Universal Health Care as a Human Right: The Argument of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

G. Clarke Chapman, The Edward Mellen Press, 2014

Reviewed by John W. Matthews, Apple Valley, Minnesota

What an interesting – and ironic – time to review a book on universal health care in the United States. In January 2017, a President was inaugurated in Washington, DC. who was elected – and about to deliver on – a promise to undo the closest thing America has had for universal health care in its  two-hundred-thirty year history. The Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly called ‘Obama Care’ after the President who stimulated and guided its creation, while imperfect in many details, was a sincere attempt to insure that all Americans had access to reasonable health care, as a ‘human right.’ Time will tell whether anything subsequently developed will accomplish what the ACA sought to deliver. Further, while most of the disagreements about Obama Care (ACA) appeared to center around details of ’implementation,’ the hows and whens, there is reason to believe that for many people, who were against the program, the ‘if’ and ‘why’ of universal health care lay more at the center of their rejection. It is to this fundamental question, rationale, and justification for universal health care that Clarke Chapman puts pen to paper in this ninety-page monograph. He concludes on page seventy-five with an acknowledgement that working out the details, the ‘next stage of labor,’ belongs to us: “We ourselves must struggle to answer just how best to structure and implement a more universal access to health care . . . that task now rests on our shoulders.” But, in the seventy-four pages of text, Clarke passionately – and successfully – argues that universal health care is a “human and moral right,” no ifs, whys, ands or buts about it.

After a helpful Introduction (pages 1-6), Chapman (convincingly, I believe)  argues why universal health care is a moral and religious issue, discussing ‘natural rights,’ and then he describes the subsequent “Libertarian Shrinkage of Human Rights,”  a shrinkage largely responsible for the current quagmire we find ourselves in.  In chapter two  (pp. 23-34), the author describes “Two Foundations” which can be usefully employed to ground a religious argument for universal health care:  Catholicism’s historic commitment to the sanctity of life and human rights, and Protestantism’s perennial appeal to the mandated will of God, as known in the Scriptures.

So far, Chapman’s helpful orienting of the reader to the subject. Chapter Three introduces his use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a voice he clearly admits speaks to us from another era, a witness that offers no immediate or specific answers on ‘how’ to implement universal health care. Chapman engages the wisdom of Bonhoeffer on a more basic theological level, finding in him (further) foundation for the ‘if’ and ‘why.’ Chapman suggests that Bonhoeffer’s helpfulness can result from his appeal to not only more progressive, liberal Christians, those who read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, but also to evangelical and Catholic Christians, those who focus more on Life Together and  Discipleship.  The author then argues (pages 39-70) by employing: 1/ Bonhoeffer’s understanding of human rights, employing the topics “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” “Natural Life,” and “History and the God.” (pp. 48-61) and 2/ Bonhoeffer’s specific understanding of the will of God, Christologically focused (pp. 61-64).  Chapman is in complete agreement with the editors of the German edition of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, that Bonhoeffer represents “the first theological –ethical doctrine of basic human rights developed by a twentieth-century German Protestant theologian.” (p. 41)

The author modestly admits in the final pages that, “Undeniably, quite practical issues do remain, both diverse and troubling.”  (p. 71) While providing a very helpful theological perspective, employing both  Catholic and Protestant traditions, Chapman states, “Unfortunately on this point, however, no clear answer from Bonhoeffer is possible. Here his writings have little to say.” (p. 72)

If I were cull out one (profound) insight that Chapman draws from the theological corpus of Bonhoeffer that is most relevant in this argument for universal health care, I would suggest it is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of what it means to be human. Over against an Enlightenment/atomistic, “self-enclosed individualism” (p. 41) stands Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view (first articulated in Sanctorum Communio in 1927) that human beings are only complete/authentic/real when understood in relationship with others. “Bonhoeffer insisted there is a “sociality” in humanity’s essence,” (p. 41) and therefore, the question of universal health care must be discussed ‘in community,’ and ‘for community,’ not primarily on the basis of how the cost and responsibility impacts only individual persons. “Here also we find the true meaning of freedom: amid the mutuality inhabited by each of us.” (p. 44)

“If only our society could agree that health care for everyone is both a human right and a divine mandate, as Bonhoeffer would maintain, that would be the momentous first step.” (p. 71)

Well done, Clarke!




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