At a recent debate featuring some who aspire to be President of the United States, a hypothetical question was asked of one of the participants. He was asked to comment on whether the government should pay for health care for someone who was in a coma and had no health insurance and no ability to pay the bills, or should the government let him die. Before the candidate could answer, several members of the audience apparently yelled out, “Yeah” — that is, “let him die”. It was an unexpected turn in the evening’s debate, and has received a great deal of comment since.
I would hope that such comments represent only a minority point of view. However, it is still somewhat surprising and sad to me to hear such sentiment voiced at all. To me, it is a sign of something that seems to be happening in our society: that the value of compassion is disappearing from our public life. As the economy continues to stagnate, and as people feel under more and more pressure, I think there is a human tendency to pull back into ourselves, to become preoccupied with our own welfare and to become less concerned with the plight of others. And, of course, there is a great deal of discussion about whether or not government should shrink. And one of the targets of that shrinkage are programs that help people like the hypothetical man in the reporter’s hypothetical question during the debate.
Those who would be followers of Jesus cannot indulge in this pulling back into the self. Jesus was all about loving our neighbors as ourselves — meaning, in part, that we certainly cannot love our neighbor less than ourselves, that we cannot want more for ourselves than we do for others in the human family. If we would want health care for ourselves, we must want it for others. If we would want a job for ourselves, we must want one for others. If we would want housing for ourselves, we must want it for others. It is simply not possible to want these things for ourselves, to be glad when we have them, and not care what happens to others less fortunate if you are a follower of Jesus.
And while government spending might indeed need to be addressed, we should remember that government is not just “them, over there”, those people in Washington we like to get angry with. Government is also the way in which we as a society distribute resources to those who need them. The government is, or, at least, can be one avenue through which we express our collective compassion and declare the values by which we, as a society, want to live.
It is a horrible thing to realize that there are those who would rather cheer death for another than extend their compassion to someone in need. Perhaps those who cheered death at the debate that night felt they could do so because the question was about a hypothetical person. Except that this country has lots of people who are just like the hypothetical man — they are real flesh and blood people who are in need of our collective compassion and care.
Let us not allow our economic uncertainty and our sense of fear and scarcity turn us into a people who cheer death. Let us not allow compassion to disappear as a public value in this country.