justice” 64 times and “compassion” 41.

The focusing question

Swartley focuses the issue: “Is access to health care for all citizens and residents in United States a moral issue? Or put differently, do all people have a moral right to health care access?”

Making the case

Swartley presents a forthright, biblically based argument for universal healthcare. God’s will and desire for humankind, individuals and communities, is for Shalom: wellbeing that encompasses physical, emotional and mental welfare.  Shalom for one’s self and one’s neighbor includes health and justice for the entire community, especially the poor and marginalized. When some among us lack the means to Shalom, we all suffer. Or more succinctly: “When some people are deprived of health care, communal Shalom is threatened.”

Current political debate on healthcare centers on the lack of access for nearly 50 million uninsured people and costs that escalate at twice the rate of inflation for other goods and services.  Jesus modeled access to healing available to all: the poor and rich, the influential and socially ostracized, the stranger and demon possessed. Swartley emphasizes that biblical justice requires that special efforts be made to provide for those who are socially, economically, physically and mentally disadvantaged in society.

Jesus looked with compassion on the ailing, both the individual and the multitudes. His compassion extended to all, including the outcast and resident aliens. “In the Christian tradition, compassion is essential for the healing ministry—a compassion that risks self in service to help and heal others.” (Mt 9:35-38) Swartley reviews the historical medical mission efforts. He notes the motivating compassion for the medically needy around the world as attested to by the long line of medical missionaries who sacrificed (and continue to sacrifice) comfort, security, and accumulation of wealth to address medical needs.

Jesus’ concern for the sick was that they are not only healed of their illness, but that they are made whole. Likewise, as we seek to heal the whole person, moving individuals, families, and communities toward wholesome living, we address not only the acute illness, but also the physical, psychological, social, and environmental consequences of that illness.

Healthcare for all? Justice demands it and compassion impels us to provide it.  In providing healthcare, we follow the gospel imperatives of peacemaking and service. Swartley concludes: “I regard universal coverage for basic health care a biblical moral priority.”

Hindrances to achieving universal care

Swartley points out that our healthcare system has built-in flaws that hinder providing universal care at reasonable cost: inefficiencies, duplication, overdiagnosis and overtreatment fueled by profit-taking and ever higher expectations of what modern healthcare can achieve. Our healthcare system is the “victim of economic greed and political rancor.”  It raises the question: “Can the costs of health care be reduced without a fundamental rethinking of the relation between health care and the market-driven system the United States presently has?” Swartley points to the need for change and a renewed vision with “the need for conversion in the desire and expectations, sharing of resources and loving care for the sick that has characterized the church’s mission through the ages.”

The role of the church in fulfilling the mission

In my church we share our “joys and concerns” each Sunday. Invariably, prayer is requested for those suffering from life’s uncertainties, illness, or pain. Implicit in the request for prayer is the recognition of God as Healer and Restorer. Then we leave church to reenter the world of modern medicine with its knowledge, its gleaming machines to diagnose and treat, and its attendant (but undeserved) aura of infallibility.  Swartley states that this creates a dilemma for us, “resulting in double talk: lip service to God as healer but practical obeisance to medicine as healer.” He resolves this issue by re-asserting that it is God who gives wholeness and well-being. Medical caregivers assist God in bestowing health.

The community—the church—motivated by an inner sense of social justice and compassion has a role in achieving the goal of universal healthcare.  Swartley says that a “major renewal of commitment to the welfare of all in the community is desperately needed.”

  • The church, by welcoming and nurturing the neighbor and stranger, points the way toward wholeness and Shalom. Hospitality and inclusion comprise a concern that all members of the community have access to basic healthcare.
  • In times of illness, the church is the touchstone for encouragement, comfort, and prayer. Members are available to the afflicted person for discernment for hard decisions: procedures to be undertaken, life support measures, or quality of life issues, to name a few.
  • The church finds innovative ways to promote and advocate for access to quality healthcare for all. Congregations can consider ways in which mutual aid can be applied locally.
  • Individuals can seek to communicate openly with their healthcare providers in ways that will diminish his/her fear of malpractice lawsuits and decrease or eliminate the perceived need of the doctor to perform unnecessary tests and treatment.

Questions and comments:

  1. Swartley notes that people of faith face a dilemma at the time of a medical crisis. Where do we place our faith—in prayer or technology? Do we pray only when technology appears to be failing? What would it mean if healthcare providers put into practice a belief that healing is of God?
  2. The church has a mission in providing universal healthcare. Mennonite Church USA recognized this role in 2005-2007 when they urged congregations to focus on promoting access to healthcare in their local communities. Sixty-two local churches began innovative and holistic healthcare programs in their local communities.
  3. Swartley emphasizes improving efficiency in healthcare delivery. More can be said about the role of consumers in the good stewardship of healthcare, for example; a) carrying a summary of your medical record, b) cost shopping for elective procedures, c) knowing how to care for a chronic disease in ways that will prevent hospitalizations.
  4. Swartley gives examples of other countries where universal healthcare is provided at lower cost with better results. He points to the need for a single payer system. Jennifer, who files insurance claims for a medical provider, knows about the hassles of dealing with fifty different insurance companies, each with their own policies and procedures.
  5. As a (former) healthcare provider, I found Health, Healing and the Church’s Missionprovided a potent reminder of the theology and motivation undergirding what we do. Congregational leaders (and indeed anyone interested in healthcare) will also be interested in what Swartley has to say about the vital role that congregations can play in improving healthcare for their members and communities.

About the author

GlenEMiller-e1410891783819Glen E. Miller, MD, MATS, is a retired internist with twenty-five years’ experience in private practice and eleven years in medical work and administration overseas with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In 2005-2007, he served as the manager of the Mennonite Church USA Healthcare Access Program. He is the author of Empowering the Patient and is currently working on a book dealing with preparation for a good death.


Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship

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