Christianity and Healthcare

One key to the growth of the early Christian movement was that it provided a free health care system available to all.  Hector Avalos, in Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (review) noted that other ancient health care systems were exclusive and expensive.  Rodney Stark is another scholar who notes the importance of health care in The Rise of Christianity (review).  During the plagues of the second and third centuries pagan physicians, politicians, and leaders fled the cities while Christians stayed behind to care for their own sick and for their neighbors.

Stark estimates that basic nursing care, providing food, water, and clean bedding, would have increased the survival rate during the plagues from near zero to about fifty percent.  This resulted in a naturally higher survival rate in cities with a substantial Christian presence.  It also brought more pagans into the sphere of Christian influence.

Why do so many hospitals have the name of Saint somebody?  The whole idea of the hospital is a Christian invention, inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan.  You remember the hero in that story took the bleeding victim to an inn and paid the inn keeper–remember, hospitals had not yet been invented–to care for the victim.

The health care Christians provided was pretty simple: it consisted mainly of offering prayer, a bed, food and water (or wine), dressings for wounds, and simple nursing care.  Where physicians and surgeons were members of Christian communities, they also offered their services.  Simple, basic care is still the most critical need around the world.  For example, two million children die each year from lack of clean water.

It is puzzling to me that some Christian leaders are speaking out against the idea of universal health care.  If they don’t think the government should assist the needy in this area, then they should be organizing Christian charities to build clinics and free hospitals.  St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, and the 22 Shriner’s hospitals in North America do a wonderful work in providing free care for children.  We will have to build many more such facilities if we are to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who lack access to health services.

7 Responses

  1. I just recently wrote a short note on Facebook about this – how socialism is “a necessary evil” because of the poor stewardship of Christians (average “tithe” in protestant churches hovers around 2.6%).

    It would be interesting to see what the tithe rates of American Christians were before Medicare, Medicaid, and the plethora of governmental health care programs were instituted.

    I have heard (via anecdotal references) that the tithe rate was actually higher years ago, and then these government programs started getting instituted and the church stopped giving as much because the need declined.

  2. I have been following the blog of a family who are practicing Christians. This is a young family, with 2 pre-teen girls and a year old baby girl. Earlier this year, the mother was diagnosed with, and had surgery for liver cancer.
    I believe the husband is employed and had medical insurance, but it is insufficient to cover this medical need and other related expenses.
    The family have been accepting donations to cover their costs.
    So basically, that is charity they’d accept from anyone and I don’t think they’d care about anyone’s religion.
    Socialism isn’t evil. It’s simply humane.

    • Margaret,

      I’ll occasionally make statements on facebook/blogging sites that are inflammatory (such as “socialism is a necessary evil”) so that people will read and think critically about what they believe. Kind of like how Nietzche wrote “God is dead,” but explains that the phrase really explains how people only claim to believe in God, but their actions belie that belief.

      The scenario you describe is an excellent example of how socialism can really work – and should work. But there are people who take advantage of the system – which in turn is taking advantage of those who support the system (taxpayers).

      So, I submit that there is a difference between “forced” socialism and “voluntary” socialism. The former is immoral, but the latter is how Christians should be acting and responding to people’s needs in the first place.

      The point I was driving at in my facebook note was based on the fact that, if those who consider “their belief in God a very influential part of their lives,” gave 10% of their income – they would have enough money to be a part of the G8.

      American healthcare is broken, but maybe instead of throwing more money into the system (we use 15.6% of our gdp on health care, whereas Britain only uses ~8%), we should reform both immigration and health care so money isn’t spent on those who don’t pay the taxes which drive the health care system.

  3. Margaret,

    Thanks for the comment. If you post the link, maybe some of us would like to make a contribution.

    BTW, thanks for your recent email. I’m still planning to respond. We all get busy!

    Also, I know it’s been a while since you have lived in the UK, but what do you think of their health care system? Everyone I met there last year was proud of it. Their usual response was like “Oh, you poor Americans, you don’t have any health care.”


    • I’ve sent you email regarding the link, Mark. I’ll have a think about best to proceed with your generous thought.
      Respond as you can, Mark! I’ll keep up with you here!
      Regarding the NHS in UK, I believe the quality of care depends on where you live.
      I know my parents got excellent care in Seafield Hospital, Buckie, as their lives ended. The staff are mainly local and so are known to the patients, speak the dialect and so it’s very much ‘community care’
      The hospitals in the other bigger towns, Inverness, Elgin, Aberdeen have excellent reputations.
      Mind you, I believe all are augmented by “Friends of…” and fundraising events, which is no different than here.
      My brother-in-law did not have such a comforting experience when he had surgery for prostate cancer 2 years ago. He lived in Wales and had to wait a very long time for surgery to be scheduled and post-surgery complications were not dealt with promptly.
      However, the most important thing is that the surgery etc did not cost him anything! It was all free!
      Well, free in he was not sent a bill.
      My broken arm cost us $5000 this year, plus more in physiotheraphy.
      I remember when I had major surgery 20 years ago, the aide who was wheeling me to the car as I was leaving, wheeled me into the billing department and told me I had to pay before I left!
      I couldn’t because I had no money with me!
      It was quite shocking!
      Richard and I do have health insurance, but there are still always the co-payment and prescription costs.
      I think the 2 systems are just too different to say one is vastly superior, but i’d say it’s good to be able to see a doctor without worrying about the bills at a time when you’re not well.
      I do blame the drug companies here for a lot that’s at fault!

  4. Now that I’ve had a think about NHS, I should add that both Richard and myself are products of the NHS, which started in 1948. I remember my grandparents talking about not being able to afford medical care.
    When I had my tonsils and appendix removed in the 1950s/60s, I was in wards with 12 beds.
    But was that so bad?
    What IS bad is that people who become seriously ill and cannot work are in danger of losing everything they have, through no fault of their own.
    I do think employer paid health insurance is a bad idea.
    It implies only the fittest should work.
    But, I cannot imagine USA ever becoming a ‘welfare state.’
    Yet, medical bills still have to be paid.

  5. It’s interesting that many Christians opposed to abortion are also opposed to making health care a right that everyone is entitled to.
    It’s like they want poor women to give birth to medically needy children …instead of having an abortion…only to deny the newborn children medical care if mom doesn’t have money to pay,.

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