The Indispensables

“…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” 1 Cor. 12:22

 “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Luke 16:13

I’m not trained to look at X-rays.  But when I looked at Ferra’s chest X-ray I knew something was wrong.  The heart of this 5-year-old girl took up virtually the entire left side of her chest cavity.  Ferra is a member of Imanuel Church Lospalos.  Last week, her mother brought her in to Clinic Imanuel.  Monica noted that she had a heart murmur, an abnormal respiratory rate and facial edema. She sent Ferra to Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili for a cardiac consult with Dr. Dan, an American doctor who has been in Timor for 20 years.  Dr. Dan admitted Ferra right away.

When Monica and I first came to this country in 2003 we worked at Bairo Pite Clinic for several months. Over the years the clinic has had its ups and downs, but it is held steady by Dr. Dan’s commitment to seeing patients every day of the week, year in and year out.  I was in Dili for a meeting over the weekend and I wanted to see Ferra and her mom.  Dan suggested I join him for rounds on Sunday morning.  Two young Timorese doctors, several nursing students and I accompanied Dr. Dan.  We saw a new baby, half-dozen TB patients, a woman with cancer of the mouth, several young kids being treated in the malnutrition unit, and finally, Ferra.

Dan examined Ferra and discussed her condition with the young Timorese doctors.  “She’s doing much better today,” said Dan, looking slightly hopeful.  She had been on medication to relieve some of the stress on her enlarged heart, but the medicine can only treat her symptoms; it is not a cure.  The underlying cause is likely a congenital heart defect. “There’s a heart specialist team coming in September.  They can do an echocardiogram…that’ll tell whether surgery can help, but it might be too late.  If they can’t do surgery, she’ll die,” said Dan grimly.  “Health care is for the rich” he added, matter of factly; “the poor are expendable.”  I looked at Ferra and her mother, who is an elder in the church I serve.  She scratches out a living selling vegetables on the streets of Lospalos.  They sat quietly gazing downward surrounded by their modest belongings.  Expendable? What human life is expendable, I thought, as I stood witness last Sunday morning in Bairo Pite Clinic.

On the drive back to Lospalos the next day, my mind wandered back and forth between Ferra and Dan’s comment. “Health care is for the rich…the poor are expendable.”  It’s hard to argue that’s not the case.  But why? I suggest it’s because the current global economic system, also known as “neoliberalism,” simply has no place for people like Ferra and her mom.  That’s because they’re neither diligent producers nor obedient consumers. They’re not profitable and hence, they’re expendable.

Ferra’s mother is, like most people in Imanuel Church, a subsistence farmer.  She spends her days working a small farm with hand tools and selling what she produces locally. People like this grow enough to eat and sell what’s left over.  They are, therefore, not really producers.  But neither are they consumers.  Although they make enough to buy rice and basic supplies, they don’t have a bank account or disposable income, not to mention stocks, bonds and retirement plans.  According to market ideology they are thus “useless” to the economic system.

That Ferra’s life may be cut short because during her first 5 years she didn’t have access to the care needed to diagnose and treat this heart problem is tragic.  And yet it poignantly, brutally, reflects the values of a market ideology which values profit over people.  As journalist Tom Friedman has noted so frankly, it’s also an order that has to be defended militarily: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.  McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”  This is something we need to come to terms with.  It’s not a matter of Democrat or Republican or Fox vs. MSNBC.  The market ideology that makes our economic system so greedy and so inhospitable to Ferra and her mom has been a bipartisan consensus since Ronald Reagan.

There is however an unexpected way to resist market ideology: our baptismal identity.  “You cannot serve God and wealth,” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t have wealth.  Taking our baptismal identity seriously means we can’t serve wealth.  It means we need not sell our souls to market ideology.  When health care is only for the rich, it means we’re serving wealth. But God wants us to serve God.  And that means, among other things, that people like Ferra and her mom are not expendable.  According to the gospel, they’re indispensable.



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