In Adams's fall
We sinned all.
-- New England Primer
He plays extravagant matches . .
.. On a cloth untrue,
With a twisted cue,
And elliptical billiard balls.
-- W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado
People who live good lives, they're healthy . . .
-- Rep. Mo Brooks, May 1, 2017
Because I work in health care, I know that what I sit in is called a geri-chair, though its more formal name is "medical recliner." It's padded, hard to fall out of, and tilts back. The remote control of a flat screen is at my right shoulder, hanging by its cable from the back of the chair; so I have a universe of entertainment before me, as a gracious nurse inserts her needle into the veteran and often-punctured vein on the inside of my right elbow and establishes an intravenous line. After a few short infusions of introductory drugs, one of which makes me euphoric, she begins the main event: the hour-long drip of a substance that kills cells, some though not all of which are the cells that, if left to themselves, will kill me. I do this every three weeks. I've done it four times now, and depending on how things go I'll do it three or maybe five times more.
The first time I did this, in my drug-induced high, with a remote in my hand and a window before me showing, through a frosted sylvan design like that of a Belvedere Vodka bottle, a larger room of nurses and screens and controls, I said I felt like I was on the bridge of the Enterprise. More often I just feel lucky.
I receive my gifts in the entrails of a medical research center, and two high-priced doctors work for my welfare, with their assistants and specialized nurses. I'm enrolled in two research protocols, so I am scanned and sampled and tracked, and all my information is kept in a single system. Most astounding of all however is the money, most of it for drugs, untold amounts of which fly over my head in cyberspace, only droplets of which fall on me as co-pays, virtually nothing. I'm getting all of this, close as dammit, for free. I'm lucky.
To say I am lucky is a theological statement, a defiance of the dominant theology of our time, which says I've got mine so I deserve it and the rest of you be damned. The ruling theology of America now is damn-the-poor theology, damn-the-unfortunate theology, grab-everything-that-ain't-bolted-down-and-run-for-the-hills theology, a looter's theology. It would be easy to join in. It would be easy for me to say I deserve the gifts I am getting, that I'm smart and worked hard, earned my degrees and certifications and picked a final career with a health-care agency that out of sheer moral compulsion would provide excellent medical insurance, and then I managed not to get fired or laid off for twelve years. These were smart things to do, and required work. It would be so easy to say, I deserve what I have, it's my right. As if my life were worth preserving at such expense -- which would be to say it is priceless.
And it ought to be my right. Medical care is a human right, and the medical profession knows it. All attempts to treat medical care as a consumer good are confounded when an uninsured person comes in the door of an emergency room. Such people cannot pay and they cannot, by ethics of medicine, be refused, so they are cared for briefly and sent bills of a size beyond their capacity, which we the public pick up in our insurance premiums. In denying our biblical responsibility to care for our neighbors, we smack ourselves in the face with greater penalties. This is not just greed but worse. It's stupidity.
An uninsured person at the emergency room is not like a poor person presenting himself at the Beamer showroom. Those who can't afford a Beamer don't get one: they live without a Beamer, which is perfectly possible. There isn't any human right to a Beamer. But those who can't afford medical care for the condition I live with will die of it. There is a human right to medical care.
The care I receive should come to me by right, but is only a privilege. In my work I meet people who are dying of what I live with, and might not be dying if they had been cared for as I am being cared for. These are not wastrels and rascals. Many are as smart and worked at least as hard as I have, but didn't have my luck. Their lives under God's eye are as priceless as mine, but they didn't get what I have.
This is iniquitous. The gifts I receive are poisoned fruits of a toxic tree. The American tumor dressed up as a medical system eats at the souls of all who encounter it. It is the best working model, for Christians and Unitarians, believers and atheists, of original sin. There are no right angles or straight lines or level floors. We play on a cloth untrue, striking as best we can elliptical billiard balls, and we ourselves are the twisted cues. We're smart and work hard, and have the best intentions, but we play for a system, and systems preserve themselves. It's as if someone, a long time ago, an original human being perhaps, did something terrible -- so terrible that it distorts all space and time, warping our motives in all dimensions. This is what we used to call the Fallen World.
Do I refuse the poisoned fruits offered me? Of course not. I preserve my life, which seems precious to me and to those who love me. But the life I preserve is tainted with a sinfulness bigger than my fault, and in working for the good of others through a tainted system I confirm the slanting of the world; but there are no untainted systems.
And yet we must be good. The Fallen World must be made beautiful.
When we twisted creatures join together to do good it's more miracle than arithmetic. And we must pray for miracles each day, not in some remote future when we've all become pure and all our companions in justice are spotless. Such waiting for purity is procrastination.
I fear that my religious dis-organization is falling into procrastination, into the joy of inquisition against those who we know will not strike back because they were trying, imperfectly, to help. There is no ideology and no vocabulary list that will save our country, or save us within it. If we're going to turn the tide we'll need partners who wouldn't have done well at the recent brie-and-chablis party. We must form alliances with some who haven't become comfortable with our words for racial and other injustice. If we win, our hands will get soil on them. We'll need the vision of that wealthy bankrupt sinner who wrote that all human beings are created equal. We'll need that proclamation from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.* We'll need both Liberation Theology and Enlightenment, imperfect as both human thought-scapes must be.
As for me, I forget ideologies and vocabulary lists every time I go to work in my ministry. I have to work at a deeper, less intellectual level. People are dying and people are grieving, and many of them are poorer than me, and many are of colors darker than the deep pinkness of my northern European extraction, and if I started speaking the language of Unitarian justice debates they would throw me out of the room. My appearance represents those who have done injuries to such people, and my ministry depends on their forgiveness -- forgiveness that, miraculously, is frequently extended, and not because I am free of sin.
"Any decent realtor," writes the poet Maggie Smith, "walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/about good bones." When we struggled against Nixon, the pathological and lawless president of an earlier time, we relied on Sam Ervin, a white Southern segregationist senator, to lead the resistance. Think about that, ideologues. I guess the good old boy had good bones. "This place could be beautiful, right?"**
**Maggie Smith, "Good Bones"
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