January 20: I had trouble listening to the radio today on my usual station — public radio. I asked my husband to turn off the TV news. I barely scanned the newspaper, though I tried several times. I found the news and the banter to be pushing me past my threshold for patience and understanding. I usually devour any news and analysis that I can fit into my busy schedule. But analysis of the Massachusetts senatorial victory, in a race largely focused on the defeat of the healthcare bill, really caused me pain.

With the concept of “civil rights” in the forefront of my consciousness during this week of MLK’s birthday, I have been thinking a lot about what the term means. “Civil rights” isn’t just about race relations. It is about the creation of a just society. The dream of the civil rights movement was/is to transform our society to one that gives all of its people equal opportunity; to make it into a place wherein all people are truly entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But more, where these entitlements, these rights, are ensured and protected by the laws of the land.

So why is healthcare not a basic human right? How is caring for sick not about the protection of life, if not happiness? A society that does not take responsibility to care for its sick sand to promote health is a society that lacks compassion.

A society that struggles to be just — while also promoting individual responsibility and empowerment — has a critical challenge in balancing its resources. Our religious tradition teaches us the value of caring for the poor and the sick and the weak and the old. But it also instructs us to help the needy to learn how to support themselves. Yes, individual empowerment and responsibility encourage that. But it is not enough. We do not all have a level playing field. Socio-economic conditions and lack of equal opportunity are part of the reason. Individual differences in ability and sometimes just plain luck can govern how well we do in our own sustenance.

And then there is the complex issue of healthcare. The linking of healthcare to employment and to the fortunes of an employer can even further erode – or destroy – the chances for millions of Americans to be able to afford health insurance. Without that, healthcare is limited or unavailable. Haven’t we heard the stories of those who have suffered? Healthcare should be a basic right, an entitlement of all people, not the privilege of the well-to-do or fortunate. How can we abide by watching this issue tossed about as a political football so fiercely kicked back and forth that the air is seeping out of it? How can we justify – yet again — defeating the opportunity to ensure this basic human right?

If only we could use the might and resources devoted to war to help heal. If we devoted ourselves to our stated values of love and compassion, wouldn’t we agree that caring for the health and well-being of our people is the best demonstration of greatness?

The prophet Isaiah dreamed a vision that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” How about an added verse: “they shall beat their swords into stethoscopes and their spears into medicines.” Ah, now that would be world that would make me proud.


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