The news has been full of coverage concerning the health care reform debate. Now with the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, we see clips of a young Ted giving speeches calling for health care reform, stating that the availability of universal health care for every American should be a right rather than a privelege. The clips date back 30 years and put the current debate in a sobering context. Many have fought for reform for a long time, in great depth ever since the profit-gleaning shift in the insurance business that occurred during Richard Nixon’s presidency. An excellent clip from Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” plays a recording of Nixon approvingly admiring a move to “great financial profit for private investors as a result of a new system of health care” (to paraphrase). So, it’s been a long time coming and it’s still not here.

So we see this continuous coverage. An excellent summation of what’ s happened, what is currently happening and what will likely occur at the end of this strain of the debate is laid out in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone. “Sick and Wrong: How Washington is screwing up health care reform and why it may take a revolt to fix it,” by Matt Taibbi is a comprehensive, stomach churning and head shaking look at the mess we find ourselves in today.

Granted, Taibbi makes Moore look look understated and unbiased. Taibbi writes in an almost Hunter S. Thompson-like gonzo, over-the-top and expletive laden vitiriol concerning social issues. Yet he nails every pressing point that gets swept under the rug on the mainstream television and radio. Tellingly, he lists that the so-called “Gang of Six,” the “bi-partisan” group of senators that are supposedly working towards a compromise on this issue all received major donations from the health sector in amounts ranging from $600,000 to a whopping $2,034,000 for Sen. Grassley, a leading Republican senator in the “gang.”  Do we really expect that such major donations don’t entail a “favor for a favor?” Each member of the gang has financially backed reasons for keeping the current system in place. Insurance companies make large profits under the current system, as do private investors and Wall Street bankers. Senators are untouched since they already have their own “public option” through the government simply by being senators. The only people that suffer under the current system are everyone else that have no, little or untrustworthy coverage.

Taibbi points out, like everyone else with clear reasoning in this debate including the 41 witnesses recently barred from testifying in a government review in favor of a universal plan, that the only option that is likely to work and make sense is one with a public option.  A public option will give everyone who is unable to purchase coverage in the current market and affordable means to do so. A public option will force the insurance companies to bring down their astronomical rates in order to be more competitive with the public option. Any universal plan without a public option will not do much of anything to sovle the current problems. In fact, any plan that passes without a public option as a “watered down” version of universal health care will simply leave the openents currently screaming “Socialism!” feeling vindicated and have them shouting “I told you so.”  If such a disaster occurs this country may never have a chance to pass a real and valid universal plan again. The major complaints voiced by senators in regards to the public option concern the existence and profits of the insurance companies. Taibbi quotes Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as saying that “private insurance companies will not be able to compete with a government option” and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson as complaining that the public option will “win the game.”

So how have the opponents of the public option and of health care reform in general succeeded in what looks to be excising the public option from any possibly passing act?  By complaining– loudly, threateningly and accusatorily in hostile, misinformed and sensationalistic ways. Those on the other side share the blame by not addressing these loud and incorrect complaints fully. An excellent feature article in the Sunday, August 23rd edition of the Louisville Courier Journal compared the current struggle for health care reform to the many reform struggles faced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt over a half century ago. The difference now? FDR spoke out over the radio in a series of “fireside chats” to address the loud and false shouts of “fascism!” “socialism!” “communism!” and “total government control!”  that were hostilely being thrown at his administration. He decried the simple and shallow labels and fully explained that his reforms were in continuing with the American legacy of progress, reform and steady work to make this country a place where all have an equal chance and in which we can truly grow as a nation and as a people. Obama thus far has played it too safe in taking on his opponents in this issues. Now is the time to act, for there may not be an opportunity like this again.

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Definition of a Prophet

August 10, 2009

In light of the work of Dr. Cornel West ( I recently read his book “Race Matters”) and an article from a current issue of “The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy” by Gary Dorrien,  I’ve been pondering what a true “prophet” is, who some examples in our past are, and the (possible) absence of current examples in our society today.

Contrary to the perception most people have when they hear the word “prophet,” a prophet is not a fortune teller or prediction giver, at least not in a magical sense. Of course, a true prophet may well be able to tell what will happen to their current society if certain changes are not made but it’s not a parlor trick.

