You may remember that back around the time the “shut-down” of the US Government occurred, the government also rolled out its online service for enrolling in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Since then, the news has been full of stories about the ways in which that system has not worked well, and the focus for the problem has been on those contractors who built the software for the online sign-up process.
Just yesterday, I heard a news report about testimony before the US Senate by the Secretary of Health and Human Services concerning the problems with this system. One senator remarked to the Secretary that he hoped there would be repercussions against the contractors responsible for building the system. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said,” As someone who has fought and bled for [the health-care law] . . . I want you to hold them account [sic], I want you to burn their fingers and make them pay for not being responsible and producing a product that all of us can be proud [sic].” (Emphasis mine)
Now, I feel relatively confident that the senator was not suggesting that the fingers of the programmers should actually be set on fire. However, when I heard the recording of his statement, I was struck profoundly by the vehemence and violence contained in his rhetoric. It is a kind of violence of speech that we have become too accustomed to in American life, and it betrays a perspective that is lacking any sense of forgiveness or compassion. Such a statement suggests that if someone is given a job to do, and makes mistakes in the doing of it, that the proper response is to “burn their fingers”, either metaphorically or literally. There seems to be no space in Senator Nelson’s world for human frailty or imperfection. He doesn’t seem to make much room for the humanity of the people whose job it was to put together this new, complicated system. Did he really expect it to work perfectly right out of the box?
Unfortunately, the senator’s attitude is a common one in our culture. Generally speaking, we as a people seem rather unwilling to provide space for people to make mistakes or bad decisions. We seem often to be advocates of a culture of perfection that is just not realistically possible. The various “zero tolerance” policies that seem popular these days in schools, for example, leave no room for the humanity of inexperienced children. These policies do not allow for mistakes or misjudgments. If you violate the policy, you are simply out. End of story. There is no possibility of redemption.
It seems to me that people who seek to be followers of Jesus cannot get on board with this way of thinking. After all, we follow the one who taught that we should turn the other cheek — not burn the fingers of those who wrong us in some way. Jesus was very aware of the human tendency to make mistakes, and he spent much of his time with people who had made some significant ones. St. Paul summed it up this way: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
And this is, indeed, what it means to be a sinner: it means to be a person who makes mistakes. The word “sin” ultimately comes from a Greek word that means to “miss the mark” — and we have all missed the mark at one time or another. In fact, most of us probably miss the mark pretty regularly in some area of our lives. We have tended to identify the words “sin” and “sinner” as having to do with moral lapses. Sinners, we think, are bad people. But that’s not really the sense of the term in the New Testament, where the title “saint” and “sinner” is given to everyone. Because sometimes we hit the mark, and sometimes we miss it, but we are held in love, grace, and forgiveness all the time.
And if God holds us in love, grace, and forgiveness always, then we should do the same for ourselves and for one another.
So let’s not burn their fingers, Senator Nelson, either literally or metaphorically. Let’s recognize that the human beings involved in this new endeavor tried to do a job, and made some mistakes along the way. They tried to hit the mark, but they missed it in some important respects. They should go back and fix it, as I’m sure they will. And we should certainly be honest about the problems, and their responsibility for them. But no one should get burned.