"it will not hurt them"

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." (Mk 16.17-18)

I've been following the current health care reform debate since last year, wondering how it might effect us. It seemed like it might end up pushing us into Medicaid, something I've avoided so far, since I didn't want to be going to the government for help with any of my needs. Now it looks like insurance coverage might not be mandatory after all. But before I knew about that I had an interesting (and contentious) discussion with some friends on the topic, which led me to rethink some of my previous conclusions.

My friends, who live and work with the poor, were upset by the possibility of mandatory insurance (even if the government provided it for them through Medicaid). They felt it would cause them to trust God less, that the government was trying to force them to look to the government to meet their needs. They sounded like they intended to conscientiously object. And I understood their point of view, having also resisted taking any government handouts so as not to start depending on the government for my help or security. I insisted, though, that God is in control over governments, too, and could possibly use their resources for good even if the intentions of politicians and lobbyists are not good. That didn't settle the question, of course, but it opened it a little wider in my mind.

And the discussion reminded me of some troubling implications of the "don't take any government handouts" stance. For example, our kids. We can choose to reject Medicaid because of convictions about dependence on God vs. government, and accept the consequences of that choice, but should we also impose those consequences on our children by not accepting what the state offers to them? That didn't seem quite right. And then if we look at other poor people... Would we tell them that they should reject Medicaid, or welfare, or food stamps, because God can provide better, through real loving charity rather than institutional welfare systems? My friends know many in their neighborhood who live on welfare and food stamps, and I don't think they would ever tell them to stop, or that accepting those things is wrong or hinders their faith in God. What about the many suffering in Haiti right now? Would any of us tell them not to accept the government handouts there?

I said to my friends that I think a strong belief in God's providence and power over all things (including "things that are Caesar's") is closely connected to a strong and radical dependence on God. We can depend on God always because God is always and in every situation dependable. Even when governments are involved. It made me think of that passage I quoted above, some of Jesus' last words to his followers.

Not because of the healing part, but because of the picking up serpents and drinking any deadly thing part. "It will not hurt them." I think this could apply to some interactions with governments (and business, too, for that matter). Not that all interactions with "deadly things" are necessary or good, and God might often provide ways around these or better alternatives that spare us the proximity with the serpents. But if there are true goods that it seems God is offering through governments, or needs God might meet using government resources, I think we can receive these trusting that God can preserve us from harm. I would still advise caution and restraint, knowing how governments do claim godlike positions of Protector and Provider (and demand our religious allegiance). We must never trust them or depend on them. But I think it's right to be able to say to a needy person that they could accept some government handouts without spiritual harm, that God could meet some of their need that way, among the many different ways he can meet our every need.

And I think I feel more ready to make decisions about things like Medicaid or Social Security without being so stressed and conflicted. Being able to accept what Almighty God might offer through whatever channel, even one as idolatrous as the state.