In the fight to preserve health care, we have to lay our bodies on the line

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, right, accompanies the Rev. William Barber, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, and others in a march on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2017. RNS photo by Madeleine Buckley

WASHINGTON (RNS) —When Capitol police drew my hands behind my back and took me into custody for protesting Sen. Mitch McConnell’s now-failed health care bill on Capitol grounds, I was certain my arrest, and that of the 10 other clergy and activists who stood beside me, was necessary.

In the fight to ensure that more than 20 million Americans don’t lose the lifesaving care they so desperately need, people of faith have to be willing to lay their bodies on the line.

Moral leaders from coast to coast are taking extraordinary means to ensure that Congress does not repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely and delay implementation of a new, yet-to-be-drafted law, the so-called “repeal-and-delay” strategy.

A half-mile-long column of civil rights demonstrators — including many clergy — crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Religion News Service archive photo

Nonviolent civil disobedience was used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s to usher in a new era of justice for African-Americans who had been too long denied. Nonviolent disruptors such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Ralph Abernathy literally demanded to be heard.

We know that civil disobedience is not just an organizing tactic from a bygone era. It is our prophetic duty.

After last week’s arrest for “crowding, obstructing or incommoding,” according to Capitol Hill Police, I was reminded of four things that I must do as a person of faith:

1. I cannot sit in a pew on Sunday morning only to forget that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

As a white woman with health insurance, I could hide behind the law, the pulpit or my desk and do advocacy as usual. But I refuse. It is time to start agitating. Our democracy is failing when it allows a death bill to move forward unwanted by the majority of American people, paid for by corporate lobbyists and rammed through without debate and without dialogue.

2. There comes a time when our systems and our laws are so unjust that we have to respond to a higher moral law and pay the consequences. 

Now is a time to be like Isaiah and Nehemiah and Jeremiah — say bold things, take bold actions. Our senators will not change course through quiet meetings alone; they need to face public moral pressure. Let’s bring it on.

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, center, speaks as a group protests against the Republican health care bill outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2017. RNS photo by Madeleine Buckley

The American people need your moral voice to be led out of the wilderness of consumerism, hate speech, Fox News and talk radio media landscape. The Christian right, a political rather than a religious movement, has captured the minds of many of our people and led them astray.

In the wake of our arrests I have heard from liberals and conservatives grateful and eager for more.

3. Service must be at the core of what we do.

The Hebrew word for worship is “avodah,” which means “to serve” or “to work.”

Never do I feel closer to God than in these moments when we are marching, singing, praying, sharing testimony in the halls of power: working for God’s kingdom. We started the march with the sound of the Jewish shofar ringing in our ears. Before delivering a Bible with highlighted verses to McConnell’s office, I read from Isaiah Chapter 3, where God accuses the powerful of plundering the poor and asks, “What do you mean by grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?” If you want to know God, challenge the halls of power with God’s Word.

4. Unity is key.

We must work together to spread this moral movement to every state and corner of the country, every faith and every race and age group. While handcuffed in the police van on a sweltering day, we sang hymns, shared analysis and movement-building strategies.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon sang so faithfully her handcuffs slid off just like Paul’s and Silas’ in prison. So too our moral voices united will loose the chains of greed and selfishness that bind this nation.

We had come together quickly in just five days from all parts of the country. There is nothing like being in a tight spot to challenge a movement. Let this be our growing time. Your voice is needed. Will you join us?

(Jennifer Butler is CEO of Faith in Public Life)

About the author

Jennifer Butler


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  • I’m confused by all the terms we use. By health care, do you mean health insurance? Because health care is available for all. I believe we need to make heath care affordable for those who need it but the crisis isn’t over availability of care but the ability to pay for it.

  • Right, healthcare. Lack of access to which murders babies and mothers alike from preventable medical harm.

  • Not too sure what the situation is with health care /insurance in the U.s .just highlighting that people claiming the mass butchery of babies is ‘healthcare’is as obscene as it is absurd .

  • Babies aren’t being butchered. Mass or otherwise. Babies are born. Now Bob, if you are concerned about abortions, my suggestion is that you do what you can to support cheap and easily accessible contraception. Otherwise, it is best to come to the understanding that a fetus doesn’t grow in an incubator. But there is a person involved whose existence, choices and lives are not subject to your opinions.

  • If Butler wants the government to assume the responsibility for making everyone’s lives comfortable, she needs to push her state government to act, not Washington. Not only are the state governments closer to the people receiving the benefits, it’ll actually be constitutional.

  • It’s not about being comfortable. It’s about health care as a human right, which is implied in Article 21 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was strongly influenced by, among others, American religious leaders. Neither the for-profit sector nor the non-profit sectors of our society can insure that this human right will be respected for all citizens, so it falls to government, collaborating with all other sectors of society, to insure access to health care for each and every one of us. This is why President Roosevelt created such government programs as the Works Project Administration and Social Security. This is why Congress and President Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid, and why Congress and President Obama extended Medicaid. It is not overreach for government to pass legislation and create programs that protect human rights for all citizens.

  • My question from yesterday remains. Are we talking about the availability of heath care, which I believe is a fundamental right, or the affordability of health care, which is a virtue. The two are not synonymous but they are treated as such in most discussions. Douglas, in your comment you stated, “to insure access to health care …” I’m not sure if a double meaning was intended but there is a significant difference between ensuring access (which I agree with) and “insuring” access, which arguably is not a fundamental right. We need to ensure access to quality health care, lower costs, but not expect the taxpayer to pay for it. Government can only collect, allocate, and arrange resources. The government doesn’t fund health insurance under programs like the ACA Medicare, Medicaid, and the like, taxpayers do.

  • Of course. Terminology may vary, but the issue is definitely nothing else but affordability. There is no lack of health care services, hospitals, medications. nor denial of them to particular group of race of people. “Health care crisis” is like “food or housing crisis”. Anybody can purchase a sandwich or a house/rent an apartment, not everyone can afford it.