A person can be a prophet of rage; a prophet of justice. A prophet of truth, revelation, social gospel, love or peace. Most often a prophet will be a mixture of all of these things. Prophets may be teachers, preachers, rabbis, clerics, doctors, thinkers or writers. They may be singers, poets, artists or activists. They may be religious or irreligious. Pious or plagued by bad habits. Many prophets don’t live full lives; society has a way of using violence to remove them.

Prophets seek truth, regardless of how that truth will be received by those that hear it. Prophets are consumed with purpose, driven by genuine emotion and spirituality. Prophets have connection to the past and a vision for the future. Prophets seek the advance and fulfillment of the entire group, culture and ultimately of all people. Prophets aren’t figures confined just to ancient history and scriptures. Certainly there were figures from those sources: Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad (for many people), etc.  But in more recent history there have been plenty more: Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk.

We need Prophetic figures, certainly. Yet we need Prophetic Movements and Prophetic Religion for those figures to emerge from (or perhaps start?).  Such a religion, church or movement calls out greed, apathy, disregard, waste, prejudice, subjugation and hatred wherever it sees it. Such a movement seeks justice, equality, love and progress everywhere. Such spirituality is more concerned with people than dogma, spiritual fulfillment than pious regulation, love rather than misplaced judgment. Of course, judgment pours forth from a prophetic movement but rarely towards specific individuals (unless that individual is a political or religious leader) for specific missteps, but rather towards entire cultures, countries and groups (usually from which the prophet emerged from—critique from within) for their lack of effort toward justice, their acts of oppression, their mistreatment of those with the least…almost every single Prophet in history has called out nations for their mistreatment of the poor.

Okay. What brings in the recent article from the AJTP is that it concerns “liberal Christianity,” which other writers have more accurately captured with the name “Progressive Christianity.” Gary Dorrien published “The Crisis and Necessity of Liberal Theology” in the spring issue of the above mentioned journal. He describes the history of liberal theology and progressive Christianity which in modern forms was predominant in many areas of the country throughout the 1800s and up to the 1930s. The great Depression and the culmination of two world wars reduced its popularity at a time when many people wanted a more concrete, definitive, and unquestioning and strictly rooted religion. The modern problem facing progressive theology and Christianity is, to paraphrase Dorrien from his article, that it’s too religious and spiritually minded for our secular friends who we may otherwise share opinions with on the social issues facing us, it’s too full of openness, doubt, searching and interpretation for our more orthodox traditional Christian counterparts, and it’s too wordy, complex and academic for those that are unversed in philosophy, theology and academia. Dorrien noted that most of us enamored with Liberal Theology feel that Progressive Christianity would spread tremendously if only we could express its message more succinctly, truly and simply. Yet, he writes, it’s wrong to think droves would “flock to our doors” if only we could better express our beliefs. Most people DON”T WANT a Prophetic Religion that seeks to address social change and progress. Most people want a religion that acts as a personal security blanket, reinforcing pre existing thoughts, beliefs and prejudices. But as Cornell West calls out for in his writings, we need those prophets to enlighten those that don’t even seek such progress. We’ve had them throughout history and we’ve made great steps in their wake. When they’re not here we grow complacent. Yet as West writes, we can’t look towards a single person speaking prophetically and say we’ve got it. We must have that entire movement. For there surely are voices crying out now that speak the truth that seek to transform communities, culture and countries. In very recent years West himself as been such a person as well as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Marcus Borg…the list can go on and on and include writers, musicians, poets, teachers and preachers who maybe don’t always live in and think of themselves as prophets, but seize certain prophetic truths and address them to entire groups of people in the hopes of causing positive change. Yet we need an energized movement that speaks to more people and inspires them to do more for others; the more people inspired to do even a little more is like water rolling down hill, the work done for others may inspire some of them to get involved themselves. The point is, we live at a time when drastic prophetic social change truly can occur. We’ve been stuck at a point in which it was possible for some time now, yet it really hasn’t happened. Dorrien may be write that Progressive Christianity may never be fully widespread, and that’s okay. If it’s a niche corner, then it needs to be a strong niche corner in which good work is done, truth is spoken and it needs to partner with like minded niche corners in every sector, religious or irreligious, secular and spiritual, political or communal.