A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of co-authoring an op-ed with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon titled “Standing in the Gap for Working Missourians.”
It was written in support of providing health coverage to 300,000 working Missourians through the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
Under the proposed expansion, low-income Missourians who can’t afford health insurance and earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level – or $32,500 a year for a family of four – would be eligible for coverage.
The op-ed was written following a meeting of Gov. Nixon and the clergy leadership of Missouri Faith Voices and its partners on March 12 in Jefferson City, Mo., to discuss the moral imperative of Medicaid expansion.
Clergy and faith leaders throughout the state are leading dialogue with legislative leaders from both parties regarding this important decision.
In the op-ed, I referenced the fact that in the prophet Ezekiel’s day, the poor and needy of Jerusalem faced oppression and extortion.
Ezekiel said, God “looked for someone who would stand in the gap … and found no one.”
Because good people did not stand up for a more righteous Jerusalem, suffering in Jerusalem continued.
A former Missouri state senator responded with a letter to the editor to the Missouri Times, in which he indicated that I had inappropriately taken the Scripture out of context to support Medicaid expansion.
He went on to say the nation of Israel was a theocracy and implied God’s expectations were different for Israel than they are for our nation.
Incredibly, he said the Scripture does not “support the concept that it is the responsibility of any government to provide for the poor and needy.”
I serve on the board of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which is an advocate for religious liberty and strongly supports both the “non-establishment” and the “free-exercise” clauses of the First Amendment.
I believe in the separation of church and state, and I believe faith should be neither coerced nor inhibited by the state.
However, this does not mean the state has no moral or ethical responsibility to care for its citizens. Nor does it mean the government is not accountable to God for its actions.
I am confident we can all cite examples of governments (democracies, monarchies, socialist governments and others) who have acted immorally in oppressing, neglecting or abusing their citizens – especially their most vulnerable citizens.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s judgment is repeatedly pronounced on both Israel and her neighbor nations (most of which were not theocracies) for their oppression of the poor.
It is wrong to have a state tax code that allows the wealthy in the state to pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the poor.
It is unfair to offer corporate tax credits and tax loopholes for the wealthy, and then to pay for this corporate welfare by cutting basic human services to the most vulnerable in our state.
It is unjust to build a healthcare system primarily focused on corporate profits, and then to decide hundreds of thousands of working poor are not worthy of access to basic health services.
It is immoral to keep the minimum wage so low that families must remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and then blame them for their failure to lift themselves out of poverty.
The former state senator said, “It is the church and individual Christians that are responsible to care for their neighbors.”
I would certainly concur that Christians individually and collectively are responsible for caring for their neighbors, but this does not negate the responsibility of a government and a nation to care for its citizens.
Nor does our failure to accept these responsibilities free us from our accountability to God.
The senator obviously does not read the Hebrew prophets or the teachings of Jesus and hear the call for justice the way I do, but that does not make the call any less real.
Maybe we could just listen to Missouri’s state motto – The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.
We are the richest nation on earth and we have more people living in wrenching poverty right now than in any other moment in our country’s history.
How can the wealthiest country in the world not provide the access to quality healthcare services for more than 40 million of our citizens?
The truth is, almost every study indicates Medicaid expansion in our state makes good economic sense.
Across Missouri, nonpartisan business groups, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, are supporting this effort to strengthen Medicaid.
For these leaders, it’s a business decision. They understand that bringing the dollars Missourians send to Washington back home to protect taxpayers, create jobs and reward work is good for our economy.
But, even if it were not a sound economic strategy, it is the just and right thing to do.
It is a justice issue for our state. It is a moral issue. We are responsible.